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.

Carlton Melton – The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse comes from Carlton Melton’s most recent release Mind Minerals from Agitated Records, which was released just at the beginning of February this year. While their earlier records had more of a psych sound (see Peaking Duck from their 2015 album Out To Sea), Mind Minerals is much more minimalist, blending improvised guitar and rhythm with dense drones, though tracks like Electrified Sky are definitely a little more psychedelic. I’d been getting away from drone and experimental stuff recently, but this release has pulled me right back in and I couldn’t be happier. I’ll confess I didn’t know much about Carlton Melton until recently, but I’m definitely going to try and keep tabs on them in the future.

The Durutti Column – Red Square

The Durutti column take their name from an anarchist military unit in the Spanish Civil War named after the Buenaventura Durruti. The group was originally formed out of the ashes of a Manchester punk group by Chris Joyce and Dave Rowbotham, who would go on to form another post-punk group called The Mothmen, but by the time this album was released the group had become essentially a project of Vini Reilly, who also gives his name to this album.

The original Durutti Column was one of the first groups signed to Tony Wilson’s Factory Records and they released their first album The Return of the Durutti Column in 1980 right around when Factory released Joy Division’s Closer. Though the lineup around Reilly has changed over the years, the group continues to record and perform, releasing Chronicle-XL in 2014 on Kooky Records.

The use of effects on this song reminds me a little of the Fripp and Eno records, and apparently Eno has said that The Durutti Column’s second album LC is his favorite album of all time. I found a pretty cool video of Reilly and drummer Bruce Mitchell jamming live which I think shows why Reilly and this group have such a sterling reputation as musicians:

TALsounds – Home

One of the coolest live music experiences I’ve had was seeing Good Willsmith perform at a residency in Chicago where each of the three members was on a different floor of a three story building. I won’t bother trying to capture the feeling with a lot of adjectives, but it was a great show. I distinctly remember emerging onto the floor where Natalie Chami (aka TALsounds) was performing and after having seen both Doug and Max play solo it really hit home how much her vocals and synth work added to the group’s sound. That’s why I was so pumped to learn my local record store Eroding Winds had a copy of her solo record Love Sick from Ba Da Bing Records. I actually received it as a birthday present and when my gf asked about it, apparently the guy at Eroding Winds said he didn’t think anybody in town would buy it. I guess I have some evangelizing to do.

After listening to it a few times through yesterday, it’s hard to understand who wouldn’t enjoy this album, which consists of all improvisations recorded with no overdubs. In addition to performing as part of Good Willsmith and as a solo artist, Chami is also part of another ambient duo called l’éternèbre, which started in Chicago and is now a long-distance collaboration. The other half of the group records under the name grey ghost, and he appeared on one of the first tapes I bought from Hausu Mountain. It was the second volume of their Mugen series, and he actually shares the tape with TALsounds. You can hear more of her solo stuff over at her bandcamp and order your own physical releases of Love Sick here.

Peter Lang – Young Man, Young Man, Look At Your Shoes

Though not as well-known as Fahey or Kottke, Peter Lang sounds right at home among them on the 1974 compilation released by Takoma records where I first heard his playing. This track comes off his debut The Thing At The Nursery Room Window, which was put out by Takoma a year earlier. Like Kottke, Lang also hails from my home state of Minnesota and to my knowledge still lives there. As the presenter in this segment from Minnesota Public Television in 1977 lays out, the guitarists who are often grouped together under the label of American Primitive were trying to elevate the fingerstyle playing found in American folk, blues, and country music to the level of respect usually afforded to classical instruments. Even if they didn’t necessarily succeed, they definitely produced some great records in the process.

Lang released four records in the 1970s before taking a break to pursue a career in animation. He did return to music in the early 2000s, releasing a couple albums of his own and appearing on a John Fahey tribute compilation. You can see him perform Young Man live in 2007 here. I’m not sure if its the same performance, but a live album from around the same time is available on Spotify along with some of his more recent releases. When I go to record stores I usually keep an eye out for Takoma recordings, as they’re not always available electronically and even if its all in your head I think this kind of music really does sound better on vinyl.

Mountains – Telescope

While I’ve been a fan of Thrill Jockey for a while, I only recently discovered Mountains by way of the Radio War Nerd podcast. After a few episodes of really good ambient music between segments they finally revealed their producer Brendon as the source, who works at Telescope Audio. Brendon is one half of Mountains along with Koen Holtkamp. They began releasing material as Mountains through their collective/label Apestaartje in 2005, which focused on “gradual development and extremely detailed listening.” In 2009 they released Choral, their first record on Thrill Jockey, and have released four more albums since then. After a few listens, this album in particular calls to mind another Thrill Jockey release by Town and Country, which I picked up on a whim because it was on sale and I have loved it ever since. Looking into Mountains for this post I found that Apestaartje also re-issued Town and Country’s self-titled debut from 1998, proving conclusively that all of the coolest people are friends with each other. You can pick up copies of this and other Mountains records over at the Thrill Jockey site.

Dave Bixby – Morning Sun

Though I wasn’t around when it came out, it’s hard not to see Dave Bixby’s Ode To Quetzalcoatl as a kind of omen for the hangover that was coming for the Free Love generation as the 60s turned into the 70s. The utter loneliness that suffuses the record comes out of Bixby’s experiences with LSD in high school, which he describes thus: “My love for adventure took me out where no man has gone and I couldn’t get back. I should have stuck to beer and pot. Dave never came back. My empty body wandered aimlessly for months with not much to say. People I knew seemed strange and unfamiliar. The life I had was deleted and I was eventually reborn.”

Though he had played in some folk and rock groups as a teenager, the songs that would become Ode To Quetzalcoatl emerged from his playing at prayer meetings led by Don Degraff. As attendance grew, others encouraged Bixby to record the songs and the record was released in 1969. Around the same time his draft number was called and I’ll let him describe what happened:

“I made an appointment with the draft board and I handed them a letter from my father stating he had been a marine and fought in WW II. His father fought in WWI and supported my decision to pass on war. Then I handed them Ode to Quetzalcoatl. After reading the back cover and asking me some questions. I remember being asked “David do you have any questions for us? Yes, why don’t we deprogram and retrain our soldiers for civilian life after they do the dirty work? WW II left emotional and mental scars on my father and compromised our whole family.” No answer to the question but they thought it was a good question.”

A year later he released another album under the name Harbinger called Second Coming which is a little more upbeat in tone but has the same stripped-down production that makes Ode such a treasure. Speaking of treasure, if you happen to own an original then I’d hang onto it as the originals are nearly impossible to come by. Both records were re-issued in 2009, though the re-pressing of Ode has since sold out. Digital files of both are available at Bixby’s Bandcamp page along with an album of previously unreleased songs.

Bixby relocated to the Grand Canyon in 1979 and has lived there ever since. I wrote to him a while back to ask about chords for Morning Sun which he was willing to provide, so I’ve included a link to those below for others who might like to play this song themselves.

Morning Sun chords