Spending all this time shut away inside has given me lots of time to listen to music. And while I’m constantly on the lookout for new sounds, there is something comforting about rolling around in the familiar filth of older, lesser known stuff.
I was raised the oldest child, and my parents didn’t listen to popular music growing up. So my path to discovering the many, varied worlds of pop/rock/etc. was kind of organic and random. As a result, my tastes have always been impossible to define.
But it wasn’t until the last few years I began to truly get how fringy some of it was. This was in part thanks to a friend of mine from high school who replied to a coment about how I “had never been cool” with “Dude. You listened to The Boomtown Rats in high school. Trust me. You were cool.”
So without further ado, here’s a lovingly curated bouquet of 5 favorite albums from a little bit “left of the dial.”
Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper: Bo-Day-Shus!!! (1987)
Those of you who spent their formative years in front of Mtv in the late 1980’s might remember Mojo Nixon. He did a couple of promo clips for them to capitalize on the unexpected success of the track “Elvis is Everywhere.” And while it didn’t tear up the charts (I can find no record of it having charted anywhere. At all.), it did feature on an episode of Beavis and Butthead. Plus, the album was well received and reviewed, getting a bit of critical praise for the irreverent humor. I probably would have forgotten about it had my kid brother not added the album to our collective record stack. While he abandoned it pretty quickly, it stuck with me for some reason.
If you had to pigeonhole their sound, Psychobilly is probably closest to describing the combo of Mojo’s lyrics over Skid’s instrumentation. But when I think Psychobilly, I picture something louder. This is more Psychobilly unplugged–impish and irreverent, and the first place I think I ever heard washboard used as a musical instrument. While Bo-Day-Shus!!! is loaded with humor (for reference, “B.B.Q. U.S.A.” is nothing but a listing of favorite barbeque restaurants, and it slaps!), it also has moments of surprising profundity. My personal favorite track is “Positively Bodie’s Parking Lot” which is a love song about a place. It’s essentially about a “typical” night of drinking at a beloved dive bar, packed with beautifully descriptive language. I’ve included it below for your enjoyment.
Boomtown Rats: The Fine Art of Surfacing (1979)
I had never heard about the Boomtown Rats until Live Aid. If the band’s frontman hadn’t been Bob Geldhoff, the guy who put Live Aid together, I might have gone to my grave without ever having heard them. “I Don’t Like Mondays” grabbed my attention so I tracked down their album at the local record store as soon as I could. It heavily featured piano which always helps, since I had been playing piano at that point for most of my childhood. The string arrangement and darkly cynical lyrics sealed the deal.
But one song does not make an album. Wikipedia lists this as New Wave/Post-Punk, and that category fits as good as any. It was very British, for what it’s worth. There’s no hiding Sir Bob’s accent. And it’s honestly a shame that he’s better known for Live Aid and playing the lead roll in Pink Floyd’s The Wall film. These are some are some sharp songs that illustrate a transition into the sophisticated anger & comentary of late punk to New Wave. Magically rough and raw while still being well produced. The whole album is great stuff.
Ann Magnuson: The Luv Show (1995)
If not for my college radio playing the hell out of the track “Sex With the Devil” that featured Jim Thirlwell (composer of the Venture Brothers theme song among other things) as the voice of Satan, I would have never tracked this album down. I’d known Ann Magnuson for her great, quirky film roles, but was completely unaware of her musical career, both with the band Bongwater and solo. Turns out, she started out as a performance artist, Manhattan nightclub performer, and musician well before she started getting film & TV roles.
The Luv Show is a concept album, an absurdist story that follows a performer’s career trajectory from boredom and obscurity to the end of the world. Featuring a dizzying array of bizare musical choices it is audacious and delightful. One critic (whose name I cannot find) said it was like an MGM musical directed by Russ Meyer. As in the rollicking “Miss Pussy Pants” or “It’s a Great Feeling.” There is something wonderfully theatrical about this album. It’s a shame it wasn’t a hit. I’d love to have seen this turned into a film.
For reference, my favorite track, “Some Kind of a Swinger.”
Jason Webley: Against the Night (1999)
Portrait of your host, coming up on Halloween, 2000. I had been separated from my last wife for a few months, and Halloween was our anniversary. I was perhaps at one of the lowest points in my life. To pull me out of my funk, an artist friend dragged me out to a concert in a narrow, crowded venue on Seattle’s University Ave. The performer was this wild-eyed madman with a guitar, accordion, and lyrics that tore your heart apart, and at the end of the show he led us out of the venue to a location on the UW campus where he symbolically “died.”
That was my first exposure to Jason Webley. He was reborn the following spring, a pattern he repeated for 4 years, during which I must have seen him live a good six or seven times. Jason has been compared musically to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, and I’m not confident that he has both his oars in the water, which is a quality I love in musicians. Case in point, he had a fascination with vegetables for a long time, and at one point came into comic shop in which I worked to ask if we had any comic books featuring vegetables.
While I haven’t paid much attention to his more recent works, this album still holds a special place in my heart. It’s sincere and poetic and a little bit magical. And “Last Song” feels more timely now than ever.
Asylum Street Spankers: Hot Lunch (1999)
My first job upon moving to Seattle was at the suprisingly still-open Gameworks in downtown. That’s where I met the above-mentioned artist friend who slung pizzas and salads with me on weekends. In addition to dragging me out to see Jason Webley, he also introduced me to the best front porch pickup band to ever come out of Austin, Texas.
I’ve seen the Asylum Street Spankers live more times than pretty much any other band I can name. Most of those shows were at the Tractor Tavern, but the last few times through town, they’d attracted enough of a cult following in the area, lured in by old-timey tunes about drugs, alcohol, sex, and more–all “without the aid of demon electricity!” They even composed a score for the Charlie Chaplin film “The Gold Rush” which they performed live at the Paramount Theater here in Seattle to accompany the film once or twice.
Part jazz, part country, part vaudiville, they had a few core members (Christina Mars and Whammo) and a rotating roster of fiddlers, drumers, guitarists, bass players. Their final tour was sans-Whammo, which, while still a great show, wasn’t quite the same. This album in particular is among their finest (but I also quite love God’s Favorite Band which was supported by the last tour in which I saw frontman Whammo.)
Here’s the accoustic jam “Hot Lunch” in true Cafe Hot Jazz style that deserves to be heard. It’s from the more refined side of their cataloge, as opposed to the songs off their Nasty Novelties album.