I met George Mostoller almost exactly 20 years ago, in the summer of 1992. He and Tym Cornell were running an open mic at Frankie’s Underground in Five Points every Wednesday, and I soon became a regular performer. Soon after, I joined their band, but this is not a story about that. This is about George.
That first night I heard him play a few of his songs, and I was instantly fascinated. Performing solo with just voice and acoustic guitar, there were elements of Dylan-esque country/folk with the surreal lyrical sensibilities of Robyn Hitchcock. That was the obvious part. On faster numbers, George strums in syncopated patterns, and on the slower ones, he picks in a folksy manner with lumbering bass lines and bright sterile harmonies. He croons with a slight vibrato about space travel, malaise, food, and sex. His voice is as solid and splintery as a hickory log.
But then in some songs, George would go into this sort of free improvisation, which even with just acoustic guitar sounded almost like some of the more outward experiments of Sonic Youth. When Tym joined in on electric guitar, things got even more strange. What struck me most about it was that George was writing essentially pretty simple but catchy tunes, but he was also open to this noisy psychedelic chaos.
I learned later that he was an unrepentant Deadhead (and I never could get him to repent), but his method of improvisation was always much more in the vein of free jazz like Sun Ra and not so much jamming the way the jam bands jam. It was George that introduced me to the music of Sun Ra. Also the Fugs. Also Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. This is George’s range, and you can hear all of this in his songs.
Over the past two years, George has been playing in the studio, recording an album that reflects all of this influence. His session musicians are some of the best (and weirdest) in the business. A few weeks ago, I posted a video from what I still think is the stand-out song on the new album,
“Nothing Good.” I think this one song encompasses all the things I like most about George’s songwriting and about his vision of what the songs would sound like under ideal conditions.
Those ideal conditions are really what this album is about. Because our old bandmate Tym Cornell now runs Wild Honey Studios in Birmingham, George had virtually unlimited access to a professional studio with a very talented engineer and producer. And because of his many years of involvement in the Birmingham music scene, he also had access to some incredible musicians, including guitar virtuoso Davey Williams, Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge, saxophonist Marshall Allen from Sun Ra’s Arkestra, as well as some of the best session musicians around Birmingham like Jason Bailey and Matt Slocum.
Fans of Colonel Bruce Hampton and Widespread Panic will enjoy the country fried psychedelia, but folks who don’t get into noodling solos or cacophonous jazz noise should not fear this record. Fans of Robyn Hitchcock will admire the absurd sense of wordplay in the lyrics. Anyone who appreciates smart, hummable songs should give this a listen. You will be hooked from the first track.
My only complaint is that it doesn’t include Ride the Beard.
And now, a track-by-track (p)review.
01 Devil in a Bottle – This first track is a catchy, funny folk tune about the struggle with the bottle, which features hot mandolin solos throughout by Birmingham newgrass hero Jason Baily. Pretty simple and straightforward, but totally addictive like that devil in the bottle itself. The hand claps at the end give it an epic quality.
02 I Remember – Here George takes a song that could be a poetic and pretty but not especially noteworthy ballad and twists it into pieces by having Davey Williams and Marshall Allen flit around the melody like insane dragonflies. The slightly-off stereo vocals add to the haunting and disturbed sense of nostaligia that the lyrics invoke.
03 Oh Megan – This jaunty country-ish tune cuts a middle path between the first two tracks. It would sound like something straight off of Workingman’s Dead if it weren’t for some freaky deaky guitar work from Davey Williams and Scott Grant.
04 The Weasle of Bad Axe Magee – The musicians credited on this track are the group “The Bad Axe Magees.” It’s clearly an improv piece, George (and his two songs Edward and Franklin) messing around in the studio. But it’s interesting to see the curious angles he takes when performing off the cuff. Beefheart fans won’t flinch.
05 If You Were an Elephant – A waltz with Davey Williams playing slide guitar. The first line “If you were an elephant, I’d love you a ton” gives you the general idea. The lyrics are silly but clever, a love song that declares that his love would not fade even if you were a monkey, a skunk, or a pop song. The shock surprise ending is heart warming.
06 The Train – A deceptively straightforward song about a train in trouble. It’s not a standout track, but it’s catchy, and I’m a sucker for a train song.
07 Nothing Good – A surprisingly funky, soulful slow tune featuring Davey Williams, Oteil Burbridge, Marshall Allen, and Matt Slocum. The lineup would be enough to make this my favorite. To call out the clever wordplay of the lyrics seems almost redundant–all of George’s songs have that, but this song is George doing what George does at his best as a lyricist. Since I happen to have heard some of the original tracks, I also know Tym pulled off a near miracle in mixing this one.
08 Marty’s Two-Step – A twangy, dance-able ode to one of Birmingham’s most revered after hours hangouts. The song itself is reminiscent of George’s old band Partial to Mable, a band that was a staple at Marty’s in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The arrangement sounds so much like a Grateful Dead song that the reference to “Hey Another Saturday Night” floats by almost unnoticed.
09 Some Kind of Pelican – Another studio improv. Cute, but about twice as long as it needs to be. George’s characteristic giggle at the end says it all.
10 Can You Tell Me – Much like “Oh Megan,” this could be a Dead song, if it weren’t for Davey’s guitar. More Grateful Dead references in the lyrics. It is a nice tune though with lovely solos by Jason Bailey and Matt Slocum. It has an easy loping pace. Makes me want a margarita.
11 The Road to Laredo – Totally oddball. Totally George. “I was on the road to Laredo / looking for a baked potato / when I saw a real tomato.”