Junk bonds

Pub date December 5, 2006
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer

Sweet — doesn’t the sight of Gwen Stefani shaking her logo in your face on that singing-nun mess of a video for “Wind It Up” — off her new album, The Sweet Escape (Interscope) — make you want to look for the exits? Booze, barbiturates, love, angels — all the traditional escape hatches look good, because as much as I sneakingly enjoyed the creative mosh-slop of Stefani’s ur-kitsch solo debut, her new one looks and sounds like a Scandi-stinker so far. Maybe Sound of Music lederhosen camp just can’t hold a candle to organic movements like African American step culture. Maybe the reality of childbirth spoiled the wish-fulfillment magik of her Love. Angel. Music. Baby. equation. In any case, all the gloss (we do like our pop princesses — B, G, and Fff-urgh-ie — predictably blond and brassy in ’06 ) makes you want to repair to the proudly ramshackle, raw-cuz sonic junkyard that Tom Waits built, especially when you listen to his recent Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards (Anti-). The arrival of this three-disc set of never-released oldies, comp odds, loose ends, and unifying newbies might even spark a few murky thoughts on Waits and a few of his musical offspring: Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous, who put out his first album in more than five years this fall, Dreamt for Lightyears in the Belly of a Mountain (Astralwerks), and Calexico, who truck through town this week. “Alternative” and “experimental” seem like weak adjectival gruel for their obsessively archival, at times combustible aural tinderboxes. Is it fair to call them the pop foundlings of found sound? Or better, the deadbeat dads of pomo rock’s darkling plain?
These junk-shop mixologists have a few things in common: critical descriptors like “dusty,” “distressed,” maybe even “stone-washed.” The music often emanates from a solitary, male figure (one exception: Calexico’s Sanford and Son bedrock duo of Joey Burns and John Convertino) surrounded by a shifting gang of ace musicians. Horns, the Delta blues, evocative music from travels abroad, and samples from around the street corner follow the contours of what might loosely, goosily be called rock. Accordions hound their sound like junkyard dogs. Hissy, dirt-caked, lo-fi production values hit the spot. And they’re not above reaching for an erhu.
Next to Stefani’s frantic semiotic scramble of crucifixes, Singer sewing machines, and yodels, these savage songsmith salvagers seem positively, perhaps geriatrically, old-school. Flaws glare like the humanism shining through a handmade rug. Their music’s creaky mechanism — even when driven by a beatboxed gasp, as on Waits’s “Lucinda” — is more deeply nostalgic, in love with a tattered industrial, rather than information, age, less preservation-minded than resigned to soldiering forth in a jalopy burdened by the ever-weighted cargo of music history — the male counterparts of Mother Courage in the recent crack Berkeley Rep production of that Bertolt Brecht bleakathon.
It’s a nonformulaic formula of sorts that Waits seems to have dreamed up with Swordfishtrombone (Island), way back in ’83 — and it’s been refined to the degree that even the castoffs of the cantankerous, bluesy Brawlers, the sweeter, soporific Bawlers, and the story-laden, weirded-out Bastards are all of one compulsively listenable piece. Covering Leadbelly and the Ramones twice, utilizing the simpatico musicianship of locals such as Ralph Carney, Carla Kihlstedt, Gino Robair, and the late Matthew Sperry along with tens of others, Waits shows that even his off-the-cuff leavings — à la his reading of Charles Bukowski’s “Nirvana” and the sorrowful instrumental fugue “Redrum” — are better than most belabored new studio releases. Hell, does it make a difference that these 54 songs have been culled from far-flung corners in film, theater, and tribute comps, what with the mishmash of producers on most mainstream pop albums? It all glitters, magpie.
So what about Waits’s other spawn? Linkous shows up on Orphans (“Dog Door”) just as Waits materializes on Linkous’s album (“Morning Hollow”), while Sparklehorse takes the noise down a notch and foregrounds melancholy melodies with production help from Danger Mouse. Calexico also got hit with the pop stick — witness this year’s Garden Ruin (Quarterstick). Borders — between north and south, white and brown, ranchero and rock — are still a major leitmotif for the band, Calexico cofounder and guitarist Joey Burns told me, citing Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and the 1993 documentary Latcho Drom, which makes graceful connections between gypsy musicians across centuries and countries. Yet the streamlined Garden Ruin seems to represent a race from the wrecking yard of music’s past, the inevitable legacy of collaborating with artists ranging from Neko Case and Los Super Seven to Gotan Project and Goldfrapp.
“What stands out the most for most people is there are no instrumentals, so that kind of soundtrack quality is not there, and the focus is on songs,” the talkative Burns told me from Tucson. “But within songs there are a lot of orchestrated passages, and there’s just as much variety there as there’s always been.”
The collaborations — and soundtracks — continue. After our talk, Burns was heading out to listen to Calexico’s mixes of Bob Dylan songs for Todd Haynes’s forthcoming filmic reverie on the singer-songwriter, I’m Not There. Iron and Wine and Roger McGuinn were among the group’s musical partners, with Willie Nelson clocking in as the most memorable. Tracking “Señora” at the red-headed stranger’s golf course–<\d>cum–<\d>studio, Burns said Nelson “barely knew he was supposed to record. Heard about it during a poker game in Dallas, and he stumbled in with friends. It was phenomenal watching his process.”
Perhaps the ragtag process of Waits, Linkous, and Calexico is even getting dusted off, cleaned up, and given a new spin by another generation. One can’t help but hear a little of their aural roamings in the shambling brass-band collectivism of A Hawk and a Hacksaw and Beirut. And apparently, I’m not the only one discerning an umbilical chord: those combos recently toured Europe with Calexico, Burns said. “We all bonded beautifully.”
With Los Lobos
Fri/8–<\d>Sat/9, 9 p.m.
1805 Geary, SF