More Songs About Trains and Food

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.”

Nothing Good

I’ll take a short break from shameless self-promotion here to promote the product of a great friend, George Mostoller. This is one of my favorite tracks from his new album, Cooking with Dynamite, recorded under the name Hawk Tubley and the Airtight Chiefs.

George and I were in a band together called the Freeloaders in 1993-94, along with Tym Cornell and Don Thomas. We have written many many songs together, and I still perform one or two of his songs once in a while with Ghost Herd.

Tym produced this album at Wild Honey Studios.

This track also happens to feature some of my all-time favorite performers: Davey Williams, Oteil Burbridge, and Marshall Allen.

Road Trip Day 16

I got to Gainesville, FL in the early afternoon. I lived here from 1994-2001, and I played in a few bands. By the time I left I was feeling a little like a rock star, or at least a big fish in a small pond. And I was thrilled and flattered to find that the town has not forgotten me. This was the first thing I saw when I started walking around.

But more on the Common Grounds show later. First stop was my book signing at Goering’s Book Store.

After the sort of disappointing experience in Dothan, I really didn’t know what to expect. But I was really pleased with the turnout, and the bookstore was happy with it as well. I reunited with several old friends and made a few new ones.

That theme continued at Common Grounds. I was really just overwhelmed with the love. And I was so busy chatting with everybody, I forgot to take any pictures. I’m sure some will show up on Facebook soon enough.

Frog started things off by showing some videos from his trip to New York a couple of months ago. And then the brilliant Tom Miller read some of his famous poems, including possibly the best poem ever written by anyone, “Flea in My Urethra.” This was followed by a rousing set of country dance tunes by Gainesville legend Rob McGregor (and friends). I was seriously honored to have all these talented folks perform at my party.

Finally I took the stage, and things started off well enough until I started taking requests, and then I had trouble remembering some lyrics in a song or two and the chords in another song or two, but it was all in good fun. I’m still reeling a bit from it all.

Road Trip Day 12

I spent most of the day lingering around all my old haunts in Five Points, seeing what was still around and what was new. Not much has changed actually. Some bars have closed. Some have different names than they used to. But it’s still pretty much the same place. For those of you who aren’t from the Ham, this curious fountain/sculpture is the centerpiece of the area.

As you can imagine, this installation is a little controversial amongst the locals. When I was in PopCanon (1995-2001) I wrote a song about this area called Ice on the Sidewalk. The song starts off about this time that I literally ran across something on the sidewalk that looked like ice, though it was the middle of summer, and when I touched it I realized it was some kind of gelatin. As was my wont in those days, I was kind of high at the time, and this just sort of freaked me out. That is how songs start I guess.

Anyway, I ate lunch with former Pain trombonist Jason Reid at Surin West, and I had a great time catching up with him. After lunch, I paid visits to Charlemagne Records and Golden Temple. These places are all pretty much the same as they were when I was in college, except Charlemagne has more CDs now than it did in 1994.

Then I headed over the hill into Homewood and dropped by the Alabama Booksmith (which btw has signed copies of my book for sale), to say hello. I worked at this store when I was in college, when it was called the Highland Booksmith and at a different location. Despite the dream I had about the store the night before my visit, it had not been overtaken by lizard-like aliens.

That night, for a lark, I went to the Alabama Theatre to see the Alabama Symphony Orchestra pay tribute to the music of Led Zeppelin. Does anyone remember laughter? I do. After the concert, I caught a partial set of some scary good bluegrass at Marty’s. I couldn’t stay long because I had committed to seeing another former Pain member, Stuart McNair, play a set down at the Barking Kudu.

Now the ASO doing Zep was really just silly, and kind of pointless since they actually had a long-haired singer who sounded like Robert Plant and a long-haired guitarist who sounded like Jimmy Page, so the orchestra didn’t really have that much work to do. But I did see some skilled guitar playing at all three venues. Made me feel like I needed to sit down and practice a little.

Road Trip Day 11

On my first full day back in Birmingham, I picked up my friend and former bandmate Brent Stauffer at the pizza place where he works and had a little lunch. Okay, in fact, it was a very BIG lunch–a calzone as large as my head. I had heard that a place called Green Cup Books was the place to go for independent authors like myself. So Brent and I headed over there, hoping to get a couple of books on the shelf and maybe arrange a last-minute reading while I’m in town.  But alas, we found that the place was OUT OF BUSINESS. And recently too because there were still shelves full of books inside.

As long as we were in town, I stopped at Jim Reed Books, which is really more of an antiques and novelty museum than a book store. If you’ve never been to Jim Reed Books and you live in the Birmingham area, GO NOW. I don’t believe there is another place like it in the world.

Jim was kind enough to take a couple of copies of my book on consignment, so somebody please go and buy them. Both copies are signed!

On a side note, I should mention that Jim’s brother is the Reverend Fred Lane, one of the most entertainingly insane musicians you will ever go far out of your way to hear.

After that, I dropped Brent off at his house and went to visit another old bandmate, Tym Cornell. Tym is running a fantastic music studio out of his basement in Roebuck these days, so if you are a musician in Birmingham and need a cheap place to make an album, Tym is your man. He is also quite good with video production.

Tym’s wife Mary made some excellent pasta for dinner, and then I headed downstairs to the studio to listen to some of Tym’s most recent work. One of his current projects is to record an album for our mutual friend George Mostoller, whom I mentioned in a previous post. Somehow, Tym has arranged for some first-class musicians to play on this recording, including bassist extraordinaire Oteil Burbidge. I have never heard George’s music sound so good.

More later…