Jandek

jandek-iknowyouwell

Outsider musicians don’t get any more outsidery than the mysterious Texas singer-songwriter who, for years, was known to the world only as Jandek. Over the course of 40 years and 91 albums — all released through his own label, Corwood Industries — he’s done everything from minimalist, atonal folk to minimalist, Velvet Underground-ish psych-rock to minimalist piano nocturnes to — do you sense a theme here? Well, you can forget it, because sometimes he also likes to get funky. About the only thing you can expect from Jandek is that he will defy your expectations — including your expectations of what “outsider music” is supposed to sound like.

Jandek first surfaced in 1978 with Ready for the House, an album of nine ghostly dirges performed on a detuned (or, according to Jandek, alternately tuned) acoustic guitar and sung in an oddly affectless murmur, as though all the vocals were recorded at 3 a.m. while trying not to wake a sleeping infant in the next room. The tone throughout is melancholy and claustrophobic; you get the sense that whoever recorded these songs doesn’t get out much. Relief seems to come on the album’s final track, “European Jewel (Incomplete),” when Jandek breaks out a slightly more tuneful electric guitar — until he sings, “There’s bugs in my brain/I can’t feel any pain,” right before the tape abruptly cuts off (hence, one presumes, the “Incomplete” in the song title) and you realize you might be listening to the ramblings of an actual crazy person.

Even though it’s clearly the work of a lone individual, Ready for the House was originally attributed to a band called The Units — until another band of the same name sent Jandek a cease-and-desist. I’m not sure how they even learned of Ready for the House‘s existence, since Corwood Industries apparently had zero distribution at the time. In his classic book on outsider music, Songs in the Key of Z, Irwin Chusid describes writing to Jandek in 1980, two years after Ready for the House‘s initial release, and receiving a letter back noting that the album had only sold two copies. Further correspondence yielded 25 free copies of the LP; “I need to move them,” their creator explained. (For years, this was part of Jandek’s appeal; you could mail-order his records from him directly, via a P.O. box in Houston, and he’d often send more records than you requested, swamping his tiny fan base with product.)

Even though subsequent Jandek albums, including 1981’s Six and Six and 1982’s Chair Beside a Window, featured cover photos of a pale young man with a bowl cut and a piercing stare, the project remained essentially anonymous. None of the records included any liner notes, and whatever press Jandek did seemed to be almost inadvertent. He agreed to a 1985 interview with John Trubee, a writer for a then brand-new magazine called Spin, but listening to the full audio of the recording (which has been widely disseminated by Jandek fans eager for any insight into their reclusive hero), it’s not clear that he understood he was being recorded and might be quoted in Trubee’s article. “You don’t want any personal information printed?” Trubee asks at one point. “Rather not,” Jandek tersely replies. “You can quote any of the lyrics,” he adds, sounding like he’s trying to be helpful. Then, true to form, he offers to send Trubee more copies of all his records.

It’s since been revealed, through copyright information and other public records, that Jandek is the work of one Sterling R. Smith, who lives in the Houston area and is believed to now be in his late 60s or early 70s. However, out of respect for his extremely private nature, many fans still refer to him only as Jandek — or, to distinguish him from the musical project, which over the years has occasionally incorporated other musicians, as “the representative from Corwood Industries” or simply “the representative.”

For a taste of early, acoustic Jandek, here’s “The Janitor,” from his third album, Later On, Corwood Industries catalog no. 741. Oh, did I mention that he gave Ready for the House catalog no. 739, for no particular reason? Unless he’s got 738 albums’ worth of unreleased songs like this, which seems entirely possible.

Reactions to Jandek’s early music ranged, predictably, from confusion to disgust and even terror; Chusid called Ready for the House “one of the most frightening records I’ve ever heard.” I don’t find it quite that chilling, but there is something undeniably unsettling about it. There has to be something not quite right, you think as you listen to Jandek, with any man who’d churn out these atonal dirges so prolifically.

