Sunday, October 2, 2016

Porchwell Firetime I

"I Came Here from Nowhere"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

When I first heard Wiskey Folk Ramblers (and who in the world knows how I stumbled onto them ... the result of some long, drunken linkwalk, no doubt), one of the first things that struck me was how similar “Gambling Preacher and His Daughter” was to “Hayride to Hell” by Hoodoo Gurus.  It got me thinking: should I maybe have a mix for story-songs?  You know, songs that just seem to be compacted little short stories wrapped up and set to music?  Several other possibilties immediately sprang to mind, such as “Jackie” by Sinéad O’Connor and “In the River” by the Call.  Eventually I would come to expand that to include songs which, while they might not strictly be linear stories in the way that those songs are, they at least are songs that you could imagine hearing while sitting on a porch, or around a campfire, being told/sung to you by a bony older relative with a guitar, or a banjo, or a mandolin.  A little bit folksy, a little bit airy, and no matter what transportative.  Thus was born Porchwell Firetime.

My initial thought was to put “Gambling Preacher” and “Hayride to Hell” together on volume I.  Sometimes two songs which have common roots complement one another, and can flow nicely into each other.  But sometimes they’re just too much alike, and that was the case here.  The choruses especially line up rather eerily: “he would ride, oh he would ride” vs “and Charlie would drive, for miles and miles.”  Add in the similar loping beats and similar stories of jilted love, and I decided they shouldn’t even be on the same volume, much less back-to-back.1  If the good folks in Whiskey Folk Ramblers were to try to convince me that they’d never heard “Hayride to Hell” before, I do believe I would look at them more than merely askance.  Still, “Gambling Preacher” has its own unique charm which is more than reflected Gurus’ glory, and well deserves its place both as mix starter and here on volume I.

One of the next songs to end up here was our opener, “Facts about Cats” by Timbuk 3, almost exclusively known as one-hit wonders for their unforgettable 80’s tune “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.”  Which is a shame, as they’re very much more than just that.  As hopefully you will hear after listening to our opening track.  That’s followed by the Red Sea Pedestrians’ take on Curtis Eller’s “Sugar in My Coffin.”  I’ve heard the original, and I really think RSP’s remke adds something valuable to the song,2 which isn’t exactly a story, but still feels like one in a weird way.  Another early contender was Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, whose nearly every song is a story, so I had lots of choices.  For this first volume, I thought “Random” would be a good first taste, and I’m sure we’ll see them return on nearly every volume of this mix from here on out.

Other songs which sprang quickly to mind were “that Rev. Horton Heat song that so much reminds me of Tom Waits” (which turns out to be called “The Devil’s Chasing Me”), the Call tune I mentioned earlier, which I’ve always found particularly poignant (and their best tune not on Reconciled3), and Robbie Robertson’s classic “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.”  While I’m not a huge fan of Robertson in general, there’s something smokey and mysterious about that tune that I’ve always found irresistible.  And of course Feist’s quite amazing version of Nina Simone’s “When I Was a Young Girl,”4 which a good friend of mine played for me once because he had stumbled across it and immediately pegged as something I would appreciate.  He was right.  Feist’s anti-folk also lends itself pretty handily to a story-song mix, but “When I Was a Young Girl” in particular has a pulsing, conga-and-clapping-driven beat that I find highly reminiscent of “Down by the Water” by PJ Harvey.5

Other bands which seemed like no-brainers for this mix include House of Freaks, whose spare, guitar-and-drum sound provide a number of promising candidates, and Meat Puppets, whose alt-country-tinged grunge sounds perfect when played around a campfire at night.  For the former, after waffling around for quite a while, I eventually went with “Black Cat Bone,” but they have several good choices among the 3 albums’ worth of material of theirs I own, so we should also expect to see them again soon.  For the latter, “Shine” was the obvious candidate, and I went with it.  The “story” is perhaps a bit nonsensical and hard to follow exactly what’s going on, but I feel like it stands up.  On a slightly more downbeat note, the Decemberists, who along with bands like the Lumineers and Arcade Fire have pioneered the large-ensemble neoclassical folk-pop sound that has become popular in the past 10 to 15 years, and the Smoke Fairies, a British duo of female vocalists whose work ranges from folk to dream pop.  The Decemberists give us “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect,” and the Smoke Fairies provide “Misty Versions,”6 both of which are slow, deliberate stories of the subconsious (by which I mean they use a lot of symbolism to hint at more than the surface words are saying).  Plus “Misty Versions” gives us our volume title.

I also thought of my good friends emmet swimming,7 because Todd is quite good at telling stories via songs.  I chose “Angst II” off of their first (self-produced) album, which may be tough to track down, but, trust me: it’s worth it.  And I couldn’t help but remember a more recent discovery, Chingón, which is Robert Rodriguez’s band which he put together originally to provide music for Once Upon a Time in Mexico.  Although their album Mexican Spaghetti Western was released over 10 years ago, it was only about a year or two ago that I first went looking for more music from the performance I had just rewatched in the special features of that movie and stumbled across it.  Several of the songs on that album are stories, with a Western flair, as the name indicates; most are in Spanish, but “Bajo sexto” is, despite the name, an English tune.

For more of that dark, wistful tone, I turned to two bands from Darkling Embrace: Bat for Lashes and Devics.  Both can do story-songs, but most of the time they tend to drift into the darkly pretty territory mined by Darkling Embrace, or even the noir trippiness of Smokelit Flashback.  Here we have two tunes which are slightly more straight-forward for them—which means they’re on the more surreal side of this mix—“Horse and I” from Bat for Lashes, and “My Beautiful Sinking Ship” from Devics.  The former is the opener of BfL’s best album, Fur and Gold; the latter the title track from Devics’ best.  With one sporting the lonely sound of wind in the trees and what I feel sure must be a theremin in the background, and the other using cello, accordian, and the tinkly piano of a dive bar entertainer, both are dripping with atmosphere.

