Archive for July 2010
The Dolly Mixture box set arrived safe and sound, and it’s everything (and more) that I hoped it would be. And just when I thought I would never want for another consumer item ever again, I came across the announcement that early October will bring … I can barely get the words out, this is so immense … a 19-CD Sandy Denny box. That’s right, 19 CDs. Basically, it will contain every note that the singer ever recorded.
Sandy Denny was one of the leaders of the British folk revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s—the era of Nick Drake, for context. She’s probably best known as a member of Fairport Convention, the group at the center of this scene, but she also recorded four solo albums, played in a short-lived but great band called Fotheringay (named after the castle where Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned), and worked with a few other groups. I don’t think she ever found much of an audience here in the States—too English and woodsy—though generations of American teenagers know her as the lady who sang accompanying vocals on Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore.” Like everybody back then, she drank a lot, and died tragically in 1978, at the age of 31, of a head injury after falling down a flight of stairs.
The box set will contain all of her studio work with all her bands, countless demo versions (some of her later stuff is a little thickly produced, so more spare versions of these songs will be welcome), and a bunch of other rare and unreleased stuff. I mean, 19 CDs is a lot of CDs to fill. Of course, it’s a total budget-buster. Amazon UK has it listed for 150 pounds sterling, which translates to about $225, plus shipping overseas. And how high is the risk that the box might get squished on the transatlantic voyage? I would say pretty high. I was even thinking this morning, while vacuuming, that maybe I should order it with gift wrap, to give it an extra layer of protection. Either way, this will definitely be the most that I’ve ever spent on a single musical product, and I’m going to have to defer some of the monthly book and CD allowance so I’ll have enough doss when October comes along. (It’s not like I don’t have enough books and CDs to keep me occupied in the meantime.) I hope this clip, from a BBC TV show, gives you some idea of why I think her voice so entrancing.
Back in the late ’80s—way before iPods, back even before I had my first CD player—my ex-boyfriend and I used to entertain ourselves by playing a game with the alarm clock radio. We’d turn the dial until we hit a song; the first person to identify it was the winner. (I know, this is the musical equivalent of trudging ten miles through the snow and ice to school, back before you kids had school buses.) I used to listen for this song. A radio DJ said it had a swear word in it, which you could hear if you listened closely. I could never catch it, and it wasn’t until I bought the album nearly a decade later that I could make it out: the f-word, in the fade-out at the end. (The video includes an edited version of the song.) “Believed You Were Lucky” came out before listening to Aimee Mann was in any way acceptable in rockist circles—for one, she still had the crazy hair. Even as late as 1996, when her great solo album I’m With Stupid came out, I told a friend over lunch that the new Aimme Mann record was really good, and he said, “How could that be?” A few years later, the Magnolia soundtrack answered the question.
We’ve been on a budget—the real kind, sketched out on a spreadsheet, with predetermined amounts for groceries, household goods, gas and the like that we can’t go over. We’ve been doing it for the past month and it works fantastically. We each have a set figure budgeted for books and music combined, and of course I run through my share pretty quickly. But that’s okay. I buy my allotment of media right away, and then spend the rest of the month planning what to buy when the coffers are refilled—making lists, adding and subtracting, and placing things in and taking them out of various digital shopping carts.
Last night, though, only three days before the month’s allotment will be refreshed, all of my will power wasn’t sufficient to stop me from borrowing against future income to buy the new Dolly Mixture box set, released yesterday. Dolly Mixture was a pretty obscure British band that was around between 1978 and 1984. (The trio was named after some kind of English old-lady candy.) They sang backing vocals on “Happy Talk,” a 1982 single by Captain Sensible that was later sampled by Dizzee Rascal for his 2004 song “Dream”—that might mean more to you than it does to me, as I haven’t heard either one. Dolly Mixture’s own songs were speedy and ebullient, modeled on the girl group bands of the ’60s but new wavier. A year before they broke up, they self-released their single long-player, an exhilarating double album of low-fi recordings called The Demonstration Tapes. I have a download of a mid-’90s reissue of the album, which is pretty much all we’ve had of their work to listen to in the CD era.
The new box set, Everything and More, includes a remastered version of The Demonstration Tapes, plus all of the band’s rare singles and EPs, unreleased tracks, and a booklet. The thing is, it’s a limited edition of I don’t know how many (or how few, I should say) copies. I know it’s doubtful that there are thousands of Dolly Mixture fans just waiting to snatch up all of the copies of a 20-quid box of the band’s recorded output the day it goes on sale, but I didn’t want to take any chances, and now one is winging its way across the Atlantic to me as I write this.
Debsey Wykes, the lovely-voiced singer of Dolly Mixture, went on to become a part-time member of Saint Etienne, which is how I heard of her early band in the first place.
I visited Washington, D.C., with my parents when I was a kid, and on our last day we drove a half-hour south to Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of George Washington. To no avail—it was too late in the day to take a tour. We walked around the grounds a little bit. I remember a carriage house, a gravel path. Later I read in one of the true-life haunted-house books I took out of our town library that spirits haunted the property—something about disembodied pig squeals heard at dusk sticks in my mind–and eventually the spookiness became part of my memory of our visit: an old house, deserted, surrounded by an eerie silence as twilight fell.
