Monthly Archives: May 2010

Asylum Street Spankers’ vintage sound captures Austin’s spirit

Austin has drawn me like a magnet for almost as long as I can remember. The culture, with its mix of Texas cowboy brashness and hippy tolerance, is wonderful and totally unique. For a creative type like myself, the live music and open-minded nature of the place is irresistable. I love my state in general as most Texans do, but Austin is the best part for me. It’s like an oasis.

Few bands embody that Austin spirit like the Asylum Street Spankers. The band has become my favorite live act. I’ve seen show after show, each one different from the one before, but always enjoyable. The group takes its name from Guadalupe Street in Austin, once referred to as Asylum Street because it runs by the state mental facility. The term “spanker,” is a double entendre. It can mean a skilled musician, or just exactly what it sounds like. In fact, the band’s entire name is a double entendre. Think about those initials.

It’s hard to describe the band’s music. Styles include swing, jazz, country, blues, hip hop, ragtime, gospel — you name it. The music has a vintage sound, with all acoustic instruments, but the songs are immersed in rock ‘n’ roll lore and pop culture references. The band’s central figures are Wammo, a funny, mouthy dude who looks a bit like a biker, and Christina Marrs, a pretty woman with an even prettier set of pipes who has a demure girl-next-door appeal — but can belt out the raunchiest lyrics you’ve ever heard. The remaining lineup changes a bit from year to year, but always features top notch musicians. Sometimes former Spankers turn up and fill in. It’s almost like a collective.

The Spankers absolutely refuse to be pigeonholed. They’re funny, but they’re not a comedy act, and no way are they a novelty act. They’ve done X-rated albums, a drug album, a children’s album, an Off Broadway show and most recently, a gospel album. You never know what they might do next, but it will always be entertaining.  You really have to hear them yourself.

Luckily for me, they’ve made it easy. Most of the Spankers albums are here on Bandcamp. You can stream the songs for free or purchase the albums as downloads, or as physical CDs. I like everything they do, but I especially recommend What? And Give Up Show Biz? because it captures the band’s live sound, which I love.

Some of my favorite songs are “Beer,” from Spanker Madness, “Hick Hop,” from Mercurial and “My Favorite Record” from the album of the same name.

Check out the band’s website: You can also order some albums that aren’t posted on Bandcamp, including their X-rated EPs, T-shirts and members’ solo albums. And check out their tour schedule. If the Spankers turn up in your town, go see them. You won’t regret it.

These videos will give you an idea what the band’s live act is like:



Filed under alt-country, blues, country, experimental, hip hop, humor, indie, indie rock, jazz, music, one you might've missed, rock, roots, Uncategorized, video

When good music was truly a treasure – music discovery before the age of the Internet

A few years ago, I dumped a bunch of old cassette tapes in a box, carried them to the Goodwill thrift store and said, “Take what you want and throw the rest away.” The box contained a jumble of commercial cassettes and homemade mixtapes. I spent hours making some of those mixes from LP records and CDs, so I could listen to them on the road or give them away to other music lovers. Others were given to me by a friend. They just weren’t important anymore and I needed the closet space.

Now I kinda wish I had hung onto some of those mixtapes, even though I only have one beat up little jam box to play them on. They were a link to the past. A past that not everyone shared.

I realized that yesterday when I saw a question in the forums on RateYourMusic, a site that’s been my home on the web since 2002: How did music lovers find and treasure those obscure gems before the Golden Age of the Internet? The question surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. A lot of young music lovers are coming of age who have never known a time without personal computers and the Internet.

Now, so much great music is at your fingertips if you can just figure out where to look. It’s more of a case of looking for a needle in a haystack. When I was in my teens and 20s, seeking out obscure musical gems was more like an old-fashioned treasure hunt.

First a bit of context. I was born in Texas in 1965 and grew up in a small town where most easily accessible music was Top 40 pop, country music and Spanish-language conjunto (I avoided the last two categories until relatively recently). I really came of age as a music lover in the late ’70s. Disco and mellow pop dominated the AM band in my neck of the woods and hard rock was a tasty forbidden fruit you wanted but mostly couldn’t have. We heard a bit of new wave, but punk was completely unknown. I wasn’t satisfied and was constantly on the hunt for great new music.