Jandek wasn’t a total tinfoil-on-the-windows loner, however. His 1982 album, Chair Beside a Window, featured a guest female vocalist named Nancy on a track helpfully titled “Nancy Sings.” And by 1985, he had even assembled a band and gone electric, though the results — still featuring the aforementioned Nancy — were less Dylan at Newport and more The Shaggs at Lou Reed’s garage sale.

Not all of Jandek’s early work was out-of-tune caterwauling. By the late ’80s, his guitar work could occasionally be bluesy and elegiac, and his deadpan murmur had been largely replaced by a breathy delivery that carried just the hint of a melody and suggested he might own a Nick Drake record or two. Either he was learning on the job, or the earlier, more atonal stuff was a deliberate move and not the mere amateurism his many detractors have long accused him of (and though he has fans like Thurston Moore, Ben Gibbard and Conor Oberst, he has many, many more detractors).

“Upon the Grandeur,” a rambling, eight-minute guitar idyll from 1991’s One Foot in the North, is especially beautiful, with inscrutable lyrics that may or may not be about religious salvation. It sounds like he’s singing, “Join hands another way/Be born again today,” but it’s hard to tell — and, as always, there are no lyric sheets or liner notes to help decipher his slurred delivery.

In the ’90s, Jandek returned to acoustic solo recordings. By this time he had acquired a sizable cult following who embraced his quirky, lo-fi approach — but even that following was not prepared for 2000’s Put My Dream on This Planet, on which he ditched the guitar and just sang shakily into what sounded like a cheap, voice-activated tape recorder. Two of the album’s three tracks stretched on for over 20 minutes, testing all but the most dedicated fans’ patience. (Don’t worry, if you don’t make it through all 28 minutes of “I Need Your Life,” we won’t report you to the Jandek police.)

Not content to stop there, Jandek released two more a cappella/spoken word albums — the third and (for now) final of which is called Worthless Recluse, a title he probably lifted from a dismissive review in some underground rock zine that could only hang with Jandek if there was a weirdly tuned guitar involved.

In 2004, Jandek got a little less mysterious when he began performing live. At first, he would only appear unannounced, on the bill at larger festivals. But by 2005 he was headlining the occasional show, first in the U.K. and later in Austin, New York and elsewhere around the U.S. and Europe. He also began releasing live albums based on these still-infrequent appearances, each named after the location and day of the week of the show: Glasgow Sunday, Newcastle Monday, Manhattan Tuesday. At these shows, a man who looked unmistakably like an older version of the pale kid on the cover of early Jandek albums took the stage, usually playing guitar but occasionally piano, bass or keyboard, with a rotating cast of backing musicians. Musicians who have played with him at these gigs report that he invariably refers to himself as “the representative from Corwood Industries.”

Playing live seems to have inspired Jandek to expand his sonic palette, dabbling in everything from noise-rock to avant-garde classical to free jazz, sometimes all in the same show. Here, for example, is “Part Three” of Manhattan Tuesday, recorded on Sept. 6, 2005 with several leading musicians from New York’s experimental rock scene and released in 2007.

This new phase of sonic experimentation has affected Jandek’s studio recordings as well. In 2013, he released The Song of Morgan, a 9-disc set featuring nine numbered “Nocturnes” for piano, each about an hour in length. There are no accompanying vocals or other instrumentation — just Jandek’s spare, simple piano chords, which somehow manage to simultaneously evoke George Winston, Erik Satie and a child noodling away after a year or two of lessons (an association seemingly made explicit by the cover photo, the youngest image he’s ever released of the “Corwood representative”). He followed that up a year later with Ghost Passing, a 6-disc set of more hour-long piano-only compositions.

At least two documentaries have been made about Jandek: 2003’s Jandek on Corwood, in which “the representative” never appears (and for which the filmmakers explicitly avoided interviewing him, preferring to tell his story through commentary from various musicians and journalists) and 2015’s I Know You Well, which follows Jandek’s forays into live performing. Though he appears onscreen in the latter film, he remains no less enigmatic. Explaining at one point why he prefers playing to seated audiences, he says, “It’s easier for them to dream. And to feel like, ‘I hate it, but I can’t leave.'”