Mount Vernon is the farthest south I’ve ever been. (I’ve been to Southern Florida, but that seems like it’s own place.) I’ve had to leave an entire region of the country up to my imagination. For a while my idea of the South was fed by the music coming out of Georgia in the early ’80s. I liked R.E.M., as everyone in those days did; the group seemed to carry an element of that ghost-pig-in-the-twilight hauntedness. But Let’s Active, led by R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter, was the band I really loved. No paranormal porkers there, but a bright, pastoral atmosphere. This song, from their great album Cypress, has a kind of meandering, sometimes jerky, melody, like a walk over wide-open but very complicated terrain. I feel as though I can hear in the music what the South might look like, its lush twistiness. (A few other songs on the album have agrarian titles: “Gravel Truck,” “Crows on a Phone Line.”)
Over the years, this album was released first on album and then on CD, then went out of print, was released again, went out of print again. It is not for sale on iTunes. Is someone going to reissue it a third time, in any form? It seems unlikely. So will it just live in the minds and music collections of the people who first heard in back in the ’80s? For some reason it hasn’t received one of those revivals that hits certain cult bands every so often, the way the Feelies were celebrated with fancy reissues a year or two ago. After Let’s Active broke up in 1990, Mitch Easter made very little music of his own. Will new generations be able to find the music of Let’s Active? Or will it just vanish, someday for good?
A while back I wrote that I had just missed getting tickets to see the reunited Unrest. Not long after I published that post, Unrest added a second, earlier Brooklyn date—which was actually the first show of their brief East Coast tour. I was double-lucky. I got a ticket, and also, the opening act for this first show was Unrest’s TeenBeat Records labelmates Tuscadero, another late-’90s D.C. band that I loved, regrouping just for one performance.
I first saw Tuscadero play in Boston in 1994. I remember thinking that they looked very young, practically kids, though on Monday night, Jack, the drummer, shouted something from the stage about being 43, so it turns out they were actually my age. I guess I was young then too. Part of what made them so much fun for me and for a lot of other fans was that they sang about points of reference that we shared. One of their songs was ostensibly about Pinky and Leather, the Happy Days characters from whom the band took its name. The above song—from Monday’s show, with Evelyn Hurley of Blast Off Country Style, yet another TeenBeat band from that era, on guest vocals—was about when your folks throw out your old stuff after you leave for college. (I find the third verse, which is primarily a list of Nancy Drew book titles, mysteriously brilliant.) But another part of why I liked them was that they were simply good—their songs were almost overpoweringly catchy.
Tuscadero had a kind of complicated label history. The songs I just mentioned are from their first album, The Pink Album—its cover looked like a marbled composition notebook—which came out on TeenBeat in 1994. Two years later a major label signed them and released the same album again, only with some of the songs re-recorded, a little more souped-up. In 1998 they put out a major label follow-up, My Way or the Highway. I was starting a music-writing career then, and I think it might have the been the second or third record I reviewed, enthusiastically, for Time Out New York. I remember being very excited to finally use some of the Spin-style hip-reviewer language I had absorbed over the years. (An aside: I just searched to see if my Tuscadero review lived on-line somewhere. It doesn’t, but in the process I came across another review I wrote around the same time of an album by a group called the Connells. I have no recollection of ever hearing this record; in fact, if I didn’t have the evidence in front of me, I would have said that I had never even heard of this band. Appropriately, I rated the Connells album two and a half stars, the reviewer’s default state of everything-lukewarmeyness.)
Good as it was, My Way or the Highway didn’t have a lot of traction. Maybe the indie fans felt betrayed by its more polished sound, or they were now listening to Cornershop instead, or something. Tuscadero broke up a year later, and they became ringed with sadness in my memory. It seemed as though a fickle market had played the devil with them, although maybe they didn’t want to play goofy songs forever and were fine with it. Maybe the sadness was just my own feeling that the musical landscape was changing, and that bands I had loved through the decade were breaking up, their members moving on to try different things or simply get back to regular life. At any rate, I locked Tuscadero away in some secret compartment of my heart.
When, on Monday night, the four members walked on-stage, picked up their instruments, and began to play, it was as though the doors of that compartment were blasted open. I later learned that they had all rehearsed together for the show only once, earlier that afternoon, but they sounded like they practiced together every day. The songs were big and thrilling. I was surprised to find I knew every lyric, that their music had been thrumming somewhere deep in my brain for over a decade. As I watched them play, years were compressed into mere seconds, and I was 42 and 25 at the same moment. The past wasn’t irrevocably gone—it had just waiting, like a genie in a bottle, to be brought to the present. Of course, it was all over in forty-five minutes, replaced by the melancholy realization that I can’t see the band play all the time—that it’s possible there may never be another Tuscadero show. But, for one evening, they brought me the happiness of meeting old friends I didn’t know how much I’d missed.
This is a new person, from Sweden, covering Big Star’s “Blue Moon,” one of the greatest songs ever. You wouldn’t think it would work, her voice is so shouty, but it does—in fact, it’s kind of sublime. I wonder what was in the plastic bag.