Listening Post

CIRCUS CHA-CHA: The struggles musicians face when trying to start a band in this town are monumental. "Trying to find a tuba player," says Matthew Duncan, "for one, is a really hard thing to do. In fact, there were two occasions on which I was supposed to get together and run through some stuff with this guy -- actually two different guys -- and the night of, they would invariably call me up and say, 'Well, uh, I can't make it, and actually, I'm pretty much busy through July.'"

Where have all the great tuba players gone? Duncan can't find 'em, and when you've got a vision that supports not only the use of a tuba player but creates music that he half-jokingly describes as "Existential Circus Music with Oblique Literary References -- but don't look for that section at a store," musicians to support him are few and far between, at least in St. Louis.

Duncan's CD Human Cannonball is credited to M.C. Duncan's Dog and Pony Show. He's from St. Louis and lives here now but recorded the CD while living in Texas; instruments employed include trumpet, harmonica, trombone, saxophone trumpet, something called a "contraption kit" and Duncan's primary instruments, accordion and banjo. The CD is full of boundless surprises, a strange record that doesn't sound retro so much as it does out-of-time. For example, from the liner notes: "'The Last Cha Cha' contains a sample from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. 'Remember the Maine' contains humpback-whale sounds featured in National Geographic 1/79."

To give you an idea of where he's coming from, here's a snapshot of Duncan's brain: "I'm always surprised by what I would call a 'musical-collective unconscious.' Friends of mine -- other songwriters -- I'll come up with an idea that I swear is so deranged that no one else has ever thought of, and it's uncanny that I find out that around the same time they were also working on a song very similar in nature. Why are people suddenly writing songs about (tightrope walker) Karl Wallenda? There's no reason for that. He's not in the news. I've talked to two friends -- I was thinking about how I was going to approach the idea, and then I find out and it's like, never mind, you guys are taking care of it."

The record is kinda old at this point -- it was released at the beginning of 1998 -- but the music isn't dated at all. There are some old-timey cabaret sounds on it, a strange Tom Waits calliope vibe to it, a touch of swing. "A friend of mine had a small 16-track studio," Duncan says of the record's origin, "kind of in the middle of nowhere. Initially when I talked to these guys about doing it -- some of them were friends of mine, some of them were not -- I put up fliers and I called people. It was a hard project to explain to someone, so I had something like an organizational meeting the night before. I didn't tell them in advance the sheer number of tunes I was wanting to get done, because I didn't want them to just laugh at me. I wanted to do something like 18 songs. And these were all excellent musicians, so I had a hunch that, while they may not be happy with their first takes of things, I probably could live with them. No one heard anything together until it was done. I think for everyone involved it was a shock when they got the whole thing back. Like, 'That's what I played on? I don't remember that song.'"

The whole "existential circus music" thing isn't out of the blue, though. On the contrary, one of Matthew Duncan's occupations is teacher: "I teach a circus-arts program twice a week at city schools; it's kind of a weird thing. I juggle -- I perform down at the City Museum, and gigs here and there. And when that's not making me money, I do substitute teaching. This summer I'm working on lining up a whole series of circus camps: teach a little tightrope, a little juggling, a little this-and-that."

Because Duncan's vision doesn't jibe with the majority of distorted-guitar-playing clubsters, he's having trouble getting in touch with fellow travelers. "I think my ideal ensemble would include either a tuba or a string bass, a drummer, myself, someone who can play a guitar and banjo and then maybe a horn player of some kind, maybe a trombone player -- almost like a Dixieland setup, but not quite." You can grab a copy of M.C. Duncan's Dog and Pony Show's Human Cannonball at record stores around town -- or e-mail him at [email protected]. Highly recommended. (RR)

SLEAZY LISTENING: Long before Russ Meyer and John Waters became mainstream icons of film exploitation -- viewed through a lens of irony, their work has come into cultural focus -- rock & roll both paid homage to and tried to parallel cinematic sleaze. You can trace it back at least as far as those '50s and '60s juvenile-delinquent flicks, wherein some leather-jacketed band or poor man's crooner always seemed to have a cameo in the kids' hangout. At the time this signified pure rebellion, along the lines of Elvis Presley's hips. These B-movie greasers were rock & roll Ed Woods, taking themselves seriously, not in on the joke of their own artlessness.

