Friday, October 21, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 10/21/11 - Flat Duo Jets and The Skillet Lickers

Back in the late-‘80s I held a deep interest in Athens, GA’s music scene, but upon reflection, aside from R.E.M.’s string of classic albums and appealing post-punk rediscoveries Pylon, the only act from that time and place that’s really stuck with me is Flat Duo Jets. In contrast to Gotham-like zip-codes like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago or Boston, Athens at least somewhat resembled my personal small city/town-like Southern environs. Sadly, in retrospect most of that scene’s bands were to varying degrees just too well-mannered to survive the harsh treatment of history. Flat Duo Jets are the most noteworthy exception. I first heard them on the soundtrack to the independent documentary ATHENS, GA: INSIDE/OUT, and that introduction left me blown away by the pair’s off-the-scale levels of unkempt zest and flat-out unprofessionalism. Previous to hearing the Jets I was downright suspicious over contempo stuff that so proudly announced its influence from rockabilly and other pre-Beatles rock forms. Sure, I love The Cramps. Only soulless ninnies don’t love The Cramps. And yeah, I liked The Blasters too. But, A Confessional: I’ve never been able to abide The Stray Cats. Flat Duo Jets woke me up right quick to the non-crap potential of neo-rockabilly/early rock sounds. Problem was actually finding more of their stuff. There was a cassette release titled IN STEREO from ’85 (eventually reissued in ’92 on Sky) and a self-titled LP in ’89 from the brief trio version of the group (with doghouse bassist Tone Mayer) via Jefferson Holt’s Dog Gone Records. But neither of these records was obtainable at the mall, dig? Special ordering also proved problematic. I’ve since heard both, but my true introduction to Flat Duo Jets came through a cassette of GO GO HARLEM BABY, released in ’91 on Sky. Needless to say over the course of a few years I wore that tape right out. I replaced it with a CD but then after a one party or another it just up and vanished. Guh. Well, Jack White’s Third Man records has just reissued on vinyl, so I’ve been given another chance to own this most impressive slab on wax. How nice of the guy. HARLEM initially gave me the impression of a more stripped-down and ‘billy obsessed Blasters if they somehow shape-shifted into a two-person version of The Cramps fronted not by Lux but by a slightly less eccentric Tav Falco. And this impression holds, but over time the record opens up and shows Dexter Romweber (vocals, guitar, piano) and Crow (drums, vocals) to be ultimately indebted to no one. Produced (with occasional piano) by the late great Memphis legend Jim Dickinson, HARLEM shrewdly opens with three of Romweber’s own compositions before sliding into a cover of the Chilton Price-penned chestnut “You Belong To Me”, obviously a nod to Gene Vincent’s version from 1958. From there the pair rumble through an eclectic bag of touchstones including The Ventures, Duane Eddy, Ronnie Dove, Roy Orbison, sublime R&B shouter Big Joe Turner and a handful of originals easily equal to the task at hand. Interestingly, HARLEM also features a batch of takes on pre-rock standards that were eventually given the R&R-era treatment, making plain just how uniquely savvy Flat Duo Jets were in their channeling of many early rockers’ diverse musical gleaning. Not just “You Belong To Me”; jazz staple “Harlem Nocturne”, dedicated on GO GO HARLEM BABY to The Cramps’ Poison Ivy and probably inspired by the noirish ’59 R&B version by The Viscounts that became a minor hit in ’66; “Don’t Blame Me”, likely descended from The Everly Brothers’ ’61 take on the McHugh/Fields-penned oldie; and “Apple Blossom Time”, maybe connected to the vocal group version of the Von Tilzer/Fleeson-penned song that was a very small hit for The Platters in 1960. These smoldering versions of tunes that span all the way back to 1920 do much more than simply show a lack of anxiety in the Jet’s bag of influences; they also illustrate how the pair were quite knowledgeable over a huge part of what made early R&R such a gas, specifically its uninhibited and very often blatant gestures of snatch and grab regarding inspiration and source material, finding young musicians appropriating songs much older than they were and then jamming those pegs into the round holes of a new sonic equation. What a couple of smarties. Also, the range of Romweber’s vocals is one of the consistent joys of Flat Duo Jets, and on HARLEM he doesn’t disappoint for a second. It’s bluntly obvious that Jon Spencer did his own drive-by snatching and grabbing of Dex’s style for his subsequent front-man duties in Blues Explosion, and that’s cool since Dexter is anything but a one trick pony. His take on ballad material can feel like a rougher, weirder version of those slow-dance burners that were sorta perfected by the young selves of Elvis and Orbison, for just one instance. Shortly after this record the Jets began a long tenure on The A-Bones Miriam Linna and Billy Miller’s Norton label before calling it quits in ’99, though both Dex and Crow are still out there at it. I never heard a less than worthy note from these two in their whole remarkable tenure (which for this type of stuff is really saying something), and that GO GO HARLEM BABY is going to be available again in physical form, if only momentarily (read: don’t sleep), makes me very pleased indeed.

