Allen Clapp: Something Strange Happens

The DIY musician employs everything from weirdly distorted squeals made by his broken-down recording equipment to scratchy samples of the drum tracks on old records to produce his distinctive sound.

Allen Clapp

Something Strange Happens

Subtitle: Four-Track Forecasts by Allen Clapp 1999-2000
Label: Bus Stop
US Release Date: 2006-09-16
UK Release Date: Available as import

Cultural observer Alan Light recently declared in the lead of a New York Times review that "The album is dying. As a format of recorded music, the album--LP, CD, record, disc, platter, licorice pizza, whatever--has been tossed aside....For better or worse, pop music has effectively returned to the days before the Beatles arrived, when everything was strictly one single at a time." That's good news for artists like Bay Area singer songwriter Allen Clapp. Clapp spent the '90s concentrating on making shiny pop singles. Sure, he released two albums during the decade, but the bulk of his creative juices could be found on the 7 inch, 45 rpm records he largely made by himself.

Brian Kirk's Bus Stop label, which originally issued many of these discs, has just released a 17-track compilation of Clapp's simple and lovely four-track creations. The disc also features material from other micro-labels, as well as songs previously available only in fanzines, odd anthologies, and other ephemeral recordings. The general lo fidelity functions conversely to give this music a clear beauty. The uncomplicated production forces Clapp to stick to basics, which he does in a strange and resourceful manner. The DIY musician employs everything from weirdly distorted squeals made by his broken down recording equipment to scratchy samples of the drum tracks on old records by the Doors and Donovan to cheap microphones, echo and tape delay effects to produce his distinctive sound.

These 17 cuts would be best heard on an old transistor radio broadcast over the AM frequency through one earplug for full effect, but we live in a digital age. Chances are most listeners will download these songs on the computer and play them on an MP3 with ear buds. That's okay. Several tracks utilize stereo effects, such as having voices chime in from one channel to the next. The masterpiece at the center of the disc, "Flintstones and Honeycombs" -- a previously unreleased demo for his band, Orange Peels -- successfully employs multi-tracking and other high fidelity techniques. The result suggests that while Clapp may be adept at tinkering at the low end of the recording budget spectrum, he also knows what to do when given a broader palette to work from.

"Flintstones and Honeycombs" reveals Clapp's greatest talents and also illustrates his biggest flaw. The song, a catchy ode to doing nothing--i.e. staying home from work and watching junk TV and eating sugary cereal--offers a glimpse into what it means to rebel against authority for modern day youth in meaningless employment. In an age of telemarketing and cubicle work, fast food jobs and retail sales, playing hooky is the only way to stick it to the establishment without suffering major negative consequences. Clapp uses a message on his answering machine as a spoken word chorus to emphasize the naughty behavior. Alas, the song's narrator doesn't realize his own complicity in this world of superficial and hollow values as a consumer of mass market crap on the tube and from the supermarket. Clapp rarely goes beyond celebrating feeling good for its own sake.

While Clapp proclaims on another song ("Brown Formica Table") that he and his friends do not worship the rectangular box "TV antenna stands just like a steeple / we refuse to bow and pray," Clapp’s best songs reference television programs in odd and unusual ways that show his affection for them, like "How Mary Tyler Moore Really Felt" and the homage to days gone by, "The Sunset". The latter tune incorporates lyrics from the themes of Gilligan's Island and The Beverly Hillbillies into a synthesizer-filtered landscape of the American Dream whereby we all walk out west into the mythic Promised Land. Clapp acknowledges that we all "Could have all been CEOs / astronauts and G.I. Joes / in another life," but his characters seem content with the life they have just watching everybody else on TV.

Of course like all good pop musicians, Clapp sings ditties about the vagaries of love. Tunes like "Very Peculiar Feeling", "A Change in the Weather", and the effervescent "Mystery Lawn" would seem right at home alongside twee hits by bands like the Lovin' Spoonful, the Hollies, or the Yardbirds circa 1965. They convey the bitter sweetness of being lost in a feeling one can't control or understand, while somehow knowing that it must be that thing called love. As the title song says, "Something Strange Happens" in our lives which can't be rationally explained, like the pleasure of enjoying good pop for its own sake. Maybe that's enough to make life worthwhile, though one can't help but wonder if there isn't something more.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.