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Oh God, It’s So Good

15 Sep

HoneyLtdThumbHoney Ltd.The Complete LHI Recordings CD (Light In The Attic, 2013)

Thee reissue of the epoch – or at least my epoch. I tell myself I may well have played some tiny part in seeing this come to fruition, but maybe that’s hubris. Anyway let’s try to remember . . .

A quarter century ago, my younger self made a conscious choice to step away from the punker sounds that had shaped my even-younger self, and I began testing the kaliedoscoptic musical waters known as 60’s psych. Subsequently I was given a cassette dupe of the lone HONEY LTD. LP on Lee Hazelwood Industries Records from 1968, courtesy of pal Roy Kaiser, proprietor of The Record Recycler in Torrance. He owned a copy of this mega-rarity back when even gristled psych collectors weren’t sure what the heck it was, and has sung praise for it longer than many of you have been alive. Gradually, that cassette became a staple of my regular musical diet, becoming the gateway drug that led to sublime baroque & sunshine pop pastures by the likes of THE LEFT BANKE, THE FREE DESIGN, and STRAWBERRY ALARM CLOCK.

I remember being struck by how HONEY LTD. wasn’t anything like the wildass gtr jamming or trippy experimentalism I’d come love about many of that era’s LSD-inspired bands. Rather it was suavely arranged, 4-part gal harmony flower pop, lushly produced with a number of Wrecking Crew folks, with a strident urgency to the vocals that only white people attempting to get down! could muster. They were closer to a living, breathing CARRIE NATIONS than anything actually psychedelic, except with Lee Hazelwood not Russ Meyer in the director’s chair. But songs like “The Warrior”, “Silk ‘N Honey” and “Tomorrow Your Heart” were strikingly original, truly great in fact – the kind you find yourself humming along to well after they ended. And the non-album 45 moved off into more soulful terrain, suggesting they might’ve beat THREE DOG NIGHT at their game, had they stuck it out another few months.

Fast forward to the end of 90’s . . . I made a second-gen. dupe of my cassette for pal and erudite collector Jonathan Ward. So taken by what he heard, Wardo embarked on an archeological dig for all things HONEY LTD., culminating in a fascinating historical retrospective for online mag Perfect Sound Forever in 2005. This brought the story of this lost band to a whole new audience – including the Light In The Attic crew, perhaps? Sadly, most of the recordings remained elusive at the time. Wardo would go on to found the amazing Excavated Shellac blog and become the preeminent name in 78 rpm relics the world over, but I still smile knowing he used to drool over this sorta gal-pop too.

So now it’s 2013, and Light In The Attic has finally exhumed everything HONEY LTD. ever recorded, housed it in a beautiful digipack, included a 32 page booklet detailing their story all over again, and thrown in a cool sticker to boot. It’s all so wonderful I could just about cry – heck, I might never have to listen to that shitty cassette again. Yes the 3 unreleased tracks are a treat, but it’s the album itself that’s the main course. And what a course it remains: equal parts gorgeously produced soul/pop, doe-eyed flowerchild naivety, and loud harmonic transcendence, I’d recommend this above a dozen supposed-classic Brian Wilson records. Really, it just does not get any better than this.


The Only Hell His Mama Ever Raised

9 Jun

$(KGrHqEOKpYFGVog!nP,BRlfHKy)qQ~~60_12 JOHNNY PAYCHECK11 Months & 29 Days/Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets CD (Raven Records, 2006)

The anomaly of western swing aside, country music has always been about voices.  Beautiful voices, backwater voices, powerful voices, tortured voices: the sorts of voices you hear nowhere else. Voices capable of transcending that which the form wouldn’t always seem to allow for.

Johnny Paycheck had one such voice. It never fails to bring a big grin to my face, and against steep odds too – coming as it does from a life that included heavy drinking, decades of drugging, and the eventual shooting of a man. Deke Dickerson, in his great piece about Paycheck’s early career, notes that George Jones’ distinctive vocal style developed directly out of his early 60’s association with Paycheck. Which isn’t to say Paycheck sang better; he didn’t. But great interpreters like Jones often rely on the musical innovation of others.

Paycheck had a voice that strikes some listeners – invariably country music detractors – as the stuff of parody. A voice like a lumbering tortoise doggedly trying to catch up with the proverbial hare; one better suited for broad Hee-Haw skits than anything serious. But if ever there was someone willing to play the buffoon as a vocal style, it was Paycheck. His whiskey-fueled baritone would lull you off-guard as it rounded the notes in slow, deliberate fashion, until walloping home those inevitable country punch lines with unexpected, knowing passion. Bait-and-switch was his strong suit, which he played for all it was worth.

