Good Music We Can Know

Monday, September 27, 2010

Stone Cold Dead in the Market: Wilmouth Houdini- Decca Presents... Calypsos (1939); The Calypso Carnival (?)

Harking back to the Calypso styles discussed in a previous post on Van Dyke Parks' Discovering America, I bring you this gorgeous and strange selection of scrumptious Calypsos, ripped from a booklet of 78s and courtesy of the fine fellow behind Zorch's Inner Sanctum. This is his gospel to spread, really, so go pay him a visit, but I just had to share it with you all in case you might have missed it.

I sometimes like Calypsos better in theory than in practice, but perhaps that's only because you encounter so much de-fanged, post-Belafonte, near-novelty ramifications of the genre. Yet at it's purest, it has a fascinating combination of regional storytelling, social commentary, crime-and-sex balladeering, and outlandish posturing that one might find in jazz, blues, rockabilly, country, various other folk and ethnic styles, and some of the more socially-conscious reggae, soul, and hip-hop. (Let me stop right here and backtrack to say that I have nothing but love for Mr. Harry Belafonte.) Another fascinating, recurring theme in classic Calypso is the presence of American GIs in Tobago and Trinidad, and a highly critical attitude towards the various effects this had on their lives.

These six recordings by Wilmouth Houdini epitomize this spirit of lurid, entertaining, and socially relevant Calypsos. The best of the bunch is "He Had It Coming," a murder ballad (based on a recent, at least at the time, event) told from the point of view of a murderous wife, who strikes her husband down with a skillet after he gets drunk and roughs her up. "I killed nobody but me husband," she reasons. (Hit up Zorch's spot for more info about these recordings, as he's a responsible archivist, with information and research that is actual.)

Also included are two recordings of Houdini's songs by other artists: the aforementioned "He Had It Coming," this time called "Stone Cold Dead in the Market" and sung by Ella Fitzgerald, and another by The Three Flames. Wonderful stuff.


Once you've done that, run over there and grab this incredible treasure:

The Calypso Carnival is a raw and beautiful collection of absolutely classic songs and themes. The singers have a way of cutting straight to the bone, and all the songs are impressively hardscrabble and deeply felt. One of my favorites here is "I'm a Better Woman Than You," an absolutely ferocious street battle between two hard female singers about who is the more appealing and desirable female. "When I walk down the avenue, I get more fellows than you..." "I am a better woman than you, I got better notions than you..." They get pretty fucking close to pulling each others' hair, sonically speaking-- it's amazing. Another highlight is "Mama, Looka Boo Boo (Boo Boo Man)" one of those classic tracks where a fellow laments his own personal ugliness. Also included are some less raucous selections, with movingly lovely female vocals. This one is a winner. Go over there and get it, fellows.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jazz Hallucination...Sex and Death/Booze and Reefers: Cab Calloway Singing "St. James Infirmary Blues" on Betty Boop

In keeping with all this scatting and cartoon related material, I submit this to you: Greatest cartoon of all time?

Cab Calloway performing "St. James Infirmary Blues" in a Betty Boop short based on the story of Snow White. The whole thing is great, as all early Betty Boop cartoons are, but it really kicks into gear at around three and a half minutes, when Ms. Boop's ice coffin slides into Mr. Calloway's ghost cave of jazz hallucinations. "St. James Infirmary Blues" is one of the greatest songs of all time, and Mr. Calloway is on the short list of its most inspired performers. For this short, he was filmed performing the song and a spooky slide dance, then animated over in the inimitable Fleischer Brothers rotoscoping style, all done by one incredible animator, Roland Crandall. It was his masterpiece. (wiki it here)

Grab a recording of Cab's version of the song, well-ripped from the cartoon, HERE. Once again I say, it's solid gone daddy, and most worth having.

There are other Betty Boop shorts featuring Cab Calloway. They are well worth seeking out, and easy to find on youtube. All the Boops of this era have this incredible, grotesquely surreal, absinthe-crawl, opium-nightmare energy, by the way, so check them out. Have fun.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Double Order of O-Root-O-Roonies: Slim Gaillard- Slim Gaillard 1945 Vol. 1

If you are anything like me, you are always on a scat hunt, eyes always peeled for hip nonsense droppings like you were a bear scientist. Scatting is that most eloquent confluence of glossolalia and nonsense-syllabic poetizing., and Slim Gaillard is a rare and unique customer in the annals of scat-science, a certain genius of the craft. He spoke eight existing languages, as well as a ninth of his own ingenious creation: Vout. An absurd language it is, but consistent enough that he was able to write a real Vout O-Reenie dictionary, making him a jazzy and hip successor to the spirit of the Voynich Manuscript.

Wiki this dude. He is interesting: Gaillard's childhood in Cuba was spent cutting sugar-cane and picking bananas, as well as occasionally going to sea with his father. However, at the age of 12, he accompanied his father on a world voyage and was accidentally left behind on the island of Crete. After working on the island for a while, he made his home in Detroit. In America, Gaillard worked in an abattoir, trained as a mortician and also had been employed at Ford's Motor Works...