David Freeman started County Records in 1963 basically out of necessity, understanding that if he didn’t compile the early recordings of rural American musicians, maybe nobody else would. His closest contemporary was Chris Strachwitz, but where that tenacious and heroic cultural curator’s Arhoolie label covered a vast spectrum of genres, from blues to Cajun to jazz to Tex-Mex to western swing, Freeman was single-mindedly dedicated to what’s now-known as the Old-Time tradition, collecting work by mountain fiddlers and string bands onto LPs that helped shed essential light onto an undying thread in this country’s artistic wealth. It should come as no surprise that even in the heyday of the folk music revival and in the midst of the United States’ longest stretch of economic prosperity it took independent operators like Strachwitz and Freeman to help get the job of documenting its musical heritage closer to completion. Yes, the institutional presence that is Smithsonian Folkways is a major player in this huge state of affairs, but that admirable and formidably prolific label is a non-profit enterprise connected to the longstanding concept of museums and libraries as eternal centers of societal enrichment; the best side of our collective self, in other words. And as free enterprise continues to drive home the worst side of our nature (read the papers lately?), it can probably be left unsaid that if the larger, more dollars driven part of the music business had been left to secure this berg’s musical history, we’d be in some sad, shabby shape. Endeavors like Columbia’s ROOTS ‘N’ BLUES series are major exceptions to this rule, which is why labels like County and Arhoolie signify much more than just basic brand recognition, standing instead as labors of love distilled into consumer products that glimmer like jewels in a vast sea of mercantile indifference. Freeman eventually branched out into the more modern bluegrass style, Bill Monroe being a big seller for the label, but he cared most deeply for the Old-Time style, the sound of which was raw and wild, sometimes mournful and joyful, and contained the essence of an era that the unstoppable march of modernity was threatening to render effectively extinct. While County did release field recordings made by Charles Faurot in the same operational mode as Alan and John Lomax, even issuing later sessions by musicians previously documented by the Lomax team such as Galax, Virginia banjo-master Wade Ward, it’s clear that Freeman’s strongest desire, at least initially, was to compile music originally grooved into shellac 78s for the educational consumption of younger generations. This is how many ears drank up their first big gulps from such now renowned names as Charlie Poole, Uncle Dave Macon, G.B. Grayson & Henry Whitter and The Carter Family. Well, original but unplayed LP copies of many of those initial County releases are still available to the curious and/or discerning, and if you believe one or both of those adjectives fits the cut of your personal jib, then you could do pretty well by picking up OLD TIME TUNES 1927-1931 from North Georgia’s legendary Skillet Lickers. Formed by fiddler Gid Tanner in 1926 and featuring banjoist Fate Norris, guitarist Riley Puckett and fiddler Clayton McMichen, the original Skillet Lickers are a consummate example of the early string band tradition, equaled only by Poole’s North Carolina Ramblers and Macon’s Fruit Jar Drinkers. Now string band music was something of a rural sensation in the pre-Depression period, so there was a surplus of groups that managed to knock out a few killer sides in those fleeting early days of sound recording (some collected on County’s first release A COLLECTION OF MOUNTAIN FIDDLE MUSIC), but it was really the bands under the leadership of Poole, Macon and Tanner that made the strongest commercial impression and therefore have the largest bodies of extant work to consider. In just their instance, The Skillet Lickers' collected sides span five very loaded compact discs for the Document label. In contrast to Poole and Macon, both banjoist-vocalists that occasionally recorded in more solo contexts, Tanner ended up getting far more plugged into the ensemble aspect of his string band’s sound. This shouldn’t infer that Tanner lacked proficiency as a solo player; the story goes that he and the great Fiddlin’ John Carson were the rival rulers of early-‘20s Georgia Fiddle Conventions. But The Skillet Lickers were unique in featuring two fiddlers, whose playing weaved together with expert grace, helping to create an appealing, distinct sound. This matching of instruments is quite different from how crazed showman Macon, and to a lesser extent Poole, presented themselves as the leaders of their respective bands, with the result that while Gid Tanner’s moniker is synonymous with The Skillet Lickers they are often appreciated simply as a unit without his name rising to the top. For example, the cover of OLD TIME TUNES lists every performer without giving prominence to any single member. On one hand this isn’t really accurate. Tanner not only formed the band but