The Really Big Questions

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From one of best albums of all time, Havin’ Fun with Bert and Ernie, here’s a hilarious story about Cookie Monster.  Cookie goes on a journey to find everlasting joy and happiness.  “Why not?  Got nothing else to do today.”

One of our customers is a fan of John Prine, and came into the shop last week to report on his recent performance at Northrop Auditorium. Aside from the constant requests shouted by the audience, it was a great evening. She said she was happy with his setlist. We expected he would perform “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” but apparently he did’t.

We mistakenly thought he had never released a live album, but in fact there are two. The first, thirty years ago, included “Sabu” and also a number of his most well-known hits. The second, twenty years ago, had fewer of his early classics (though it did include “Illegal Smile”) and presumably was a CD only release. And forty-four years ago (!) Prine included one live song on his third album, Sweet Revenge. “Dear Abby” has always been a favorite of ours.

When Rank Strangers appeared making the record store rounds around New Years Day, they offered the auspicious announcement they band would be releasing three albums in 2015. That’s three more than most bands in their twenty-fifth year. Our review of the first, Lady President (here), characterized the trio as operating altogether outside the mainstream — and compared any exploration into the band’s legacy to Alice’s adventure in Wonderland. We also implied they must have stacked the best tunes on the first installment, only to be proven wrong when they delivered the second last month.


Once again, we’re overwhelmed. Ringtones is so musically inventive and lyrically incisive, we feel like kids, trying to determine if there’s some Rosetta stone or map key in “Beyond Belief” that everyone but us has found. Sometimes listening to Rank Strangers is like looking for Waldo, in that even if you never find the fucker there are so many extraordinary things to discover. Mike Wisti and his bandmates successfully offered up a second album which rewards repeated listening. Another record in which to become lost.

At least we’re starting to recognize some recurring themes in the form of modern-world anxiety and rebellion, or at least resignation. This sort of stuff is our bread and butter. The opening track, “Le Deluge,” is built around Louis XV’s self-absolution (“After me, the flood”) yet also contains the line “history books are soaked, they’re bunk.” Ringtones retains the “Burn Down the Mission” mentality we ascribed to the first album, but adds, at times, the message of Robert Herrick’s magnus opus, that ever-familiar theme: enjoy it while you can kids, for you are not long for this world. Only by the end of the album, we’re not sure if the world is long for itself.

Dub poet Mutabaruka once said “revolutionary words have become entertainment.” Wisti would probably enjoy the wordplay of suggesting entertainment instead become revolutionary, but there isn’t really much in Ringtones to suggest as much — “Le Deluge” seems more suited as a call to inaction. This doesn’t necessarily translate to apathy. “As the World Turns,” on the other side of the album, celebrates the fact it is still “a funny old world” — a phrase which hit home here at your friendly neighborhood record shop, where we’ve always attributed the characters we meet to the fact it’s still “a magical world.”

The album reflects Wisti’s current exposure as a recording engineer. In Ringtones you can recognize hints of recent projects, like this EP by Edger, out in a week with a release show a the Turf Club, and the epic grandeur of Grant Hart’s The Argument, which was produced over an equally epic amount of time in Wisti’s Albatross Studio. There’s also an undeniable enthusiasm for post-punk pop shared by Wisti and rhythm section David Odegaard and Shawn Davis — especially albums which were contemporaries of Imperial Bedroom. There’s a Sandinista-styled dub instrumental (“The Sound of Tools”) and a great new wave-y horn part in “Halloween is Here” in the style of Oingo Boingo. The band is a little louder there, and especially in “Voice of Amerika,” which follows the same familiar new wave form before presenting one of the series’ most alarming moments with a dissonant guitar solo. Odegaard and Davis provide a solid foundation wherever Wisti takes the band — jangly pop or jagged rock.

