Off the Beaten Track with Mary Leary: Music Reviews & Musings

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Mogwai: Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (Sub Pop)
Sam Humans: Live Free/The Heligoats: Let Loose (Greyday Records)
Captain Beefheart: Clear Spot (Reprise)
Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 (Return to Sender, Communion, Thwart, Matador, Caroline)


IT OCCURS TO ME that there may be readers who don’t… drink… coffee; who are on a purer physical path than I at this time, who consume only raw foods or macrobiotics. Who do yoga for several hours each day. And so forth. To help those readers get a quick energy jolt, we’ll start with my favorite track from the new album by Mogwai, a  Glasgow-based, noisy-rock outfit. This tune’s called “San Pedro,” and man, it kicks (apparently the band’s pretty lethal live). It goes VERY well with coffee, and with this column, as these guys can play for hours without uttering a syllable:

The rest of this column is about sounds that also go well with coffee, or Night Train, or just plain air (breatharians, alert!). The latter’s nothing to joke about, is it? Air quality, or the lack thereof, has been known to make me very cranky. However, I find the sounds that are being produced by Chris Otepka with The Heligoats so essential (as in: Once discovered, don’t want to live without), they can make me forget about eating, or air quality, or that I’d better pay the November electric bill.

Ever since The Heligoats’ music grabbed hold, I’ve been mulling over what to say – or, more to the point, which things to say. I find the work of songwriter/frontperson Chris Otepka so incredible that it’s been more about prioritizing my reactions and assessments. Maybe it’s this way whenever one poet hears another poet who seems to be on the same page: In this case, Otepka does what I’ve done with spoken word, but he manages to convey the same thoughts and emotions with music as he does with words (which, by themselves, would be extraordinary) and that’s not something I’ve always been able to do. In his case, it presents as a seamless whole, as intuitive and spontaneous and inspired as any transmission can be.

At this moment, I have other words to produce about other things; some of which involve pressing commitments. But whatever I have to say about Chris Otepka and the Heligoats is blocking the way.

It started when someone sent a new split recording shared by the band with Sam Humans. I wasn’t crazy about the name “Heligoats,” and there was no note or promotional literature in the mailing. So for a while it just sat with other things-to-be-reviewed. I ended up giving it a spin about a week ago and haven’t been quite the same since.

Sam Humans

I don’t like Sam Humans as much as I like The Heligoats, but, as in a well-curated concert, he makes for a good opener. Sam’s pretty intense, but on his first song, “Hate Is the New Love,” his intensity’s leavened by tasty acoustic guitar burbles that escalate, with his vocal, into near-dissonance that brings Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 to mind. And how often can I say the latter? Almost never! Thus I’m awakened for the next track, which crackles into relief with a ferocity that brings to mind another reference that’s pretty rare, and that’s Captain Beefheart. Were I djing instead of reviewing, I’d play this Beefheart track (from Clear Spot) before or after Humans’s “Firedrill”:

Of course, courtesy of modern science, I can now be a reviewer and dj at the same time. And it feels good to share “Low Yo Yo Stuff” – other than throwing down a couple of videos on Facebook, I’ve done nothing in the way of honoring the extraordinary work of the late, great Don Van Vliet.

Humans’s “Firedrill” is chased by guitars that sound like water on the quieter “Can’t Stop the Sun,” which sounds good before “Chemical Fire,” on which Humans sounds a lot like John Doe. Humans does one of his most admirable jobs of accompanying himself here, with two or three guitar tracks, drums, and bass. These last two are nice, but not in a way that different than a lot of other good Nuevo-hippie expression. “Cold, Cold Whisky” veers back into weirder territory, with electronic coughs and scratches through which single-note electric guitar veins. It makes me sit up straighter, at least mentally. So it doesn’t seem that odd when Humans goes more full-on fanatic with “As a People,” which hauls the guns and cannons out for a more Crazy World of Arthur Brown tone and dynamic. I don’t feel like running Brown’s “Fire,” and at present there are no great Humans videos available.

But wait: I’ve mentioned TFUL 282, and it dawns on me that I could die any time (not being morbid, just saying), and it would suck if that happened without my sharing some thing(s) by one of my all-time-favorite artistic clans:

Wasn’t that something (from Strangers from the Universe)? I caught TFUL 282 at the Casbah in 1995. The live effect of that track took me some place pretty amazing, although the truth is, especially when the mania starts rising to the surface, the recording can do the same thing. Just thinking about it gets close. Thinking about it makes me smile. So I think later I’ll share one of the only good live videos I’ve been able to find for the defunct, ‘Frisco-based clan.

Humans’s “As a People” segues well with the first Heligoats track, “A Word from Our Sponsor”,” which sounds even more like a descendant of San Francisco folk-rock with a splash of zaniness than does Humans. Chris Otepka’s consistently surprising lyrics are made beautifully flesh by his strums, with Stephen Mitchell’s responsive electric guitar. The rhythm section (David James/bass, Mike Mergenthaler/drums) is an emoter’s dream: creatively supportive; never in the way.

One of the first things that elicits an out-loud, “Did he just DO that?” is Otepka trailing the lines, “The moon rises and sets/And the sun comes up/Just to say goodbye… ” with, a few seconds later, a higher-pitched (playing the moon’s part): “Bye-bye!