The debate over Jandek tends to polarize into two extremes: Is he a genius or a charlatan? Personally, I think he’s neither. Like all good outsider musicians, Jandek forces his listeners to decide where they draw the line between “real” music and aimless noise, between art and doodling, meaning and nonsense. Doing that doesn’t take any particular genius, but it does take a singular, selfish vision and a willingness to completely ignore all considerations of convention and commercialism — or even the expectations of your own fans and the precedent of your own catalog. You could made a strong case that no other musician has done this longer, or more consistently, than Jandek. Like I said, when it comes to outsider musicians, he’s the outsider-iest.

I’ll leave you with more late ’80s Jandek — not because I claim it’s his best period, or his weirdest, but just because it happens to be my favorite. Liking this version of Jandek — when his aimless songwriting alit on something that was part blues shaman, part discount-bin Dylan and part Velvet Underground circa “Pale Blue Eyes” — is probably the equivalent of liking Picasso before he discovered cubism, but I don’t care. I love that something can simultaneously sound so transcendent and so like it’s in danger of falling apart at any moment. I think that’s the promise implicit in all outsider music — that coloring so far outside the lines can lead to moments that can’t be reached through conventional means.

P.S. Thanks to every reader who has patiently suggested for years that we add Jandek to the Weird List. Your patience has finally been rewarded. Hope that, like Jandek’s captive live audiences, you didn’t hate the wait too much.

Links:

Advertisements

Xylouris White

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
This photo and artwork: Anna White. Banner photo above: Manolis Mathioudakis.

You might think a drum kit and a lute are insufficient tools when it comes to creating completely original, holy-crap-what-is-this music. And in the hands of most humans that would probably be true. But Georgios Xylouris and Jim White are not most humans.

The unlikely duo first connected in Melbourne, Australia in the ’90s, where White had an instrumental rock trio called Dirty Three and Xylouris fronted a group called Xylouris Ensemble that showcased his unique approach to the music of his native Crete — mixing it with Irish folk music, as well as more modern elements — and his chosen instrument, the laouto, a long-necked, eight-stringed lute. In traditional Greek and Cretan music, it’s typically a supporting instrument, used mainly for rhythm and texture — but Xylouris can shred on that thing like a cross between Andrés Segovia and Chris Thile.

Jim White, in some ways, also plays the drums like a lead instrument — or at least explores their melodic and timbral possibilities more thoroughly than most rock drummers. His incredibly expressive playing has backed everyone from Nick Cave to Cat Power to PJ Harvey. But he didn’t begin working with Xylouris until 2014, when the duo released their first album as Xylouris White, Goats — an apt title, because there’s something voracious about the way they explore every little cranny and crevice in the space where their two styles of music overlap. The sound of the laouto keeps them rooted in Greek and Cretan folk music, but from there they go flying off into atmospheric post-rock, Indian ragas, drone, psychedelia, jazz, and the vaguely medieval sounds of neoclassical folk and darkwave. It’s not music that immediately strikes you as “weird” per se, but the longer you listen, the harder it is to describe — which is as good an overarching description as any of the kind of music this blog is dedicated to exploring.

Xylouris White just released their third album, Mother, and I think it’s their best work yet, with more of Xylouris’ powerful vocals and a sort of moody, post-punk, gypsy trance vibe that contains echoes of everything from Ravi Shankar and Gábor Szabó to Dead Can Dance and Robby Krieger’s guitar parts on “The End.” It’s eerie and beautiful and incantatory and doesn’t sound like it could possibly be the work of just two musicians — but after seeing them live this week (they’re playing Zebulon here in L.A. every Monday this month — for free! — and on tour through May), I’m pretty sure that Mother contains very few overdubs. Between White’s graceful yet octopus-like command of his kit and the crazy overtones and drones Xylouris can get from his lute, the two of them can generate quite a racket.

