I've got a few spare minutes, so let's see what's been floatin' my boat in these neck 'o the woods of late. The above box is one which is high on the list. I must admit - hell, I will admit - that the name Mickey Newbury didn't register in my mind until a few months ago when this 4CD box set was thrust in my paws by a colleague w/ the strict instructions that I must digest, toot sweet. Such a confession is one I'm not proud of, and in retrospect it's odd that I'd never come across his wares, considering my fandom for his contemporaries (Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Waylon Jennings), but here we are and that's the story. Newbury was a Texan-born singer-songwriter - one most famous for his songs which were made into hits by others - who made a big splash in the Nashville/Acuff-Rose scene in the '60s and perhaps an even bigger splash in the burgeoning outlaw country music crew of the 1970s. Those who've covered his songs range from the good to the bad to the ugly (from Joan Baez and Tom Jones through to Kenny Rogers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kris Kristofferson, David Allan Coe, Bobby Bland, Willie Nelson... the list goes on) and right on through to The King himself. You can compare the two versions of his most famous song, "American Trilogy", below. Newbury's is quiet and delicate - a ballad supreme - whilst Elvis' is a blustery showtune spat out with pure spirit wrapped up in a glittery suit complete w/ karate kicks. I'm prone to dismissing Elvis as a monumentally over-rated dunce who landed himself in history at just the right time and place - hell, why would you listen to Elvis when there's Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard? (and don't even get me started on the genius of Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris et al) - a man whose tastelessness knew no bounds, and then I see a clip like the one below and am struck by the man's godlike stage presence. His rendition has an extra coating of cheese, but by golly, that's no reason not to like it. Both versions possess their own unique sense of beauty, and for very different reasons. But that's enough about Elvis. Newbury released 3 LPs between the years 1969 - 1973: Looks Like Rain, 'Frisco Mabel Joy and Heaven Help The Child on the Mercury and Elektra labels. They're collected here on this deluxe box set - designed and put together by the folks who designed the similarly lavish Charley Patton and Albert Ayler sets for Revenant, so you know it looks nice - put out by the UK impint, Saint Cecelia Knows. The LPs have also been reissued individually in the US by the Drag City label. There's also a 4th CD in this set which puts together demos, a radio session from 1970 and publishing-company demos of Newbury songs made famous by Roy Orbison, Ray Charles and others. The collection of music contained within the four discs features some of the most stunning examples of pure songcraft I've had the pleasure of hearing since Townes Van Zandt blew the lid off my head w/ his debut back in the late '90s (I was late to the game then; I guess I continue to be). Newbury's delivery and song style isn't far removed from Van Zandt... in fact their style is so close at times that I could mistake one for the other, although Van Zandt's has a heavier country/folk bent, whereas Newbury mixed his w/ a more Tin Pan Alley Nashville sound, one leaning towards the Jimmy Webb school of slick, urban countrified sonics (not a bad thing). Newbury released a few more discs after these, though was largely musically inactive from the 1980s until his death in 2002. Any songwriter you'd give a damn about in this lifetime owes him a debt, and some of them give their due in the liner notes. The power of his songs are immense, w/ subtle changes of mood which power them along w/ an emotional gravitas like few others. Note the shift in key after the first chorus run on "American Trilogy": it moves the heart and loins. There are many other songs present here which similarly achieve such an aim ("Write A Song A Song/Angeline", the first song on the set is a definite contender for his greatest piece of music), and over time I'm sure I'll discover more. The packaging is incredible (there's now a cheaper, less deluxe edition available - actually the one I own - with the kind of design/layout which still shames most others), the music unbeatable and for me it gets my vote as one of the best reissues of 2011. You. Need. It.
