Friday, September 30, 2005:

Doc Watson: Blue Railroad Train

Joel and Clementine
Doc Watson -- Blue Railroad Train
This song tells a story of lost love--a simple story by a simple man riding a train. You can hear the creak of the boards, smell the coal outside, the hay inside, the corn in the hot sun nearly baked on the stalk. You watch the fields roll by; your baby rolls on down the line. You do too: in the same direction, in another, it doesn't matter. You want her back but she could be sitting across from you and it wouldn't change anything. She's after something better. It's over--no love left, no profound realization, no acceptance, no eureka.

So you sit in your railroad car with the door open, staring out at the passing blur. You flatpick a guitar and come up with a nice melody to put the words into; you repaint the story in sepia tones. Eventually the memories are freighted with a warm nostalgia. It takes the pain away, gives a proper distance, makes the relationship irreproachable and perfect. It also makes it completely unreal. You don't mind.
[]: The Essential Doc Watson: some solid work on display here.


Wednesday, September 28, 2005:

Leadbelly and Lonnie Donnegan: Rock Island Line

Wait a minute ... someone just got one over on us.
Leadbelly -- Rock Island Line
Lonnie Donegan -- Rock Island Line
"Rock Island Line" is a traditional song with an arrangement made famous by Leadbelly. It's been covered by a number of big names including Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, but I think the versions I'm most interested in are the ones by Leadbelly and Lonnie Donegan. Leadbelly's is a cappella with somewhat angular group harmonies the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet; the vocals chug along, in no hurry, alternating leads stepping up for a bit, then stepping back to support. The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet are mostly known for carefully rehearsed, refined harmonies; Leadbelly was more known for a sort of raw, spontaneuos enthusiasm. Here the Quartet seems to force him to square his shoulders and tighten his tie; the results dial his intensity back a bit from 11 but the results are still impressive.

What the song's about, though, is something else entirely. Legend has it that Leadbelly heard a prisoner singing it and adopted it as his own, rearranging the song (and, I'm betting, also the lyrics). The song seems to be about Christianity, about Moses, about hiding, about a comfortable train, and about leaving a woman. The melody's nice but I can't make heads or tails of the words; the song's either heavily metaphorical or I'm a bit dense. Maybe the meaning has been lost over the generations--what ties it all together? Anything?

Donegan's version is based on Leadbelly's, but with a few judicial additions and excisions the lyrics have come clear. The story's about a train conductor who lies about what he's carrying so he can go through without paying a toll. In Donegan's version the instrumentation is different as well: the group added bass and acoustic guitar, upped the tempo, and made the melody a bit more dynamic.

Donegan's version was a surprise hit in England in the mid-1950s, selling a metric tonne of copies and almost single-handedly starting a skiffle craze, stirring up dreams of fame in four young men from Liverpool.
[]: Leadbelly -- Take This Hammer (When the Sun Goes Down v. 5)
[]: Lonnie Donegan -- Rock Island Line (or, if you prefer, volume 3 of the Hard to Find 45s on CD series)

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Monday, September 26, 2005:

This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers

a bridge, I say.  bloody good show.
Augie March -- This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers
I thought I had Mission of Burma's Vs. CD, but I can't find it. So, uh, no Roger Miller-inspired Alloy Orchestra/Mission of Burma transition here. Just imagine that there was one, and it was cool.

Augie March are an Australian band crossing gospel, jazz, folk, pop, and rock, with the occasional veer towards the punk. Much of their Strange Birds release has dreamy lulling melodies; this one is more bitter, disillusioned with politics and abuse of power: "We'll stand on his hand, that's how you pin your man, we'll smash him from Preston to Epworth!" The lyrics seethe with righteous anger yet the song is wrapped in pianos, squealing organ, and background harmonies, and somehow it all fits rather nicely.


Wednesday, September 21, 2005:

The Alloy Orchestra: The Man with the Movie Camera

cameraman filming from a train
The Alloy Orchestra -- Man with the Movie Camera excerpt (Chapter 4)
On one level The Man with the Movie Camera is an exploration of a day in the life of Soviet society, various workers preparing for and getting to work; on another level, the film is a celebration of film itself, grabbing you by the lapels and raving about the possibilities; it fires off impassioned tangents about the camera's all-seeing eye, about film's versatility and usefulness, about the joy of montage. So out go Dziga Vertov and Michael Kaufman to prove it, catching life unawares--sometimes filming it covertly, sneaking up on it, sometimes getting in its face to see what kind of reaction comes about--at pubs, at park benches, in the street, in the maternity ward, people going to work, people going to the theater, people at work making films to show in the theater. The film fits in well with Vertov's propaganda work of the time, though he scorned fiction as bourgeois luxury (I wonder what happened about that, if anything--Sergei Eisenstein and Battleship Potemkin were both enormously liked at the time). Fortunately the film is exhilarating work.

