Jeff Parker – Here Comes Ezra

While I hadn’t heard Jeff Parker’s name before coming across this album, I had definitely heard him play before as a member of the Chicago post-rock group Tortoise. It was only after looking up his full discography that I realized how prolific he is as a guitarist. Here Comes Ezra comes from his 2016 album The New Breed, which was put out by Chicago label International Anthem.

After studying music at the Berklee College of Music, he moved to Chicago and got involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musician, which has been supporting avant-garde jazz and other improvised music since the mid-1960s. The AACM was closely aligned with art collectives on Chicago’s south side in the mid-1960s and continues to promote and support experimental and improvisational music from black artists. It’s interesting that the AACM would come about around the same time that the first American studio for experimental classical music was being put together just a few hours south of the city at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The AACM is all the more impressive because of its grassroots origins, and it continues to support experimental music by black artists in Chicago and elsewhere to this day.

In addition to his solo releases, Parker has scored a number of films which you can see here. You can purchase his albums on his site as well. Tortoise most recent album The Catastrophe has been in pretty heavy rotation for me as of late, and they recently put out a book of pictures from their tour.

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Margo Guryan – The Hum

When Margo Guryan released her first album Take A Picture in 1968, it seemed all but certain that this was just the beginning. Though it sold well, Guryan was uninterested in the hustle and bustle of touring and Bell Records subsequently stopped promoting the album. Between Guryan’s witty lyrics and the baroque production, it’s like a burst of sunshine that was heavily influenced by Pet Sounds, which was released just a couple years earlier. While that album is great, I’ve really been enjoying this compilations of demos appropriately titled 25 Demos, which was released in 2001 by the reissue label Oglio.

Take a Picture might have been the beginning and end of Guryan’s music were it not for a renewed interested in 1960s sunshine pop in Japan around the turn of the millennium. Maybe that’s why when I first heard Guryan it reminded me of the Pizzicato Five’s Baby Love Child. Based on that uptick of interest, Oglio issued the demo compilation that features The Hum along with many other great tracks. It was also released on cassette by Burger Records in 2014 under the title 27 Demos, which I mention because one of the songs added on the Burger release is Under My Umbrella, which was one of the finalists when picking a track to feature. The many resonances with contemporary events finally tipped the scales for The Hum, but it wasn’t an easy call.

Guryan released two new compositions in 2007 under the title 16 Words, which comments more directly on political events. She also released a set of variations for the popular tune Chopsticks titled The Chopsticks Variations in 2009 which have also been published as sheet music by Hal Leonard.

Duster – Stratosphere

Stratosphere is the title track off Duster’s first full-length album, which was released in 1998 on Up Records. Around the same time the members of Duster released an album called Hier Kommt Der Schwartze Mond under the name Valium Aggelein, which has a very similar feel to it and is also excellent from start to finish.

The group didn’t leave much behind in terms of an online presence and its members don’t have too many credits once the group disbanded with the exception of drummer Jason Albertini, who would eventually join the lineup of Built to Spill. Duster released one more album called Contemporary Movement in 2000 and from the looks of Discogs you’d be lucky to get your hands on any of them but if you do and don’t snatch it up yourself please be in touch. On a side note, there has to be a specific German word for the feeling of discovering a group like this in the post-What CD era, as the Valium Aggelein material doesn’t seem to be accessible anywhere.

F.J. McMahon – Black Night Woman

F.J. McMahon recorded Spirit of the Golden Juice following his return from a tour in Vietnam with the U.S. Air Force. The record rarely made it outside of California and even within the state the distribution was minimal so he stopped trying to make it as a musician and starting repairing computers. Over time it became something of a cult classic for fans of folk rock from that era. His story is similar to that of another artist I’ve written about here, Robert Lester Folsom, and in fact the largest and most accessible reissue of both McMahon’s only record and Folsom’s come courtesy of Anthology Records.

