Off The Beaten Track: Music Reviews & Musings by Mary Leary
TROUBADOURS OF THE APOCALYPSE: NATHAN PAYNE AND OTHER ALCOHOLIC CLOWNS
Achhhhh! I’m not entirely sure what to write about Nathan Payne. At 35, per ageist prejudice, he’s past his marketable prime. Nathan likes Mexican food and was born on Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. He drives a cab, performs in coffeehouses and other venues, and attempts to sell his outpourings for a living, which tempts me to spout, “Call it performance art. Blast your songs from a loudspeaker on the roof! Pile cartons of CDs in the backseat, threatening to avalanche the unwary passenger…”
The problem is, I said I’d write this profile. Also: Some things about Nathan beg not only attention but consideration. That consideration doesn’t lead to an easy summation. The man’s a shape-shifter; one of a sub-species that a musicologist might liken to Harmonica (outcast, wanderer, possible charlatan) Frank.
Until 2005-’06, Payne’s Nourish movements (living in his car and roach-ridden L.A. flophouses, then roaming the red, white and blue landscape) would have made it easier to paint this picture: A disturbed, highly intelligent personality, who without a creative outlet might have been a serial killer. That image was underscored by the languorous, murky Black Dahlia video starring Nathan and his song of that name.
But the shape has kept shifting. Shrieks and barks emanating from the bathetic mayhem of active addiction have shifted into transmissions with more humor, maturity and even finesse, regularly veined with socio-political carping. A few years ago, Payne shed a few more drops of sweat into the L.A. smog before driving to Austin and parking his trailer on the outskirts. He then went on tour, slammed out two albums in Arkansas in 11 days, and repaired to Texas, after which he recorded the two-disc Slow-Burning Fun.
The shape’s still an uneasy cross of realism with abstract expressionism. Following mood and/or subject, Payne sound and production utilize various American roots styles. And then there’s Payne-as-rocker. In Los Angeles, with a band (Nathan Payne Memorial Service), he accelerated from threatening to acidic, at best a not-for-the-weak-of-psyche mix of Jim Morrison, Nick Cave and Sonic Youth (California Death Trip’s “I Don’t Want,” “A Man Called Horse”). At times Payne even enters Lux Interiorville. Yet more confounding is his assortment of voices. To the psychotic howler you can add the straightforward folkie, a descendent of Country Joe MacDonald, Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton that also recalls satirist Tom Lehrer. This voice is sometimes punctuated by country rasps and yelps. Then there’s the noir monotone delivering line after line of venom. There’s a demonic sneer that pops up, sometimes mixed with one of the other voices (“Princess of No Return,” SBF).
His work, to date, is uneven. Unless we want to unconditionally applaud his maverick freedom, Payne could use some self-editing. But just when I get sick of mining for gold, splendor raises its head. Right now, with “Sleeping Sea #3” (SBF) on, it’s hard to concentrate as he vehemently mouths, “What will become/of the sparkling spoon?/How long will we scrape our knuckles/across the surface of a chuckling moon?” At such moments I feel Payne’s work is an epic prose-poem or autobiography set to music, and that the spoken word arena awaits his arrival.
I’m not sure his time was well spent on the breakneck recording of Vampire Cats (one of the Arkansas recordings), which has lots of rockabilly and fast country songs crying for a well-honed band. But there’s also some shimmering cabaret (“One Last Kiss”), a mood then disrupted by country yodeling, a few dull tracks, and an abrasive knee-slapper, “Telephone.” After that, “Ghost inside a Girl” unveils a sound I hadn’t heard or noticed – a light, ingenious melody glimmering through a hodge-podge of acoustic influences. Annoying! Now I can’t just dismiss Cats by suggesting it would echo better in a rundown roadhouse.
Three albums are more cohesive: the offensively titled Blinded by Faggots (at one point he explained the name on one of his Myspaces), American Infidel, and All The Diamonds You Can Eat (which was caught by a broken four-track on dollar-store cassettes). Payne opens ATD with the beer bottle clink-punctuated, “A Beautiful Place.”
Next is a folk song, “California Hills,” which Fred Kiko of KXLU called his “favorite song about California ever” and which secured guest spots on Kiko’s “Demolisten.” To me this is Payne at his least interesting – the song reeks with (albeit sometimes appropriate) clichés about Southern California. While “California Hills” is a fairly innocuous example, some of his socio-religio-political hammering makes me want to throw eggs at the soapbox – not only have I heard a lot of the same cultural expression through at least three grassroots movements, I tend to resonate with less heavy-handed strategies.