“The Last Piranha” is reprised in “The Lone Piranha” from Lady President, which has an unidentified guest reading the lyrics with dark resolve. We’ve begun to notice other things about the series of albums: specifically that the title track for each album is appearing on one of the others (a fun idea, which Superchunk did years ago by releasing the title track for a couple albums as a b-side). We anticipate a tune called “Lady President” on The Box, due out this winter (but Lord, we hope its not about Hilary Clinton). These tunes tend to be lightweights compared to the others around them — we’re worried we haven’t found that map key to guide us through the great Rank Strangers album deluge of 2015 yet. One thing of which we’re sure is that for all the anarchic and apocalyptic prophesizing (and proselytizing) the albums, again, most of all to remind us to gather rosebuds while we may. We are most interested to hear how it all ends.

Rank Strangers’ will be performing here at Hymie’s tomorrow at 7pm. Also performing with them will be Newts. The release show for Ringtones is Saturday, June 6th at the Turf Club — also performing there will be Matt Latterell Band, Rich Mattson and the Northstars (also releasing an album) and Sounds del Mar (on tour from Austin, Texas). Sounds del Mar, incidentally, will be performing here at Hymie’s that afternoon along with The Gated Community. That’s a lot of events to keep track of, you may wish to employ a computer.

Before we started listening to the promised continuation of this week’s “weird” records (today’s really does include robot sex!) I felt we should have an “America” song in honor of the holiday.

And also a passage from one of my favorite histories of the United States – This is from Samuel Elliot Morrison’s lively and opinionated 1965 Oxford History of the United States:

It was America’s busy age, or one of them  Eighteenth-century travelers scolded Americans for their indolence; nineteenth-century travelers criticized their activity.  Each Northern community was an anthill, intensely active within and constantly exchanging with other hills.  Every man worked, or at least made a semblance of it; the few who wished to be idle and could afford it, fled to Europe and dabbled in the arts or pursued some pallid branch of scholarship – the type of American expatriate immortalized by Henry James.  Nothing struck European travelers more forcibly than the total want of public parks and pleasure resorts, of games and sports, or of simple pleasures like country walking.  For the Northern American had no learned how to employ leisure.  His pleasure came from doing; and as almost everyone worked for long hours six days of the week, and (except in New Orleans) the Puritan sabbath prevailed, there was not much time for recreation, and very few holidays other than Thanksgiving (still confined to the Yankee area), Christmas, and the Glorious Fourth.

So here’s a track from Night People, a late 70s Lee Dorsey produced by Allen Toussaint – It’s a good fit for this election year:  a little bit cynical, a little bit jaded, but not downtrodden at all.  Let’s leave all that hostility to the angry folks on the fringes so those of us with real shit to do can go on with our lives.

god must have blessed america

(“God Must Have Blessed America” by Lee Dorsey)

And now our feature presentation…

Anyway, this week we’ve been exploring weird albums, although today’s is only weird if you think the above sentiment was out of line.  It’s hardly irrelevant to today’s holiday, and even just maybe a little inspirational…


(Intro / “Inside Star Trek Theme”)

Inside Star Trek is an album released by Columbia Records in 1976, during a time when the series was in cultural exile – several years before the first movie, several years after the cancellation of the animated series*, and nearly a decade after the original series aired.  Unlike most records about a TV show (like the Goddamn stupid Dukes of Hazard album) a lot of creative thought went into it – they even included an interview with Isaac Asimov!

*Now on Netflix but not as awesome as you remember it being.

The best part of this album is Star Trek‘s creator, Gene Roddenberry, speaking before an audience about his relationship with the network and it’s censors while making the first two seasons of the original series.  These are the only parts we have here in this post.

roddenberry 30%

(“The Enterprise Runs Aground”)

roddenberry network censorship of the bible

(“A Letter from a Network Censor”)

roddenberry – robot sex

(The Questor Affair” – There’s robot sex in this one!)

It’s sort of fun to hear the interview with Spock’s dad one time, but after that it’s just boooooring.  Roddenberry’s the best part.  My dad, incidentally, thought all Star Trek was that booooooring – he complained that it was just guys standing around and talking.  He proved his point when we got our first VCR, because I’m pretty sure I remember watching Raiders of the Lost Ark that night.

