Leon Redbone - Champagne Charlie
I'm listening to Leon Redbone because I compared a song on a CD I was reviewing to him, and had to check to see if my comparison was on (it was.) But now I can't stop listening to it. Leon Redbone is so weird - with his sly minimal instrumentation and that muted vocal style of his, the yodeling and Hawaiian slack key guitar, that hat and that mustache. He's at the other end of whatever scale he and Tom Waits are on. It's the kind of music you can only appeciate alone, for the first thing anyone else would say is "Why are you listening to this?"
When I was a kid, Leon Redbone popped up in pop culture all the time, and I forgot until I read his wiki page that his identity and background is quaintly obscure. But listening to "Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)" led me to think about Will Oldham aka Bonnie 'Prince" Billy and Redbone's manicured oddity seems to be a touchstone for Oldham.
She and Him - Volume One
I am somehow just getting around to this album, a collaboration of one of my favorite musician's M. Ward and the most beguiling Zooey Deschanel. Z-De pulls this off pretty well - she's not exactly a great singer, but then M. Ward is a master of glorifying an understated voice on his own records. When she gets multi-tracked into a one-woman girl-group though, it is deliriously good, like if Phil Spector did a Tammy Wynette record with Fleetwood Mac as the band. Or something. Trust me, I'm a professional.
I keep waiting for M. Ward to pop up with his gravelly whisper that breaks my heart every time I hear it.
Here they are doing "Dream a Little Dream"
The next logical step is that Scarlett Johanssen album of Tom Waits covers, but fortunately my wife just popped in and gave me a taste of her astounding White Cherry Icee, and that satisfied any thirst for saccharine perversity I might still harbor.
Jenny Scheinman - Crossing the Field
I was struck by an ad, of all things, for her two new albums in a recent issue of Downbeat. She has that downtown avant-garde smoothness about her, a wildness that somehow gets chanelled into elegant restraint through the rigors of being a virtuoso. After seeing Bang on a Can perform a couple months back, I have such an art-tooth for this kind of music - too smart for PBS but too populist for serious composition. According to what I've read, she does vocals and violin with equal stunning grace, this being one of her violin albums. I know I want to hear more.
Vic Chesnutt - Ghetto Bells
When I think polite company with a dark side, I think Vic Chesnutt. I reviewed Ghetto Bells when it came out and I think most of the things I gushed about it still hold true. His eerie love song about his mom "Virginia" is creepy, as in a vine as well as "creepy." The beauty of Vic Chesnutt is that he can muster all the poise and nuance of anybody, but he will totally go there in his words and subject matter. The line Christian charity is a doily covering my death boner from "Vesuvius" is worth the price of admission alone.
Vic always works with a sympathetic producer, and Van Dyke Parks, who also helped out crazy old Brian Wilson on Smile, was on board for Ghetto Bells. I think its a high point for both, but take a look at...
Van Dyke Parks - Song Cycle
What a weird record! I just spent an hour in the library scouring a copy of Finnegans Wake for the ten hundred-word thunderclaps for a Bloomsday reading tonight, and only found eight. My head is a little dizzy still from that barrage of words and juxtapositions. Joyce is minefield like that. But this record seems to be an American pops equivalent. Like Cole Porter making a musical out of Leaves of Grass to be played by the Marine Band on peyote. Songs collide with songs and idoms and noise and reconceptualization faster than you can process, and yet, from a distance, it is sweet and easy as Leon Redbone. I think its a masterpiece, but I'm not sure I'm up to its challenges right this second.
Sufjan Stevens - Illinois
After that, it can be safely said Sufjan Stevens is Encyclopedia Brown to Van Dyke Parks' Prospero, but I still love the little eagle scout. I just got a blip on my PR radar about Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs For 43 Presidencies, and for a second I thought it was a revealing of Steven's latest history project in song, but no, he's not even on the guest list.
Still, Illinois is a masterwork, despite the fact that I think we are supposed to be over him. And "John Wayne Gacy" and "Casimir Pulaski Day" are going to make me choke up like they always does. He's got one on every album that kills me - "Romulus" on Michigan, "That Dress Looks Nice on You" on Seven Swans, "The Pick-Up" on The Avalanche. Maybe its that my heart has been tenderized by all the rich Baroque beauty of his other songs that it simply cannot contain itself at the sweet simple ones.
Maya and I listened to this album as we waited in line at McDonald's for an hour and a half, the only thing open a few days after Katrina - somehow it and a convenience store on Florida blvd were spared the blackout the rest of the city suffered, and we reveled in a thankful moment of air conditioning as shell-shocked workers barked "ALL WE GOT IS 10-PIECE NUGGETS AND QUARTER POUNDERS SO DON'T EVEN ASK FOR NOTHING ELSE" at the line of cars stretching down the block. I was already a fan, but Sufjan made perfect cosmic sense, the collapsing of the profound and the mundane, the worst environmental disaster in American history and a McDonald's drive-thru, twittering French horns and xylophones prancing up and down those scales ol' Sufjan had practiced so many many times. This was the fusion and density that Walt Whitman and Charles Ives and James Joyce saw in the world and brought to their art.
Happy Bloomsday, motherfuckers.