Pop musicians have never been shy about having ambition. In recent times artists as different as the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt released a grand three-volume concept album composed of 69 Love Songs, the Flaming Lips put out Zaireeka, a four-CD set meant to be played simultaneously on four separate audio systems, and many other largescale projects strived to be majestic and impressive in their modest pop ambitions. Perhaps you can remember other fantastic projects whose objectives reached far beyond the more typical reach of just creating catchy songs.
The Holy Modal Rounders’ Peter Stampfel is the latest songster to think big. He’s just released a 100-song collection of his favorite songs from every year of the 20th century, appropriately entitled Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century. He began this endeavor back in 2001 in New Orleans with a small combo, continued in 2003 in Manhattan, and then after a long lull started up again in 2016 before finally completing his mission in 2019. However, Stampfel lost his voice and couldn’t even talk. He had to relearn how to sing. The final tracks feature him vocalizing in a lower register with less volume.
This 100-song collection features well-known tunes and obscure ditties. The songs range from the serious to the goofy, all performed in Stampfel’s inimitable absurd style. Stampfel’s a fiddle player with purposeful rudimentary talent. He strums sparingly to forward the melody and often seems to forget to play as he gets so wrapped up in the song’s words. Even at his best, Stampfel’s voice resembles that of Neil Young on a bad day. That’s not a critique. Stampfel’s whole point is that music needs to be taken less seriously as ART with a capital “A” and more to express humanity’s social and creative talents. His approach’s amateurish nature compels one to take these songs out of some archival museum and put them back on the front porch. He’s friendly to a fault, and in these days of enforced sanctuary, that’s a welcome tonic.
As for the songs themselves, as noted, they are all over the place. The first 33 that represent the opening third of the century generally have a self-conscious beauty. These pop songs were meant mainly to serve as an escape into some heavenly ether away from our earthly cares. For example, Stampfel opens with “I Love You Truly”, best known by more modern audiences as that tune caterwauled by Alfalfa of the Little Rascals while serenading Darla. While maybe lest earnest that Alfalfa, Stampfel’s version also quickly goes off-key and discordantly off-tempo. These traits remain prominent over most of the material. One cannot truly say there is a conventionally pretty version of any of the anthology’s romantic songs. Other songs on the first third include ditties such as the dreamy “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, the dance tune “Charleston”, and Irving Berlin’s classic “Blue Skies”.
The second third of songs reveal a more serious America, even in comic form, such as Johnny Mercer’s “Lazybones”, written during the Great Depression or World War II songs of absence caused by the conflict including, “I Remember You” and “Long Ago and Far Away”. To be clear, none of Stampfel’s renditions evoke beautiful or solemn feelings. Instead, they capture the more quotidian aspects of memory.
Thirty-three years is a long time, and so the second third takes one up until the mid-1960s with rock and roll like Patti LaBelle and the Bluebell’s Girl Group innocent ode to drug dealers, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” and the Association’s tribute to marijuana, “Along Comes Mary”. The deranged renditions here seem less due to the medicated topics than continuing Stampfel’s unhinged performance style.
The last third of the compilation features more of a mix of styles from Leonard Cohen’s poetic diatribe “Everybody Knows” to Tom Robinson’s gay anthem “2 4 6 8 Motorway” to the Spice Girls’ anthemic “Wannabee”. The final song is Coldplay’s “Yellow”. It’s challenging to imagine a less shiny version. Stampfel’s vocals suggest the spirit is willing, but his voice is shot.
Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century displays the vast array of pop material during the last century but represents the artist’s creative biases rather than what music was out there. There are very few tracks performed initially by minority or ethnic artists, and female artists are also underrepresented. As such, this will appeal mostly to fans of Stampfel’s eccentric personality. His chutzpah is appreciated more than his talent.