Diamonds really hits its stride with “Dark Side of the Dog,” which combines Payne’s off-the-cuff poetic observations with a compelling riff and good phrasing. Then there’s a sleeper junkie classic, “Happiness is Mine.” It’s not just the anthemic chorus: “We’re on drugs because/the flies go/buzz buzz buzz/an’ love covers over everything,” or great throwaways: “Wake up shakin’ /in a lake of naked girls. With the vampiric cachet of Weill/Brecht’s “Alabama Song,” “Happiness” would go well with Nick Cave’s take on “Mack the Knife” (September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill).
The next three tracks are good, and the muted beauty of “Peace & Contentment Blues” is better.
Payne’s a bitch to profile. But once the door was kicked open by a song on his Myspace I haven’t been able to close it. “Sin on Wheels,” with its bare-boned cowboy lope, has often been on my playlist there, holding its own next to Link Wray and Television. And there’s a tale being told, one that raises questions: Is the singer the narrator or the protagonist? Did he murder a woman, or is he on the lam with her… or another one…?
“…and now her tongue is turnin’ purple
her face is turnin’ white
somebody give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation
don’t be so impolite!”
“The cops are right behind us
so try to stay awake
keep your foot up on that trigger
keep yer finger on the brake
take me off to the asylum
while I’m still good enough to go
I’m outta my mind
but don’t let anybody know”
While Payne’s music and production have been uneven, his abundant thoughts are fashioned into consistently fresh lyrics that often ring as blood-and-dirt true as Edward Hopper’s diner paintings (not the doctored ones, like Santa perched at the counter with a bunch of elves)—well, maybe: Payne can break into absurdity, or just silliness, after a stream of darkness. On “Someone to Taste” (SBF,) he mouths, straight-faced: “So pass me the tissues if your love is true/I got chased by a police officer with abandonment issues” (which is surrounded by a mix of funhouse laughter and dry-heave wheezing).
A few more elements make his work compelling. One is Payne’s hate-hate (he wants to love it, but there are PROBLEMS, detailed in many songs) relationship with contemporary America. Another is his consideration of the road, along with the twilight tales he’s experienced, albeit at times through a hind-sighted bird’s eye. Re: seeing a purpose in the underbelly (I could cite Jung but would probably drown), I’ll let this poem speak – I wrote it after the remodeling of Times Square and Las Vegas:
It was time to come out of the closet.
He kept wearing his Mickey Mouse watch
with the rodent upside down,
had started pulling a Goofy T-shirt
over his head
so the dog could only be seen
Worst of all
was the way he played an old 45 of
“It’s a Small World” backwards
until it said he should kill the producers
of Beauty and the Beast
and the Herbie remake
along with bombing the revamped Times Square
and infecting Las Vegas
with the original neon, greasy burgers, and hustlers.
People didn’t realize how much he threatened
the upstanding, family-friendly everything:
Who notices an upside-down Mickey Mouse watch?
Who has the time?
Then there are the psychodramas weaving through his stories. In “Dirty Magazine” (SBF) a man has locked his woman in the bathroom, she’s locked him in, or they’re taking turns. Payne repeatedly gets under the skin of couples who grow so enmeshed, they forget how much they hate capitalism or Republicans and start tearing each other apart. I’m generally riveted by well-drawn interpersonal dynamics.
From SBF’s “Tragic Neurons”:
“My baby she’s the bitchinest
most delicious exhibitionist
to put her tragic neurons on display
leanin’ on the fender
in all her psychotic splendor
if you ain’t nice to her she’ll never go away”
Payne’s wife Alyssa has started adding vocals to his songs. The grit of their “Dirty Magazine” duet approaches Exene with John Doe circa The Knitters.
I wouldn’t listen to his words if the music weren’t generally good-to-very good, with flashes of brilliance. Happily, with SBF Payne is getting better at mixing the more listenable with the more challenging. Sure, I shot the stereo a few dirty looks as Payne ranted for nine-plus minutes on “Licking the Fist that Feeds.” With the more exhausting or below-par material shortened or deleted, SBF could have been an independent singer-songwriter best-of-’09 contender.
