Incredibly Strange Muzak
by Daniel Gill
With the release of its two-volume book and CD series Incredibly Strange Music, RE/Search publishing company attempted to document the growing trend of rummaging through thrift stores for bizarre old records by interviewing some of the most eclectic vinyl collectors on earth. The records documented in this series could mostly be considered exotica (think Ultra Lounge), ranging from the electronic pioneering lounge music of Jean-Jacques Perrey to the laid-back easy listening sounds of the Three Suns or Martin Denny.
While this type of music might be considered "incredibly strange" to some ears, there is another world of even stranger music that makes the Re/Search books seem tame in comparison. In this article, we'll spotlight some recent and not so recent releases that challenge the limits of this sort of made-up genre that seems to know no limits.
Songs in the Key of Z
In the spirit of the Re/Search books, author and compiler Irwin Chusid offers up a book and accompanying CD compilation that documents the so-called world of "outsider music" (essentially the musical equivalent of outsider art). These musicians are defined by lacking traditional musicianship and also being completely serious and committed to the bizarre, twisted tunes they emit, without showing a trace of self-awareness. Many of them suffer from mental illness (for example Wesley Willis, who is schizophrenic) or self-imposed problems (see Syd Barrett). The artists spotlighted range from the relatively famous types (such as Tiny Tim, the Shaggs, Daniel Johnston, and Skip Spence) to the completely obscure and unknown (anyone ever heard of BJ Snowden, Shooby Taylor the Human Horn, or the Cherry Sisters before?). Chusid has obviously spent hours upon hours listening to each of these artists; he even hosts a radio program devoted to the genre (Incorrect Music Hour on WFMU). This shows up in each chapter as he summarizes the careers or non-careers of these bizarre artists and eloquently describes their music. Some of the best chapters in the book focus on the bizarre phenomenon known as song poems, and Jandek, a recluse from Texas whom Chusid describes as sounding like a walking zombie strumming a tennis racket. Of course it should be noted that quite a few of the artists covered in Songs in the Key of Z have released full albums of their own -- Wesley Willis even has over (count 'em) 300 CDs.
James Kochalka Superstar
James Kochalka is not only an extremely prolific musician who deserved a chapter in Songs in the Key of Z but didn't get one; he is also an acclaimed comic book artist, having published numerous books and his always-popular Monkey vs. Robot series. Kochalka's music is a strange affair indeed. It is clear that he can't carry a tune, yet he belts out songs with titles like "Carrot Boy the Beautiful" with true feeling. His music is childlike, simple, and demented all at once. He has released somewhere around five CDs, which are all worth tracking down.
Harvey Sid Fisher
Chances are, if you are one of the few who has been exposed to Mr. Fisher, it was through The Daily Show on Comedy Central a couple of years back, when they used to show clips from Fisher's Astrological Songs video. Harvey Sid Fisher is an older gentleman whose other main love is singing about golf. He comes across as being sort of a Las Vegas lounge singer from another dimension. If you're ever in Fisher's hometown of LA, you might catch him on late night public access TV.
Back in the '60s and '70s, Bruce Haack created what are possibly the strangest children's albums ever recorded. His vocals and the vocals of his main collaborator, Esther Nelson, are typical of elementary school dance instruction records, but the music going on in the background is another matter entirely. Whizzing electronics, homemade percussion instruments, and other space age sounding blips and bleeps make up Bruce Haack's trademark sound. He also recorded a two-volume concept album titled Electric Lucifer (not a children's album), which chronicles a battle between the devil and Jesus. Recently there has been a string of reissues of Haack's work, the Emperor Norton label released Listen-Compute Rock Home and Normal Records has issued Hush Little Robot, as well as the Electric Lucifer album. Unfortunately, Haack passed away in 1988.
The Evolution Control Committee
Taking their cues from legendary sound collage artists Negativland (who deserve several books of their own, by the way) the Evolution Control Committee commanded the attention of the record buying public in recent years with the release of two seven-inch singles that have to be heard to be believed. The first, titled Whipped Cream Mixes, samples Herb Alpert as the backing track and uses Chuck D's vocals from some old Public Enemy songs on top. The vocals and music flow together so seamlessly, it seems like Chuck D might have actually meant for this to happen someday. The second seven-inch, titled Rocked by Rape, actually resulted in a lawsuit. The record features cut-up samples of AC/DC guitar riffs in the background and sound bites from Dan Rather mixed in on top, saying things like "Guns, war, nuclear bomb, mountains of credit card debt."
Seeland Records/The Illegal Arts Series
The aforementioned politically minded group Negativland has its own record label, Seeland. Any time you see a CD with the Seeland label on the back, you can be assured that some very bizarre sounds are contained within. Such recent releases as the sample-heavy Eddie the Rat or the series of compilations known as The Illegal Arts series have tested the limits of copyright infringement. The Illegal Arts series includes such titles as Deconstructing Beck and Commercial Ad Hoc. On these compilations, artists with names such as the Bran Flakes make new compositions using samples of either Beck songs or TV commercials to make new songs that put a completely different perspective on the original source material.