In June 2017 McMahon performed all of Spirit of the Golden Juice with the band Quilt in support of the re-issue and also gave an interview where he talked about his career and life after music. He had played up and down California with various groups, and in the interview he talks a little about that scene:

I started playing a few old clubs and getting with some old friends to play bar-band gigs for weekend money. But I was also heavily involved in the anti-war thing, so I was trying to get my buddies who hadn’t gone yet not to go in the military. I didn’t want them going over there, so I was involved. Music was a big part of that movement. Everything was music at the time. There was a feeling in the ’60s that, if you saw somebody else with long hair, you knew they felt more or less like you did. There was a feeling guaranteed between the two of you that music could change the world. That may be naïve, but it was an honest-to-God feeling we had.

When asked whether he is surprised that the songs resonate with contemporary audience, he had this to say:

The overwhelming feeling I get today is that all these kids who are going out to the far corners of the earth and getting themselves killed, they’re doing it because there are no jobs. That thought devastated me when I was singing that song. I wrote [Five Year Kansas Blues] 50 years ago about guys who went to jail instead of going to war. That was their choice. But now I’m thinking about the kids who can’t get a job, so they go into the Army and they get shot up. That’s not okay. So things haven’t changed very much at all.

He hinted at future performances in the interview, though there’s no indication he’s got more songs to record. At the very least we might start hearing more of his stuff in Vietnam movies instead of the ubiquitous Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Pete Drake – Forever

Pete Drake had been playing steel guitar around Nashville since the early 50s in his own groups and as a backup to others when he began experimenting with connecting a talkbox to his steel guitar. In 1964 he released Forever, which peaked at #25 on the Billboard charts and introduced this innovative method and his skillful playing to an audience outside of country music. Though I certainly didn’t know his name before hearing this song, I had definitely heard him play on Bob Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay, Dolly Parton’s My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy, and George Harrison’s Behind That Locked Door. That’s certainly not an exhaustive list and doesn’t even get into his work as a producer and label owner, which he continued to do until shortly before his death in 1988. You can see more of his credits over at Discogs.

Pete Drake wasn’t the first to experiment with the combination of steel guitar and talkboxes. The bandleader Alvino Rey had electrified his banjo back in the 1920s and worked with Les Paul on the development of early electric guitar pickups. That’s all well and good, but perhaps his most important accomplishment is his involvement with this nightmare-inducing video featuring Stringy the talking guitar:

Yamasuki Singers – Yamamoto Kakapote

This track comes off of a concept album called Le Monde Fabuleux Des Yamasuki developed by composers Daniel Vangarde and Jean Kluger. While both had been active songwriters and producers before then and since, this album has been a cult classic since its release thanks to the idiosyncratic combination of a children’s chorus singing in Japanese over fuzzed-out guitar and drums. It’s definitely worth listening to the whole album, as what seems like a bit of a gimmicky setup produces undeniably catchy songs, provided you can get past the Orientalist overtones of the whole project. Some other fun trivia: Another song from the album, Aieoa, was covered by Bananarama on their first album Deep Sea Skiving under the name Aie-A-Mwana. The song Kono Samurai from this album was sampled by Erykah Badu on her track The Healer. While the name Daniel Vangarde probably doesn’t mean much to most people, his son Thomas Bangalter is probably a bit more well-known at least by reputation, as he is one half of Daft Punk.

Damien Jurado – A.M. AM

This song has been stuck in my head ever since I heard it in the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country about the Rajneeshpuram commune in central Oregon, which I guess is no surprise since that series has been all I could think about since I finished it. This song appears underneath some of the sequences showing the commune at its most utopian, which of course is only one part of the story but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sort of see why people went there when I saw all those people hugging and smiling while this song played.

I hadn’t heard of Damien Jurado until now, but he’s been performing and releasing music since the 90s. His debut album Waters Ave S was released on Sub Pop in 1997. This track comes off his most recent full-length album Visions Of Us On The Land, released in 2016 on Secretly Canadian records. Cloudy Shoes, the first song off his 2010 album Saint Bartlett, appears at the very end of the series. I may not have heard of him before, but I’ll definitely be going through his back catalog now. You can purchase Visions of Us here.

The original score from the series is also excellent and is going to be available at the end of April through the composer Brocker Way’s bandcamp. Though I doubt I’m the only one, I did make a Spotify playlist with all the songs from the series I could find in case others are interested.