Friday, May 21, 2010

Johnny Cash/Johnny Dowd / Lisa Germano

The Secret Museum

By Jim Webb and Michael Mooney

February of 2010 saw the release of Johnny Cash’s last studio recordings from 2003, titled “American VI: Ain’t No Grave.” These were his final sessions produced by Rick Rubin in a project that originally started in 1995. A few weeks later in March came Texan Johnny Dowd’s latest CD called “Wake Up The Snakes.” Two musicians: one who left a musical legacy as a certified American legend, the other a little known singer, writer, guitarist who’s happy to add a few more fans with every new CD and club tour. Each man brings a personal intensity to his darkest songs that few others can match.

Johnny Cash was a deeply religious man his whole life. Even in the midst of his problems with drug addiction, he always looked at it as a test from God. Cash’s contradictions are apparent from early on as he embraced the wild rockabilly music of the ’50s while still singing gospel music every chance he had. He was known as “The Man in Black” who released hit albums and toured constantly. Throughout his career he sang thousands of songs; some of his best were about liars, robbers and killers. The main line from the title song on Cash’s last release goes “There ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down.” Near the end of his life the only songs that mattered spoke of faith, and the coming glory. He quotes scripture on “I Corinthians 15:15”—“Oh death, where is thy sting. Oh grave, where is thy victory.” His wife June passed away four months before him in 2003, and you can hear on these final recordings how ready he is to join her. There is a contemplative spirit that pervades these last recordings and the selection of buddy Kris Kristopherson’s “For The Good Times” was another beautiful choice. At the end of his life such lines as: “Don’t look so sad. I know it’s over. But life goes on, and this old world will keep on turning. Let’s just be glad we had some time to spend together” carry a gentle goodbye to his fans. “Ain’t No Grave” is a somber, melancholy album, but this poignant selection of final tunes ultimately becomes a touching farewell from one of America’s most popular performers.

Johnny Dowd is now 61 years old and was born in Ft.Worth, Texas, but raised in Oklahoma and Memphis, Tennessee. He didn’t get his first CD released until he was almost 50 years old, so you know his early songs had been fermenting for quite a while. His overall sound could be compared to the carnival barker Tom Waits colliding with a ’50s psychobilly singer named Nervous Norvus. His voice isn’t as soothing as Cash’s, and at times he treats it with a megaphone effect, along with the static of a fading radio station. “The Wrong Side of Memphis” was his first studio recording that finally got released in 1998, and following efforts like “Cemetery Shoes” and “Cruel World” are just as strong. These evocative lines are from a tune called “Final Encore”: “He died in a motel, surrounded by women’s shoes. Lipstick on a mirror had the words—I’m the king of the Jews. A Fender amplifier was still warm to the touch, in the corner a telecaster against a wall, like a cripple’s crutch.” 2010 finds Dowd releasing his ninth CD, entitled “Wake Up The Snakes,” and it’s a continuation of the mangled garage/blues sound that has been his trademark from the beginning. The organ is a little more prominent now, but Dowd’s still sitting on the front porch of the Bates Motel singing mysterious songs with black humor and intrigue. It’s a shame that Cash never recorded any songs by Johnny Dowd before passing away in 2003 from a diabetes related illness. They would have fit perfectly with his other Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings, and given Dowd a much needed boost as well.

Johnny Cash was a master singer of country, folk and gospel music whose sincerity and shared convictions with the common man appealed to a huge group of people. If Cash was a musical Billy Graham, bringing in large numbers of music lovers to his shows, then Dowd right now is just a small time itinerant tent preacher, scuffling to add a few more converts and barely having enough gas money to reach the next town. What Johnny Dowd does have is the storyteller’s gift, and a few more tales of his own still to tell. The circle remains unbroken.

Jim Webb

Lisa Germano

I used to be a big fan of Lisa Germano back in the ’90s. There was something indefinable about her haunting, catchy music that struck a chord with me, and I had great affinity for her remarkably confessional (and frequently very funny) lyrics. Mainly, though, it was her voice that first caught my attention. Soft, measured and unaffected, with a barely-discernible Midwest twang, hers was the slightly cracked sing-song Voice Of The Prozac Nation. If you asked me in 1995 which female musical artists Rock Division were my all-time favorites, I would have obviously answered, "Number one: Kleenex/Lilliput," but Lisa ran a close third or fourth, right after Poly Styrene's consumerism-obsessed X-Ray Spex and—I'm almost embarrassed to admit (after all, it being 1995)—Huggy Bear or Bikini Kill, both of whom I stubbornly believed were about to rid the world of the growling Eddie Vedders (despite ample indications to the contrary).

