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Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Barnes & Barnes, Wild Man Fischer, And Some “Normal” Music

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Collector' Choice Music Reissues: Barnes & Barnes' Voohaba and Wild Man Fischer's Nothing Scary

Rejoice, aficionados of outsider music. Prick up your pointed little ears, Dr. Demento fans. Collectors' Choice Music has reissued three classics of weirdness: Barnes & Barnes's first album, Voobaha (with gushers of bonus tracks), and Wild Man Fischer's Pronounced Normal and Nothing Scary which were produced – cajoled into existence, one might say – by the aforementioned duo.

Larry "Wild Man" Fischer is a bipolar paranoid schizophrenic with a disturbingly entertaining take on the world, and songwriting talent to go with it. Frank Zappa recorded him in the late 60s (Fischer references Zappa in a couple of his Nothing Scary monologues) but he was too unstable to have a consistent career even as a wacky weird guy.

However, in the early 1980s, Barnes & Barnes (Robert Haimer and Lost In Space's Bill Mumy), of "Fish Heads" and "Boogie Woogie Amputee" fame, took on the challenge of tracking Fischer down, recording more of his vocals, and putting musical tracks to them.

Some of Fischer's output in the new sessions came in the form of shouts and monologues, but many were real songs. Fully conceived pieces like "All I Think About Is You," "The Rain Song," "Outside the Hospital" and "Love Love Love In Everything You Do" show a serious, original and actually quite mainstream songwriting ability. Snippets like "Ping Pong Ball Head," "One of a Kind Mind," and "Bad Leg" do the same on a smaller scale. That distinguishes Fischer from certain other, nowadays better-known outsider artists like Wesley Willis. It's no wonder Zappa took an interest in Fischer.

Unlike with most "sane" songwriters, Fischer's raw thoughts too are fascinating, which is no doubt why Haimer and Mumy captured the selections here that are not, strictly speaking, musical. Fischer's take on the music business is especially wry, bursting out in various monologues and harangues.

And a truly terrible business it is. I don't think Haimer and Mumy really sought to "make it big" in the music biz, though they put out quite a few albums both on Rhino (Fischer's label too) and elsewhere, some of which deviated from their successful novelty formula. I suspect if they had tried too hard to go mainstream they might have spoiled the senses of humor that made them stars of the Dr. Demento show.

I can almost guarantee that you've heard "Fish Heads" even if you've never listened to Dr. Demento or heard of Barnes & Barnes. You might even have seen the video. If not, do it now, then come back.

Are you back? Great. Now all that's left to say is that this reissue of Voobaha with its many bonus tracks is a treasure trove of twisted humor. Horror fans will dig "Cemetery Girls" with its samples from "It's a Good Life," the classic, terrifying Twilight Zone episode in which six-year-old Mumy turned cornfields into places of terror for a whole generation. "Party in My Pants," "Three Drunk Newts," "Sewey Hole" – they're all here. Yup. All here. For you. To listen. To. Go ahead. Eat them up. Yum.

Scott Blasey, Travelin' On

Now onto some regular stuff. The new solo CD by Scott Blasey, lead singer of The Clarks, has a warm, intimate sound that's folksier than the band's but boasts the same smooth, sturdy, heartland-pop songwriting that's characteristic of the Clarks' strong catalog.

Blasey gives his soulful side a good workout with "Sweet Mystery," "Little Sofia," and a version of the Sam Cooke classic "Bring It On Home To Me." (The latter, interestingly, is less convincing than Blasey's own soul ballads.) The catch in Blasey's voice – the soul – has always been an important part of the Clarks' appeal, and it extends to his solo work.

"Time To Go" is a powerful pop anthem. "See You Around" and "Church of the Open Highway" feature airy harmonies that give a hint of psychedelic pop. On the latter, guitarist Chris Holt, who elsewhere on the album contributes George Harrison-like guitar solos, references Patty Loveless's 1991 hit "Hurt Me Bad (In a Real Good Way"), pointing up the country elements in Blasey's heartland sensibility. Bubblegum pop ("Be Your Man") and original folk songs ("Baby, You're My Saving Grace" and the title track) also form part of the landscape.

The CD is treat from a savvy and talented veteran. There's a free download of the nice piano mix of "Time To Go," and a video of "San Antonio," at Blasey's website.

Mary Karlzen, Yours To Keep

Like the Clarks, Mary Karlzen is a major label veteran who is now/again happily independent. But her new CD disappoints. Much of it has an uptempo Americana feel, tastefully executed by a studio band that includes bassist Garry Tallent of the E Street Band and Wilco's Ken Coomer on drums. Unfortunately, blandness dominates. Karlzen's voice doesn't have enough oomph to carry the rockers, which mostly sound generic anyway. The snappy "Find Yourself" rises above the sameness, a little, and "Stupid or Something" is strong and catchy. The two covers – Paul Westerberg's "Skyway" and a duet with Matthew Ryan on Tom Waits's "Heart of Saturday Night – are nice.

Two videos, including one for "Stupid or Something," can be seen here.

Ben Godwin, Skin and Bone

Speaking of Tom Waits, there's a little of him in Ben Godwin, a Londoner transplanted to New York. With a gritty voice that's half Joe Cocker and half Ian Anderson, Godwin belts out a set of theatrical, jazz-inflected tunes inspired by New York City life. By turns soulful ("Constantly Reminded"), Bacharachian ("Paper Thin Walls"), gentle ("Castaway") and Brelian ("Outsize Shoes"), Godwin's songs are as old-fashioned as the intelligibility of the lyrics he pipes out with his thick baritone. "Poverty's a crime in the poorhouse / And the punishment is life / The lucky ones work in the slaughterhouse / And the rest go under the knife," he bellows in the title track, where you should also listen for Julie LaMendola's eerie saw-playing.

"We'll sweat our hearts out / Fill a rich man's cup in the New World City / We'll break our backs building monuments to the sky / Catch our fingers in the teeth of the machinery," he cries like Bertholdt Brecht and Kurt Weill in "New World City," but we'll also "make a new religion out of rusted cars / Our televisions, and our hollow stars." "So very precious," cries the Everyman of Godwin's tales, "but we're only worth a song in the New World City." But the value of a song, as Godwin certainly knows, is boundless.

Echoing Jacques Brel's "The Bulls," "New World City" ends with a litany of places, cities all over the world where people struggle. But unlike the Brel song, which leaves us with its grim battlefield images, Godwin's "La la la" chorus returns for a final affirmation of life amidst the dirt and grime.

This music is serious, fun, and definitely different. You can hear extended samples at CD Baby.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.