Various Artists – Songs in the Key of Z, Vol. 2

Various Artists
Songs in the Key of Z, Vol. 2

A week or so ago I wrote about the first volume in Irwin Chusid’s Songs in the Key of Z series; you should be able to find that review below, I suppose. The recently released Volume 2 follows up with 17 more songs by the harmonically ambivalent, the musically oblivious, and the uniquely untalented. The concept is the same, so let’s jump headfirst into the scintillating world of outsider music, dispensing with any sort of narrative or cohesive structure, and beginning with the apex and the apogee rolled into one.
The utterly astounding Shooby Taylor begins his take on the NAACP anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” with a spoken recitation upon the vagaries of contemporary blackness. Like everything else Mr. Taylor has ever attempted, it is blissfully, confusingly awesome. After the intro, Shooby’s scat-like, nonsensical vocal interjections slice through the farfisa accompaniment like a cheetah through a herd of zebras, as the Shoob’s head no doubt comes precipitously close to bursting. Shooby’s Kennedy Center Honor most surely must be forthcoming, and I for one anxiously await that day when this unparalleled musical genius finally gets his due.
From the unattainable to the mundane, Bingo Gazingo and My Robot Friend follow Shooby up with a song as boring as it is unconvincing. Gazingo’s lyrics sound far too self-conscious, which is pretty much the death-knell for a supposedly “outsider” artist, and the terrible electro-sludge-metal accompaniment from “legit” musicians is almost unbearable. Volume One heroine B. J. Snowden quickly gets everything back on the right track, however, with a charming wisp of patriotism called “America.” It’s sort of like her song “In Canada,” but it’s about America instead, y’see. Alvin Dahn‘s “You’re Driving Me Mad” would be nothing more than boring, lo-fi, heavy metal with horrible, tuneless vocals if it weren’t for the all-too-palpable depression and anxiety in Dahn’s voice; he truly does sound like someone who has been driven mad.
After Dahn comes tracks from Volume 1 vets Congresswoman Malinda Jackson Parker and Luie Luie, both of which are quite splendid, if not quite as great as their songs on the previous volume. The Space Lady‘s cover of the Electric Prunes’ old garage chestnut “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” is good for a laff but possesses little of the magic and misery that makes many of these outsider artists so amazing. Again, she sounds a bit too self-conscious. Eddie Murray, tuneless crooner, is represented by his “Stepping High Dance;” musically competent but melodically indifferent, “Stepping High Dance” and Mr. Murray could accurately be filed next to Florence Foster Jenkins. Yes, sir! The song-poem “Five Feet Nine and a Half Inches Tall,” with music from Dick Kent and words from Pablo Feliciano, is an incredibly nonsensical gem of a tune, sounding like something Jerry Reed would make if he were frighteningly sub-moronic.
Okay, there are still even more delights to be found on this record; Hobo Wayne‘s country-blues “Deep Bosom Woman,” Gary Mullis‘s spoken-word piece about Roy Acuff, bizarre one-man band Bob Vido‘s “High-Speed,” recent Oscar darling and performance artist Thoth‘s “The Herma, Scene 5: Recitation / An”, jet pilot diva Tangela Tricoli‘s “Jet Lady”, and veritable near-legend Buddy Max‘s “The Birthmark Story” all appear in their various glories. But none of them, and indeed, with the possible exception of Mr. Taylor, none of the other artists on this volume, can touch the utter genius / horror of the two songs I have yet to mention.
Mark Kennis‘s “Heart of the Heartland” is four and a half minutes of Mr. Kennis repeating the couplet “I was born in the heart of the Heartland / I was born in Iowa” with no musical backing whatsoever. Recorded live from a hospital bed, “Heart of the Heartland” possesses theoretical strands of the works of Can, La Monte Young, Neu!, the Fall, and many other artists who realized that doing one thing for a long damn time can be both viscerally and artistically fulfilling. Like the best of this so-called “outsider” stuff, it straddles the line between idiocy and genius so thoroughly that it is impossible to accurately critique it.
Finally, the highlight of this second volume of Songs in the Key of Z, and easily one of the most disturbing pieces of music I have ever encountered, is shrouded in the lacy, frilly unmentionables of mystery. “Curly Toes,” a home recording of unknown origin, is an a capella burlesque most likely intended for an audience of one; the singer, a lady with a thick southern accent and a late-night wardrobe of “pink ribbons and bows,” basically describes a strip tease in song-form, addressing it to her “Little Ben.” “Curly Toes” is unnerving on several levels; beyond the feelings of voyeurism and trespass, the complete anonymity of its author/performer almost lends an element of the macabre to the tune. This woman could be almost anybody, and thinking about it too much can be similar to getting a headache from dwelling on infinity for too long. “Curly Toes” is almost insidious; it can hurt to listen to it, but it’s impossible to avoid, and it is guaranteed to stay in your head for a long, long time. Equally hideous and beautiful, “Curly Toes” stands as the strongest expression of “outsider” music’s innocence and total lack of self-awareness.
Alright, so I’ve hit on every single track on the second volume of Songs in the Key of Z. It’s not as enjoyable as the first edition, really, and not quite as powerful or charming, but it is still certainly worth looking into, especially if you liked the first disc. Hopefully Mr. Chusid and the fine folks at Gammon will continue releasing these things until they’ve bled the vaults dry. Permit me to make a quick suggestion, and then I’m gone: next time, how about some Ken De Feudis, eh?