Among Payne’s prolific output (8-9 CDs and an EP), there are at least 25 exemplary tracks (I haven’t heard one album, Angels on Fire). Here are some suggestions (keeping in mind that album progression can yield a different experience):
All The Diamonds You Can Eat: A Beautiful Place, Happiness Is Mine, Peace & Contentment Blues
Slow- Burning Fun: Cheshire Moon, Don’t Say Please, Someone to Taste, Bleeding Heart, If Hell is a Party (I’m the hors d’oeuvres), Dirty Magazine, Drive You into the Sea, A Crime in Progress, Love Will Save Me, The Princess of No Return, Sleeping Sea #3
California Death Trip: Don’t Wake Me Up, I Don’t Want, A Man Called Horse, All I Want
Blinded by Faggots: Mulholland Love Song, Damaged Goods, My Ass Is Hooked on Dynamite, Telepathic Proposal, Too Much, Too Soon, Baby Don’t Cry
American Infidel: My Girlfriend Hates My Guts, Taco Truck Waltz, Neon Signs, Sunny Day, Love in a Room
No Destination (3-song EP): $6 Tux – hell, just buy the EP – the spoken word/sound track is interesting
Sideburns in the Sun: (upcoming, for Sin on Wheels and to see what else he throws on)
ALCOHOLIC CLOWN RECORDS
My enquiry about an Alcoholic Clown named The Slow Poisoner was promptly answered by a large mailer, the front of which was covered by a cartoonlike drawing of a swamp. Out of the swamp rises a torso wearing a Little Lord Fauntleroy-type jacket and string tie and, in place of a head, a large hand with an eyeball in the middle. On the back of the mailer are rubber stampings of skulls and bones. This reminds me of the mail art I used to exchange and of all the cool stuff passing through postal workers’ hands back when underground actually meant underground (record labels, Wiccans, artists, insurgents). I remember, on some dreary days, giggling all the way back from the mailbox. These are very, very good things.
The Slow Poisoner does other good things. There’s lots of roots-of… riffing, recalling Buddy Holly and seminal rockabilly. There’s lots of guitar reverb and a pretty varied assortment of songs about things that matter, and that don’t get enough coverage, like how people really originated at the bottom of a muddy river, and that the “Wood Full O’ Witches” can mean all kinds of odd occurrences, and lusting after a “Swamp Gal.” “The Shriek!” features at least three blood-curdling screams. The SP evens warns us, to galloping gospel, about the “Thundering Fists of the Lord.” This strikes me as rather open-minded of Payne, who helms the label with fellow A.C., Brad Hahn. Payne seems serious about Christianity, and if he supports free expression, that’s what I think of as real Christianity – or, for that matter, any spiritual tradition. It’s a thought.
I even like the feel of TSP’s Magic Casket CD cover – a smooth, shiny digipak with his irresistible, Halloweeny graphix. The only problem is his location, San Francisco – he seems so So. Cal. – and there’s already enough wonder and creativity by the Bay. Also, I might not like his CD so much if he hadn’t had the sense to keep it at 11 three-minutes-or-less tracks. His website is like his CD art squared – link’s at the bottom of this installment.
This is Payne’s label statement: “Alcoholic Clown Records was founded in Austin, Texas in 2007 to serve as a means of financial, recording, & tour support for artists who we like. Unless they suck.” Besides Payne, there are five A.C.s, most of whom seem to embody different Payne facets.
Making TSP seem like a televangelist’s guest star is a duo called Juggernut, whose CD has been “on the way” for some time. I’ve just checked out some of their videos and tracks – but that was enough – so much, in fact, that, well – sometimes a video’s worth many words:
Another thing that sold me on these Dada chuckleheads (Why, oh why did I leave NYC and the gonzo stuff that only seems to happen there, or San Francisco, or Budapest? Why didn’t I join the Neoists?) — another thing is that they have a track called “A Woman’s Ass,” which includes these pronouncements: “A woman’s ass… will make you buy a beer… and forget your beer… and leave your beer at the bar next to your friend… that’s your fucking beer!” “A woman’s ass… is a dump truck of love… a mosh pit of flowers..” “A woman’s ass… is a crack house on fire…your grandma’s face on fucking fire!” … and on, into anarchistic epiphanies.
