Music, among other things, is a drug. Just that it happens not to be found on street corners or dispensed by doctors who never met a prescription they didn’t like. The best music is immersive, transporting the listener into an entirely different space. Sure, we usually just throw it on while doing the dishes or hanging out or driving around town. That’s not the kind of thing I’m looking for when I’m writing. Maybe not necessarily inspirational, but something to help my head get in the space of the story.
That’s what this stuff is for. At least when it comes to STRANGEWAYS.
And yes, I’ve got an iTunes playlist called “Strangeways”. That’s so I don’t confuse it with anything else.
A few highlights:
Neko Case – BLACKLISTED
I actually heard this for the first time right about the time I was working on the revised STRANGEWAYS (that is, revised from the original BADLANDS). I’d never heard of Neko Case before, though vaguely of the New Pornographers (for whom she sang). “Things That Scare Me” was absolutely perfect for MURDER MOON, right from the opening guitar to her voice to anxious but not frantic banjo line. It was a perfect blend of roots, rock, folk spun through with a dark shadow of Americana, bound by Case’s strong and haunted vocals. Then you follow that with “Deep Red Bells,” which digs further, evoking a recent past that’s far older and more dangerous than it appears.
Johnny Cash – MY MOTHER’S HYMN BOOK
There’s so much of Cash’s work that fits, but I seem to gravitate towards this disc of hymnals, most of which were quite old when Cash recorded them. Recorded with minimal accompaniment, Cash’s voice becomes an understated spiritual force of both threat and redemption, as in “In the Sweet By and By,” which promises better times for, well, everyone, if not in this world, then in the next one.
Calexico – FEAST OF WIRE
Their earlier albums always felt much more contemporary, like something that you’d hear blasting out of vaguely sinister cars cruising downtown Tucson (on the south side of 1-10), more dub touches, more guitar effects that dovetailed nicely with BLUE HIGHWAY (my first novel, and a project I threaten to re-visit as a comic someday.) But somehow they weren’t quite right for what I was doing in STRANGEWAYS, at least not until this album came along. Sure, there’s tracks like “Attack, El Roboto, Attack!” that don’t fit along with a dark frontier west, but nearly everything else here does. “Black Heart” especially so, fitting with the theme of a solitary man trying to get himself through a haunted borderlands between civilization and wilderness, bearing his guilt with him. Hmm…how very emo.
Cowboy Junkies – THE TRINITY SESSIONS
Minus “Sweet Jane,” not sure I can listen to that song much more. Kinda got overdone back in 1988 or so. But it’s hard to beat the cold, spare sound of the rest of this album. Hollow and sorrowful in the best possible way, Margo Timmins’ voice would be how angels sounded if they deigned to walk our pitiful earth.
Dirty Three – HORSE STORIES
The Dirty Three hail from Australia, which is just Western enough, yet alien enough to be pretty perfect for the kind of world that I’m trying to build up. Warren Ellis’ (no, not THAT one, the other one) violin sings in his hands, pouring out more emotion than most of the querulous warblers of AMERICAN IDOL could hope to conjure up with their ululations. There’s a lot of sadness here, a little drunken joy, and a stubborn refusal to do anything by the usual rules. This stuff is playing in every bar in STRANGEWAYS, electric guitar or not.
Lift to Experience – THE TEXAS-JERUSALEM CROSSROADS
Old Testament with soaring guitars and tentative, yet majestic and swaying voice. It’s rock, but it isn’t. I’m trying to put my finger on a good touchstone, but I’m not really coming up with one. It is very much its own thing, beholden to no other sound that came before it, visionary as acid rock, yet very much rustic and homespun. Lift to Experience seem to show the rewards that await the fervent and faithful, yet understand that the sacred alone won’t get you through this world that is all-too profane.
Aw geez, do I need to explain this one? He reinvented what western soundtracks should sound like. ‘Nuff said.
STRAIGHT TO HELL – Soundtrack
Y’know, I shoulda talked up this one when I did my western movie roundup last week. Ah well. The Pogues and Joe Strummer on the same lineup? Spaghetti western rock out the wazoo? An a capella version of “Danny Boy” featuring the entire cast of the movie, led by Cait O’Riordan? Sign me up and make it a double.
Otis Taylor – RESPECT THE DEAD
Dude’s scary. He’s got a howl. He’s got great musicians behind him doing things with the blues that probably put a worry in a lot of people. He’s the guy that the guys from the wrong side of the tracks give a wide berth to. Part preacher and part sinner, Otis knows what you been doing, so maybe you best watch yourself.