Here’s how I went about it:


Just like today, radio was a frustrating medium. Playlists were determined by money, not art – or even coolness. It just got worse and worse as time went on, especially when the automated playlist arrived, sometime in the ’80s. But it wasn’t useless. Late at night, I would lie in bed, with my ear glued to the radio, constantly tuning and searching. Sometimes, if the ionosphere was in a giving mood, I could listen to 99.5 KISS, a pioneering hard rock station from San Antonio that broke a lot of bands that later became big names – like Rush and Triumph. I heard AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” (I thought it was “Dirty Deeds and the Thunder Chief”) on that station before it was officially released in the U.S. There were also a couple of great hard rock stations that fought one another for a little slice of the airwaves – KNCN “C-101” at 101.3 FM from Sinton-Taft (near Corpus Christi) and KLOL 101.1 FM out of Houston. I first heard “Whip It” by Devo from one of those stations. Not sure which.

Other people’s record collections

I have a relative who really lived it up in the ’70s. His official class motto was “Learn as if you’ll live forever,” but he claimed the real motto was “Live as if you’ll die tomorrow.” He has since turned into a civilized family man, but over that period of unbridled fun, he put together one whopper of a record collection. It featured lots of great music from the hippie era that evolved into what became known as hard rock and later on, metal. As a teenager I loved to dig through it. Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, Wet Willie, Rare Earth, Vanilla Fudge, The Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad… I never knew what I might find, but I always knew it would kick ass and it never let me down.  I went through a similar stage of music discovery with my dad’s extensive collection of classical music.

Music stores

There were no music stores in my town of 2,000. Medium-sized Victoria had Musicland and Hastings, which were mediocre and overpriced. I still pored through what they had. Any time I had a chance to shop for music in any real city like San Antonio, I took advantage of it. I used to buy 8-track tapes on band trips using the money Mom had given me for food. Later on in the CD era, the music stores still sucked, but began to have displays full of cut-outs, something you never see anymore. They would drill holes or cut little grooves in the cases of CDs they couldn’t get rid of and sell them at big discounts. I bought those at random and sometimes discovered great music. When I moved into the Austin area and got access to Waterloo Records and Cheapo Disks, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Friends & classmates

Back in the olden days, we used to have flesh-and-blood friends. No texting or e-mailing or instant messaging. No place to upload or download anything. You shared music in person. It was a social experience, and a great way to discover new music. When you heard something awesome coming out of someone’s speakers, you found out what it was. When you found something awesome, you invited your friends to come over and listen. You might loan an album or tape out and let them play it for a while and tape it. Or, to make sure they didn’t lose it or damage it, you’d tape it for them.

On special occasions, we might get to take music to school and play it. When I was a freshman in high school, some kid got permission to play Boston’s debut album over the PA. That totally blew me away. I first heard Van Halen from a portable 8-track player during a Boy Scout campout, AC/DC’s Back in Black and Cheap Trick’s Dream Police I discovered on the band bus and I discovered the Cars’ first album while hanging round in the band hall.


For a few years in the ’90s, I got stuck in a little backwater about a half an hour from Waco. Waco was a medium-sized city with bad radio and not much of a record store (Hastings, yippee). I got tired of driving into Waco looking for tunes and coming back empty-handed, so I started ordering from a catalog. There were little descriptions and if you liked something, you put a check in an envelope and sent it off. I really looked forward to those packages in the mail. I ordered some good reggae that way and got a wonderful compilation of hits from blues singer Big Maybelle Smith.


The mixtape is a lost art. Music lovers spent a lot of time making them for years, from the vinyl LP era right into the CD era. I made them for myself, so I could play favorite songs on the road or in the Walkman, while walking or mowing the lawn. Or I made them specifically with others in mind. I could go with a theme and title it — for example, “Long Hard ’70s” featuring songs over 6 minutes long from groups like Zeppelin or Trapeze; or I could just be as random as possible. I liked to make mixes where every song was a surprise – reggae followed by grunge, followed by classical music, followed by blues, etc. It was a personal thing. The person I gave it to knew that I was either trying to give them just what I thought they would like, or give them a little slice of my own taste in music, or a bit of both.

We fretted over which brand to buy – Maxell, Memorex, TDK. You had to get something that held at least 90 minutes, so you could get two full albums onto it (maybe). If you cheaped out too much, you could really tell — you’d get a lot of hiss. The 100-minute cassette seemed like a huge innovation at the time. You could get one album on each side without worrying about cutting a song off if it ran a bit longer than the standard.

I hit the jackpot in the ’90s when a friend who had worked at a college radio station gave me a bunch of his old mix tapes. He turned me onto postupink, which was a whole new branch of rock ‘n’ roll for me at the time. That’s how I found The Chameleons, Ultravox, Shriekback, Tones on Tail, Killing Joke, Inspiral Carpets, House of Love, Levitation and lots of others. He usually wrote the name of the song, not the group, so I still had a lot of hunting and discovering to do, trying to track everything down on CD.