Though they have an undeniably fascinating sound, I honestly didn’t consider adding Xylouris White to the Weird List until I saw this video for “Only Love,” one of the most rockin’ songs on Mother. Between the Primus-like opening riff and the goofy animation (my favorite part: when something like a goat mosh pit breaks out) courtesy of director Lucy Dyson, it’s definitely one of the most eye-catchingly absurd clips I’ve seen in recent memory.

I’ll leave you with Xylouris White’s other recent music video, for the Mother track “Daphne.” This one’s only weird if you think it’s weird for old ladies to dance alone in fields, which you shouldn’t. With any luck, we’ll all be able to bust moves like this well into our twilight years. (Also, those old ladies are Jim White and George Xylouris’ mothers. So show a little goddamned respect.)

Side note: Back in his native Crete, Giorgos Xylouris is folk music royalty. His father is Antonis “Psarantonis” Xylouris, a renowned lyra player (a smaller, three-stringed cousin of the laouto), and his late uncle was Nikos “Psaronikos” Xylouris, a singer and lyra player whose music became a soundtrack and inspiration for the youth protest movement that eventually brought down the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. Giorgos (or George, to his English-speaking pals) is known in Greece as Psarogiorgos. We’re not sure what the “psaro” prefix means but presumably it’s some kind of honorific bestowed upon members of the Xylouris family who have achieved a certain level of awesomeness. (Giorgos’ children, who perform with him in Xylouris Ensemble, don’t appear to have earned it yet. But give them time.)

Links:

Weird Album Review: The Tiger Lillies, “A Dream Turns Sour”

Tiger Lillies, A Dream Turns Sour

Most bands, after 34 albums, probably wouldn’t have many new tricks up their sleeves. But the Tiger Lillies manage to keep breaking new ground. Their 35th album, A Dream Turns Sour, is their first album based on real-life events, and their first for which Martyn Jacques did not write his own lyrics. Instead, all 15 of A Dream Turns Sour‘s songs are musical adaptations of World War I poetry, all written by British, American and Canadian poets who died on the battlefield. As such, it’s one of the darkest things the Tiger Lillies have ever recorded—which, given Jacques’ long fascination with death and cruelty, is saying something.

The album picks a logical starting point with Scottish infantry Captain Charles Hamilton Sorley’s poem titled simply “Death,” which mordantly addresses the grim reaper directly: “Saints have adored the lofty soul of you/Poets have whitened at your high renown.” Jacques and his bandmates—bassist Adrian Stout, drummer Mike Pickering and guest bouzouki/banjo player Paul-Ronnie Angel—deliver Sorley’s dark paean in typical Tiger Lillies fashion, with lots of sprightly accordion and upright bass and Jacques’ trademark falsetto, suggesting that despite its grim subject matter, A Dream Turns Sour might be another entry in the Lillies’ long catalog of albums that give the bleakest source material a humorous twist.

But “Death,” it turns out, is a bit of a red herring. Most of A Dream Turns Sour hews closer to the hushed, mournful tones of its treatment of a second Sorley poem, “The Mouthless Dead.” Here, Jacques drops his falsetto to intone Sorley’s fatalistic verses over solemn piano and bowed bass: “Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat/Only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clean.” It’s powerful stuff, and signals that most of A Dream Turns Sour will adopt a tone more in keeping with All Quiet on the Western Front than Blackadder Goes Forth.

The bulk of A Dream Turns Sour is devoted to less famous poets of the Great War; since Jacques decided to limit his source material to writers who did not survive the trenches, there’s no room here for Siegfried Sassoon or Robert Graves. He also steers clear of more sentimental poets like Rupert Brooke, whose “The Soldier” was one of the most popular war poems of its time thanks to lofty and oft-quoted lines like, “If I should die, think only this of me/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England.” The closest A Dream Turns Sour comes to such romanticized notions of war and death is Canadian poet John McRae’s famous “Flanders Field”—though even over an accordion-led waltz that conjures images of cozy French wine bars, Jacques’ high-pitched rasp finds a hint of menace in the poem’s familiar verses, which are spoken by the dead: “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep.”