The film has aged so well at least in part because Vertov was doing things with it that still seem fresh and inspired seventy-six years later: freeze frames, reverse motion, split screen, insane angles, commentary and meta-commentary and commentary about the meta-commentary all mixed up in a heady brew. And the music--the music bumps along, exploding primary colors and syncopated whimsy, jaunty angular pounding piano like some occult precursor to Monk and Brubeck, cymbals, chimes, snares rattling like a train, like a circus on wheels, like a rollercoaster between towns.

train wheelsThis track is from the 1996 re-release of the film, which had a new soundtrack recorded from Vertov's notes. I've heard an earlier version (the first, I think), which pales in comparison--I mean it pales in the way a ten-minute sketch pales in comparison to Güernica, or a wine cooler in comparison to a shot of whiskey. By which I mean, there's no comparison.

I've heard there's yet another version of the soundtrack but I haven't yet gotten past this one. Eventually I'll seek it out, but for now this one has my full respect and it's hard to imagine being any more satisfied.

The track does just end suddenly, yes--we're riding along in a car, watching the next car; we're in a car further back, watching the cameraman filming the other car; we're alongside a horse pulling a carriage--the horse stops. Freeze frame. It reverses a bit, slides out of frame. We're in the editing booth with the editor, looking through clips, pulling them out: appraising, selecting, cutting, splicing.

The film was silent but for the 1996 re-release some sound effects have been foleyed in, like the crowd noise at the start of this track and the arrival of the train.

As far as I know, the Alloy Orchestra's version of the soundtrack is not available on CD. I would love to be proven wrong.

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Monday, September 19, 2005:

Train, Train

Brief Encounter
Dolly Parton -- Train, Train
Gar. Got a little behind on real-life obligations and now they're giving me what-for.

Take, it Dolly.

"The engine is in the fiddle. You can hear it steaming up, the wheels beginning the slow chug, then it's off and downhill--around a bend, over a steel-girdered bridge, sunlight reflected, rippling, setting. The harmonica is the steam blast, the horn, the warning outside of town. The banjo tells you there's a party in the dining car, and I hope you'll come join it."

Thanks, Dolly. And good luck with your new man.


Wednesday, September 14, 2005:

Billy Preston

Ladies and gents, we're having a short 'train' mix.
Billy Preston -- How Long Has the Train Been Gone
Billy Preston -- Sunday Morning
Billy Preston, on Everybody Likes Some Kind of Music, tries on quite a few genres--jazz, blues, rock, classical--and, in my opinion, succeeds at them all.

"How Long Has the Train Been Gone" is a gospel tune, this one with horns, pianos, organs, and lyrics about a narrator who's been left behind by a train and wonders why and about another man who didn't believe but wanted to. The lyrics are a bit anguished but delivered as if exuberant; it's an approach that usually works and this time is no exception. It's hard to take issue with it when you want to sing along.

"Sunday Morning" has a lazy, affable banjo line with a summery vocal about a failing love: "Won't you stay a little longer? Must you leave me right away? Don't you like me any more; what do you want to hear me say?" The song sounds reminds me of bluegrass in its banjo and its lyrical themes, though it's much calmer than a lot of the bluegrass I've heard, more relaxed and welcoming. It's like a gentleman salesman who makes his case quietly and goes on his way with a tip of his hat, and you stand at the screen door feeling a bit guilty you couldn't afford what he was selling--such a nice man.

I'm endlessly puzzled why Preston doesn't have more in print; he's got a lot of gems in his catalogue.

I seem to remember this LP from childhood; a lot of the songs sound familiar. My mother disagrees; she says she doesn't know who Billy Preston is. Fer shame--with all the Beatles LPs she had (yes, even the one with "Don't Let Me Down," with the four of them on the front outside the door to somebody's mansion, a bust nearby wearing a hat).