We don’t really get to do that anymore. Now that you can burn a jillion songs on a CD-R, DVD or  load them onto a portable player, there’s not much room for personalization. No thought about what song should follow another, no room for a theme.

The Internet was a godsend for people like me. There are now so many ways to discover and share music, so many ways to avoid commercial radio and find the good stuff. I wouldn’t want to go back to the way it was. But there’s also a downside. When you don’t have to try as hard to get new music, it doesn’t mean as much to you. It’s more disposable, easier to take for granted. Every song, even one you like, is just one file among thousands on your hard drive. If you lost it, you could probably download it again within minutes.

I’d like to get some comments on this from other music lovers old enough to remember a time before the Internet. Also, if you get a chance, pay a visit to the thread in RateYourMusic that inspired this post: “I have a question to music lovers who have been treasuring music before the Golden Age of Internet!” It’s already got some interesting posts.


Filed under commentary, Uncategorized

Going Up – Coil’s John Balance

Coil is a rather sinister-sounding name to me, conjuring up images of serpents. It’s also the name of one of my favorite groups, put together by John Balance (a stage name for Geoffrey Rushton, also sometimes spelled Jhon or Jhonn – I’ll stick with plain old John for this post) and Peter Christopherson aka “Sleazy” (one of the founding members of the pioneering industrial group Throbbing Gristle). The list of genres Coil has covered is quite long – experimental, dark ambient, industrial, acid house and more.

Much of Coil’s music is challenging. I often find it exciting, but at the same time dark and witchy. And no wonder. John was a student of Aleister Crowley and thought of himself as a magician. I’ve read that some of the odd sound effects in his music are actually sigils – magic spells that were spoken, then chopped up, altered and sent out into the world. I don’t believe in magic or witchcraft, but knowing that he did believe it gives his music a certain spookiness. Coil’s music often involves themes such as obsession and dominance.

But there was another, softer side to John Balance. Some of his creations are simply beautiful. “Going Up” is a perfect example. It’s part of an album called The Ape of Naples that was produced after Balance died from a freak accident – he fell off a balcony in his own home, while intoxicated.

Vocals were sung in a high falsetto by Francois Testory.

The lyrics are taken from the opening theme of a British sitcom set in a department store, called “Are You Being Served?” (I’ve never seen it, but I’ve played a clip from it on Youtube).

“Ground floor perfumery, stationery and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery kitchenware and food…going up First floor telephones, gents ready-made suits, shirts, socks, ties, hats, underwear and shoes…going up Second floor carpets, travel goods and bedding, material, soft furnishings, restaurant and teas. Going up!”

In between the lyrics, low in the mix, John comments, “Are you ready to go now?” and finishes with “It just is.”

With a bit of engineering magic, his partner and mate Peter Christopherson was able to pull John’s words out of a live performance that took place not long before he died.

I never realized what the lyrics were until I looked them up, but I got the gist of the song. On the surface it might be a recitation of department store items, but Coil made it into something more. It’s about the hope for something more than what’s around us, hope for something beyond death. John made it into his own epitaph.

Beautiful, isn’t it? It makes me think of men, especially gay men – Balance never kept that a secret – who are contemplating death and hoping against hope that they might make it to heaven even though everyone’s told them they’re going to hell, or nowhere at all. The list of mundane items actually makes a very nice metaphor: Going up a department store escalator or elevator and wondering if there are other levels above the ones we can see. I don’t know if there are, but if so, I hope John found them.

Here’s another song that shows the sensitive side of Coil:

And here’s the perhaps more typical, “witchier” side:


Filed under acid house, dark ambient, darkwave, experimental, industrial, Uncategorized, video

Jim White – still hard at work writing, making music

Jim White was kind enough to send me a personal e-mail after I posted about my last blog post on his forum. Apparently he’s been very busy lately and has a lot of great stuff in the works.

Thanks for the kind words. At present I’m at work on 3 albums, and while I’ve never been intoxicated by the notion of commercial success, I certainly wouldn’t avoid it if it came knocking down my door.

I’ve got a book of short stories about done. It’ll be called Incidental Contact, and details odd encounters I’ve had while wandering the fringes of culture.

The 3 albums are as follows:

An album of music I wrote for a Sam Shepherd play recently staged at Julliard Music School up in NYC.

An album of classical guitar etudes written by me in the 1980s when I only had 2 fingers that worked on my fretting hand due to a table saw accident. These songs are performed by the guitarist for the Georgia Classical Music Quintet.