These two Epic albums from ’76 and ’77 show ample evidence of Paycheck’s particular genius. He effortlessly brings out the humour in songs like “Hank (You Tried To Tell Me)” while adding emotional complexity to loser ballads like “The Feminine Touch” and the stiff-upper-lip weeper, “I Did The Right Thing.” And though he veers closer to pop convention than ever before, he’s cocky enough to pull it off like he doesn’t give a rat’s ass. Hence, his 70’s reinvention as infamous country outlaw, along side Waylon and Willie.

Billy Sherrill’s production was some of his most sympathetic of his career, since he avoids obvious sweetening which sometimes confused similar-period records by Tammy Wynette or George Jones. He’s wisely chosen straight ahead honky-tonk backing, albeit with that pristine clarity common to his Epic productions then. But when an unexpected flourish does surface – like the mandolin trilling on “Right Thing” or the gorgeous ascending/descending piano intro on “I Can See Me Lovin’ You Again” – it’s a startling sensation, reminding you of the subtlety at work here. It nicely parallels Paycheck’s own talents as a singer.

Alternately fun, raucous, and (gasp!) poignant, these records are far more than a lackluster repackaging of a country has-been. In fact this just might’ve been the smartest and classiest update afforded to a honky tonk originator at the time. Now if only he’d thought better to’ve left his gun at home when out drinking . . .

There Will Be Flowers

11 May

Gene Watson on the set of Hew Haw, ca. 1979

Sadly, George Jones is now gone. Thank god we still got Gene Watson.

I’m probably in the minority believing that country music produced it’s most glorious body of work in the 1970’s. Yes: raw, early country forms were far closer bound to it’s haunted, hillbilly wellspring. And I do recognise how freeing it must have been to finally strip away all that rhinestone and cocaine gumming up the works, come the 1980’s. Still, the 70’s saw country music finally matching the success of it’s pop counterparts, step for step – often by the very same country artists who’d laid it’s foundations decades earlier. There was ample funding for a sensitive producer to get a distinctive singer to balance flashy excess with down-home constraint, and come up with real country magic. And this happened more often than most folks wanna admit.

Gene Watson was that singer, and thankfully Russ Reeder was also that producer. These two paired up for a series of great LPs on Capitol Records, starting with Love In The Hot Afternoon from ’75. The first six have since been reissued by Hux Records, two each on three separate CDs. I reckon the best pairing to be Reflections/Should I Come Home from ’78-’79, which contains his signature tune, “Farewell Party.” But all three CDs are consistently good and often really great listens.

Gene’ll forever be described as traditional country since he stuck to those weepy ballads and passive-aggressive honky tonk numbers that I’ve recently started to love so much. His producer Russ worked a delicate hand, never skimping on the fiddle or steel guitar as some of his contemporaries did. But like Billy Sherrill’s countrypolitan acts, Gene wore Nudie suits and sometimes sat comfortably atop the very same gospel choirs found on late-era Elvis records. So you’re really splitting hairs here.

What is unique about Gene was the honed talent underpinning his singing. Sure: George Jones’ voice cut closer to real life, Charlie Rich crooned with more soulful authority, and Willie Nelson could lay further behind the beat than just about anybody. But Gene’s natural vocal prowess – his range, his timing, that awesome sense of control – probably tops them all. He succeeded in elevating a simple Texas drawl into a strata reserved for quite refined artists, something rarely achieved in the realm of country music.

With Gene, there’s not much gossip to enliven things: he’s stayed married to one woman all his life, avoided drug/alcohol addiction, and continued to work at a Houston auto body repair shop after his recordings were hitting the charts. But the lack of backstory just allows his godsend voice more room for what it does best. And Gene ain’t lost it yet neither – check out his amazing version of Lefty Frizzell’s “I Never Go Around Mirrors” recorded in 2001:

I Never Promised You A Consistent Album

4 May


LYNN ANDERSONGolden Classics Edition (1997, Collectables)

This was a straight reissue of a couple of her biggest selling LPs, Rose Garden from 1970 and You’re My Man from 1971, plus a few bonus tracks for good measure. The epitome of country-pop success at the time, Lynn Anderson and her big blonde hair hit massively with “Rose Garden” on both pop and country charts. This explains both her frequent guest appearances on The Lawrence Welk Show and the lame attempts at crossing over again cluttering up You’re My Man and many other LPs since. Indeed, it isn’t hard to imagine any of the insipid, strings-ridden covers included – “Joy To The World”, “Knock Three Times”, “Proud Mary” – dribbling out of crackly speakers at out-of-the-way Texas pancake houses, then or now. No doubt it’s this fluff the record company thought was the selling point, but it’s precisely those bits you’d be wisest to avoid.