Among the many near-forgotten gems of World War I poetry unearthed elsewhere on A Dream Turns Sour: Noel Hodgson’s “Before Action,” a hollow prayer for an honorable death (“Help me to die, O Lord”), here renamed “Help Me” and recast as a stately hymn for acoustic guitar and muted yet martial drums; Leslie Coulson’s florid but heartbreaking “One Little Hour,” delivered by Jacques with utmost restraint, over just a simple piano figure; Arthur Graeme West’s shockingly nihilistic “God, How I Hate You,” which gives Jacques a rare opportunity to ham it up a bit, ranting, “I hate you! And you! And especially you!” over the bitter wheeze of his accordion; and Isaac Rosenberg’s stunningly bleak, gruesome “Dead Man’s Dump,” which Jacques intones simply, accompanied by the ghostly tones of Stout’s musical saw: “The wheels lurched over the sprawled dead/But pained them not, though their bones crunched.”

For the most part, Jacques and his bandmates approach their source material with a degree of reverence unusual for them. The only time they really seem to be winking a bit is on their sprightly rendition of American poet Alan Seeger’s “Rendezvous With Death,” an admittedly overwrought bit of Yankee death-wish bravado that was apparently a favorite of John F. Kennedy’s. It’s the one time on the album that Jacques shuffles the order of the original verses and even inserts a few of his own, throwing in an added bit of doggerel (“So come on, Death, and take my hand/And lead me to your darkened land/And close my eyes and steal my breath”) that leads him to a fit of hammy hyperventilating. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a much-needed moment of levity, or the album’s only real false note.

A Dream Turns Sour saves its greatest source for last: the justly revered English poet, Wilfred Owen, whose verses adorn the album’s final four tracks. It’s thrilling to hear the Tiger Lillies breathe new life into the familiar yet still devastating verses of Owen’s most famous work, “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” which they unexpectedly turn into a pretty piano meditation. But it’s even more exciting to hear them revive lesser-known masterpieces like “Mud” (which begins with the arresting lines, “I, too, saw God through mud/The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled”) and “Three Parts,” movingly told from the viewpoint of a crippled veteran in a hospital bed (“I’m blind, and three parts shell…Both arms have mutinied against me—brutes”). Though there are many moments of fine poetry throughout A Dream Turns Sour, the arrival of Owen’s verses pretty much blows away everything that’s come before it.

Taken altogether, A Dream Turns Sour may not be the Tiger Lillies’ most entertaining album. Its subject matter is too relentlessly grim; its arrangements, for the most part, too restrained. But if you trust Martyn Jacques and his bandmates to take you on a journey into one of the darkest chapters of history, A Dream Turns Sour is a moving and occasionally shocking portrayal of the effects war has on men’s bodies and souls. It’s certainly a much better introduction to World War I poetry than some dry literature class. And on the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (literally—the album was released on June 28th, one hundred years to the day after the assassination), it’s a grim reminder of just how brutal and horrific those wars in our history books really were.

A Dream Turns Sour is available now from the Tiger Lillies’ online store.

Weird of the Day: Folkicide, “Empire of the Ants”

Folkicide

Yesterday we got an email from a guy from Kansas City named Burnie Booth, who makes music under the name Folkicide. Here’s how one local journalist describes Folkicide’s sound: “It’s like he’s attempting to exterminate folk music by playing it in the most offensive, bastardized way imaginable.” Booth himself gets the same concept across even more succinctly by calling his stuff “misanthro-pop.”

Booth has a new album out this week called Meaningless Glare of Broken Human Beings, which you can hear tracks from on his SoundCloud page. But our favorite intro to Folkicide comes via this Monty Python-esque, NSFW video for an older track, “Empire of the Ants,” possibly inspired by Booth’s day job in pest control. Remember: If the spider eggs behind your eyes all hatch at once, seek medical attention immediately.

For more Folkicide—including Booth’s complete, album-length cover of Queen’s A Night at the Opera—check out their Bandcamp page.