Various Artists: Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, Volumes 1 and 2
When you consider the various talent levels in the world of popular music, it might look something like this, in descending order: the legends, the reliable acts, the underachievers, the talentless hacks, J Lo . . . or something to that effect. But wait: way down at the bottom of the chain are a bunch of bottom-feeders, scuttling away in their own worlds, oblivious to the fact that they don't have a hope in hell of breaking through to the upper echelons of pop. They might be either honest and hard-working, a bit flaky, or just plain certifiably nuts, but they all have one thing in common: passion. And perhaps a loose strand of DNA.
Most people, when they hear these folks' strange music, run away screaming, but there have always been a few of us (myself included) who harbor a perverse love of the stuff, and Irwin Chusid is probably the one person out there who is the most appreciative of it. The veteran radio DJ at Hoboken, New Jersey's WFMU hosts a weekly showcase of what he calls "outsider music" called Incorrect Music that has attracted a loyal cult following on the internet, and his unparalleled expertise in the vast realm of weird music has led to his overseeing of many reissues of eccentric artists, ranging from the legendary Shaggs to the 2001 cult hit, The Langley Schools Music Project. He has written an excellent book called Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, and that book's companion CD, along with the new Volume Two, have recently been let loose on an unsuspecting public.
Although the number of outsider musicians is too huge to properly organize, Songs in the Key of Z: Volume 1 does a great job in giving people an extremely strange introduction to the equally strange genre. Leading the way, of course, are The Shaggs, the three New Hampshire sisters whose svengali-meets-Jethro Bodean father had record their own amateur compositions in a professional studio. Their album, Philosophy of the World is now the stuff of legend, with the trio banging away at the most otherworldly rhythms, chord structures, and vocals that the human race has ever heard. The album's title track is included on the CD, and it sounds funny, horrifying, and sincere, all at the same time.
That's just the tip of the iceberg, though. There's Lucia Pamela's ragtime sing-along "Walking on the Moon" (in which she describes what she saw on her, er, 'trip' to the moon), a three and a half minute excerpt of senior citizen Jack Mudurian breathlessly singing every song he knows (which actually goes on for 45 minutes), Swedish Elvis impersonator Eilert Pilarm singing "Jailhouse Rock" in a very bad Swedish accent ("Yailhouse Rock"), 350 pound Chicago cult figure Wesley Willis singing about McDonald's, and a creepy Houston, Texas loner named Jandek who sounds about as sane as the Unabomber. Then there's the unexplainable scat stylings of Shooby "The Human Horn" Taylor ("Stout Hearted Men"), a "song-poem" (where people mailed in lyrics to companies, who then put them to music) called "Virgin Child of the Universe" (featuring the surreal lines, "Orgasmic explosion of love, enhances the child/While a floodgate of love circles throughout Saturnate"), New England schoolteacher B.J. Snowden's utterly beguiling tribute to Canada (which, being a Canadian, I loved), and a disturbing dance tune by a guy named Luie Luie, called "The Touchy", about which Chusid says, "which today could be grounds for sexual harassment."
There are a handful of more relatively famous figures as well, including Captain Beefheart (represented by a cool track from the 1999 Grow Fins box set), Tiny Tim (who sings a cute love song with his last wife), the inimitable Daniel Johnston ("Walking the Cow"), and the late British producer Joe Meek, whose hilarious, tone-deaf demo of the 1962 smash hit "Telstar" sounds light years away from the version the Tornados eventually recorded with Meek. Psychobilly pioneer The Legendary Stardust Cowboy is also present, but sadly, it's not his astounding, Esperanto-and-bugle-howl "Paralyzed" we get to hear, but the nearly-as-good "Standing In a Trash Can (Thinking About You)" instead.
Volume 2 tries valiantly to keep the fun coming, but it doesn't quite measure up to the first compilation. There are a few returnees from Volume I, including the wonderful B.J. Snowden (who pays tribute to America this time around), Luie Luie (with a crazed, avant-garde, 14-trumpet piece), that ever-amazing Shooby Taylor, and even another song-poem ("Five Feet Nine and a Half Inches Tall"). The rest, though, is spotty, at best. Alvin Dahn's "You're Driving me Mad" sounds like a metal song sung by Ned Flanders; the saucy, anonymous recording "Curly Toes" has a Southern woman singing a cappella about a striptease in front of her man; "one man band" Bob Vido (actually, all instruments were overdubbed) contributes "High Speed", which is just as cacophonous as The Shaggs, and just as fun. Airline pilot Tangela Tricoli's "Jet Lady" is cute (in a flaky sort of way), and Buddy Max's recitation of a relative's letter, which describes a scary surgical removal of a birthmark in Korea ("The Birthmark Story"), well, is an interesting tale, to say the least. Still, over half the CD sounds more tedious than strange.
The artist Hans Hoffman once said, "The spirit in a work is synonymous with its quality. The 'Real' in art never dies, because its nature is predominantly spiritual." Music doesn't get any more real than this stuff, and that spirit in the performances is the one thing these tracks have in common. I'd recommend Volume 2 to loyal fans of Chusid's radio show, but for anyone else who wants to add a really cool CD to spice up their collection, Volume 1 is the perfect choice, and instead of buying Volume 2, get Chusid's terrific companion book instead. A wonderfully weird time is guaranteed, but once you read the book, the question on your mind regarding the CDs will be, "Whither Wild Man Fischer?"