Send in the Sirens (5/25/2001)
Soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Mercury/Nashville 2000) - O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the new film from directors Ethan and Joel Coen. Set in rural Mississippi in 1937, the film loosely reworks Homer's Odyssey with a cast that includes George Clooney, John Turturro, and John Goodman as the Cyclops.
It's hard to draw a bead on the movie, as the Coen Brothers' sense of satire runs so deep that you can't tell whether the movie is meant to be humorous or profound. However, the soundtrack continues to reverberate. Featuring a depression-era country sound - gospel melodies, hillbilly songs, and old-timey bluegrass - the soundtrack has struck a nerve in Nashville, where careers are based on pretty faces.
The album was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who sifted through thousands of country standards to distill the soundtrack. The album opens with two period recordings: "Po Lazarus," a 1959 recording of an actual chain gang singing as they keep time chopping wood with their axes, followed by "Big Rock Candy Mountain," a 1928 recording by hobo singer Perry "Mac" McClintock.
The centerpiece of the album is "Man of Constant Sorrow" (1922), which is presented in versions by John Hartford and the Soggy Bottom Boys, a fictitious ensemble built around the voice of Dan Tyminski, best known as the guitar player and second voice in Alison Krauss' band, Union Station. (Says Mrs. Tyminski, "It's a dream come true - Dan's voice and George Clooney's body").
One of the defining elements on O Brother, Where Art Thou? is its focus on finger-picking melodies, such as Norman Blake's instrumental take on "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow." Old-timely country music predated the electric guitar, and was built around acoustic guitars and the fiddle.
Traditionalist Gillian Welch is credited with co-production help. Says Gillian, "This one kind of hit the nail on the head. Death and slapstick really abut each other in mountain music. This balance is necessary, I think. You find yourself tending to alleviate the darkness with some jokes."
Other performers include Ralph Stanley on the mournful "Oh Death," the pre-teen harmonies of the Peasall Sisters on "In the Highways," and the charming voices of Alison Krauss ("Down to the River to Pray") and Gillian Welch ("I'll Fly Away"). Alison, Gillian and Emmylou Harris later join as the three sirens on "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby."
Also appearing is New Orleans-based blues singer, Chris Thomas King, on the plaintive, "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues." Thomas is a real talent, but his career has been derailed by recordings which bounce wildly from genre to genre.
And it is not all down-time music. The Whites perform a stirring hillbilly rendition of "Keep on the Sunny Side," and Norman Blake brings a smile with "You Are My Sunshine."
(Historical note. Jimmie Davis recorded "You Are My Sunshine" in 1940. It became one of the biggest country hits of all time, and sang him into the governorship of Louisiana in 1944.)
Standing behind all is producer T-Bone Burnett, the 52-year-old guitarist and former member of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. Remarks Burnett in his deadpan style, "I sort of dropped out several years ago and started studying, with the notion of getting good."
"Getting good" for the soundtrack involved countless hours with the Coen Brothers selecting the music for the film. Burnett also sought to recreate an authentic Nashville sound, acquiring vintage ribbon microphones and arranging them in a triangular configuration known as a "Decca Tree," after the technique employed by that record company in the 30's and 40's.
Explains Burnett, "You get this really interesting stereo image, but still very present. There's no echo, there's nothing. We didn't use any equipment that was made after 1948 . . . It just sounds better. This whole digital thing is the emperor's new clothes. People are being trained to hear music in a stiff, regimented way. I just think there is a tremendous amount of freedom missing in music today."
O Brother, Where Art Thou? has struck a chord across America, selling solid numbers with almost no radio support. And the reason is simple: The music and sentiments are authentic. Concludes producer T-Bone Burnett, "This stuff is music for people who like music."
Best of Atlanta Rhythm Section (Universal Records 2000) - Here's a 12-track set from a group that knew how to work a hit riff. A far cry from the extended jams of its Southern rock contemporaries, Atlanta Rhythm Section worked from a smoother, studio-orientated perspective.
The Atlanta Rhythm Section was formed in 1970 by producer and song writer, Buddy Buei, guitarist J. R. Cobb, and keyboardist Dean Daugherty, all former members of Roy Orbison's back up band. The combo had previously recorded under the name Classics IV, and scored a hit with "Spooky" (1968).
The band was rounded out by Barry Bailey on guitar, Paul Goddard on bass, Robert Nicks on drums and percussion, and Ronnie Hammond on vocals. In fact, it was the addition of new lead singer in Ronnie Hammond in 1974 that started the band on its path to success, beginning with "Doraville," named after the town in Georgia where the band was formed, which hit the Top 40.
Success followed with "So Into You" from 1977, followed by the platinum 1978 release, Champagne Jam, which spurned three hit singles "Champagne Jam," "I'm Not Gonna Let it Bother Me Tonight," and "Imaginary Lover," which peaked at number seven.
(There is a story that a New York D.J. accidently played "Imaginary Lover" at 78, and generated hundreds of requests for the new Fleetwood Mac single.)
Southern rock landed on the skids soon thereafter, and Atlanta Rhythm Section suffered the same fate as their contemporaries. The group reunited in the 90s, and have two recent independently-released albums, Eufaula in 1999, Live at the Savoy in 2000.
