Vega, Chilton & Vaughn…what’s that, a law firm?

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Not a law firm but an all-star underground rock trio with one album called Cubist Blues. But that album came out much too late. Even the original release back in 1996. If it were 1985, in dusty, dingy apartment 19 on the top floor of 597 East 187th Street, in the beautiful Bronx, the faint aroma of stale Italian pasta sauce always in the air, a pile of pots in the too-small kitchen sink creating that odor…and if Cubist Blues had burst through the door, carried under the dusty, dingy-jacketed arm of my apartment-mate/band-mate John C, it would have been glued to the turntable for weeks. Months. And that cover. Rough-hewn, angry artwork with a minimum of color – very similar to John C’s own, strewn about the walls and appearing on virtually all our band’s flyers whenever we played one of our sporadic, minimally-attended gigs. Remember the Alter Boys? I didn’t think so. As it is, I moved out of that abode in 1987, the album was recorded seven years later, released a couple of years after that, went nowhere, was re-released in late 2015, and finally reached my ears this past summer, 2016.

What’s this Cubist Blues, you ask. It’s a recording of 12 ‘songs’ by Alan Vega, Alex Chilton, and Ben Vaughn. Back at the Bronx apartment, Messrs. Vega and Chilton figure pretty high up there in the album collection, so there’s reason number one why the record woulda been a hit. Mr. Vaughn not so much, he being more of an early-nineties guy. But still, one listen to the ominous, primordial start of album opener “Fat City,” especially the city street noises captured by pointing a microphone out the studio window, and there’s reason number two: that urban thing, that gritty darkness that inspired all us Alter Boys to churn out song after song of 1980s-NYC-post-punk-pop-primordialism.

Alan Vega’s vocals certainly rule here, recalling the echo-laden exclamations of his late-seventies band Suicide. Alex Chilton’s contribution owes more to his offbeat solo stuff, especially the 1979 whirlwind Like Flies on Sherbert, than to the polished power pop of his seventies band Big Star. Ben Vaughn, as far as I can tell, throws in some keyboards as well as more guitar, and the end result is a hypnotic, scary, always appealing schizomusical brew.

young-cubist-bluesNo, they did not look like this in 1996…

The aforementioned “Fat City” chugs along those dark, dank, rat-infested NY subway tracks while Vega lets loose a haunting harangue about the “hell train” – evoking (for me) the days of yore when various Alter Boys and pals would chug along and let loose similarly haunting harangues. Check out “Freedom” with its vomiting-synth sounds giving way to Chilton’s lonesome picking, over a slower but no less ominous ticking-timebomb-tambourine beat. “Candyman” starts out like some soulful, long-lost Box Tops track (hi, Alex) but wastes no time taking a sharp turn down Suicide Avenue. The manic drums on “Promised Land” make for another A-Boys jam flashback, and then…best cut on the album…the slinky piano strut “Lover of Love.” Slow blues take charge on “Sister,” funky beats rule (along with lots of deranged guitar and keys) on “Too Late,” and the late, great Cramps are channeled as “The Werewolf” comes down the street.

Now that Alan and Alex have both passed on, Cubist Blues takes on even more of a spectral character. But if only it had existed back in ’85. What a soundtrack over those endless homemade dinners of spegs ’n’ sauce washed down with a Red White & Blue beer ($1.99 a six pack at the bodega). Ok, cue Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth: “Pabst Blue Ribbon? Fuck that shit! Red White & Blue!!”

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But is it literature?

Bob Dylan was always a name in the background there, among the music and musicians flying in one ear and out the other. Country singer? Folk singer? Guitarist? Songwriter? Yeah, something like that. In the mid ’70s there’s a radio ad about “a profoundly changed Bob Dylan,” for his then-new album Blood on the Tracks. Once in awhile I hear the lead-off track, “Tangled Up in Blue,” and think he’s saying “Tangled Up in Glue.” In college I room with a folky guy who’s idol is…guess who. And he plays/sings upbeat Dylan numbers like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” He even thinks I look like Dylan. I think he’s got Dylan on the brain.