Here's a collection of Slim works for you. On it you'll find the voutest, o-root-o-reetest collection of hipcat jazz slams with obsessive repetitions of vooties, reenies, routies, rooties, vouties, zeenies, and so on. Sublime, goofy, and fairly brilliant. I've also included a live rendition of his finest song: "Yep Roc Heresay," a wild and thrilling mishmash of Voutspeak and Arabic food names and phrases. It has been called the first jazz song sung in Arabic. You will love life while listening to this crazy shit.


(here is a fantastic performance with his very gifted bassist stealing the show and Scatman Crothers on drums. Yeah, you heard me, SCATMAN CROTHERS)

His abilities weren't limited to inventing words and singing them with an insane, cartoonishly gleeful zest; he also played piano with his hands inverted, palms facing up, and attacked the guitar with a proto-avant shred approach, sounding at times like Sir Richard Bishop or Fred Frith, all the while delivering his performance with the slapstick comedic precision of Chico Marx's piano interludes, or some of Harpo's more destructive harp recitals. Check it out:

And here's a link to some stuff of his on Ubuweb. Thank you for your time.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

From the Docu-Library: Sven Libaek- Ron & Val Taylor's Inner Space (1973/4), My Thing (1970 or maybe 73), Solar Flares (1974)

Sven Libaek is one of my favorite composers. His best work achieves a quality to be highly valued in instrumental music, creating a kind of background-ish music that can't be ignored or appreciated too passively, sounds that are so evocative and transportive, they insist on becoming the active soundtrack of your existence. When listening to his tidy little library/soundtrack compositions, you are living a nature documentary, the kind with washed-out film, paternal narration, and antiquated, not-American-sounding music. I mean, I guess a lot of his stuff is literally for a documentary soundtrack, but it's notable that it translates so strongly, even away from its intended context... it's so archetypal and unique at the same time that it just floods your brain with sensation, like a childhood memory of watching Jacques Cousteau (whose music was never actually this good). One of my favorite things to do is just walk out into the desert, or row out on the water in my little boat, with my trusty little tape player and my Sven Libaek tape, and just experience nature through the lens of his soundtracks and the fantasy of a bygone day of nature docs and old-world naturalist explorers.

I've already posted some of the most essential Libaek work, Ride A White Horse and Nature Walkabout, as well as his symphonic masterpiece, Australian Suite. Click the Sven Libaek tag below to call these beauties up, and get them if you don't got them. The first two are especially key.

Here is another essential: Inner Space. It's a hard record to find because of a compilation reissue of the same name that came out a while back. This is not that comp. This is the soundtrack to Ron and Val Taylor's shark documentary, Inner Space. (Thanks to Marcellus Wallace for the rip.) Fans of The Life Aquatic will recognize some of the tunes featured here, as they were pirated for the film's soundtrack (to excellent effect, in my opinion). The music here is some of his best work, light and jaunty like sunlight dancing down through the water, with the occasional dread menace of a shark shadow crawling through the compositions. Fans of "underwater music" will find this to be the tip-top of the genre. The only thing holding this record back is that some of the tracks feature excerpts of William Shatner's narration for the film. It's actually great stuff, that old-time narration style in warm tones and purple prose (with none of the chewy hamming one might expect from him), but it does disrupt the instrumental flow of the underwater fantasy ride. But don't let a little thing like that stop you, because this is a sonic masterpiece, and the best most perfect option if you need a good shark hunting record. So worth having, you guys.


Here is My Thing, one of two Library records he made in the early 70's. It's not as excellent as it could be, featuring a few too many of the trashy horns that are common to funk-library recordings than I would like, occasionally getting too far away from the pristine sonic worlds of his best work. That said, one of his all-time best tracks can be found here, the immaculate "Misty Canyon," a two-and-a-half minute masterpiece. At least half the record, if not more, is as strong as anything he's done, making it essentially fucking essential, if you're a fan. There's some roadkill here, but mostly just cool, refreshing, sonic diamonds. If you only have four Libaek records, make this number five.


Solar Flares is a similar situation, another Library record, this one on the theme of outer space (although the feeling is occasionally more reminiscent of deep sea). This time the party is occasionally pooped by noodly jazz-funk guitar workouts and some chunky Italian synth farts, but the whole session is ultimately worth hearing, not only because of Libaek's typical sophistication, restraint, and ability to make something perfect, but also because of the occasionally delicious sounds of some rare kind of synthesizer prototype that synth nerds love. I haven't got the inclination to care about names of synthesizers (not that there's anything wrong with that), but I do love sounds. Oh, how I love sounds! Not the most essential Libaek record, in my book, but a worthy one for any collection.


That does it for the Sven Libaek records that I have that I love. Internet, can I beg of you a favor? Can someone point me to a download of Mr. Libaek's Boney soundtrack? Pretty please? I can not find one, not anywhere, no sir. Throw me a bone, if you please, and help me find Boney.