Best of shows that these Southern rockers had a polished formula that rode up the FM charts in the seventies.
Them Wranch, Medium Rare (Orange Recordings 2001) - Strike while the iron is hot is the motto of Ron Sievers, the president of Orange Recordings. Ron brings another hot poker with Medium Rare, a tasty sampling from the trio of Andy Ranch (guitars and vocals), Gerry Morrison (bass and vocals), and Joe Patt (drums and vocals).
The band hails from Columbus, Ohio and plays in a style that is "devoid of any pretensions concerning culture or purity, but the tunes are strong and hummable."
Medium Rare begins with the full-tilt country pounder "Headcast" before continuing to the throbbing gristle of "Love on Fire" and the punk-influenced "Snake Bite." And make sure you stay around long enough for "Tell Me Once More," a demented send-up of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" (listen to the two songs back to back and tell me that Them Wranch doesn't work straight off the Man in Black's melody).
Medium Rare is a demented slice of country rock - think Junior Brown with more angles. According to the press notes, "After rejecting offers and huge sums of money from hundreds of record labels, the boys decided to go with Orange Recordings for the release of their second and current full length LP, Medium Rare. The deal with Orange was clenched when Them Wranch rolled into San Diego strung out from the road and were treated like kings to beer and fish tacos by Ron Sievers, Orange President and founder."
The album concludes with an off-the-wall hidden track, featuring a phone message left by Maiza, who tries to recruit the boys to play at her church social before someone picks up a second line and she shouts "I'll be off the phone in a God-damned minute!" Must be heard to be believed.
Toy Matinee: Special Edition (Unitone Recordings 1990/2001) - Welcome back, old friend. Toy Matinee has been a favorite of mine for ten years, since it was first released on Reprise Records. You would have heard it too, if not for the dumb, Salvador Dali-influenced cover.
Toy Matinee began in Los Angeles when keyboardist Patrick Leonard (who has spent the late 80s working with such artists as Madonna, Bryan Ferry, and Julian Lennon) decided to form a band. Leonard recruited guitarist Tim Pierce and bass player Guy Pratt, and began writing songs that reflected his love of British pop and progressive rock.
During this period, Leonard judged a battle-of-the-bands contest sponsored by Yamaha. During this competition, Leonard saw Kevin Gilbert performing with his band, Giraffe (the group won the competition).
Finding a shared love for 60's pop, Leonard and Gilbert became song writing collaborators. Enlisting Brian McLeod on drums and recruiting producer Bill Bottrell (who has worked with such acts as Sheryl Crow, Tom Petty, and Shelby Lynne), Toy Matinee came to life.
From tracks like "Queen of Misery" to the Steely Dan-influenced "The Ballad of Jenny Ledge" through the pure pop of "Turn It on Salvador," Toy Matinee had the chops.
The special edition includes four bonus tracks: The previously unreleased, "Blank Page," together with demo versions of "Last Plane Out," "Things She Said," and "There Was a Little Boy." Packed in a 28-page digipak, the 10th anniversary reissue also features liner note dedications from Patrick Leonard and Mark & Brian from Los Angeles rock radio station, 95.5 KLOS-FM.
Toy Matinee struggled through a second incarnation known as 3rd Matinee. Kevin Gilbert released a solo album, then died an untimely death.
But the pleasure of Toy Matinee remains with us. If you have never heard this slice of 60s pop through the prism of some of LA's finest studio hands, get ahold of Toy Matinee.
Young Fresh Fellows vs. Minus 5 (Mammoth Records 2000) - Here's a strong cup of tea for fans of Scott McCaughey - two full-length CDs from separate bands fronted by McCaughey, all in a double-disk package.
McCaughey moved from Cotati, California, to Seattle in the early 80s. McCaughey established a name for himself, and was recruited by R.E.M.. in 1995 on guitar/bass/keyboards. His many side projects have included two prior recordings with the Minus Five, including The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy.
For the Young Fresh Fellows release (Because We Hate You), Scott works with a four-piece combo, including Kurt Bloch, Tad Hutchinson, and Jim Sangster.
I prefer the more expansive combo on the Minus Five (Let War Against Music Begin), which includes Peter Buck, Ken Stringfellow, Barrett Martin, Jason Finn, Jon Auer, Charlie Francis, Rob Allum, Dennis Diken, Morgan Fisher, Robyn Hitchcock, Steve Berlin, Sean O'Hagan, Kid Krupa, Mark Hoyt, John Ramberg, Scott Sutherland, Jason Bick, and Nadine.
Let the War Against Music Begin has a 60s pop feel, especially "Great News Around You" and "Your Day Will Come," both influenced by Brian Wilson. Also listen for the happy reverb on "John Barleycorn Must Live" and the childhood-influenced slow rocker, "The Rifleman."
Young Fresh Fellow vs. The Minus 5 is a rich serving from a fertile musical mind. Mixing alt.country with 60's pop and straightforward rock, McCaughey can't be faulted for trying.
- Randy Krbechek © 2001
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