Music

Various Artists: Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, Volumes 1 and 2

Adrien Begrand

Various Artists

Songs in the Key of Z: the Curious Universe of Outsider Music, Volumes 1 and 2

Label: Gammon
US Release Date: 2002-10-29
UK Release Date: 2000-09-25
Amazon
iTunes

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?"


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Music

Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.

Music

IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.

Music

Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.

Film

NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.

Music

The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.