Friday, June 10, 2011

Charlie McAlister - Country Creme/Victorian Fog [Feeding Tube]

Last year Feeding Tube records out in Massachusetts dropped what was unequivocally the best, most essential reissue/archival release of the year, and maybe even the best release of 2010 period. That record is Pimania. I cannot stress strongly enough how essential that record is, the less you know the better, but it is worth every penny.
Feeding Tube is not folk that like to waste time so on 1/1/11 (as you can see this review is quite tardy, sorry!) they entered this year's competitor for best archival release and it once again has blown me clean away.
Charlie McAlister was a mysterious figure I'd heard a lot about yet never actually heard. I have a friend who put out tapes by him in the 90s from whom I've heard a few stories and I've read plenty of web-ink on the guy as well. When I first heard this record I was not disappointed in the least, in fact I instantly understood why people talk so much about him. His songwriting is immediately compelling; it's at once pleasantly classic and ardently strange.
The recordings on this Country Creme/Victorian Fog LP were recorded between 1998 and 1999 but they seem to feel older like a rustic old curio no one knows about but you. All of the tape warble and manipulation certainly situates the music within a certain era, but the sound McAlister conjures transcends any era and it ultimately sounds timeless. Steeped in hissy, fizzy, buzzy fidelity, his nimble arrangements, generally consisting of acoustic guitar and voice plus a melody by a violin or harmonica or additional banjo plucks, are skuffed up revealing the diamond-hard hooks at the center of his songs. But for what most would probably categorize as a folk record, this thing is noisy. Kevin Taylor is credited with "noise machine" in the outro of "Depths of Confusion" and "Desperate Plea" features a feedback-ridden harmonica and various tape snags throughout. McAllister occasionally drops into demented passages of found tape samples, which get their own track in the form of "Fried Sandwich Play" which, I'll be honest, I skip sometimes when I'm not in the mood for such befuddlement. It's inclusion is enlightening, showing an example of the range of McAllister's work but it's somewhat ill-fitting in the context of this particular record.
McAlister is quite a spectacular lyricist as well. Kicking off with "I am Staying Here" McAlister delivers a timeless phrase I'm sure many can relate to: "Because of my friends and the beer/I am staying here." "Vision/Rage/Irish Girl" sounds like McAlister might even be making up the story as he goes over jaunty guitar and seething tin can clatter.
"Fake Country Music" is a weirdly lucid self-reflection on McAlister's music:
"Fake country music is what I like to play/Fake country music, okay/I'm playing the fiddle with a rusty key/I make country music for you and me/I'm shrieking and screaming and knocking down the walls/I'm the hideous creature in the [Fall? fog?]"
McAllister delivers a killer fiddle solo/skree to finish it off.
There's a ton of classic shit on Country Creme but the Victorian Fog side is even stronger. Starting with what is now gonna be my go-to when college football comes back in September, "Hair/Wind/Football." McAlister paints a picture of the school band playing in a fog while the players play a rough game of football over a jaunty rhythm while laying into waxy violin drones. It's a modest, mellow intro which belies the intensity of its subject matter. The instrumental "March #16" is paired perfectly with it, lead by an enterprising young glockenspiel. From there McAlister ambles down to the "Plantation of Pain," McAlister's response to confederate songs. It's another entirely infectious little ditty--McAlister is just unstoppable on this record.
The absolute pinnacle of the LP (and one of the greatest songs I've come across in a while) is "Bog Man." First of all, it's about a bog man, which I am fortunate to have seen two of in Dublin, so that's pretty badass to me. Furthermore though, McAlister re-envisions the bog man as a 1930s Universal monster movie. A man's body is thrown in a bog and 10,000 years later he is discovered, put on display and comes back to life, wreaking havoc on the townspeople in the process. In my eyes, this is quintessential McAlister; he's never better lyrically or as a songwriter and arranger on the record. I really could gush for pages and pages about this single song and at the end of the day my words would be woefully inadequate in expressing the magic of this tune; so I'll spare you on the condition that you buy this record or do whatever you have to experience the song for yourself.
Following is a wild and untitled instrumental, full of militant snare drum, tangled webs of chimes and whirring organ-tape-machine-whathaveyou--my guess is this is the "parade." Probably my second favorite song on the record is "After the Parade" as it features McAlister's most affecting vocal delivery. The gentle quiver in his voice is strangely gripping and imbues his portrait of the carcass of a parade with a strangely undefinable sensation. How do we take his couplet "It's time to go for a ride/I can't remember what we did last night"? Is it nostalgia? Is it panic? Something else entirely? Ultimately, the song closes with McAlister sawing out his most lovely melody on his fiddle. The song is so brief yet it features so much depth and rich ambiguity.
"Sinking Ship" details just that. Though McAlister's account of such terrors is met with an upbeat cyclical melody. "Song X" is another instrumental from a similar cloth of the prior instrumentals on the side.
A spate of short songs conclude the record. "Go to Hell" matches a whimsical chiming melody with garbled tape manipulation and feisty lyrics, "Pale Light" plonks along on a detuned six-string and squealing slide guitar lead and "The Big 'Parade'" oddly enough details society circa-World War 1 .
Reaching for some kind of phrase to capture the feel of this record, I'd offer up "This is old timey music for the weirdo underground." But really it's much more than that. What you need to know is this: Charlie McAlister's voice, as an artist not just a singer, is honest and inimitable. Whether you ultimately like his music or not, McAlister is someone you must hear for yourself and Feeding Tube, having done a beautiful job curating this LP, has done all the legwork for you. All you need to do is listen.

7 comments:

Kevin said...

This guy is the BEST. Have a ton of his releases and finally saw him perform twice in California when he moved out here for a minute, and played with him one of those times. Completely changed live music for me and remains in my top ten for sure. Maybe 20 people total saw those two sets combined. :/
Total weirdo, definitely the same person on the records and in real life.

Auxiliary Out said...

Thanks for the comment Kevin! Everyone I know who has known CM seems to say the same thing, that the guy is a true outsider.
I'm bummed I've missed out on him all these years

Hit Record Yeah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
handglops said...

YESSSS, love c. mcalister. wish i had a ton of his releases. i should get this one. whats wrong w/ me that i don't have it yet? Mississippi Luau is the best album of the 90s, probably.

joel said...

I have been lobbying the local college radio station to let me do a two-hour per week show that plays only Charlie McAlister songs. If I get approved, it'll be on Monday mornings from 5am to 7am Pacific time on KSPC 88.7 or streaming live at KSPC.org.
The show is called "Mississippi Luau with Captain Joe"
I should know for sure in the next few weeks.

joel said...

Listen at KSPC.org on Monday mornings from 5-7am Pacific Standard Time. The Mississippi Luau Show with your host, Captain Joe!

joel said...

The show streams live at KSPC.org on Mondays from 5am-7am Pacific Standard Time.
The Mississippi Luau Show with Captain Joe: The Music of Charlie McAlister.