[27 January 2014]
Let us now consider the Shaggs.
If you are unfamiliar with the title track from their 1969 opus Philosophy of the World, please abandon this article, head over to YouTube, and remedy that situation. We’ll wait.
You’re back? Great. No, I can’t explain what just happened either. Even if, like me, you love skronk—the shoutiest Yoko Ono and screamiest Naked City, the most freeform Ornette Coleman, the most Metal Machiney Lou Reed—you still might find yourself scratching your head and holding your ears when attempting to get through “Philosophy of the World”, “My Pal Foot Foot”, or any of the delightfully wretched offerings of the three Wiggin sisters known collectively as The Shaggs.
Sure, the ‘60s was filled with incredible rock music: psychedelic experiments, proto-punk garage rock, the great girl groups of Motown, dozens and dozens of bands who were experimenting with form and fusion. But the Shaggs, along with crazies like the Godz and Captain Beefheart, proved that some ‘60s artists embraced weirdness and atonality while deliberately testing your tolerance with gobs of horrible noise. The Shaggs were by far the least cynical of these miscreants. They were clearly doing their best, and the fact that they recorded an album (and toured for several years) is nothing short of miraculous. Besides, if you can fight your way through the discordant vocals, the untuned guitars, and the drums that seemed to be performing an entirely different song, you might discover some cheerful pop filled with wonder and even a few hints that maybe, even accidentally, the Wiggin girls kinda sorta knew what they were doing.
Anyway, this leads us to the Dot Wiggin Band and their offering Ready! Get! Go!. Dot was the lead, erm, singer of the Shaggs, and some of these songs were written for the band but remained unrecorded until now. Most of the rest were arranged and co-written by Jesse Krakow (Shudder to Think), the New York-based guitarist who thought it was a good idea to bring Dot back to the studio.
Here’s the thing, though: the majesty of the Shaggs lay in their utter, unadulterated incompetence. None of them had a clue what they were doing, and together they created a glorious racket, a cacophonous mess that somehow sounded vital and original. But try as they might, the Dot Wiggin Band isn’t incompetent. They keep time, they often tune their guitars, they perform pleasingly lo-fi retro pop. The only incompetent is Dot herself, so while her poor singing provides the hook of the album, it ultimately weighs it down.
The opener, “Banana Bike”, is a pretty good litmus test. The lyrics are cloyingly childlike (“She meets up with her friends / And goes and goes and goes / Where’s her destination? / Sometimes no one knows”) while the music tries desperately to evoke Herman’s Hermits. But if you really want a taste of what Ready! Get! Go! has to offer, skip to the last song. Dot’s cover of Sandra Dee’s “End of the World” pretty much sets the bar. Do you find her naked ineptitude touching? Or does it sound like someone needs to coax your aunt off the karaoke stage and take her home? I’m bending over backward trying to believe the former, but I keep leaning toward the latter.
The band is no help. Even when they try to fall apart, like on “If I Could Be Your Hero” and “Love at First Sight”, they pull themselves together. This is all wrong. Sure, they sound suitably under-rehearsed, but their occasional attempts to broach Shaggs-like dissonance—the out-of-tune piano on “Boo-Hoo”, the stumbling drums on “The Fella With a Happy Heart”, pretty much all of “Love at First Sight”—are more annoying than transcendent. But when they’re tight and confident, and when they successfully trot out ornaments like toy pianos, glockenspiels, and Rachel Trachtenberg, poor Dot sounds even more lost out front. You guys couldn’t give her some compression or reverb?
And that’s where this whole project falls flat. Am I making Ready! Get! Go! sound delightfully inclusive, like the thrown-together charm of the Moldy Peaches or the mesmerizing work of Daniel Johnston? In concept, perhaps it is—perhaps the idea is to celebrate the artist for daring to fly in the face of conventional talent. I’m all for that. But in execution, The Dot Wiggin Band is less Poly Styrene and more Wing, Jan Terri, and William Hung. Even though Dot seems to be in on the joke, it’s still not a very good joke.
There are highlights, I guess. “Speed Limit” is kinda fun; the band appropriates garage rock nicely, and I suppose the defiant lyric suits Dot’s style as well as anything can. “Eh” sounds like something the Violent Femmes might have attempted (it is amusing, listening to the band struggle to keep time with Dot), and its tuneless guitar and funny lyrics approach a certain grandeur. And the penultimate track, “Just Another Crazy Day at the Farm”, has a certain singalong logic—Dot almost (but not quite) sounds in control of her own voice, and the minute-plus of random nature noises over the outro is a nice touch.
But that’s about it. Some tunes are just catchy enough to burrow under your skin (“If I Could Be Your Hero”, “The Fella With the Happy Heart”) while some sound like broken nursery rhymes (“My Cutie”, an unrecorded Shaggs tune). And some are just uncomfortably odd; “Your Best Friend” wants to be a pro-animal affirmation, but it comes off disturbingly misanthropic (“They turn their backs on you / If you don’t give them the answer they want to hear / they say you’re wrong / you’re just filling their ears / Your best friend is your cat or your dog”), while “Speed Limit II” sounds like nothing less than a nervous breakdown—listening to it just feels intrusive. The surf instrumental “Wiggin Out” only proves that the band has chops, if not inspiration.
“Oddly enough, (Dot’s) only concern was that she didn’t think she should sing,” Krakow writes in his liner notes. “We had to explain to her ‘Dot, these are YOUR songs. They need YOUR voice.’” Strangely, Krakow was probably right. If nothing else, Dot projects vulnerability and sincerity, and that’s pretty much all the project has going for it. Maybe someday I’ll find Ready! Get! Go! as hypnotic as Philosophy of the World; ineptitude has a way of sneaking up on you. But for now, I really, really wish Jesse Krakow had left that nice woman alone.