Friday, March 27, 2009

Shambolic (#1 in a Series)

This is the first entry in a new series on albums (and maybe other things) that I like despite (or because of) their shambolic nature. To qualify as "shambolic" in my definition, there has to be a touch of half-assedness or a sense that things are about to fall apart. Mere looseness or raggedness isn't enough.

I'm starting with two very divisive entries in the catalogs of beloved artists. Each of these has been called a trainwreck and a masterpiece, with strong opinions mounted on either side of the argument. Of course, they're a little of both.

Harry Nilsson's Pussy Cats

Like many albums that could fit into this category, Pussy Cats is wildly hit-or-miss. Its best moments ("Don't Forget Me", "Many Rivers To Cross", "Save The Last Dance For Me") approach greatness. At its worst, though, it's merely goofy ("Rock Around the Clock" with Ringo and Keith Moon adding up to less than the sum of their parts) or a bit pointless ("Subterranean Homesick Blues"). At times, though, as on "Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga", the goofiness becomes almost transcendent.

Famous as the album where Nilsson shredded his vocal chords rather than stop the session and risk missing his chance at having John Lennon as a producer, you can hear the early, high, clear Nilsson voice being quite literally sacrificed in the raw-throated fadeout to "Many Rivers". "Don't Forget Me", recently covered in a multi-piano arrangment by Neko Case (I haven't heard the whole album cover by the Walkmen), is Nilsson at his songwriting peak, blending bitter, black humor and genuine heartbreak as no one else could. As with "Snow" on the reissue of Nilsson Sings Newman, the best thing on the album might be a bonus track, the solo, vocal-and-electric piano demo of "Save The Last Dance For Me". I don't think it's ever been sung better, not by the Drifters or Buck Owens.

Alex Chilton's Like Flies on Sherbert

Recorded at Sam Phillips Studios (the successor to the original Sun Studio, built with the money Phillips made by selling Elvis to RCA) with certified legend Jim Dickinson, it's difficult to determine how much of the chaos of this album was by design and how much was a natural outgrowth of Chilton's post-Big Star state of mind.

The WTFing starts with the first track, a totally cracked rant by way-underground Memphis sub-legend Ross Johnson. Chilton doesn't sing until track two, and from there on it's a mix of originals and unexpected and obscure covers (including a composition by Cordell Jackson, who appeared as the Rockin' Granny in a memorable Bud commercial) played in a deliberately unrehearsed, looser-than-loose style. Somehow, though, magic happens. The whole thing feels a little dangerous, even sleazy, which is to say it's rock'n'roll.

As with Pussy Cats, the cover is a classic - a William Eggleston photo of baby dolls on the hood of a Cadillac (that hood is the only thing connected with this album that could be called "polished") that perfectly compliments and completes the mood of perverse beauty.

Further reading:
Here's a great reminiscence from Will Rigby of the dB's about his adventures in Memphis, which included popping in to the Sherbert sessions with Chris Bell.

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