When she steps back from all that, Lynn actually sounds really fine. She wields quite focused vocal technique not unlike that other big-hair queen, Tammy Wynette – though thankfully, without that woman’s proclivity for masochism. She sings Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Come Down” as if those tough lyrics were handwritten for her; indeed they could be seen to foreshadow her more recent brushes with the law. Her tone remains clear-eyed and never maudlin, lending maturity to tunes like “Another Lonely Night” even when she’s backed with that perky girl-beat that infantilised lesser 60’s country singers like Connie Smith. There will never be anything groundbreaking about her approach, but she’s savvy enough to remain her own woman, regardless of what she’s singing. It’s a neat trick in the face of so much Nashville machinery.

In the end, I appreciate the subtle craft she’s brought to something so mundane. And while I can’t find the reference now, I’m sure Eugene Chadbourne over at All Music once described Lynn as something akin to amazing. I’m not about to argue with that claim today. But whether you really wanna wade this far into the morass of country music for such mixed results is a matter between you and your god alone.

A Town West of Nashville

21 Apr


VARIOUS ARTISTSA Town South of Bakersfield, Vols. 1 & 2 CD (Enigma, 1988)

I read about these two Pete Anderson-curated compilations (the first from 1985, the second from 1988) in the pages of SPIN magazine as a teen. And a quarter century had to pass before I’d get around to actually listening to them! Let us be clear: this ain’t nothing at all to do with cowpunk, that’s fr goddamn sure. Critics who bandied around that novelty term when talking about this are probably the same jokers who used it’s root punk to describe late 70’s Warren Zevon records. And we all know, them critics were morons.

What this actually was: a collection of traditionally-minded country artists who’d happened to build careers in the greater Los Angeles area in the mid 80’s. Being so far from the Southern U.S. cultural epicentre of their sound was isolating, and the lack of naturally-occurring support from their environs led some of these artists to develop post-modern chips of varied sizes on their shoulders. That aside, these folks were as pro and adept as anyone then hot in Nashville, and they were most definitely here to prove it.

The artists themselves were quite diverse. Katy Moffatt, Billy Swan, and Lucinda Williams already had well established careers, but were in the process of redefining themselves in more modern terms. Dwight Yoakam, Rosie Flores, James Intveld and Candye Kane belie more urban influences, turned on by the rockabilly revival of The Blasters a few years earlier. Still others, like the rootsy Lonesome Strangers and county-pop Tin Star, seemed to pop outta nowhere, fully formed and more than ready to headline the Palomino Club in a moment’s notice. Nothing here sounded anywhere near as wild or drunken as Tex and the Horseheads, but it’s uniformly strong and proud stuff. And remember, this was country music, not that longhair rock n roll crap.

Approaching this CD in 2013, you have to overcome a couple big hurdles. First, there’s Pete Anderson’s “hip” production. Now I will certainly give it up for that man’s spare, hardcore country arrangements and formidable gtr prowess, but the overall fidelity here is thin and tinny, like some 2nd rate Steve Lillywhite knock-off project. Amplified by state-of-the-art digital CD transfer circa 1988, and you’ve got some seriously brittle, bloodless sonics in your speakers.

It’s curious to compare this with the Don’t Shoot compilation on Zippo Records that came out around the same time. Similarly country-themed, Don’t Shoot focused on spin-offs & solo projects of LA bands like X, Green On Red, The Long Ryders, and Divine Horsemen – you know, guys with actual punker pedigrees. In fact, a full half of that rec was produced/engineered by ex-Flesh Eater Chris D, who understood the need to capture a fair representation of low, mid, and high frequencies. Accordingly, it sounds warmer and more naturalistic than either Bakersfield volume. But in terms of playing/songwriting, the South of Bakersfield cats ran rings around their Hollywood counterparts, telling me Pete Anderson and co. had Nashville in their sights all along.

