Greatest Shticks (Koch)
“Mort” is short for both Morton and Mortie. He’s my grandfather on my mother’s side, and he’s not dead yet. He probably will be soon — a year, or two, or 10. I wish he wouldn’t be, but ever since he started going to dialysis three times a week, ever since he started hunching over a curved wooden cane, ever since his handicapped placard became more important than his passport, ever since his skin started drying into shriveled purple clouds, ever since memory became something he couldn’t control and something that just happened, I’ve thought about him in terms of his eventual absence from my life.
Our conversations rarely cover the present, save for fleeting exchanges about rising gas prices and the difference in weather between where I live in West Los Angeles and where he lives in the country-club flatlands of the desert. Instead we talk mostly of what has passed — the dual-prop plane he used to fly over the Salton Sea before his heart condition grounded him for good, the building he owned after the war that just happened to be a brothel.
His stories will be part of what preserves him after he’s gone, but stories need their own preservation. So I’ve started to practice remembering them by collecting objects, intimate and ephemeral aide-mémoire that resonate with the events and textures of his life. More often than not they come in musical form, as songs crackling over AM radio, as cassettes stained with age. Pete Fountain. The Ink Spots. The Mills Brothers. (An aside: When my grandfather hears the four black men sing “Queen of the Senior Prom,” his eyes fill up with tears and he thinks of his white daughter with white-blond hair on her prom night.)
More than anyone, though, I hear my grandfather in the music of Mickey Katz, the clarinetist and Yinglish parodist from the ’50s. Which is funny, because even though I know he knows the music (he can sing along with “Haim Afen Range”), I don’t think my grandfather ever owned one of Mickey’s records. He just played bridge with him at the Friars Club, and Mickey and his band, the Kosher Jammers, were the featured act at my great-grandparents’ 50th-wedding-anniversary party.
Like Katz, my grandfather was a first-generation Yiddish-speaking immigrant Midwestern Jew: Mortie the Russian in North Dakota, Mickey the Latvian in Ohio. It was the early ’60s by the time they knew each other. Katz was doing Hello, Solly on Broadway and discovering the hard way that his Yiddish-English Catskillian clowning was falling on the deaf ears of American Jews eager to put the memory of genocide and their off-white pasts behind them. Katz’s era was more transitional: the ’50s, when he churned out albums full of parodies that hijacked any song on the charts, anything that was at all popular (“That’s Amore”) or at all beloved by the national masses (“The Ballad of Davy Crockett”), and made it loudly, hilariously, obnoxiously, brilliantly Jewish.
Katz rode the line between Jewishness and Americanness bareback — no white Christmases or Easter parades, no Al Jolson plantation fantasies or de-Semitizing name changes. With Hitler still fresh in everyone’s mind, Katz relished his role as the carnivalesque, too-Jewish outsider, the Borscht Belt jester pariah who kept speaking Yiddish even after self-hating club owners and radio DJs urged him to stop.
Katz took Tennessee Ernie Ford’s coal-mining rendition of “Sixteen Tons” and made it into a kosher-deli work song. Johnny Mercer’s smooth “That Old Black Magic” became a rough “Old Black Smidgick.” Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” — who once had bobbysoxers running for their lives — was now “poiple,” ate “kishkes,” and saw the world through “eyes like latkes.” And in the middle of every song was a burst of straight-up old-school klezmer, a moment of total musical explosion and release when Katz’s nasal squeals and guttural glugs were displaced by the sound of his clarinet making urban-shtetl party music out of mambos and opera pop, easy-listening glides and cowboy kitsch.
Even though Katz was radical in a way that my grandfather wasn’t (to this day, Mort is uncomfortable with any outward display of Jewishness that might ruffle American feathers), I still think of Katz’s music as his music, music that bears the sound of being torn between living as a racial other and an assimilated white American. Katz worked out his relationship with America in public so my grandfather — and hordes of other Jews of his generation — could worry about it in private.
The other morning at breakfast (Mortie cod and raw onion, me corned-beef hash and poached eggs), all I could get out of him was that Mickey was a “lousy” bridge player and that his band used to hit all the “tank towns” across the Midwestern farm belt. I had heard both of these stories before. I let him tell me again anyway.
Designer Music: The Remixes, Vol. 1 (Planet E)
Innerzone Orchestra’s Programmed saw Detroit techno craftsman Carl Craig realizing a Sun Ra fantasy, but it also felt like Craig was leaving his techno-based focus for convoluted interpretations of jazz daydreams. Innerzone Orchestra has its moments of brilliance, but leaves the impression that the union of jazz and techno works best when jazz musicians decide to update (e.g., Isotope 217), rather than when techno artists regress.
Which is why Designer Music is such a fitting follow-up to Programmed. A collection of Craig remixes, this compilation is a boon for techno vets but, more interestingly, offers an exposition of both the marginalized music of techno’s more immediate history and the uniquely fluid artistry of the remix. Craig remakes Johnny Blas’ rendition of Tito Puente’s mambo classic “Picadillo” with all the grace that seemed missing from Innerzone; synthesizers cruise over percussion until the original’s piano resurfaces with rumbling low-end bass effects. Craig’s work on Japanese spy-jazz combo United Future Organization yields still more fusion on techno terms. The rest of the tracks are either disco detritus, or house and techno classics. For the former, Craig takes Incognito’s groovy vocal jazz, Telex’s Belgian electro and Alexander Robotnik’s choppy Italian synth-pop and re-applies their ideas in an extended format, showcasing their signatures within his own pristine structures. For the latter, BT, Spacetime Continuum, Ron Trent and Inner City are Craig’s masterful partners in techno-loving-techno — examples of rewrites that don’t assert re-authorship, but re-form and revolve the layers of shared electronic space.
