Saturday, February 18, 2017

Cruel Frederick and Greg Hawkes - Two Albums I've Needed for Awhile



In the past two weeks, I picked up two albums that have always intrigued me from a distance. One was an album that was hard to find. In fact, prior to purchasing it, I only saw a physical copy once, and that was in the library of WRCT-FM, the radio station at Carnegie Mellon University. (Who knows if the record is there anymore?) The other is an album I've read about and heard about from friends, who gave it mixed reviews: It isn't all that good, it's fun, it's OK. Nevertheless, I decided I could no longer live without it.

Here are their stories.

The first record I mentioned was Cruel Frederick's Birth of the Cruel. The band was something of an off-shoot of the San Francisco group Slovenly. They started life as Slovenly Peter, a character in a European folk tale that also included a character named Cruel Frederick. So it only follows that the horn section of Slovenly (Peter) would go off on their own, recording under the name Cruel Frederick.

The group consisted of Lynn Johnston (saxophones, clarinets), Jacob Cohn (alto sax), Guy Bennett (bass, trombone) and Jason Kahn (drums). Johnston continued to appear on Slovenly's albums on SST Records (which also released Birth of the Cruel). In fact all three of them got some blowing space in "What's It Called" on the triumphant We Shoot for the Moon album. They also guested on a couple albums by Universal Congress Of, the best of the punk jazz groups on SST, which also featured Kahn (also a member of Trotsky Icepick for a time) and guitarist Joe Baiza.

Birth of the Cruel came out in 1988 and didn't get much distribution by some accounts. Maybe Greg Ginn figured most college stations and record stores, wouldn't know what to do with it. It could be due to the fact that, unlike Universal Congress Of, this wasn't groove-based jazz. This was free jazz squonk, plain and simple. And it was delivered with punk rock aesthetics, meaning things were loose and kind of sloppy. In an overall sincere take on "Moon River," Johnson's alto flubs the melody in a way that casts it more in a minor key,  not really following the arc of the Henry Mancini classic. In "The East is Red" he attempts to blow the melody in the register above his horn's natural key - and doesn't quite pull it off.

But for all its frenzy, time has been kind to Birth of the Cruel. There is a great deal of fun to be gathered from the album. "Jukebox in the East River" takes its name from the item that was allegedly tied to Albert Ayler when his body was pulled from that body of water, and Johnston utilizes the wide vibrato approach of his forefather. (This melody also sounds remarkably like the unlisted coda on UCO's Prosperous and Qualified though I could be wrong.)

The group's cover material, more than half of the album, puts their influences on display. Along with Mancini, they tackle Ornette Coleman ("Lonely Woman"), two by Ayler ("Ghosts," "Bells") and an explosive "Amazing Grace." In some ways, these seem like obvious choices, the "greatest hits" of free jazz. But remember that back in 1988, this music wasn't all readily available. Ornette's The Shape of Jazz to Come was, but one had to dig for Ayler recordings, hoping to make a score in a used record bin or on a questionable import reissue of an ESP album.

A few years before the CD boom reissued everything, these tunes still had some faint allure. It was an indication that these.... cats... were hip to something a little more esoteric. They all strike a chord with me because, at the time, I was still weighing the idea of being an alto saxophonist with a punk streak. (As opposed to a bassist in a post-punk band.) I, too, knew how to play "Lonely Woman" and "Ghosts." Had I heard this album, I might've pushed more for the punk-jazz side, trying to find these guys and play with them.(A couple years earlier, Saccharine Trust came to Pittsburgh on their final tour and got stoked when Joe Baiza and I got into a conversation about jazz. To a 18- or 19-year old music school dropout, it was good to know he was a kindred spirit.)

Or maybe not. Nevertheless, Birth of the Cruel is a fun album, due in no small part to the way Jason Kahn keeps things in focus. When I saw the album on Discogs, I knew it was time to pick it up, especially since it was only $5, and in beautiful shape.

Every nine months or so, I get on a Cars kick and pull out one for their first three albums. Panorama is my favorite. I thought for sure I had done an entry about it, talking about how it's an unheralded classic, with Ric Ocasek taking a sharp left turn, going for the weird blend of lyrics, new wave ideas and rock hooks, before he cashed in his chips and went all pop with Shake It Up and Heartbeat City.

I got Panorama for my birthday in 8th grade, a few months after it came out. My brother Tom had the first two albums on 8-track (!) so I knew their stuff really well and felt like we were keeping up with them. By the time Shake It Up came out, my tastes were changing, it was low on my priority list and I never bought it. (I did buy in for $1 about 15 years ago, but never got around to listening to it.)

This is a lot of back story, but it's worth it.

During college, my friend Joel was on a Cars kick and he and my friend John got me to fully appreciate  Panorama for the artistic work that it was. Up until then, you could say I was just taking it for granted. As we expounded on it, I remember the subject veering towards Niagra Falls, the solo album by Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes. I recalled a lukewarm review in Creem when it came out, and everyone in the room seemed indifferent to the idea.

Well, the Cars kick resurfaced several weeks ago, and was still going strong last week. Really strong, as in listening closely to these songs I've heard dozens of times (I pulled out the first album and Candy-O too) and marveling at the song arrangements. Greg Hawkes' keyboard parts really stuck out so on a whim, I looked him up on Facebook. Why not strike up a friendly - not creepy or smug - conversation with him. A quick search of youtube yielded a video interview where he seems pretty down to earth, and funny. HE PLAYS THE UKULELE!

Sure enough, he has a personal profile. But my hopes of being a friend were thwarted because he couldn't accept any more requests. FIE!

This course of events made me all the more curious to get a copy of his solo album, Niagra Falls. Surely Jerry's Record would have a copy or two of it. The answer is yes, but it took some hunting. In the Cars section - nothing. The H section - definitely nothing. I think I even scoured the new wave H section. One option remained - Back stock.

Sure enough, right next to Richie Havens, there was Mr. Hawkes, four copies of him in fact. And they went back to the days when Jerry priced his records at $2.83, since tax took it up to $3 exactly. I opted for the copy still in shrink wrap with a sticker on it (as seen in the picture.)

Time has also been good this record. While it might not be a gem that was unfairly neglected at the time, it's nevertheless a fun listen. Hawkes plays everything on the album - keys, a little guitar, drum machines, a few vocals, sadly no saxophones - but it's more than a bunch of sketches with a bunch of overdubs piled onto them (the solo album syndrome). These are instrumental songs. "Ants In Your Pants" has a bit of a videogame sound, but it's catchy too. The vocoder vocals on "Voyage Into Space" beg the question: Does Tobacco, the reclusive Pittsburgh musician who also records with Black Moth Super Rainbow, know about this album? Did it inspire him? If not, he should get up to Jerry's and grab one of the other copies.

Even the lyrics on "Jet Lag" ("Jet lag/ it's a real drag," and that's it) are forgiveable. While he might have been slagged at the time as "no Ric Ocasek in the lyric department," today it sounds more like Greg knew what he was doing. Part of the fun was that it was so ridiculous a couplet.

On the same day I bought Niagra Falls I found the Cars' reunion CD Move Like This at the library, which is also really great, just like one might hope. And I also finally listened to Shake It Up. It was time.

2 comments:

gideon kendall said...

great article!

shanleymusic said...

Thanks for reading, Gideon! Glad you liked it.