Various Artists: I Can't Get That Evil Wiener Song Out of My Head
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, received so much attention in the post-grunge era, when tastemakers and a drooling record industry looked for the "next Seattle". Just as in smaller musical communities the world over, sleepy Southern towns have tiny rivulets of creative juices ebbing and flowing under the streets. In some of those nooks and crannies, songwriters like Bill "Billy Sugarfix" McCormick emerge. McCormick is the genteel man behind small wonder band Evil Wiener, who share the same long lineage in this musically fertile area with better-known bands like Superchunk and Archers of Loaf. Despite the foreboding sound of the band's name, Evil Wiener's music is fantastical pop, rough-hewn gems with the earnestness and naiveté of minimal artists like Jonathan Richman and Galaxie 500. Fleshing out McCormick's metaphorical yarns, the band is fundamentally a trio, with McCormick's guitar and vocals backed by a solid rhythm section of Groves Willer on bass and drummer Chuck Garrison (who once played in pop band Small and was the original drummer for Superchunk). McCormick's day job as a substitute schoolteacher may also inform his sense of child-like innocence, as explored on the records from which this tribute release takes its basis, last year's Evil Wiener Presents Billy Sugarfix's Lost Gumdrop Kingdom, and the band's first full-length Haunted House of Our Love.
For those who've frequented many of the local music joints around the Triangle area of North Carolina, particularly in Carrboro, affectionately known as the Paris of the Piedmont, those catchy little numbers penned by McCormick virtually hang in the air everyone's breathing. This collection represents local friends and neighbors who have internalized the music of Evil Wiener for as long as their residence. Visions of gumdrops and haunted houses and striped-shirted troubadours dancing in their heads, they turned out their own translations of McCormick's songs. The simple structure of the originals allows for a lot of interpretive play by those covering the tiny melodic jewels.
Some took this opportunity to great success, honoring McCormick's tunes while giving the listener a completely new animal altogether. Take brilliant standout "Fairy Tale", redone by the Stray Sod (Chuck Johnson of local group Spatula and Amy Wilkinson of Chew Toy), which captures the magical, otherworldly nuances of the original, but takes it to a wholly other place. Bass-driven dark overtones creep in, piano tinkles throughout, until Wilkinson's captured environmental recordings of birds give the song a sense of place; making this fable very real. Punk outfit the Ghost of Rock strips bare "Bad Manners", hops up the tempo and thanks to whiskey and Bud, finally takes advantage of the innocence therein. For a countrified version of an Evil Wiener song, replete with George Jones-ish bass vocal, try the Two Dollar Pistols' "Silver Dollars". The Three Torches evoke a cigarillo-smoking Nick Cave with their "Haunted House", the trio Holy Roman Empire float "Maria" on a luminescent cloud of harmonium and delicate vocals, and Shallow Be Thy Name check in nicely with an upbeat strummer on "Mary Poppins". Poncho Holly, taking the melodic pop into the stratosphere, gives a tweaked sense of unrest to "Ann Can", with spiraling guitar that fades out into loops and feedback. The duo Work Clothes, with their soaring harmonies and sparse instrumentation, stretch "Marching Band", giving it a somber tone.
I Can't... breaks the rules of most tribute records, and works as a great collection of songs, whether or not one has already become an Evil Wiener fan or not. It also acts as a window into the great music currently bubbling up from the Chapel Hill area, with as rich a tableau of sounds as ever.