I don't know about you, but I've got vivid memories of sitting in the back seat of the family car, driving down some long road to visit some East Texas relative or another, and during the course of the trip we'd always hear at least two or three novelty songs on the radio. Either "The Streak" (Don't look, Ethyl!) or that dead-skunk-in-the-middle-of-the-road thing. Sometimes we'd even sing along. It was a dumb pleasure, but a good one.
And then somewhere in the course of the years, Ray Stevens fell out of favor and the wholesome American novelty song disappeared from the airwaves, shoved into Dr. Demento's late-night freakbox like a red-headed stepchild. The form made a brief, unfortunate resurgence when Weird Al Yankovic mocked Michael Jackson's "Beat It," but Yankovic didn't contribute anything more than a watered-down version of what all bored kids do with radio songs anyway, which is screw around with the words. Who can forget that Led Zep classic: Hairspray for Kevin?
Yeah, so the true novelty song was toast until a few months ago when this hair-in-his-face guy named Todd Snider emerged from Memphis, via the slack halfway house of Portland, Oregon, with an album chock full of novelty tunes, Songs for the Daily Planet (Margaritaville/MCA), that sets him up as a twentysomething Loudon Wainwright III to Beck's twentysomething Dylan. Check out the hidden track at the end and see if "Talkin" Seattle Grunge Rock Blues' don't tickle your jaded fancy. The surprise, as far as novelty goes, is that even when the humor wears thin, there's honky-tonk guit-picker Eddie Shaver to spice things up. Snider's got some kind of talent, and it's not entirely limited to novelty. It'll be curious to see where he takes it on a second album (***1/2).
Meanwhile, out there on the edge where nostalgia and irony blur the line between homage and mockery, Japanese group Pizzicato Five's Made in USA (Matador) manages to evoke everything from The Love Boat theme to the Supremes to those sweeping string curtains that the Carpenters abused in an almost-but-not-quite hokey montage that relies as much on dance beats and turntable scratching as on loungy female crooning. From concept to cover art, this thing's got hip written all over it, and it's no mean trick that it manages to sound so sophisticatedly swank anyway (***).
Then there's Madonna, whose Bedtime Stories (Maverick/Sire) has had every bit of personality bleached out of it to match the babyish pink and blue packaging. If Ms. Ciccone has a single thing left to say, she's keeping it (finally) to herself, and the new one is so devoid of points of interest that the only things that might keep you awake are the twin questions: from whom did Madonna rip off the chord progression on the hit single "Secret," and how much did she have to pay that rapper to embarrass himself on "I'd Rather Be Your Lover"? No, they're not pressing questions (**).
In the face of oppressive glam, I'm usually a sucker for the temptations of rock and roll, but the synapses have been so burned recently with the flood of Smashing Temple Nirvana Jam in Chains coming through the car speakers that the stuff's lost some of its appeal by association. A few examples did make it past the bullshit detector, though, and they continue to provide a viable alternative to putting your fist through a wall at those increasingly frequent moments when putting a fist through the wall seems the obvious choice. Portland's Everclear has that Pond-ish trebly guitar swirl thing going pretty good on World of Noise (Capitol), and enough melody riding the buzz to make it a good bounce-along (***). Mule's If I Don't Six (1/4 Stick) is swampy punk blues somewhere between a vulgar Credence and a polite Jon Spencer (***). Spencer, meanwhile, has cranked up the Blues Explosion for another blast of primitive guitar skronk on Orange (Matador), this time around with horns, bass and everything (***1/2). Come's Don't Ask Don't Tell, also on Matador, is maybe a little to self-consciously arty for its own good, but like similarly pretentious labelmates Moonshake, they do manage to come up with a couple of edgy angst keepers (**1/2). At the top of the heap, though, as usual, is The Jesus Lizard, whose Down (Touch and Go) manages to be a bit toned down from prior albums without actually being any quieter. The Lizard's fame may be as the best live rock and roll band on the planet, and deservedly so, but the CDs just keep getting more powerful (****).
In a different age of rock and roll, power wasn't as important as agile fun, and that's the quality that comes across on Dallas rockabilly semi-legend Ronnie Dawson's Monkey Beat! (No Hit Records), a 23-song opus that showcases Dawson's jumping fretwork on disc for the first time. This is straight rockabilly of the sort the Reverend Heat wishes he could play, and the sound quality's for shit, which is part of the reason I like it so much (****).
Houston's got its own (sorta) legend appearing on disc for the first time after an endless stream of vinyl LPs -- the mysterious Jandek. The disc is called Graven Image, and it's too many minutes of the sort of indulgent acoustic guitar mangling and introspective lyricscapes wrapped in a crypto package that a lot of people like to call genius. The correct term is unlistenable. Defenders may point to Jandek's surprise appointment in an old issue of Spin as one of the five most influential musicians in the country, but if Spin turns out to be right, I'm selling my stereo (*).
No, if you're going to give me introspective songwriters, give me Nick Drake, that moody British lad whose neglected life work is given a posthumous shot at stardom with Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake (Rykodisc), which makes you wish Drake had lived long enough to inherit Syd Barrett's tuneful depressive weirdo throne, instead of handing it over to that insufferable poser Julian Cope. I'll give it ***1/2.
'Course if you really want to get into the introspective songwriter thing, just go pick up Townes Van Zandt's Flyin' Shoes and High, Low and In Between, neither of which needs any recommendation from me, and both of which were recently reissued by Tomato on CD. Some days I think it's all I really need to listen to. Five stars to the both of 'em.
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Victoria Williams has been touted as that kind of songwriter, at least ever since the Sweet Relief album of friends like Tom Waits and Pearl Jam covering her songs was released, and every time I've heard her lilting Southern voice pop up on a guest vocal, she's helped make the song. Not so on the new full-length Loose (Mammoth), where that same voice comes off as a grating too-much-of-a-good-thing. If you can develop a tolerance for the voice, the songs themselves are okay, but with Joni Mitchell's long awaited Turbulent Indigo (Reprise) coming across the desk the same week, they hardly seem necessary. Mitchell, if anyone was wondering, is still the best at what she does. Williams gets two stars; Mitchell, three and a half.
We're out of room here (been a busy month), but there's a few remaining things to look out for. Nirvana's Unplugged In New York (DGC) is chillingly -- honest to God -- stark, and a wake-up call for anyone who still doesn't believe that what magic Nirvana had laid entirely in Kurt Cobain's honey-rasped voice (***1/2). Tom Jones' The Lead and How to Swing It, whatever that means, is out on Interscope, and it places the old panty magnet in the hands of a stable of producers from Jeff Lynne to Trevor Horn for a driving dance record that sounds fantastic for the duration of the marathon yelp that opens the lead cut, but seems a little silly after that, earning a mere two and a half stars. And last and least, performance dipshit Karen Finley has released a spoken word CD on Rykodisc called A Certain Level of Denial that highlights the worst case scenario of what happens when a dipshit performance artist listens to too many dipshit performance art consumers tell her she's a genius. Buy it if you hate yourself. No stars.
A Guide to the Ratings:
***** Tears of Joy
**** Big grins
We'll do it again next month.