Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Music for an Underground Circus

Cutting-edge composers started off the century playing with classical music traditions, then moved to electric rock sounds and electronics. But recently I've noticed (am I the only one?) how many experimentalists are drawing inspiration from years/centuries gone by, writing things like sad accordion waltzes.

Chris Butler is an unlikely pioneer of the antique-garde movement. Veteran of wacky '70s proggies Tin Huey and superstar new-wavers The Waitresses, Butler recorded a series of singles in the '90s compiled on a fine 2002 collection called "The Museum Of Me" that featured original songs recorded with everything from primitive technologies such as Edison wax cylinders and '40s era wire recorders to modern methods. He's still an alt-rock 'n' roller at heart tho, filling his songs with the kind of biting observational lyrics that made Waitresses hits like "I Know What Boys Like" so memorable.

Chris Butler "The Man In The Razor Suit" - totally killer twisted intense kinda-so
rta-Delta blues, recorded onto wire; in a perfect world, this song would be as big as "Christmas Wrapping"

Chris Butler: "Thinking About Them Girls" - fun, catchy tune with Butler's voice and 12-string guitar recorded onto a wax cylinder, other musicians on jug (!), banjo, slide whistle, kazoo and spoons recorded with modern technology; as disorienting as watching, say, old footage of Buster Keaton trading lines with modern actors in a current film.

The non-antique garde songs are cool too - I like the Beach Boys-ish summer tune, and the spooky surf instro amusingly entitled "Bad Moon Over Mel Bay."

The handsomely pac
kaged album comes with a booklet featuring photos of the tools used, and more technical information then a '50s hi-fi album, as well as 10 bonus tracks not listed on Amazon that feature the songs in various stages of construction, as well as "talking bits from a used spool of wire. I found it at a flea market. I think it dates from the Korean War era, when a NE Ohio family sat down at a kitchen table to play cards on a Saturday night..." He says he'll make a cassette tape of the entire recording for you if you write to him. Don't know if that offer still stands.

"they marry young down there"

I recently wrote about Ergo Phizmiz' amusing demolition of '90s club hits, but the astonishingly prolific British nutter has been posting plenty more free sounds, including an album described as "Instrumental music from the forthcoming 10 part Ergo Phizmiz radio-art cycle "The House of Dr Faustus." Instruments include "Harmonium, Toy Piano, Melodica, Balinese Xylophone, Messiah Box (huh?), Ukulele, Euphonium, Bagpipes, Didgeridoo, Desk Bell, Mechanical Birds, Pixiphone (wha?), Tibetan Flute, Kazoo, Autoharp" and about a zillion others.

For me, this haunting song is not only the album's standout track, but, as experimental
sad accordion waltzes go, one of the best.

Ergo Phizmiz - Music for an Underground Circus

The band PiƱataland are responsible for the phrase "antique-garde" actually - a Village Voice review of this intriguing New York combo described them thusly. Their debut from a few years back, "Songs For The Forgotten Future Vol. 1" mixes samples of early recordings with original songs performed on tuba (no bass!), strings, slide guitar that suggests country music without actually being country music, and, on this song, theremin:

PiƱataland "Devil's Airship"

The lyrics are true stories about overlooked oddities of American history - the above song deals with the "phantom airship" scare of the late 1800s. The song sampled in the intro is a 1912 Edison cylinder called "Mysterious Moon."

They released "Vol. 2" more recently, which I haven't checked out yet. But this one's another well-packaged product: photos, historical news-clippings, sample info, lyrics. And, yes, the album features sad accordion waltzes.


Juxtaposeur said...

Unfortunately that Devil's Airship link seems to be busted.


Mr Fab said...

Thanks Pete, try it now.

Juxtaposeur said...

Terrific. Thanks. Been loving Ergo for a while too, but then he's from the IOW like me so I'm probably biased.

Nyla Jane said...

Most any type of music is recycled, it's so hard to find things that seem refreshing and "new" but then again it's all about how a person feels the music. I've actually had the time to listen through Devil's Airship and some of Music for an Underground Circus and personally Devil's Airship is one of my favorite albums.