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Monday, September 12, 2005:

Big Bill Broonzy

The General
Big Bill Broonzy -- This Train
Big Bill Broonzy -- Going Down the Road
Prompted by an AskMe question about feeling sick after running, I dug out my old running shoes--I'd been jogging before coming to town and for one reason or another it quickly tapered off after I settled in here, shortly after buying a new pair. The shoes are eleven years old and barely used; they fit when I bought them, but last night they were a bit tight--too narrow and too short. Maybe they shrank somehow, or maybe my feet weren't done growing at 19.

I loosened the laces a fair bit and did some stretches and off I went: down a Florida hill, something so small it wouldn't earn the name "hill" in most states, and up the next. A third of a mile later I was stopped at the corner to catch my breath. I can ride my bicycle 15 miles to the next town without getting worn out, but I don't have the same skill with jogging. After about an hour of jogging and walking and jogging and, at the end, quite a lot of walking, I was back home. I slept soundly and, for some reason, dreamed of trains.

Johnny Gray is a character I've always identified with: in over his head, meaning well but not very competent, often succeeding in spite of himself. It's a solid comic concept, used in Inspector Clouseau and Inspector Gadget and any number of Terry Pratchett characters. It's a great film, though Gray's on the wrong side (but, what the hell--I love Das Boot too).

Big Bill Broonzy was a folk/blues/country gospel guitarist and singer. "This Train" is a gospel song about salvation--"This train you don't pay no transportation / There's no Jim Crow and no discrimination / This train is bound for glory, this train / This train don't carry white or black / Everybody ride it is treated just alike." It's a great song, and it's easy to take it as uplifting if you don't consider the history it comes from or the ongoing struggle for fairness and equality.

"Goin' Down This Road" is a song about a man who leaves his woman because he's too proud to eat beans and cornbread; he complains also about his two-dollar shoes ("takes a ten-dollar shoe to fit my feet"). It's surprisingly fun and funny considering the content.

These two tracks are from the Smithsonian Folkways compilation, which has some top-notch recordings with good liner notes, but in a font so small the CD should have come with a free magnifying glass. I'm not sure why they printed them on a folded insert unless they were trying to save on paper, but it was a poor decision to squeeze four columns of text in less than six and a half inches of space.

The tracks were recorded in the late 1950s, towards the very end of Broonzy's career; some of them were studio sessions and the others were in concert with Pete Seeger. It's a far cry from his early days share-cropping and laying tracks for railroads, but in spite of his success abroad, he died nearly broke; his friends were setting up a benefit concert for him when he died of cancer in 1958.

Other personal favorites on the disc include "Bill Bailey," "John Henry," and "The Glory of Love."
[]: Big Bill Broonzy Sings Folk Songs

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Friday, September 09, 2005:

Joe Jones -- Every Night about Eight

Joe Jones -- Every Night about Eight
I found this track weeks ago on a 45" in a dusty bin full of them stacked in, sleeveless, most of them in horrible shape. It was released in 1958 on the Roulette label (R-4063, if that's of use to anyone).

I originally picked this up to listen to its flipside, "A-Tiskett A-Taskett," curious if that was in any way the same song I knew from childhood (yes, but it's not very good). I listened a bit and then flipped it. "Every Night About Eight" is a slow R&B number that tells the story of a lovelorn man whose woman has left him: "I cried last night; I cried the night before / I used to hold my baby every night about eight."

Jones is (was? I'm having trouble finding information about him) from New Orleans.


FWMJ has some good hip hop tracks up for download, though I think they might be mistaking De La Soul and Phife Dawg as obscure ("shit you've never heard"). Still, they have plenty up that I had never heard, and was glad for the introduction. The Kanye West / "George Bush doesn't care about black people" track gets off to a choppy start but quickly turns good. It tells a story of, you guessed it, a city left to its own ends, ignored, unrescued, blamed for survival tactics: "Five days in this motherfucking attic / Can't use the cellphone; I keep getting static / Dying cause they lying instead of telling us the truth / other day the helicopters got my neighbor off the roof / screwed 'cause they said they was coming back for us too / That was three days ago; I don't see no rescue."

Right on. Now the city has declared evacuation "mandatory," or whatever is more mandatory than mandatory. I guess what they mean is that this time they'll actually provide transportation for people who need it. All under penalty of arrest, mind you, and with the excuse that the survivors are "delirious" (because, you know, a small group of people leaving a hundred thousand other people to die is just thinking oh-so-clearly. You could get locked up for leaving your dog behind chained to a tree in a hurricane; why is leaving broke people behind somehow acceptable?)