Today's counterparts are more like Tim Burton. They know what's going on around them -- an atmosphere of self-created satire -- but they don't trash the source, they turn it into high art. Groups like the Cramps and the B-52s took the element of role-playing straight from the movies. These weren't bands; they were concepts. But their almost pretentious devotion to bad taste and sweet nostalgia was leavened with a sexy looseness and a fannish reverence bordering on homage. It took My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, though, to encapsulate the breadth of slop culture introduced over the last 40 years. It's said that they began as a group of friends attempting to film a movie with the title that ultimately became their band name. That would erase the seam between low-budget movies and trashy music, leaving the Kult free to find the lost art -- not always well hidden -- beneath the tacky exterior of sleaze. Always a label to spot a void in the reissue marketplace (and fill it), Rykodisc has smartly released three of the band's albums -- Sexplosion, 13 Above the Night and (my fave title) Hit and Run Holiday -- with bonus tracks and beautiful reproductions of the zany, leering album covers. Easy comparisons come close to fitting the bill -- but no cigar: More than the Cramps and B-52s, the Kult's precursors were obscure, everything-but-the kitsch-in-sync Wave mutants like Gruppo Sportivo and the Sic F***s (sic).

The Kult's vocals and vocal effects are surprisingly poppish at times; there are horny odes to spy music (including a long sample that sounds to be from the James Bond Thunderball soundtrack), sampling taken to scrambled-egg limits, funk and soul currents, slice-and-dice songspeak, baggy-panting Britpop, even the wet-with-echo, post-Liberace flamboyance of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. It's dance music that's more pyschotronica than electronica. Titles like "Savage Sexteen" and "Sex on Wheels" show affection for teens-gone-wrong flicks and Russ Meyer's large-breasted body of work. When you try to make a so-bad-it's-good flick, you get Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Musically speaking, that would translate to the obvious rocksploitation of the Beastie Boys and Urge Overkill, who wink at us while spitting '60s and '70s cliches. That can be fun, especially in videos, but My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult proves you can make good music of bad movies. (JO)

CROONER REMEMBRANCE: It's one of those unheralded moments of musical definition. In 1954, Joe Williams joined the Count Basie Orchestra, and for seven years they reshaped jazz -- not explosively, not even markedly at first (the critics, as usual, lagged behind). The change was emotional and has sunk in over time: Williams' volcanic baritone and cosmic range fused the crooner and the belter, the balladeer and the bluesman, like no singer before him -- like none, I think, after him. You love Johnny Hartman's smoky voice? Williams is at once smoother and heartier; his lushness pours from a gospel-blues gutbucket and reshapes even the most worn jazz cliche. His voice released the hidden potential of big-band jazz, stretching not the form but the power, finding new emotional reaches. Simply put, no other singer could match, blow for blow, Basie's thundering dynamics the way Williams did.

His signature tunes with Basie include "Every Day I Have the Blues," "Alright, Okay, You Win," and "Teach Me Tonight." All can be found on Verve's beyond-essential Count Basie Swings/Joe Williams Sings. Williams' later work, despite some pitfalls (notably the misguided jazz-rock Blue Note release Worth Waiting For, now mercifully out of print), should not be overlooked. Every Night: Live at Vine St. (Verve) offers a show from the '80s, highlighting Williams' charisma, panache and infinite powers of imaginative phrasing. And his 1993 reunion with the Count Basie Orchestra, documented on Live at Detroit Orchestra Hall (Telarc), shows he never really passed his prime. Williams died in Las Vegas last week. He was 80 and gigging up to the end. (RK)

Contributors: Roy Kasten, Jordan Oakes, Randall Roberts

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