Saturday, February 28, 2009

Timbuk3 - Austin City Limits 4/22/1989

Our friend pAt mAcdonAld is playing at Cactus Club tonight. I can't go, cos I gotta work in the morning. But I can at least talk about him a little bit here...

(note - I cribbed a few of these paragraphs from something I wrote over at Superstarcastic. Why do the work again when it's already good?)

In early 1989, PBS’ seminal program Austin City Limits was still largely the province of middle-of-the-road/fairly obscure country acts, and thus not usually within my sphere of interest. However, flipping by channel 12 one afternoon, I saw a commercial for that evening’s broadcast, featuring Timbuk3 and Eric Johnson. Now, Eric Johnson was on the charts with his tune “Cliffs of Dover,” which still holds up pretty well for being a G3-virtuoso-guitar-led instrumental. I dug that. So I set a tape to record it later that night.

I think I watched the Johnson segment maybe once. I got a lot more out of the other half of the episode. I was familiar enough with Timbuk3’s one and only hit single, “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” (also known as “Mainstream America Will Never Understand Irony (At Least Not In Song Form)”) but I hadn’t heard anything further. But there they were, Pat MacDonald and Barbara K, opening the show with “Dance Fever.” Their rhythm tracks were on a big reel-to-reel that sat behind them, revolving impassively. Their songs were witty, incisive (in ways I couldn’t even understand yet) and catchy as hell. Naturally, I tracked down every damn record they ever did, and started listing Pat amongst my fave songwriters, if anyone asked (they rarely did).

Most of this half-hour show is drawn from their first two albums, Greetings From Timbuk3 and Eden Alley (my personal favorite). It also includes the delicate, dazzling "Wheel of Fortune," which would show up on their third album, an otherwise unknown (presumably early, given the introducing remarks) song called "Will You Still Love Me When I'm Dead?" and an old tune called "Looking for Work." That one was originally recorded by Pat's old band, the Essentials. I'll put up their stuff here if I really want to embarrass the hell outta him. In its first incarnation, it was a bouncy little new wave thing, and not that exciting. Here, it's been slowed down to a bluesy dirge, and it's a standout among standouts.

Skip forward a number of years, to 2003 (or so, my memory for time is always kinda hazy). Our new utility infielder Sean was from the Madison area, and he told me that he knew Pat through friends of friends. Well, okay. Sean had no reason to lie to me (nor was he), but it didn’t really mean much beyond that. And it wouldn’t have if Pat hadn’t played in Neenah, where we all lived. But sure enough, he played, Sean introduced us, and suddenly I knew one of the best songwriters I’d ever heard. It was kind of weird. But Pat’s a nice guy, and as I came to see him more often (particularly after moving to Milwaukee), we got to know each other pretty well.

For the last few years, we've played at the Steel Bridge Songfest, at Pat's invitation. It's a great cause and a great time, and a good way to meet some real cool musicians while drinking like fishes in the Sturgeon Bay. We don't get to hang out with Pat much up there, he's so busy keeping things together. But it's a nice feeling to know that he wants us rabble-rousers up there. And we always try to get out and see him whenever he plays Milwaukee. Maybe this time I'd have talked to him about seeing this show, when I was just a pre-teen with ears wide open. Well, there's always next time...go see Pat when he's in your town. Buy him a shot of whiskey or two.

So here it is, from hifi stereo VHS to cassette to CD to MP3. Somewhere in the journey, the last two songs got stuck together.
1) intro
2) Dance Fever
3) Life is Hard
4) The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades
5) a question
6) Looking For Work
7) Sample the Dog
8) Wheel of Fortune
9) Will You Still Love Me When I'm Dead?/I Need You

Timbuk3's discography is entirely out of print. There are some copies of their live album available on the official website, but the older albums were released on IRS Records, so that stuff is long gone. Their last album was released on a division of, no shit, Windham Hill. That stuff will all show up here at some point.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Medicine - Off the Vine EP

We're gonna start with something very symbolic, something that says a lot about what I collect and why.

When I was 15 or so, my mind was WIDE open. I'd found my first Sonic Youth record (actually, it was the "Starpower" 3-inch CD single, which I dearly love. To this day, the album versions of those songs just sound wrong to me) and I was ready to explore further. A good friend of mine, Mason, one day handed off to me a stack of tapes and CDs, which I then copied onto a series of six cassettes. These albums were to influence me greatly, and be a solid signpost of what I like and what I play to this day. Loveless was there, as well as Mingus and Roland Kirk. Morphine's Cure for Pain and the Stone Roses singles collection. Frank Zappa and Syd Barrett, too. But what ended up hitting me hardest, and meaning the most to me, was a band called Medicine.

Medicine were a band from Los Angeles. Their guitarist/mastermind, Brad Laner, had a long-standing background in experimental music (much of his work with bands like Steaming Coils and Debt of Nature, amongst many others, can be found at the truly wonderous Mutant Sounds blog.) He teamed up with drummer Jim Thompson and singer Beth Thompson in 1991, along with a couple other guys that quit after the first record. And what a first record! Shot Forth Self Living (which I'm sure I'll post here someday soon) starts with a solid thirty seconds of distorted, bee-hum drone, finally breaking into an amazing, semi-psychedelic dance tune with gently sung vocals hovering over the undulations. And so the record went, as did the band: sweet melodies and harmonies collided with screeching noise and quintessentially 90's dance beats.