And the work’s worth it, really it is, especially if you like your country rooted in history, but are turned off by the good-ole-boy chauvinism of some of it’s founding fathers. I reckon Jim Lauderdale’s “What Am I Waiting For” to be the absolute pick of the bunch, as he conjures up the ghost of a young Buck Owens as vividly as anyone I’ve yet heard. As expected, Dwight Yoakam deserves special mention with the inclusion of his great “I’ll Be Gone.” But less well known singers like breathy but tough Jann Browne (“Louisville”) and no-nonsense honky tonker George Highfill (“Waitin’ Up”) sound simultaneously commanding and at ease, no simple trick to pull off.

Whatever your fancy, just don’t call it cowpunk, ok?

George Jones For Dinner

7 Apr


GEORGE JONESI Am What I Am (Epic, 1980)

Last week I dreamt that George Jones and I were hanging out together in my kitchen. He looked exactly like he did in this sleeve pic: wide polyester lapels, bad Nashville haircut, crazy look in his eyes. He was showing interest in our back garden ferns, but all I could do was wonder who else still worked this sorta fashion in 1980 . . . retirees in Sun City, AZ? Cab drivers in Southeast Asia? Sheesh.

As much as I love every George Jones record I have heard, there is something a little ghoulish about this one. Inarguably, his life was at it’s absolute nadir then – a swirling cocktail of alcohol/cocaine abuse, mental illness, financial woe, and just plain fucking up. And it all threatened to capsize him here. This is the first time on record that you can really hear an alcohol thickness to his voice, which is saying something – he admitted in his biography to being drunk through most studio sessions he’d ever been in. So when George plumbs as deep as he does with these songs, you worry he might not find a way back up.

The tack producer Billy Sherrill took with the musical backing remains oblivious to all this. It’s tried and true 70’s countrypolitan: hillbilly fiddle and twangy gtr are relegated to barely-speaking roles, while piano, swelling strings, and wordless choruses lead the way toward crossover chart success. The only concessions to the new decade seems to be some effects on the pedal steel, and a striping away of the soft-focus, gauzy haze that once made George sound like he was crooning to you from beyond the clouds. Despite the sweetening, George the vocalist stands as clear, maybe clearer, than ever before.

Which is a problem, because clarity only intensifies the horror on parade. As great a performance as the infamous lead-in cut “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is, there are even darker places to visit before it’s over. Hearing George sing “with the blood from my body I could start my own still” on “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” is pathetic and gut-wrenching, since not only does he sound like a vagrant wino – albeit one with an amazing voice – he was one at this point. Similarly, “I’ve Aged Twenty Years In Five” is as heartbreaking a life-down-the-toilet song as they come:

As I look in the mirror this morning
On some dirty old restroom wall
It took a while to realize it’s really me there inside
‘Cause I’ve aged twenty years in five

I suppose it’s not all grim – the final trio of songs are more energetic and try to be fun, though totally out of place given the context. The CD reissue, however, rectifies this by adding 4 bonus tracks cut from the same desperate cloth as what’s on the first side, thus bringing the emptiness full circle. So when he eventually asks “Am I Losing Your Memory Or Mine?” it’s apparent to everyone except George what’s gone.

To be sure, his singing here still bests that of any of his peers. Hell, he’s singing better than just about anyone else going at this point, like his life depended on it. But I can’t shake that voyeuristic feel of listening to a man tumbling headlong into the void. No, I don’t suspect I’ll be spinning this one too frequently, if only to afford ol’ George some measure of late-life dignity. Yet it is what it is: a truly powerful record of life at the bottom.


I don’t remember much else about the dream, other than George raised an eyebrow when I told him my parents used to live in Jasper, Texas, not far from where he grew up. Interestingly, he didn’t appear drunk at all – in fact, he looked downright sober. Happy, even.

Christgau Country

1 Apr

Robert-Christgau-image. . . At which point I find myself in wholehearted agreement with noted Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau.

Coming of age in early 80’s Southern California, New Yorker Christgau was never gonna be the first name in music criticism, good or bad – that space was reserved for the LA Times’ Robert Hilburn, whose unflagging dedication to the heroic populism of Bruce Springsteen, U2 et al made for some particularly dull, predictable Sunday morning reading back then. Instead, I became conscious of Christgau a few years later, as the butt of indie-critic jibes by the likes of Thurston Moore and Mykel Board. It wasn’t until the 90’s that I’d familiarise myself with his books, if only to catch up with a record collecting buddy who made it his mission to acquire every record graded at B+ or above therein. This brief sojourn solidified my negative impression of Christgau going forward: he’s that snarky guy with no patience for hard/heavy rock, and therefore not the man for me.