“No more sorrow/nothing borrowed/in the good life,” Craig echoes alongside Inner City’s 1991 club anthem “Buena Vida.” Borrowing something implies that you’re supposed to give it back when you’re done, but these remixes are fully rewired and recast as fresh A-side achievements from electronic music’s dance-floor avant-garde, free from rented jazz tropes or aesthetic recidivism. (Daniel Chamberlin)
Caroline Now! The Songs of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys (Marina Recordings)
Record collectors are generally a surly and argumentative lot, quick to champion their own pet obsessions while deflating those of others (“Aw, c’mon man, everybody knows that Amon Duul II was better than Gong!”). But when navigating the shadowy, greasy-fingered realm of the record weasel, there are two truisms that will allow you to pass unscathed: 1) Brian Wilson is a genius, and 2) all tribute albums suck. To argue with the former would be tantamount to treason, while disputing the latter would instantly mark one as a sucker. Because while tribute albums can be a stone gas for the people who compile or play on them, they usually wind up as little more than sorry object lessons in what happens when enthusiasm outweighs inspiration.
A 24-track delight released by Germany’s Marina label, Caroline Now!, is a happy exception to the second rule, and one that actually sheds some interesting light on the first. Instead of leaning hard on tried-and-true favorites from Pet Sounds and the “Fun Fun Fun” years, Caroline Now! mostly offers a variety of obscure and unreleased Brian gems, rendered with palpable love and understanding by an intriguing array of artists, including Alex Chilton (“I Wanna Pick You Up”), the High Llamas (“Anna Lee, the Healer”) and Saint Etienne (“Stevie”). Most of the songs date from between 1968 and 1980, a period that’s generally hazy to all but the most devoted Beach Boys fans, partly because Brian was MIA for much of the time. Happily, entries like Eugene Kelly’s wonderfully Spectorian adaptation of Dennis Wilson’s “Lady” and the Secret Goldfish’s lullabylike approach to Mike Love’s “Big Sur” offer clear-cut proof that Brian wasn’t the only talented composer in the group.
But the best part of Caroline Now! is the way its 78 minutes actually hold together. While most of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits were good-time anthems, the majority of the songs featured here are charming (and often poignant) miniatures. Even with such disparate entries as the Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra’s Dire Straits–meets–Sun Ra interpretation of “Pet Sounds” and Kim Fowley’s smarmy reading of “Almost Summer,” the album creates a subtle and addictive vibe similar to that of, say, the B-Boys’ Friends or 20/20. This is one tribute record you’ll pull out almost as often as the original artifacts. (Dan Epstein)
THE BLACK HEART PROCESSION
Three (Touch and Go)
Opening for the newly re-formed Wire a few months back, San Diego’s Black Heart Procession briefly transformed the El Rey stage into a sort of Rose Parade for the depressed. Vocalist/co-founder Pall A. Jenkins wore a giant red heart on his chest that lit up and throbbed dully all the way through the band’s set. Periodically, he leaned over a musical saw, drawing out eerie coyote moans that seemed to emanate from his own guts rather than the bent steel in his lap. Beside him, co-leader Tobias Nathaniel brooded over pump organs, hand drums, toy pianos. The effect was surreal, sad, a little frightening, a little tedious, like a polished circus-clown act in slow motion.
Even without the visuals, the Procession crafts the same sort of atmosphere throughout Three, their latest release. Tempos range from lilting to dirgelike. Jenkins delivers the lyrics with obvious relish, scattering cheery nuggets like “What holds you now/will bury you then.” What’s most remarkable about all this — and what saves it from bathos, or just plain silliness — is the total lack of affectation. Where gloom-funk specialists such as Portishead dress up essentially detached songs with operatic angst, the Black Heart Procession articulates a much more earnest and uncomfortable melancholy with understatement and the occasional sly smile. Jenkins’ flat drawl never leaps registers — it barely even shifts pitches — and all those saws and trumpets and echoes and waterphones give even the darkest Procession material a surprisingly inviting sparkle.
Can’t imagine anyone listening to this straight through — not awake, anyway. But at a time when so much of our pop culture is about pop culture, it’s refreshing to hear a pop band indulging in such a sustained, satisfying whimper. (Glen Hirshberg)
Metallic I.O.U. (Acetate)
After two disastrous outings with two different major labels back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Hangmen founder and lone original member Bryan Small decided to take matters into his own hands and, along with veteran engineer Jimmy Sloan, has produced this no-nonsense rock & roll disc. Low on studio flash and high on attitude and pure, raw energy, Metallic I.O.U. is truly Small’s supreme triumph, finally capturing on tape what the Hangmen have been all about for the last 12 or so years.
Yes, Small’s been to hell and back, and on Metallic I.O.U. he lives to tell the tale. Songs like “Downtown” and “Bent” do not paint a pretty picture, confessing as they do the sad truth of life gone bad, living day to day and couch to couch, failed relationships, and always looking for that next fix. These are gut-wrenching tunes about harsh reality, plus a scorching version of the Lords of the New Church’s “Russian Roulette” that probably has the late, great Stiv Bators smiling in his grave. Contributing to the disc are longtime drummer Dino Guerrero, excellent dirty-blues slide guitarist Jimmy James, and Laura “Lucky” Bennett on bass and background vocals that perfectly complement Small’s supersnotty Johnny Thunders– meets–Tom Petty snarlings.
To the unknowing who had written off the Hangmen, who thought they were dead and buried, Metallic I.O.U. is a big, swift kick in the ass announcing their return to Hollywood’s re-emerging rock scene. (Jimmy Ansourian)