It makes me wish Tuli Kupferberg hadn’t died last July (well, I wish he weren’t dead for many reasons – the man was a god). I first saw one of Tuli’s drawings, in The Whole Earth Catalog, I think, when I was 14. The way he had the sky and moon and stars talking said as much about “all-one” as entire books of poetry or spiritual dialectic; his work (as a poet, artist, and with The Fugs) unlocked worlds of possibility. When one of his drawings was featured in The National Poetry Magazine of the Lower East Side, produced by a collective that siphoned a lot of vital juice  into my life — a mere 20 pages or so away from one of my poems – well, it was a splendid moment.

I think Tuli would have loved “A Word from Our Sponsors.” “Turn Down the Offer,” the next Heligoats cut, somewhat overshadows Otepka’s words with explosive effects; what I can hear of the former, along with the sense of a fertile dynamic unit, holds my interest.

And just bear this in mind: odd as it may seem (for a scribbler), when it comes to music; lyrics, unless exemplary, are often the last thing I consider. Which is weird, ‘cause I’ve always related to Shakespeare and such bards, re: seeing no solid line between the two, especially around my own more art-focused output. Still, it’s unusual for me to be this taken with any song writing, and that has a lot to do with the way Otepka’s words fit his music. It’s like someone with alliteration and assonance to burn can do that with the music, if you know what I mean…

And how could you, if you haven’t heard The Heligoats? (Otepka’s previous project, Troubled Hubble, seems to have had considerable merit, but from what I can tell, he’s hitting his sweet spot with The Heligoats.) (Oh, and btw, the band’s now in Bellingham,  one of my favorite places on earth, which just adds to the poignance of all this, for me, anyway – before, they were in Illinois). Here’s one from the ‘goats’ first album, Goodness Gracious, which I ordered a few days ago, again taking money from the electric bill, which is a show-stopper by itself (writing about music is supposed to, if not earn money for me, at least not be about spending it):

Think of it this way: Walt Whitman has a band. Dylan Thomas has a band. Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg have bands.  (Okay, the last two did have musical accompaniment at times, but…) and let’s forget, other than “People Who Died,” that Jim Carroll had a band. Even Patti Smith, at her best, has rarely come close to Otepka’s apparently organic merging of sounds with words. Although none of its members wandered about with “poet” tattooed on his forehead, The Band is one of the only other outfits that springs to mind. Nick Drake lurks in the shadows, and then, of course, there’s Tom Waits with Kathleen Brennan.

The last two tracks are currently dueling for favor: “Moon See, Day See” has the joyful gallop of The Blasters‘ “I Love You So,” and CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” (first time I heard that, I was 13 or 14, babysitting some kids who’d gone to bed when it blew out of the radio. I started twirling and stomping around the living room). I can’t find a good “Moon See” video, but Otepka sent me the lyrics (thanks, again, to modern science, aka Facebook). Here are some of my favorite lines/stanzas:

“we’re different people now, our dog’s a different dog.
the worrying thing became a full time job.
we tried and failed but nothing was really lost.
night came sooner than we thought,
but we had the light of the moon.”

… “where what i put in was exactly what i saw come out.
where the balance was such it left nothing to be wondered about.
where if you are thinking of being evil, you’ll be beaten to the punch
and if you’re not looking for any trouble, you’ll be found with some.”

“look around and ask when will this stop. i look outside to mother nature, at the government and the cops. they’re all hiding, waiting, glowing in the dark. is that the silhouette of a shark i see swimming across the moon?

yee hew.”

The guitars propelling “Moon See” ring like those of the Fogerty brothers. The song escalates into something shimmering and beautiful: a force of nature. When Chris cries, “Yee hew,” it’s one of several times joy, or another fervent emotion, emits spontaneously. I’ve listened to The Moondoggies, Red Wanting Blue, Backwords,  and a slew of other fine contemporary Americana-spouting minstrels, and this is the first  time I can report that any new group, other than for moments, has found its way to  the well-grounded air and fire; the corporeal, log-cabin body of The Band.

On their own, “Moon See” and the two songs before it would be enough to have my fingers feverishly endeavoring to transmit this dervish twirl. But then there’s the last one, “Boil Over,” which continues through territory wherein Otepka notices everything: What’s in his world, what’s further out, what’s good, what’s awful, what’s funny, and what’s sad — without making the too-frequent, typical mistake of thinking he has to settle on any one of those feelings, or categories, or subjects. While stringing it all together with a staggering degree of success; per the nuanced synapsing of a Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, or Rick Danko. Well, having an ear for melody and a band so perfectly in sync with him doesn’t hurt.

So either ya love it or ya don’t – except: the more I listen, the more I love (I’m just saying).

Liking anything as much as I do the Heligoats is scary… and wonderful – now, how do we back out of this space?

I’ve just had a little pause-to-refresh, in which I caught a YT comment to the effect that TFUL 282 is again operational (there is a god! there is a god!) – so I’ll make good on my promise. This is from Mother of All Saints:

Sam Humans:
Tuli Kupferberg/The Fugs:
Lester Bangs on Captain Beefheart:
The National Poetry Magazine of the Lower East Side after several blood transfusions:
The Heligoats:
TFUL 282:


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