An official Jim White album. I recently broke free of my label and so the album should reflect my newfound autonomy. The songs range from straight old time country to blues/jazz hybrids.

I appreciate you devoting your time to helping me out. Good luck with your endeavors.

Jim White

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Filed under alt-country, blues, experimental, folk, indie pop, indie rock, one you might've missed, Uncategorized

Jim White – Southern singer, songwriter, philosopher, storyteller, poet

Jim White is a hard man to pin down. He’s a self-taught guitarist and singer who has seen a lot of life. He grew up in Pensacola, Florida and has been a fashion model, professional surfer, boxer, preacher, a comedian and more.

His music runs the gamut – alt-country, indie pop, experimental music of various kinds. His music is by turns deep, catchy, dark, beautiful, sad, and funny. Above all, he’s a brilliant lyricist and storyteller. It might be that wide range of styles that keeps him from mass market success (or even, apparently “mass indie” success). He’s too quirky and experimental for the country crowd, and has too much twang in his voice for the indie crowd. It could also be the fact that he’s not extremely prolific and doesn’t tour heavily. I have read that he is considering a career as a writer – not surprising given the brilliant short story he wrote for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus booklet. I would certainly love to see what kind of books he might write.

I almost get the feeling he doesn’t care about being a huge success. His observations about the South, and about human nature in general are so perceptive, he’s almost more of a philosopher than a musician.

He was a bit of a slow-grower for me, a common hallmark of the artists I love most deeply. I first discovered him through a used comp CD with “10 Miles to Go on a 9 Mile Road” on it. I liked it well enough to buy the album, No Such Place. I played it a few times and liked it OK, but nothing really jumped out at me. It didn’t really go into heavy rotation.

Then one day I put the CD on, just on a whim, and realized the songs were brilliant. Why didn’t I notice before? Then I bought his debut album, The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus! and put that on and the music hit me like a bolt of lightning. This was something unusual and very special. I have since bought every album and eagerly await anything else he might put out. I wish there were more!

Favorite songs come from all his albums (not necessarily in order except for the top 2):

1. “A Perfect Day to Chase Tornados” The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus!
2. “Still Waters” The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus!
3. “Borrowed Wings” Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See
4. “Bluebird” Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See
5. “Diamonds to Coal” Transnormal Skiperoo
6. “Pieces of Heaven” Transnormal Skiperoo
7. “Crash Into the Sun” Transnormal Skiperoo
8. “Plywood Superman” Transnormal Skiperoo
9. “Christmas Day” No Such Place
10. “Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi” No Such Place

By the way, there’s another indie musician out there by the name of Jim White, drummer for an ensemble called The Dirty Three. Don’t get them confused.

Visit his website, which contains links to his merchandise, a forum for fans, lists of his favorite artists, movie directors and authors, some of his thoughts on life and more. The man is a really deep thinker.


Filed under alt-country, blues, experimental, folk, indie, indie pop, indie rock, music, one you might've missed, Uncategorized, video

Latest discovery – Ocote Soul Sounds

Just found another treasure the Goodwill thrift store – El Nino Y El Sol, a soundtrack for a non-existent movie by Ocote Soul Sounds. It turns out the group that created the album is based here in Austin and has roots in two groups that I already love: Grupo Fantasma and Antibalas. Grupo Fantasma is a non-traditional Latin group in Austin that infuses cumbia music with funk, dub, dancehall reggae, and more. Pretty fiery stuff. New York-based Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra picks up where Nigerian legend Fela Kuti left off, with a powerful mix of funk, African grooves and politics.

Ocote Soul Sounds, around since 2003, is the brainchild of Grupo Fantasma’s Adrian Quesada (guitars, bass, drums) and Antibalas founding member Martin Perna (vocals, saxophone, flute, guitar, organ, percussion) and has since expanded to seven members. It’s definitely funky, but is more atmospheric and dub-influenced. At times the music reminds me of a Latinized version of Air. Other times it’s a bit like Thievery Corporation, which is on the same label as Ocote Soul Sounds – Eighteenth Street Lounge Music.

I feel like I should’ve known about these guys already. They are definitely on my radar now.

Here are a couple of videos to give you the idea:

There’s also a nice DJ mix on the band’s official website:

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Filed under acid jazz, funk, one you might've missed, psych, reggae, soul, thrift store finds, trip hop, Uncategorized, world music

Sing While You May – Advice from the Legendary Pink Dots

Impending economic and environmental collapse, asteroids crashing into the earth, the Yellowstone supervolcano that might wipe out half of North America, the mega-tsunami that could wipe out the East Coast, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, drug-resistant germs, influenza, AIDS, the super-collider in Switzerland that might accidentally make a black hole that will suck up the earth… Shall I go on?