Then in 1983, as I’m introduced to the ‘right’ stuff to listen to, courtesy of the band I’ve suddenly formed with drummer and rock ‘n’ roll mastermind Roger R, Bob Dylan is actually good, and songs like “Positively 4th Street,” “From a Buick 6,” and “Desolation Row” are front-and-center. A couple of years later the magical “Mozambique” from Desire is one my favorite tracks ever. And talk about some schizomusical instrumentation – how about that wacky slide whistle on “Highway 61 Revisited” or the drunken trombone that drives “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” right down Bourbon Street?

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On into the nineties and the ’00s, as ol’ Bob turns 60 and beyond, I find solace in wise-old-guy lines like “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there” from “Not Dark Yet” on Time Out of Mind and “It don’t bother me, time’s are hard anywhere, we’ll just have to see how it goes” from “Floater (Too Much to Ask)” on Love and Theft.

Now whenever I hear Bob Dylan and his stream-of-consciousness lyrical rollercoaster rides, I ask, “Does he make that stuff up as he goes along?” Take a song like “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” from Blood on the Tracks. What is it, a novel? What does it mean, who are all those characters? You should be able to take a class on that song, and write a thesis about it! Likewise with “Tombstone Blues,” “All Along the Watchtower” (my intro to that one, around 1976 on FM radio, is the Jimi Hendrix version), the hit “Like a Rolling Stone,” and the semi-hit “Hurricane.” Ok, that last one is more obvious as far as theme, storyline, and characters, as it speaks out against boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter’s murder conviction. And just about all his song lyrics could be considered, well, poetry. Whoa, listen to some of the stuff on his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – it’s downright hilarious poetry! So it’s no wonder then that Mr. Dylan, now 75, has won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Yay Bob!

Hey, one other thing about Bob Dylan – that harmonica. In most cases, when you hear it, it means the song’s over. Ok, cue the harmonica! Post’s over!

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It’s bluegrass, no it’s pop, no wait it’s…prog rock?

Sometime in the middle of the 1970’s, somewhere in middle America, three tour buses collide. They are carrying James Taylor, Flatt & Scruggs, and the band Kansas. The only survivors are the drummers and percussionists. Meanwhile the rest go to heaven and form a band.

No, of course that did not happen…but there’s an earthly band that certainly approximates what that heavenly band might sound like. Formed in Missoula, Montana around 2010, they are known as The Lil’ Smokies. Made up of Andy Dunnigan (dobro and vocals), Matthew Rieger (acoustic guitar and vocals), Jake Simpson (fiddle and vocals), Scott Parker (upright bass), and Matt Cornette (banjo), the band has concocted a schizomusical style all their own, melding foot-stompin’ bluegrass with catchy folk-pop melodies, heartfelt lyrics, and complex arrangements from the progressive rock songbook. And they do it with no drum or percussion instrument in sight.

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The Lil’ Smokies recently made their NYC debut at American Beauty on West 30th Street. Playing to a small but energetic crowd (including a handful of fans waving – and wrapping themselves in – a Montana state flag), the band blew through a selection of released and unreleased tunes like a twister through a cornfield. Songs from their two albums including “Mending the Fence,” “Ships,” “High as a Georgia Pine,” and the crowd-pleasin’ “California,” shared the set with YouTube-only tracks like “Feathers” and the beautiful, rambling creation “The Gallery.” Add to that surprise covers of Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” (driven by the spot-on falsettos of Rieger and Simpson), Bacharach and David’s by-way-of-Naked-Eyes “Always Something There to Remind Me,” and an encore featuring Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” and you’ve got one of the most riveting, engaging, and fun live music sets in a long time. And interspersed among these highlights are instrumental hoedowns “submerged in the thick buttery mud of traditional bluegrass” (to quote their website).

Whether you’re a fan of ‘70s singer-songwriters, intricate classical-inspired rock, good ol’ country and bluegrass, or all of the above (hey, even if you like none of the above), please try to catch The Lil’ Smokies the next time they come pickin’ around.

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Schizomusica?

SCHIZOMUSICA.

The music appreciation center of the brain on permanent shuffle. One day top-forty, the next day metal, then piano pieces, punk, dance mixes, followed by jazz standards, symphonies, bossa nova, show tunes, Hawaiian music, and Japanese pop. So any mashup of disparate musical styles?

 

OK, here we go…