It seems to me that there are far too few odes to women’s asses by non-Africans. The sound? Seems to be mostly samples and other prerecorded instrumentation, with live rhythm box and vocals. Some of the less aggressive tracks sound like Suicide, or Soft Cell if it had not been gay, and had gone mad. When Juggernut rocks, it’s acidic and hits the spot. The CD’s called Down But Nut Out.
After an abrupt hairpin turn we’re at Matt Pless, who’s firmly entrenched in the populist neighborhood re-annexed in the ‘50s-‘60s to “singer-songwriter/folk” by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, among others. While I lean toward more exciting (to me) or intricate tones (British Isles/Celtic, French, Rom gypsy, Hungarian), with Pless’s latest, Alarm Clock Time Bomb, I did less fast-forwarding than expected to see if the songs would diverge from predictable progressions. Several do, as well as benefiting from fairly sophisticated arrangements and collaborative energy (cello, bass, dobro, drums, and lead guitar). The repetitive form supporting social commentary on “White Picket Fences” is surrounded with enough spice to earn Pless a tenuous perch in the new generation of musical protesters.
At best, Pless is retracing the trajectory of folk-rockers like the Byrds (“Boomerang,” “When the Helmets Hit the Ground”) or, in a reverse trajectory, Jorma Kaukonen with Hot Tuna (opener “The Flowers in the Furnace”). Despite a tendency to lean toward Weezer/Pavement on his more straightforward pop, Pless abandons any hope of coolness by holding forth on subjects rarely mentioned by below-‘30s, like prevalent cyber activity. You’d think the Dylan-rippin’ “Talkin’ Information Blues” was by a senior citizen.
We’ve arrived at the last two Clowns, Andrew Scandal and Brad Hahn. My assessments are based on online tracks and an A.C. sampler. Andrew Scandal has high, precious vocals, sometimes adopts a chunky, acoustic Jason Mraz/Bushwalla form, and I guess also has a Coldplay sound –whatever it is, it makes me want to slap him. I could see “Heart Attacks” or “License Plate Eyes” on the Gossip Girl soundtrack. Other than being friends with Payne, and his Myspace statement, re: liking “Jim Beam, arguments, and chocolate,” I don’t get how Scandal rolls with the other A.C.’s.
Straddled atop the Clown car is Brad Hahn, whose folk or folk-rock resists easy branding. When he leans toward Gordon Lightfoot/Neil Diamond (“Partly Cloudy”), I wonder if he should have studied accounting. When I hear some Marshall Crenshaw in the Lightfoot (“Imaginary Strings”), I want to encourage him to keep working on his songwriting. When his “Gold Rush” brings to mind the manic freedom of the Holy Modal Rounders, I want to know if he’s available. And when he unexpectedly amalgamates John Doe with Jesse Colin Young and the unlikely lyrics to “I Wish We Were All Punk Rockers,” I want to see what Hahn would do with Young’s “Sunlight,” as well as hoping he’s seeking psychiatric attention. I’ve come up with songs like that and they didn’t make it beyond my practice room — a Franken-song occasionally works, but some elements can’t be palatably meshed. Since he has thrown caution to the wind, or is insane, I will call him a genius, suggest back-up singers, and leave a wide berth.
Payne once asked me if Alcoholic Clown was in fact an “independent,” or a label at all. I assured him that what’s he’s doing – putting out and promoting CDs by a few artists he wants to support (and, based on the bundle I received, hastily making copies when needed; the titles often hand-scribbled on the discs), along with letting label-mates follow their production muses – well, that this is the essence of “Indie.” Given Payne’s gravity re: issues of Capitalism, human rights, and so forth, he may have been testing me with the question. Which gives me some assurance that the term “merch” will never be associated with A.C. Wheeeee! Or, from the main A.C. page, “Click on the album covers below to order the discs directly from the artists! (unfortunately, Juggernut’s cover was deleted by Myspace because it’s a drawing of a giant testicle with arms & legs and they think it’s offensive.We disagreeeeeeeee!”
“Disney Satanist,” by Mary Leary, was previously published in Gypsy 3
All the A.C.s can be found on the label’s Myspace.
Nathan Payne: www.myspace.com/nathanpayne
Alcoholic Clown: www.myspace.com/alcoholicclownrecords
The Slow Poisoner: www.theslowpoisoner.com
Juggernut: www.thndrbox.com/juggernut.html, www.myspace.com/juggernutnyc