So what happened to Lisa? Well, for one thing, there's evidence of creeping decline in the Germano disco-chronology, and, for me at least, her tales of dejection, uncertainty and woe eventually began to lose their appeal. I can’t say that Lisa’s lyrics became farcical or myopic over time (her subject matter never changed), I just didn't relate to them personally anymore. It’s as if she got stuck in her own discomfort zone and invited everyone to join her there, then decided she didn't like the company. What once was self-deprecation became self-pity. Loyalist that I am, I responded by attempting to tune out the lyrics to her new songs and focus solely on the music instead. That didn’t work (and it never does): Lisa's trademark mix of creaking parlor recording and studio-created sound collage now appeared increasingly dull and indistinct. Look no further than 2003’s dreary Lullaby For Liquid Pig, in which, after a five-year recording hiatus, Germano returned with more of the ol’ mopey-dope (bizarrely, this particular dud was reissued in 2007 by infamous Rock Creep Michael Gira on his Young God imprint—just to piss me off further?). The humor is gone and she simply won't let you in; on this record the listener is left with nowhere to go but OUT. But I can take a hint. Here's hoping Lisa Germano will one day lose the funk and rediscover her creativity. Maybe she already has; In The Maybe World was released in 2006. I haven’t heard it.

This bit comes from Lisa's own blurb for Lullaby For Liquid Pig (on her website):
"ok i give up
too hard to trust people
stay alone and LOVE your addictions
always there

Michael Mooney

Monday, May 10, 2010

From The Archives: Guilty Pleasures

The Secret Museum:
Jim Webb & Michael Mooney

Musical snobbery has its unhealthy roots in popular culture. If enough people love (and buy) a particular song, then the elitist saying goes, “it must be crap.” There are exceptions to the rule because sometimes quality songs just can't be denied. Roger Miller's 1964 smash King of The Road comes to mind, as well as The Beach Boys' Good Vibrations, but those are just two examples from the Golden Era of Pop. Don't tell me about all the great singles from The Beatles, British Invasion or Motown, because the Sixties was the time before Big Business got a real stranglehold on the music. Popular Music went downhill fast in terms of quality starting in the 1970's, when calculated fluff took over the airwaves and your local radio DJ become a puppet to corporate profiteers. The 70s saw the rise of Barry Manilow's super-schmaltz formula, The Bee Gees hollow disco, and Olivia Newton-John's plastic world of joy. The 80s were just as bad with Hall & Oates, Billy Joel and the impossibly sappy Air Supply. If you add Mariah Carey to this list representing the 90's, you would have a great set of mega-selling "artists" who collectively haven't received a good review in forty years. The music executives of corporate America have been fleecing you and your loved ones out of hard earned money for a long time now. They have it down to a science including focus groups telling them what kind of music to sell, with demographic trends and promotional budgets targeting the weak and easily duped.

I have also been led astray by the greedy Music Moguls who live in high story condominium castles. The narcotic-like trap they set with music is a powerful one and sometimes you just can't get out of its grip. Phil Collins has sold over 150 million records in his solo career, and his brand of aural voodoo has proven to be an especially strong spell to break. The cover songs he has scored with include homogenized versions of Groovy Kind of Love and You Can't Hurry Love, both from the 60's. Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now) is a typical emotional plea that ruled the charts in 1984 for 16 weeks. And let's not forget Easy Lover (no Pulitzer here for lyrics), or the great Sussudio. Phil's music to me is like a large Sonic Oreo Blast with whipped cream. You know it's not good for you, but you still got to have it occasionally. Yes, a founding member of The Secret Museum - an organization that is committed to uncovering the underrated and overlooked lost classics of music- listens to Phil Collins. Don't tell anyone.
-Jim Webb

While I tend to agree with your thoughts regarding musical snobbery, I have never been guilty of reacting to a piece of music based on its potential to reach (or avoid) the Top Twenty. My criteria are determined by how I respond intellectually and/or emotionally to the song itself. I know that I am simply not going to like much of what appears in the pop charts, though there have been unaccountable deviations. For example, Vanessa Williams' Save The Best For Last was Number One for five weeks in 1992. I love that song, and know I shouldn't: it's a banal topic- boy realizes girl was the one for him all along, she compares it to meteorological/astronomical phenomena- and lyrically very Moon/June (in a good way, and the writers were aware of it) but containing a degree of intelligence- probably Wendy Waldman's- that places it a notch above your standard modern ballad (N.B.- one of the guys involved in this also had a hand in Crazy For You, one of two or three Madonna songs I can almost stomach). These lyrics mean nothing to me. The appeal must be, and is, the music (it's catchy) and vocal performance- just like Crazy for You, only more so here- and though I believe that just about anyone could have made this song a hit, Williams does a tremendous job of not going over the top with it, and at the same time projecting a sense of wonderment that other Pop Divas of the day- Celine, Mariah, Madonna, Amy Grant?- would be incapable of pulling off. My emotions recognize this as melodic and well-crafted early-90s radio fodder. Intellectually, my response to Save The Best For Last is that Vanessa Williams works restrained magic on an above-average obvious Hit and turns it into Art. But if this song had only reached number 84 in the Billboard singles chart that year, I would probably never had heard it.

