I should know better than to venture down to Used Kids Records on the Ohio State campus with a credit card and an urge to explore. So now I’m slowly making my way through a pile of new music purchased over the weekend. I blame it all on my brother-in-law Bill, who goaded me into spending more money than I should have. I am so weak-minded. I now know how Kate feels when she hauls home those 55-gallon barrels of shampoo and the like from Sam’s Club. These great deals can cost a lot of money.
Here is what I think of the first few.
Sandy Denny – The North Star Grassman and the Ravens
Sandy Denny is my favorite tragedy, if such a term isn't an oxymoron. She was the lead singer of a band called Fairport Convention in the late sixties, the first group to merge the traditional folk songs of the British Isles, many of them hundreds of years old, with electric guitars and a backbeat. And she had a voice for the ages, possessing the kind of haunted soulfulness that everybody admired. That's her singing on Led Zeppelin's "Battle of Evermore."
But she was notoriously hard to relate to, and before she died at the ripe old age of 31 from falling down the stairs in a drunken stupor, her volatile temper and drinking and drugging ways impeded her ability to keep a band together. She left The Strawbs, then Fairport Convention, then Fotheringay, and then struck out on her own, all in the space of three years. This album, her solo debut from 1971, is prototypical Sandy Denny – a Dylan cover, a traditional English folk song, and a strong batch of originals heavily influenced by her Trad background. Intrusive strings mar a couple of the originals, but the marvelous voice, possessed of a miles-deep sorrow and smoky soulfulness, is strong and sure here. The constant in the last three lineups is one Richard Thompson, whose guitar and vocals add to this solo effort considerably.
Michael Penn – Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947
Michael is the shy, retiring member of the Penn family. Brothers Sean and Chris went into acting. Michael made music, hid behind his infrequent studio recordings, and very rarely toured. Don’t tell anybody, but he may be the most talented of the bunch, and that’s taking nothing away from Sean or Chris. He’s a superb songwriter who has an effortless melodic gift, and here he fashions a genuine concept album based on life in post-World-War-II Los Angeles. If Raymond Chandler made rock ‘n roll, it might sound like this. Michael really likes The Byrds and The Beatles, and you can hear it most plainly in the chiming, descending guitar lines. That’s okay. I do too. Otherwise, he wraps his sadsack sentiments in disarmingly lilting melodies, and you find yourself singing merrily along to sweet little ditties about busted relationships and broken dreams. He continues to go his iconoclastic way, making one excellent, under recognized album after another.
Propagandhi – How to Clean Everything
The F bomb appears approximately 247 times on this album. Since the album itself is a short 33 minutes in length, that means that we, the happy listeners, are treated to a profane tantrum about once every eight seconds. But it varies. On sweetly tender ballads such as “Stick the Fucking Flag Up Your Goddamn Ass, You Sonofabitch,” the ratio is closer to once every two seconds. I bought this album because John Samson, the lead singer/songwriter, went on to form The Weakerthans, an honest-to-God literate, intelligent, compassionate, and even poetic punk band. But this 1994 album only shows how much he’s matured. Here he is pissed off about everything – politics (“Anti-Manifesto”), the corporate business world (“Middle Finger Response”), ex-girlfriends (“Fuck Machine”), ska (“Ska Sucks”), Bob Marley and reggae (“Haillie Sallassie, Up Your Ass”), even the Canadian winters. Maybe growing up in Winnipeg will do that to you. He seems like a much more contented and intelligent man these days, although I will confess that my inner immature brat genuinely likes the pure bile and unfeigned loathing of these very loud, very crass songs.