Some of the survivors are no doubt living there in the only house they've ever known, with no money and nowhere to go; and if they leave, their house is going to be bulldozed and some new property built in its place that's too damned expensive for them to afford. From homeowner to homeless in one easy step--all at the whims of some neglectful overlord with anything but your best wishes in mind.

If I'd lived through all this shit and was still in my own house out there, by this point it would be like that Stephen King story with the guy who just absolutely will not sell his house to make way for an interstate on-ramp. You know, the one that ends with him barricaded in with all the guns and explosives.

And that's it for me and talking politics here, for a good long while, at least.


Back to music--dictionaraoke has made the rounds before--I saw it years ago, but now it's come around again and I have somewhere relevant to share it. "Wild Thing" is now, in my mind at least, the definitive interpretation; "Word Up" is equally great. Hilariously bad, just as it was meant to be.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2005:

Tommy Roe: Everybody and Heather Honey

Tommy Roe -- Everybody
Tommy Roe -- Heather Honey
I think I'm up for something uncomplicated and fun, a bit of bubblegum pop with some bright lyrics and major-keyed vocals. You know, acoustic guitars, handclaps, the whole nine yards.

Tommy Roe is probably best known for his songs "Dizzy" and "Sheila" (in which he borrows a bit from Buddy Holly). These two charted also, though not as highly--"Everybody" spent eleven weeks on Billboard and peaked at #3; "Heather Honey" peaked at #29 and dropped off the charts after just three weeks.

"Everybody" is a cheerful post-breakup song: "One time or other, everybody listen to me, you lose somebody you love / That's no reason for you to break down and cry." Maybe he's putting on a strong face or maybe he's really not that bothered by it. Either way, I can dig it.

"Heather Honey" is a confident low-key love song, very pleasant, even soothing. Just what the doctor ordered. "The girls I knew are not like you / you're a different kind / Heather honey, can't you see / you're blowing my mind?"

These tracks are digitized from the 1982 greatest-hits LP Collectibles, but there are several other compilations of Roe's work on CD, many of them more extensive and still available.
[]: Tommy's 22 Big Ones


Tuesday, September 06, 2005:

Blue Turk / Generation Landslide

Alice Cooper -- Blue Turk
Alice Cooper -- Generation Landslide
Alice Cooper's probably best known for his rock songs ("School's Out," "No More Mr. Nice Guy," "Welcome to My Nightmare"), but he's got an interesting body of work that's much more diverse than those tracks hint at. Lyrically, it tends towards the macabre, even perverse, and it's all a bit demented, but more endearingly than alarmingly so.

"Blue Turk" is a bluesy jazz number off School's Out, a satirical concept album about troubled schoolkids. It's a very odd track, like something out of a burlesque; the bass has a lazy funk to it that's matched with a wicked guitar line, trumpet, trombone, and what sounds like a harpischord. As you might expect, there's an extended instrumental section. At first I thought the track was just all right, maybe a bit too long, but the more I listened to it the more it seemed it was just right as is. As for what it's about--it seems to be a very snappy song about necrophilia ("You're so very picturesque; you're so very cold / It tastes like roses on your breath but graveyards in your soul.")

"Generation Landslide" is off Billion Dollar Babies, another concept album, this one largely about American decadence. The song reprises the title track in places, starting off with a bass slide and joined in with peppy, ringing acoustic guitar. The instrumental break, when the song gets to it, is between harmonica and guitar. In some of the vocal deliveries and in the general arrangement and the carefree feel to it, the song sounds remarkably like some of Perry Farrell's work; I wouldn't be surprised if he listed Alice Cooper as an influence.
[]: School's Out
[]: Billion Dollar Babies


Monday, September 05, 2005:

more Screaming Blue Messiahs

The Screaming Blue Messiahs -- You're Gonna Change (Gun-Shy)
The Screaming Blue Messiahs -- Someone to Talk to (Gun-Shy)
The Screaming Blue Messiahs -- Wall of Shame (Totally Religious)
The Screaming Blue Messiahs -- Big Big Sky (Totally Religious)

"You're Gonna Change" has a dirty electric guitar groove, dirty and smoking, laid over a backbeat; the lyrics are all about a relationship gone wrong and going wronger still: "You're gonna change the way you're living, change the things you do / Stop doing all the things you oughtn't do." Particularly good: "You're gonna change and I don't mean pleeeeaaaaaaase," the vocals with some high-pitched heavenly delivery in stark contrast to the message. Like getting a note, calligraphied, gold-embossed, asking you to please choke on your own vomit.