But apparently, I’m no longer the man I thought I was either, musically speaking. And in my recent awakening to country music, I’ve become aware of another, more useful side to the writings of the Dean of American Rock Critics. Way back during the Summer of Love, Christgau wrote that country music

is the last untouched reserve of popular music . . . frankly, I don’t know as much as I’d like to about the music because I find it fascinating but unlistenable. It is very insular, appealing mostly to the white, lower-middle-class adults, especially those in the South and West and away from the urban centers. The lyrics, which are much more inventive than the music, reflect this appeal; booze and sexual temptation are favorite subjects. Aside from Roger Miller, who defies the categories anyway, no C&W performer has broken into the pop of this decade for more than a freak hit, although in the Fifties C&W was almost as important as R&B. This is an index of the increasing withdrawal of the audience. Rock borrows constantly from country music, with good effect; when C&W borrows, and it does so more and more, it borrows from the corny accouterments of easy listening and outdated pop. Most of the songs are lugubrious, ridiculous, or both. But taken as a whole they form a fascinating folk music, and some even stand by themselves. (from Secular Music, 1967)

I like this Christgau bit. Not only do most of his generalisations still hold 45 years on, but he makes no secret that he’s approaching this music as an outsider, as a listener of rock and roll first and foremost. That’s an angle he’s kept in much of his country music writing ever since.

Peruse Christgau’s website and you’ll turn up dozens (hundreds?) of insightful if still sometimes snarky reviews about a diverse range of country artists. Taken in total, it’s eye-opening reading. Few other schooled, urbane liberals have ever bothered attempting to delve into – much less appreciate – the width and breadth of this sorta music. And he gets it right more often than wrong.

It would seem that Christgau, like me, is fascinated by the closed-off nature of Nashville: this bizzaro music world running parallel to the mainstream of rock/pop, one with unique standards and trends that evince logic all their own. While he incorporates lateral political analysis a bit too frequently for my taste, cut him some slack – the prominence of lyrics in this peculiar form and the noted conservatism of some of it’s artists lend itself to such diversions. But what I’m most impressed by is that Christgau, indeed, does love clever Honky Tonk phrasing, commanding Southern singer/stylists, and sweet, sweet country songs. That’s something I can relate to these days.

Here’s a few examples of Christgau’s writing on country artists over the years:

On George Jones

“Smiling corpse or committed cuckold or drunk peering over the edge of the wagon, a sinner is what he am, and he’s never sounded so abject or unregenerate — the twenty-years-in-five thickness of his Epic voice only intensifies the effect.” (review of I Am What I Am, 1981)

On Melba Montgomery

“George isn’t just being polite when he claims Melba was a better match than Tammy — anyone who counts that Birmingham beautician deep country should check out the hollers near Iron City, Tennessee. Montgomery is less original than Jones, as is Pavarotti. But she’s so downhome that she never got her druthers or her just deserts. And she’s also so downhome that Pappy Daily didn’t even think about countrypolitanizing her.” (review of Vintage Collections, 1997)

On Randy Travis

“I can now hear, for instance, why many prefer Storms of Life –don’t matter as much as what holds them together: the voice, the voice singing. If this seems perilously close to the canary fancying that’s given the world so many Mariah Careys, let me note immediately that John Anderson versus George Strait is still no contest by me. Frazzled though Anderson’s drawl may be, it’s artist versus craftsman–he’s funny, he’s soulful, he’s avid, and he moves. Anderson versus Travis, however, now seems a close call. We always knew, sort of, that over and above material and production that outclassed his immediate forebears, what made Travis new traditionalism’s breakout artist was an ache that invoked the pantheon–Jimmie and Hank, Lefty and Merle.” (from the essay Striving For Ease, 2002)

And on recent Nashville chart-topper Brad Paisley

“Complete with the rowdy male choral farewell “You wear the pants/Buddy good for you/We’re so impressed/Whoop-de-doo,” “The Pants” is a typically sidelong gambit from an artist who knows how to sell simple truths to a resistant audience — a master of the catchy chorus, the phrase ratcheted up a notch, the joke only a teabagging jerkola could resent. And though that’s easier with marriage songs, those soppy country staples that sometimes come as well-honed as Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way” or Garth Brooks’s “Unanswered Prayers,” no country artist has ever been sharper about what connubial bliss entails.” (from the essay Paisley’s Progress, 2009)