The list of things that could destroy the human race is as long as my arm. Maybe you don’t dwell on them, but they’re in the back of your mind. All those disturbing newscasts and Discovery Channel specials take their toll on your psyche after a while, don’t they?

How do you live your life when it feels like the world is constantly on the verge of apocalypse? Well, you’re going to find a way. It has ALWAYS felt like that — for generations in fact. Somehow the world keeps chugging along, but now and again we get little reminders — like the Haiti earthquake, the oil spill in the Gulf, or 9-11 and the wars that followed — that things are not well. And when you get down to it, you’re headed for your own personal apocalypse anyway. Nobody lives forever. The real question is, in the face of impending doom, how do you live well?

I think I might have an answer, at least one that works for me, thanks to a strange and wonderful group called the Legendary Pink Dots: “Sing while you may…” (for it may not be very long). It’s a theme that comes up often in their music. To me the meaning is close, but not exactly the same as that of carpe diem – sieze the day. I think “seize the day” implies more of an ability to change things. The Dots’ philosophy is more about expressing yourself. You may not make a mark on the world, which either is or is not about to end regardless, but it’s still beautiful and it’s still meaningful. Birds live that way. So should we.

My taste in music is so eclectic that I’ve often said I don’t have a favorite band, but right now I have to admit that the Dots are it. It took years for them to grow on me to that extent. They’re very strange, very experimental, and cover a lot of styles, but they tend to have common themes, such as:

Fascination with different kinds of apocalypse and something they call the Terminal Kaleidoscope – all the patterns in society are part of a repeating cycle that’s accelerating towards doomsday. “The More It Changes” from The Golden Age embodies this concept.

Sing While You May (for it may not be very long) – a phrase that keeps popping up. Life is short, usually painful, so the best thing you can do it express yourself while you can, make some kind of statement.

There’s also a fascination with numerology, aliens, insanity, playful but dark speculations about God and the Devil, murder, suicide, the post-apocalyptic world, repeating cycles, fate…

Singer Edward Ka-Spel has an incredibly fertile imagination and is a brilliant lyricist. His songs disturb, uplift, make you think. Just an example, “Destined to Repeat” from Hallway of the Gods:

“Your face seems so familiar. I’m sure we’ve met some place before. It could be we were lovers, maybe eye to eye in some… war. With pulling faces, screaming like two imbeciles. Two racing bayonets. We connect, it’s unmistakable. So don’t you look the other way. Don’t lie back and pretend that you are sleeping. This is something we’re too deep in. We’re destined to repeat. Come to me my lover. Speak to me my enemy. You cannot run away from me – we’re destined to repeat. Look this way my lover. Speak to me my enemy – we’re driftwood on an endless sea…”

Simply brilliant.

They’ve been around for 30 years and have produced a huge body of work. They’re so experimental that getting into it can be daunting. I would recommend starting with one of these albums: The Maria Dimension, Hallway of the Gods, Asylum, Crushed Velvet Apocalypse, Your Children Placate You from Unmarked Graves, or Plutonium Blonde.

There’s a lot to them. Just give them a listen and have an open mind. Their styles and sounds are so wide-ranging that you are bound to hear things you don’t like, or that puzzle you, but if you persevere, you are also going to find music you will love, music that will speak to your soul.

LPD are going through a bit of an existential crisis of their own at the moment. They recently announced that longtime members Niels Van Hoorn (woodwinds) and Martin de Kleer (guitar) had quit the band.  Past member Erik Drost returned to the band on guitar. (Edward and Phil Knight (keyboards) are the core of the group, so as long as they’re still on board, LPD remains.) Then the band had to cancel the rest of its 30th anniversary tour because Edward’s mother is ill. Here’s hoping that she makes a full recovery and the band gets to go back on tour. I’ve seen them live in Austin a couple of times and they were wonderful. Edward comes across like some kind of a shaman, very charismatic. I would love to see them perform again. I’ll miss Niels and his crazy suit, but I’ve heard the band evolve and change over the years and I know whatever they do next will be just as captivating.

The Dots are still quite underground, but those who are into them love them intensely, so there’s a wealth of fan-made LPD videos on Youtube right now, as well as some surprisingly good live performance captures.

Make sure to give the Legendary Pink Dots homepage a visit, as well as their MySpace page.


Filed under dark ambient, darkwave, experimental, indie, music, one you might've missed, psych, rock, Uncategorized