One guilty pleasure I'll admit to is Sleeper, a musically and conceptually lazy (their lyrics were okay, though) U.K. rock group from the 1990s, one of many also-rans of the Britpop era. There's absolutely no reason I should REALLY like them any more than, say, Pulp or Elastica or The Boo Radleys or (even) Blur (whom I don't like much at all), or any of the dozens of others who waved the banner of 'Cool Britannia'. My guilt here derives not from any sense of embarrassment for admiring music such as this, but only because I can't figure out why I do. Maybe it's something about needing to have favorites in every conceivable category, like why are The Misunderstood my favorite 60s California Psychedelic band who didn't hail from L.A. or the Bay Area? Or why is Brigitte Bardot my favorite Ye-Ye girl, when she isn't a Ye-Ye girl at all? Or why The Big Boys but not The Dicks? Or Steve & Eydie but not Nino & April? The Vogues but not The Lettermen? Why is Turn Down Day my favorite summer song of 1966, and not Summer In The City? Or Summer Wind? Or Sunny Afternoon? Or Sunny? See You In September? You've got to pick something, and so, for 60s/New Wave-inspired, guitar-based, tuneful English Rock created between 1994 and 1997, I choose Sleeper.

Now, about Phil Collins: apart from breaking up with his second wife via fax (so what if he didn't; he's capable of it), your comments reminded me of this memorable monologue from American Psycho's Patrick Bateman:

Do you like Phil Collins? I've been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that, I really didn't understand any of their work. Too artsy, too intellectual. It was on Duke where Phil Collins' presence became more apparent. I think Invisible Touch was the group's undisputed masterpiece. It's an epic meditation on intangibility. At the same time, it deepens and enriches the meaning of the preceding three albums. Christy, take off your robe. Listen to the brilliant ensemble playing of Banks, Collins and Rutherford. You can practically hear every nuance of every instrument. Sabrina, remove your dress. In terms of lyrical craftsmanship, the sheer songwriting, this album hits a new peak of professionalism. Sabrina, why don't you, uh, dance a little. Take the lyrics to Land of Confusion. In this song, Phil Collins addresses the problems of abusive political authority. In Too Deep is the most moving pop song of the 1980s, about monogamy and commitment. The song is extremely uplifting. Their lyrics are as positive and affirmative as anything I've heard in Rock. Christy, get down on your knees so Sabrina can... Phil Collins' solo career seems to be more commercial and therefore more satisfying, in a narrower way. Especially songs like In the Air Tonight and Against All Odds. Sabrina, don't just stare at it... But I also think Phil Collins works best within the confines of the group, than as a solo artist, and I stress the word artist. This is Sussudio, a great, great song, a personal favorite.

So you can see, Jim, where this might be cause for concern.
-Michael Mooney

P.S. From the same film (nothing to do with Phil, but I still think it's funny):

Patrick Bateman: Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?

Paul Allen: They're OK.

Patrick Bateman: Their early work was a little too new wave for my tastes, but when Sports came out in '83, I think they really came into their own, commercial and artistically. The whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost. He's been compared to Elvis Costello, but I think Huey has a far much more bitter, cynical sense of humor.

Paul Allen: Hey Halberstram.

Patrick Bateman: Yes, Allen?

Paul Allen: Why are their copies of the style section all over the place, d-do you have a dog? A little chow or something?

Patrick Bateman: No, Allen.

Paul Allen: Is that a raincoat?

Patrick Bateman: Yes it is! In '87, Huey released this, Fore, their most accomplished album. I think their undisputed masterpiece is "Hip to be Square", a song so catchy, most people probably don't listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it's not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it's also a personal statement about the band itself.
[raises ax above head]

Patrick Bateman: Hey Paul!

Phil Collins 80s LP discography:
Face Value (1981)
Hello, I Must Be Going (1982)
No Jacket Required (1985)
But Seriously (1989)

Sleeper LPs:
Smart (1995)
The It Girl (1996)
Pleased To Meet You (1997)

Vanessa Williams:
The Comfort Zone (LP 1991)
Save The Best For Last (single 1992)
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