Porchwell Firetime I
    [I Came Here from Nowhere]

        “Facts about Cats” by Timbuk 3, off Greetings from Timbuk 3
        “Sugar in My Coffin” by The Red Sea Pedestrians, off A Lesson in Cartography
        “White Tooth Man” by Iron & Wine, off The Shepherd's Dog
        “Random” by Ed's Redeeming Qualities, off It's All Good News
        “Mr. Zebra” by Tori Amos, off Boys for Pele
        “Shine” by Meat Puppets, off Too High to Die
        “Black Cat Bone” by House of Freaks, off Monkey on a Chain Gang
        “The Devil's Chasing Me” by Reverend Horton Heat, off The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat
        “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” by The Decemberists, off Castaways and Cutouts
        “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” by Robbie Robertson, off Robbie Robertson
        “When I Was a Young Girl” by Feist, off Let It Die
        “Misty Versions” by Smoke Fairies, off Smoke Fairies
        “My Beautiful Sinking Ship” by Devics, off My Beautiful Sinking Ship
        “In the River” by The Call, off Into the Woods
        “Angst II” by emmet swimming, off Dark When the Snow Falls
        “Bajo sexto” by Chingón, off Mexican Spaghetti Western
        “Gambling Preacher and His Daughter” by Whiskey Folk Ramblers, off ... And There Are Devils
        “Horse and I” by Bat for Lashes, off Fur and Gold
        “Golden Frames” by KT Tunstall, off Tiger Suit
        “Some Velvet Morning” by Firewater, off Songs We Should Have Written [Covers]
        “Halley's Waitress” by Fountains of Wayne, off Welcome Interstate Managers
Total:  21 tracks,  78:08

In the cateogry of more unlikely tracks, we have a couple of early tunes which skew even more surreal than Bat for Lashes and Devics.  To call them “non-linear storytelling” is perhaps understating it a bit.  You may recall my mentioning Iron & Wine back on Slithy Toves.  Well, here he is again with “White Tooth Man,” which may not be his best song,8 but it’s pretty damned close.  To complement that, and serve as a bit of a bridge between “Random” and “Shine,” I chose “Mr. Zebra” by Tori Amos.  It’s an odd little tune that I’ve always dug.  To show you the contrast, though, here’s a bit from the opening of “Random”:

Her boyfriend is thoughtful,
She’s a passable cook,
But sometimes she eats alone.
And, one time, she was hit by lightning
While sitting on the roof of her home.

and here’s the opening of “Mr. Zebra”:

Hello Mr. Zebra
Can I have your sweater,
‘Cause it’s cold cold cold in my hole hole hole?
Ratatouille, strychnine,
Sometimes she’s a friend of mine,
With a gigantic whirlpool that will blow your mind ...

So “story” is a bit of a stretch for some of these tracks, but, as I’ve said, it’s more a feeling than a strict definition.

Which just leaves us with our closing triptych.  Coming off the almost spooky “Horse and I,” we kick off the home stretch with “Golden Frames” by KT Tunstall, which appears to be a story-song about being abducted by aliens, so it flows nicely.  Then we drift into the very song that discovered Firewater for me: “Some Velvet Morning,” originally sung by Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra.  In fact, when I think of songs that tell stories, right after I think of Gordon Lightfoot,9 I think of “Some Velvet Morning,” along with Sinatra and Hazelwood’s other hit, “Summer Wine.”  Sometimes called “cowboy psychedelia,” I always found these two tunes fascinating as a child, although nowadays they’re a bit country for my tastes.  But I went looking for updated versions that I might find more palatable,10 and that’s how I stumbled onto Firewater’s cover album, Songs We Should Have Written.  Firewater’s Tod Ashley and guest Britta Phillips11 do a very smooth version which keeps the echoey guitars and the psychedelic aspects, but replaces the overblown strings with a Hammond organ and adds a few new touches, like voice distortion on the female vocal to give it even more of a trippy feeling.  Then, to close out the volume, we cap it all off with “Halley’s Waitress,” Fountains of Wayne’s understated little ode to a disappearing server.  It’s a mellow way to wind us down to reflect on the 21 little stories we’ve heard.

Next time, we’ll take a look at our creepiest mix so far.


1 In other words, we won’t see “Hayride to Hell” until volume II.

2 Perhaps it’s just the sweet clarinet break.

3 Which is their best album by far.  I often find that artists have one great album and the rest of their oeuvre is mediocre.  But just because the rest of the albums are “meh” doesn’t mean there aren’t some great individual tracks there.

4 To be fair, that song existed before Nina Simone’s version.  But I think it’s fair to say it’s most commonly associated with her.

5 Which no doubt we’ll also see on a future volume.

6 Which I believe also uses congas for its main beat, as it happens.

7 Who we’ve seen twice thus far: once on Salsatic Vibrato, and once on Darkling Embrace.

8 That would almost certainly be “Boy with a Coin,” which we shall come to in the fullness of time.

9 I should try to find a modernized version of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” somewhere.  The original is a bit too cheesy for my tastes these days, but I still have some fond memories of it.

10 We’ll see what I found for “Summer Wine” on volume II.

11 Who not only doubles for Nancy Sinatra on this album, but also covers for Cher.

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