Thursday, February 28, 2013

CD Review: Kramer - The Brill Building

The Brill Building

This review is going to include a lot of me, at least in the beginning. You see, Kramer and I go back a long way. Not personally, though there is personal business involved too. But back around 1990, Kramer was it. He had one of the greatest bands in the world (Bongwater). He had a label that kept churning out all kinds of weird records (Shimmy-Disc), some of which were awesome, some weren't, but all were worth exploring, especially if you worked at a college radio station. On top of all that, he played bass, through a fuzz pedal, no less. He was doing things that I dreamed of doing.

In the fall of '89, I went to my first CMJ Music Marathon, and saw his other concurrent band B.A.L.L. Until I saw Bongwater a year and a half later, this was one of the most amazing, almost-falling-apart acts I had ever seen. The set began with Kramer running some cheapo cassette player through the p.a. with some strange music on it, and taking balloons from a garbage bag and throwing them into the audience. While all this was going on, guitarist Don Fleming stood there yelling, "PAPERBACK WRITER!" When they kicked into the music, they rocked really hard too. Every few songs, Kramer shot silly string into the audience. He also took an American flag and duct-taped it to the back wall, upside-down and haphazardly. (This was during the era of laws over flag-burning.) The band's energy and focus floored me. But it was too good to last. After about 15 minutes, Fleming's amp stack fell over and broke, so the set ended abruptly. Disappointing at the time, it almost seems vaguely appropriate.

Two of my bands ended up recording at Kramer's Noise New Jersey studio a few years later. Bone of Contention made an album over Memorial Day weekend in 1995 and two years earlier the Pundits drove up for a weekend to record three songs on a Sunday, which Kramer mixed that night before we split. It had always been my dream to have him produce BoC, though by the time we got up there, he was moving away from the gauzy sound of the Bongwater and Galaxie 500 albums towards something else. Still, it was a good time and I even got him to add an extra bass part to one of our songs that I had envisioned to be a little B.A.L.L.-ish. (Kramer, if you're reading this, I didn't tell you that at the time because I felt to inhibited. Didn't want to get on your bad side.)

When Kramer released the three-record opus The Guilt Trip in 1993, I was psyched. Not only was it gigantic, it sounded great, with all kinds of different stylings going on. But after one great album with Daevid Allen (Who's Afraid, which I come back to about every six months), the Shimmy-Disc outpouring seemed to slow down and didn't slay me as much.

Out of nowhere, Blurt's Fred Mills wrote a piece about Kramer's first new album in ages. Brill Building pays tribute to the songwriters who worked in that storied locale in New York (where my sister works now, though not as a songwriter) by covering 10 of them. I had to have it.

The album is marked by a lot of vintage Kramer stylings, specifically the use of sampled recordings before, after and sometimes during the songs. By 2013 standards, this is nothing new, but he was doing this on Bongwater records and it actually goes back to his days with Shockabilly (who were to classic rock what Spike Jones was to '40s music; why I'm the only person to say that, I'll never know). Sometimes they seem to be voices that randomly were chosen to go there, other times, there might be some political charge to it that gives the song a little more depth. Some of the ones on this album seem to have a continuing theme related to the '60s: Lyndon Johnson paying tribute to John Kennedy while signing the Civil Rights Bill; newscasters talking about Jack Ruby, presumably after he shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

Without even considering that he worked on it for seven years, it's clear that Kramer has a fondness for these songs and put care into this production. (His last few outings seemed to be not much more than simple jams with layers of overdubs piled onto them. A previous Beatles cover also a little lazy when he messed up lyric order.) The album begins with the creepy "He Hit Me" (whose title omits the "...and It Felt Like a Kiss"), but the slow tempo and sea of keyboards seem to make a statement on the unsavory message of the song. Brill Building also has extensive liner notes by Kramer where he analyzes that song and its meaning, not to mention the whole milieu of the Brill Building and the connection with Lower East Side poets like the Fugs. That alone is fascinating in and of itself, and not just because the layout makes it a challenge to read.

Kramer once described his take on covers as being something like part tribute and part lampoon, and that feeling comes across in several tracks. "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" finds him channeling an old Jewish grandfather while mumbling that insipid title. (Or maybe he's invoking Jack Mundurian, the novelty singer that he sampled on The Guilt Trip). In the "I knew we were falling in love" section, he shifts gears and belts it out like a rocker, which hams up the whole thing and makes you appreciate the whole thing. The fuzzed out electro-clash version of "I Want Candy" might be a bit much but the spastic version of "Save the Last Dance For Me" - which features R. Stevie Moore singing, drumming and playing way off-key guitar - is right on the money.

While several of tunes are fairly faithful and play it fairly safe, nearly half of the album successfully takes the songs where they've never gone before. For starters, there's a country-and-western take on "Spanish Harlem," complete with Johnny Cash-style guitar strums and some horse neighs. "On Broadway" gives us guest vocalist Jad Fair at his most soulful and guest pianist Mike Jones doing some busy but boppish piano fills. Neil Diamond's "Cherry Cherry" gets translated into Spanish and rearranged to sound almost like "Guantanamera," at least when the Sandpipers did it. That's not a put-down either. This is beautiful.

After what seems like a long time away from the limelight, this album signals that Kramer still has the creative juices flowing. The guest vocalists (which also includes Danielson's Daniel C. Smith on "Paradise) offer variety that evokes the groups that sang Brill Building songs. Yet Kramer himself is in extremely fine form whether he's goofing or making like a straight crooner on "Baby It's You" and "I Love How You Love Me." Which has me thinking, next time out, maybe he ought to take on the Great American Songbook. Kramer, you getting this down? It could be another chapter in the Great American Jewish series for ol' Zorn.

1 comment:

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