"Someone to Talk to" won me over with its rumbling drums, lazy funky bassline, and casual in-your-face attitude ("If I die in a combat zone / box me up and ship me home"). Raspy vocal delivery here, the guitars alternating between beefy/distorted and light/piercing.

I find "Wall of Shame" more intriguing than illuminating, which is the case with a lot of The Screaming Blue Messiahs' work. The lyrics here are about a fall from grace and a man who doesn't want his name on the wall of shame--is there one? Where is it? Can I go read the names? (Am I on it yet?) Erm. It's probably just a metaphor, unless the author's twisting an existing wall to new purposes. What is clear is that there's an id/superego conflict here, though it's not at all clear why: "I used to be the killer on the lost highway / I used to be the dark just before the day / But I'd sooner have a hole in my head / Than to do what I want to do." Huh. All right, I can feel it. Not sure I understand it, but that's okay.

"Big Big Sky" seems to be a statement of existential crisis. I'd be inclined to take it as a statement of agnosticism if not for the calls to prayer ("Sister, you'd better be praying; time is winding up." But then the rest of the song doesn't exactly fit with Christian beliefs, does it? "All I do is live and die underneath the big big sky / I live and die and I don't know why." As with most of the Messiahs' work, this one's sporting a solid rocking groove. I like that funky instrumentation going on in the left speaker in the quieter parts, though I'll be damned if I can place what it is. Sounds a bit like a didgeridoo but bouncy.

The Gun-Shy tracks are digitized from LP; the Totally Religious tracks are ripped from CD. All of The Screaming Blue Messiahs' work is out of print, though some rereleases, or even a greatest hits comp, would do them right.


Sorry for the posting schedule; I've been busy with various "real world" obligations and when I've got a minute to sit I've been captivated, disgusted, and enraged with what's going on in New Orleans. A piss-poor showing on every level.

Of all the amazing crap that's been spouted on TV, the one bit that strikes me as true (unintentionally true, and revealing) is Bush's claim "we couldn't have predicted the levee break"--I think Bush could not predict it, in much the same way that an unbuckled two-year old couldn't predict what might happen if his father slammed on the brakes. Anyone who had done his homework, however, could have, and would have, and did. But far be it from Bush and his group to bother with homework; all they look for in filling positions is someone who shares their fundamentalist and thoroughly un-Christ-like ideology--experience and relevant knowledge are optional. I'm amazed that when they filled Rehnquist's slot that somehow they refrained from putting forward the first person they could find who's never even heard of the Constitution.

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Friday, September 02, 2005:

The Screaming Blue Messiahs

The Screaming Blue Messiahs -- Lie Detector
The Screaming Blue Messiahs -- Jesus Chrysler Drives a Dodge
The Screaming Blue Messiahs were an 80s rock trio, probably best known for "I Wanna Be a Flinstone," off Bikini Red; their style ranged from hard rock to blues rock to pop-punk. Gun Shy (1986) was an interesting start, good enough but more promising than fully accomplished; they followed that with Bikini Red (1987), which was more consistently great; and then came Totally Religious, which struk me as almost as good, and then they disbanded. Odd, that.

"Lie Detector" is a fun poppy track about a man challenging his S.O. to hook him up to a lie detector and figure out what's true and what's not. The delays and echo effects are all fine, but what sells me on it is the tempo and the melody; it's exuberant and catchy, inviting you to sing along.

"Jesus Chrysler Drives a Dodge" is another track putting rest to the age-old question "What Would Jesus Drive?" (Ministry hinted that he might drive a hot rod, though alternate answers include a Plymouth, Pontiac, or Geo, and a hybrid). Personally, I think he'd live in Europe and use a bike.

More manic goodness on this one: a rhythm section barrelling past, and some great wailing distorted guitar coming in periodically.

These two are digitized from a new copy of the Bikini Red LP I picked up on eBay; the album's out of print. It's solid work, work that's stood the last twenty years well, and I'm puzzled why it's out of print but also willing to give up trying to understand the reasonings of music execs. Other standouts on Bikini Red are "I Wanna Be a Flintstone," "I Can Speak American," and the title track. Actually, I like them all, even the closing "Waltz" (though the guitar sounds a bit out of tune).

I might post a couple more by The Screaming Blue Messiahs, from their other albums, if there's any interest in it.

update: Jon informs me that Good and Gone was the Messiahs' debut, and that there is also a Peel Sessions on vinyl and an official live CD release.

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