So Star Trek isn’t always very exciting.  It does reward your attention when it can capture it – and so it is for the album, which ends with Roddenberry’s case for its legacy:

the star trek phenonmenon

(“The Star Trek Philosophy”)

With the release of Ashes & Fire last fall hit-or-miss country singer-songwriter Ryan Adams seems to be in a good place.  His tumultuous career has had peaks of prolific inspiration and extended, disappointing dearths.  I think the drama draws attention, especially the legacy of his middle 90s band Whiskeytown, known for fights on stage and unpredictable performances in the style of the Replacements.

I’ve always seen a correlations between Adams and Ian Matthews (now Iain Matthews), the English singer-songwriter who recorded with Fairport Convention before releasing a series of compelling solo records, including three with a group called Matthews’ Southern Comfort.  Matthews’ 1971 solo album, Tigers will Survive, is a great example of his solo work, clearly tilling the same soil later cultivated by bands like Whiskeytown and Wilco (It even features some memorable guitar work by Richard Thompson).

Over the years several Ian Matthews records have come into my collection, but they always seem to get the call up when I start to thin the collection to make room for new additions.  Some Days You Eat the Bear (Laura’s all time favorite album titles) and Tigers will Survive made this most recent cut, but only one other…

for the second time

(“For the Second Time”)

Plainsong was a short-lived band led by Matthews and long-time friend Dave Richards.  While you can now buy discs of a BBC session and an unfinished follow-up, the group’s legacy rests solely on it’s only album, In Search of Amelia Earhart.

It’s a sheepish concept album, for while two songs are about Amelia Earhart and several elude to the mystery of her death (and it’s various theories), the title appears only on the LP label.  It was not a hit – I suspect there are more “white label” promotional copies than actual stock copies ordered and sold by record stores.  Critics love it and always have and maybe always will, but I think that’s because they’re the only people who have heard it.

yo yo man

(“Yo Yo Man”)

The upbeat, fun folk-rock of songs like “Yo Yo Man” are lighter and less gritty than Minnesota folk of the time.  Koerner, Ray and Glover could really get your feet stomping!    The album’s longer, more dramatic songs rival contemporary concept albums, even if there’s not any kind of narrative to hold them together.  “For the Second Time” and “Call the Tune” are two of Ian Matthews’ best songs, even if they’re not about Amelia Earhart.

call the tune

(“Call the Tune”)

Amelia Earhart history refresher:  She was the first aviatrix (chick pilot) to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.  She was a heroine to millions of Americans, but she disappeared during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe along with navigator Frederick Noonan.  Their plane was last heard from on July 2nd, 1937 near Howland Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  The search cost millions of dollars and went on for weeks, but very few clues were ever found.  Many people believed she and Noonan crashed on an island (Gardner Island or Saipan) and lived, and many of those people believe they were ultimately executed by the Japanese.

This last theory is the foundation of the album’s liner notes by Fred Goerner, as referred to in the original songs “True Story of Amelia Earhart”).

08 true story of amelia earhart

(“True Story of Amelia Earhart”)

I thought of the Plainsong album last week because I had listened to the Honeydogs’ 2003 album 10,000 Years (my favorite) in anticipation of their new album, released on Tuesday (I put pretty much everything I know about 10,000 Years into this post).  There’s a line about finally finding Amelia Earhart’s plane.

And I suppose someday they will, miles under the sea.  Or maybe on Gardner Island, alongside evidence of the long and happy life she lived there with the coconut trees.  Whatever is finally learned about her fate will fail to live up to the captivating mystery that has defined her legacy these past eighty years.  It’s almost better if we never learn what happened.

amelia earhart’s last flight

(“Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight”)




whatever happened to fun

youre the one for e site

(“You’re the One” by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers)

Falling in love is creepy, no matter who’s doing it.  It’s like a game of “Risk” when it’s a little creepy and it’s like completely taking over someone’s life when it’s normal.  It’s the only basic pillar of a healthy life that you simply cannot make happen through sweat and toil.