was its most prominent contributor post-’31, continuing the group with different players, occasionally including original member Riley Puckett. But on the other hand the group did tour post-’31 without Tanner and with McMichen in charge. It’s also notable that falsetto Tanner didn’t always sing (that often fell to Puckett) and didn’t play lead fiddle (that comes courtesy of McMichen). The songs on OLD TIME TUNES do radiate an air not at all inconsistent with artistic equality, and part of the lore of The Skillet Lickers is how they were a band fraught with creative differences and in-fighting, sort of the Oasis of their day, but a whole heaping helluva lot better. What’s indisputable is that the splendid weave of the fiddles leads to a thicker feel that still manages to really soar; it certainly went down a storm on stages and at parties in their prime. This agile density seems to be quite a source of inspiration for numerous modern old-time practitioners, mainly because its solid instrumental base can be translated to a more contemporary setting sans period idiosyncrasies like Macon’s fascinating if undeniably dated hokum burlesque. But if The Skillet Lickers present a more democratic, user-friendly model for the contemporary age, partly because McMichen disdained Tanner’s rather lowbrow sense of humor, necessitating him to ease it back a few dozen notches, a more streamlined template is far from their only positive attribute. In the end the disparate nature of the songs is the thing. “Molly Put the Kettle” maintains such a furious pace that it could possibly turn a square dance into a flippin’ mosh pit, no joke, and what “Sal’s Gone the Cider Mill” lacks in tempo is made up for with swaying, sawing bow action and a general atmosphere of celebratory near delirium. “Leather Breeches” is the just the type of perfectly executed and wickedly multifaceted instrumental that neo-string-banders get misty-eyed and moist in the mid-section just thinking about, for it’ll turn a rustic college town watering hole into an uninhibited and rambunctious throw-down in just seconds flat. Speaking of which, the subject of booze is a recurring one here, and that’s not a bit unusual considering the Prohibition era; in fact, “A Corn Licker Still in Georgia” is essentially a prolonged skit with musical interludes detailing the trials and tribulations of bootleggers, and as such is a striking bit of history. Sure, the acting on the tune is as wooden as fellow Georgia hooch-runner Peg Leg Howell’s phony appendage, but that’s surely part of its appeal. Additionally, the Lickers prove they can successfully dial it back via ballad material with the more restrained but still wonderfully woozy “Devilish Mary”.  Also included is one of the finest versions of the standard “Soldier’s Joy” that I’ve heard and also one of the loopiest, frantic takes on “Cotton Eyed Joe”. One of the real delights of string band music is the unaffectedly weird elements it contains (paging Greil Marcus), and that quality is spread across the surface of this 12-track LP like delicious homemade butter. Undeniably, there are also some very occasional flare-ups of unattractive stereotyping and language, though thankfully the exception and not the norm (we might have the more erudite McMichen to thank for that). By no means is this type of dated nastiness an integral part of old-time music, but it is far more common in the forms that mingle with vaudeville and hokum, where coarse exuberant humor extended to activities such as blackface and other broad ethnic stereotyping. This is frankly a problem, and any listener’s personal levels of sensitivity, background and tolerance (or patience with intolerance, if you prefer) will decide if they’re destined to interact with OLD TIME TUNES 1927-1931. Freeman could’ve chose to not include the one really problematic track featured on this record, and a subsequent County CD that cherry-picks from the label’s two LP volumes of Skillet Lickers material indeed does just that, but like lost Warner Brothers cartoons, omission is ultimately the escape hatch of the chicken-hearted and a situation very similar to the decisions of certain historians to either leave out or greatly downplay that Thomas Jefferson, like most of his ideologically inconsistent cronies (to say the least), owned slaves. The history of the United States is one beset with as much sustained ugliness as momentary flashes of beauty, and there are warts of shame all over its skin. Strangely, some aspects of this ugliness get canonized (GONE WITH THE WIND) while other parts get relegated to the margins (Emmett Miller) while still others become the source of ongoing cultural debate (Al Jolson, BIRTH OF A NATION). This could all be chalked up as simply more American inconsistency, but that might be a tad too easy. I’m far more secure in my convictions that The Skillet Lickers play a vital role in this country’s musical landscape occasional blemishes and all, and those with turntables who wish to dabble in this band’s still impressive sound should find OLD TIME TUNES 1927-1931 an excellent place to begin the journey.