The Pogues – HELL’S DITCH
Man, it’s hard to pick just one, but “Lorca’s Novena” alone makes this one a direct line to the Mexican-American war of STRANGEWAYS, where some Irish went to fight and ended up figuring out that maybe they was on the wrong side after all. In truth, though, RUM, SODOMY AND THE LASH is right up there.
PARIS, TEXAS – Soundtrack
Ry Cooder, unencumbered by lyrics. That’s a big sky out there, streaked with horsehair clouds and dust rising up to meet them.
Savage Republic – TRUDGE/CEREMONIAL
Influenced by equal parts surf music, Morricone, punk rock, agitprop, and ethnic folk, Savage Republic were legendary in LA throughout the 80s. This is either their second or third album, where some of the punky spikes had been sanded down and the lyrics had largely been jettisoned, leaving evocative instrumentals behind. CEREMONIAL is both very American, in a sort of a ghost city in the desert way, and European in flavor, again, touching on the alien but never forgetting where it came from.
Scenic – INCIDENT AT CIMA
Morricone’s shadow looms over this one as well, but Bruce Licher (one of the founders of the abovementioned Savage Republic) takes this stuff and makes it his own. I suppose it helps that the album was inspired by my beloved Mojave desert, you know, all that barren stuff that starts when you drive far enough east from LA. Yeah, that’s what this sounds like. I wish I could find anything on YouTube with Scenic's music. I might have to upload something, but it's unlikely I'll have time to do so today.
Steven R. Smith – TABLELAND
I wish I could accurately convey the atmosphere of this album. But I can’t possibly convey the feeling of isolation, of being enveloped in an unnatural landscape that is both desolate and welcoming in its own way. I’m guessing that most readers of this wouldn’t even dare to call this “music,” and that’s okay. For me, it’s just about perfect, as evocative of the Martian desert as it is sunset on the Rockies. It’s compelling in ways that I’m still hearing freshly, even some ten years after its release. If I was to narrow it all down to one composer/performer, Steven Smith could very well be that one. I’d recommend the music he’s recorded under the name Ulan Kohl as well, though it’s much more alien apocalyptic rock than his solo material.
Apologies for the blatant self-promotion, but this is the only video I could find with an appropriate track.
Thin White Rope – MOONHEAD
Desert-fried indie rock with an unforgettable twin-guitar attack and singular atmosphere, thanks to Guy Khyser’s vocals. Again, a pretty modern sound, maybe Television is a good analogue, if Television had come from a dust-coated town on the edge of the desert and not from the Big City.
Tom Waits – FRANK’S WILD YEARS
Talk about your soundtracks from an alternate America. Waits practically invented the subgenre. Legendary, and rightly so, for both his lyrics and delivery, Waits spins the story of a luckless accordion player who hits it big and then ends up freezing to death on a park bench, penniless and destitute. The arrangements are angular, askew, casually lumping together gospel and opera, like a family’s possessions carefully laid out on a rickety table at a garage sale, heirlooms for pennies.
Taken from the concert film BIG TIME; couldn't track down original recordings.
The Walkabouts – SEE BEAUTIFUL RATTLESNAKE GARDENS
I’d found these guys by way of a Sub Pop sampler and had been picking up their albums since then. Didn’t take long for me to find this one, which just hit me right somehow with its perfect blend of scrappy indie rock and country sensibility. And I don’t mean country like “my pickup broke down and my wife left me and even the dawg gone run away” (though that strain has its own pleasures). There’s a fierceness here, one that comes out in spare yet muscular guitar and Chris and Carla’s unwillingness to back down and just sing plain old rock or pop because that’s not what’s in them. The addition of the RAG AND BONE EP at the end of things only makes it all sweeter, particularly the plaintive and beautiful “A Certain Gift."
16 Horsepower – FOLKLORE
Doom has come to the west. God’s judgement, having been withheld or so long, is finally being delivered. Not with thunder, but with quiet condemnation. If Seth Collins has a personal theme song, it’s “Hutterite Mile” off this disc. This album was recorded with the original lineup which had broken up and mutated several times, some ten years after it had last performed. There’s an awesome sense of finality that holds this disc together, even with the lightness of “Single Girl” and “La Robe A Parasol” in the midst of things. “Horse Head Fiddle” is the sound of souls being called to their final rest.