So much of it is chance.  So much of it is chemistry far beyond my understanding (and maybe yours, too).  Extraordinary people are often denied the experience of falling in love because of the frightening scale of their extraordinary-ness.  Others, endowed with an enormous capacity to love, find themselves without an outlet for their passion, owing to oftentimes external, arbitrary factors of birth, of opportunity, or of timing.

i want you to want me

(“I Want You to Want Me” by Cheap Trick)

Fortunately, rock and roll has for decades provided the yearning, heartbroken and lonely with an unprecedented earnest and earthy platform.  Never in all of human history has the art of loving, and of wanting and needing, been so cool as Cheap Trick at Budoken.

cant see to ake you ine the seeds

(“Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” by the Seeds)

I got a mix tape from a girl in high school on which the second side started with “I Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” by the Seeds (Actually, on the tape it was Alex Chilton’s cover version).  Ultimately she rejected me.  What the hell does that mean?  The same tape introduced me to the Jonathan Richman song up there at the beginning of the post, a song so magnificently lovable and creepy and silly and weird that it deserves a post all it’s own.

for your love

(“For Your Love” by Mel & Tim)

Once you’ve got it worked out – and you’re in love – it’s not quite as pervasive and parasitic. Eventually it’s a pathology that becomes mundane, breeding a whole new level of creepiness: possession.

Yeah, that’s not you. All those other people were pretty weird but you’ve got dignity. Sure.  You never wrote rough drafts of love letters to someone or looked at every picture they have on Facebook three times or blew off all your real friends for two weeks.

2-09 Insanely Jealous

(“Insanely Jealous” by the Soft Boys)

We all take a cathartic pleasure in the pop expressions of familiar anxieties that provide the foundation of rock and roll – Fear of death (“Last Kiss”, “Tell Laura I Love Her”), fear of aging (“1969”), fear of turning into your dad (“Well Respected Man”, “Ballad of a Thin Man”) and of course the greatest of all fears: the fear of talking to the old man about masturbation (“Pictures of Lily”).

Rock and roll is a natural vehicle for expressing love, especially new love and the experience of falling in love, because it’s shamelessly honest.  One of the best performances from Elvis’ early singles is “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”, especially the chorus after the bridge.  He’s so far from cool, so desperate, this 21 year old singer already expected to be everything for which we have been looking.  The session that produced it, his second single for RCA, was a disaster (In fact the single is a composite of several takes, the only such example in Elvis’ early catalog).

2-03 i want you, i need you, i love you

(“I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” by Elvis Presley)

Meatloaf famously sang that “two out of three ain’t bad” some years later, but he got it all wrong: Forget love, if he were really cool he wouldn’t need you.

“I want you” was never in question – It’s almost a genre unto it’s own.  Muddy Waters never sang the words but it’s there in “Got my Mojo Workin'”.  Leadbelly never sang the words but it’s there in “Goodnight Irene” (the grandaddy of all creepy, compulsive love songs).  “I want you” is the central theme of rock and roll.  There are more great arrangements of “I want you” than we could list (Cheap Trick’s, heard above, and the MC5’s “I Want You Right Now” are favorites).

Dylan’s 1966 “I Want You” (Blonde on Blonde) set a new standard and is often reinterpreted, as in this sheepish, ooky 1975 live arrangement by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band:

1-06 i want you

(“I Want You” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band)

Elvis Costello’s “I Want You” (Blood and Chocolate) is a true-to-form masterpiece, marrying “want” and “need” into unprecedented obsessiveness so successfully that one is uncomfortable just listening to it.

05 i want you

(“I Want You” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions)

I was standing behind the counter of the record shop one evening thinking about songs that I could include in this post when I remembered we had a copy of the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions in the shop.  As I walked back to the counter with that record I checked the clock – the record clock – to see how long until Irene and I could go home and have dinner with the fam.  And then I remembered that the record which we made into a clock is actually a really good record.  It’s Love Is Dead by the Mr. T Experience.  I saw them here in town when they toured in 1995, playing at the Hole (or the Whole – anyone remember?) in the basement of the University’s Coffman Union.

The best part of this swirly blue record?  The creepy, creepy song at the end – “You’re the Only One”:

youre the only one mtx

(“You’re the Only One” by the Mr. T Experience)

Why so scratchy?  Because I recorded this off the copy we made into a wall clock for the record store.  In fact, it took a half hour to get the stupid clock back together.

And, of course, a track from the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Session which we did have in the shop (briefly) and which inspired this entire collection of songs:

to love is to bury

(“To Love is to Bury” by the Cowboy Junkies)

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