The Washington DC band known as Lungfish are one I've been meaning to give the obligatory props to the past 6 months, and now I shall finally, if perhaps too briefly, fulfill my promise. They're a band who've been on my musical radar for over 20 years but one whom I'd never taken the time to actually listen to until roughly a year ago (despite the urgings of several friends who've been committed fans since their early recordings). They have 11 full-length recordings released on the Dischord label, and for now the band remains on hiatus as members pursue other projects. One of these is guitarist Asa Osborne's Zomes project (whose latest recording on the Thrill Jockey label I reviewed earlier in the year), a kind of basement electronics gig somewhere in the Suicide/Cabaret Voltaire realm, as well as main man Daniel Higgs' various musical outings. Higgs is also well known as a tattooist in great demand (he himself is heavily inked, and combine that w/ a beard of great girth and he cuts quite a striking figure), and his eccentric musical outings outside of the Lungfish brand are well worth investigating. He cut a great, rustic, Sandy Bull/John Fahey-ish LP on the Holy Mountain label a few years back, and his double LP, Say God, released again on the Thrill Jockey label last year, is a recording of great weirdness and beauty, the kind of disc whose peculiarities (it's essentially Higgs yelping out his poetry to the minimal backing of a harmonium and little else) tests the listener, but for those who are up to the test, great rewards can abound. But Lungfish are something different. They could be pegged as being a post-HC DC band of the Dischord mold, but I think they're a whole lot better than that. Higgs cut his teeth in '80s HC unit, Reptile House, and the band occasional deliver w/ the ferocity of their punker past, though the musical pace is rarely, if ever, raised above the medium level. One observation many make of the band is this: every album they've made sounds the same; nearly every song sounds the same; essentially, they've been remaking the same album over and over for 20 years. Such observations are correct, but it's a hell of a formula. For my money, the music of Lungfish is caught in the nexus of Master Of Reality-period Black Sabbath and Joy Division ca. Unknown Pleasures: that is the musical meeting point. There's the thick fuzz and stoner groove of primo 'Sabbath combined w/ a slightly Angloid post-punk vibe, driven by melodic bass lines and a vocalist purging whatever from his system in the process. And this formula has been repeated over and over throughout the years. It might sound dull, but it ain't. They rarely, if ever, cut loose; their music is meditative, hits a groove and sticks with it. Album after album. Some folks have named it "Zen-punk". That just sounds fucking dumb... so I'll use it, too. I've got 5 or 6 of their discs, and I like 'em all, particularly Pass And Stow (1994), The Unanimous Hour (1999), Necrophones (2000) and Love Is Love (2003). Which doesn't mean it's all great. I have, for instance, listened to 1991's Talking Songs For Walking and really disliked it, its slick, lifeless production made it sound like the kind of dud alt-rock I thought sucked at the time (and indeed, continues to suck). But from what I can gather, that one's an anomaly. The band known as Lungfish have cut a long, strange and unique path w/ their singular vision, a mixture of mid-tempo sludge combined w/ Higgs' spiritual rants, and I for one am glad they made the effort.
Lastly, I present for you something really special. My buddy Richard Stanley alerted me to this gem just the other night, as he proudly showed me his copy of a rare Village People 7" (I don't get to say lines like that often enough). Yep, the Village People. In 1981, they recorded and released a truly embarrassing and strange stab at New Romanticism by the name of Renaissance. Predictably, it tanked. If ever there was a record worth its 20 cents simply for its cover, then Renaissance is it (Google it, and I'm told that the non-US version is the one). I'm also told its stature as a truly craptacular classic now earns it a few dollars more on the collector scene. But I've since discovered that its worth lies beyond the merely ridiculous. It also happens to feature this track, "Food Fight" (more alleged facts: some versions of the LP don't contain the song, and that for some territories it's only featured as a B side to some crap single they released from the album... at this point in time, you really have to ask yourself: do you care?). As a novelty New Wave/punk cash-in track, it's phenomenal: a relentlessly upbeat pop-punk jumper which is possibly better than the 2 or 3 Dickies songs I actually like (the band this track most resembles). I don't get to say this often enough: sit back, press play and enjoy this Village People track.