I was simply agog when I heard this, and their second album, the Buried Life. You could do that? And it would work? Things would never be the same.

A couple of years later, when I was seventeen, I went to a Tuba and Euphonium conference at Northwestern University one weekend. It was my first trip by myself. Mom dropped me off at the dorm and gave me $100 (as I recall, it could have been less...) for food and necessities. I hardly attended any of the conference. I don't know what I would have gotten out of it, really. But it was important. It was a first step towards being on my own, which I essentially would be from September 1996 onward. And it was then as it is now: you couldn't keep me away from the record store.

I found a phone book and located the nearest one: Dr. Wax. I went as soon as I got myself oriented, and spent a long time browsing. I found a Sonic Youth record, a Miles Davis CD...and as I flipped through the 7"ers, I saw a Medicine record. This was 1995, when new vinyl was becoming very scarce, so I was mightily impressed. I didn't even know Medicine put out records! I've never heard of this! I bought it immediately.

It was a mysterious, pretty little item. A double 7" on clear vinyl. Three cardboard dividers, with a picture for each side. Seemed to feature a lot of penises. The music was mysterious, too. Some songs more than others...

Side A was "Off the Vine." Its illustration featured a Victorian-type lady, reading a book labelled "PURE" to two small children. The song is a sexy creation, at least to my ears: the bass is a slow, sensuous groove, the drums thwack behind the beat. Beth coos through multiple delays while Brad lays squawks of feedback over the top and drones underneath. It ebbs and flows somewhat, but that's the deal for the first three and a half minutes. Then, as a seemingly unrelated coda, Brad plays a simple riff and sings a lovely melody heavily featuring the line "nothing left to chance."

Side B is "Hull," represented that a fat nun? Well, she's naked, getting her nipples and toes sucked by winged baby heads, and a baby angel his penis, rather forcibly, into her mouth. Okay. Musically, this is a rather abstract number, also in two halves: the first one full of thumb piano bits and Beth's percussive vocals, the second all grinding guitar feedback and booming gong-like tones.

Side C is "Heads," which would be re-recorded for their final album, Her Highness. This recording is similar, if a bit rougher: much delay and filtering on the drums, a one-note bass part matching a one-chord heavily phased guitar, and Beth's etherial pipes. Its illustration is of a dandy fellow with a great deal of skin issues. Yay! Oh, did I mention the labels are all individually illustrated, as well? Mostly it's unremarkable, but the "Heads" side features, yes, heads, which tumble in circles when you play the record.

Side D is "Becky." This one's really abstract, bleeps and bloops, and ring-mod noises? Maybe some more of that shortwave stuff that popped up on "Beneath the Sands." The drawing for "Becky" has a scientist with a penis-injector thing (not his penis, he's holding this thing) inseminating vagina-plants.

Later, I tracked down some information by posting on the (extremely old-school reference) Medicine AOL group. Got a response from Brad Laner hisself, but the only thing I really found out was that the EP was limited to 1000 copies. That, in and of itself, was an interesting feeling. The idea that the ownership of this record was limited to 999 other people and me was fascinating.

Afterwards, I slowly but surely managed to track down every Medicine recording that was available (and, as previously noted, they'll surely show up here.) And thank goodness I found this one when I did, cos I've never seen another one...those 999 people are keeping this record close to their vests. But here it is, for you. Enjoy.

I internet-chatted with Brad Laner once, many years later, via Soulseek. He wanted to talk about basketball, a subject I know nothing about. Oh well. Still my hero.

An introduction.

I've been threatening, mostly to myself, to start an mp3 blog for a long time. There are a number of reasons, but the first and foremost is to share my records with whoever might want to hear them. I've spent a lot of years (and an amount of money I'd hate to think about) buying records, collecting, tracking down tunes, and I don't want them to just sit there, for me. Music's for everyone, and it's for sharing.

It's also an excuse to keep myself writing. I've written on and off for a long time, most recently for a lovely website called Superstarcastic. I did some of my best writing there, but just as I seemed to find my niche (wacky funster!) I pretty much stopped writing. I don't really know why. Sometimes I have a really hard time getting the words out, particularly when I care a lot about them. This is why it takes me two years, on occasion, to write the words for a song. Granted, I think it's the best thing I've ever written, but two years! No good.

So, let's make a brief note about what we're covering here:
-out of print recordings whenever possible. Deviations may occur for certain songs, but I'll try to keep it to just one. I've got enough rare shit to talk about that everything should be fine.
-genrewise, things are typically going to hover around the vague "indie rock" area, but anything's within limits. I like a lot of things, and I intend to write about them all.
-recordings from vinyl are going to be common. I don't have the best equipment available, and I don't necessarily care if I hear a lot of clicks and pops. Deal with it.

That's it. Thanks for reading, and if there's anything you think I might have that you'd like to hear (or anything else you'd like to say) don't hesitate to let me know: