The Ones That Nearly Got Away: Mouth Music, Mouth Music

[Mouth Music - Mouth Music]

At the start of 2021, sea shanty TikTok was a thing. Of course, I had to reply, “I’m more of a waulking songs / mouth music person myself.”

In the mid-90s, a friend of mine and I got heavily into Celtic music. Enya, of course, had to go sing in Irish Gaelic, which led to Clannad, which led to the Shanachie label, which led to Talitha MacKenzie.

Tower Records featured her album Solas on a listening station, and sampling the first two tracks of the album got me hooked. I played the album just about nonstop on my DiscMan throughout 1994. Further research led down the rabbit hole of Scottish music, with its shanties, waulking songs and mouth music.

And also the band, Mouth Music.

Mackenzie was original member of the duo, before creative difference led to a split which resulted in Solas. A pair of songs MacKenzie recorded on Solas also appear on Mouth Music’s self-titled debut. I bought it thinking the albums would sound similar.

The only thread between the two is MacKenzie’s voice. Otherwise, they occupy distinct sonic territory.

Mouth Music is sparse compared to Solas and cosmopolitan in ways Solas is not. (It works the other way around — Solas is cosmopolitan in ways Mouth Music is not.)

With Solas, MacKenzie placed traditional music squarely in a contemporary context. Mouth Music straddled the line a bit more, letting the source material have more of a spotlight before being blurred in a cauldron of effects.

I can’t say I was a fan of the approach.

MacKenzie’s version of “Seinn O” dove straight for the dance floor, where the Mouth Music version went for more of an art school vibe. The Mouth Music version of “Chì mi na mórbheanna” went for an ethereal industrial sound, where the Solas version kept to its folk roots.

Solas felt joyous, where Mouth Music was much more cerebral. I chose MacKenzie and eventually sold Mouth Music for cash.

On my frequent visits to the thrift shop, I would see Mouth Music albums pass through the shelves with enough regularity that I knew I could re-acquire the album at a bargain. Spotting it in the $0.10 bin provided the right opportunity.

I’m not as severe on the album now. When I listened to Mouth Music the first time around, I cast it in context of another. Enough time has passed that I can extricate the two and appreciate both approaches.

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The ones that nearly got away: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Preludes (Complete)

[Sergei Rachmaninov - Preludes (Alexis Weissenberg)]

My piano teacher wanted me to learn Sergei Rachmaninoff’s prelude in C-sharp minor. I didn’t get past the first page. I bought a tape of Rachmaninoff’s complete preludes, and it sufficiently scared me off from trying any of those pieces at tempo.

At the time, my knowledge of classical music was scant. I knew the usual dead Germans — Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Schumann — from piano exercises, but it was all just a monolith to my junior high self. Then my piano teacher introduced to some 20th century Russians — Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Rachmaninoff. These composers started to break down traditional harmony, and I became intrigued by the dissonance of their works.

Except Rachmaninoff, of course. His music was firmly planted in the 19th century, but I hadn’t yet developed an ear to distinguish the various eras. I figured if Rachmaninoff lived in the early 20th century, that made him a “20th Century Composer”.

The more I explored music of the modern era, the more I found Rachmaninoff wanting, and the tape I bought with all of his preludes would get sold for cash to make way for composers who aligned more with my tastes.

But I had already played it so many times that they actually sunk into my subconscious. When I retook my undergraduate music classes some 25 years later, a classmate would rehearse one of Rachmaninoff’s preludes, and I could hum along in my mind’s ear.

I don’t remember much about that tape. I kept a barebones catalog of my collection, but I didn’t note who performed those preludes. I just remember it was an RCA recording.

The Alexis Weissenberg compilation I picked up at the thrift store seemed to fit the bill. Playing it felt familiar, as if it made an exact mental match to what I remember. The first recording you hear of any classical work becomes a litmus, and if you internalize it, you can tell when someone else’s interpretation rubs against that perception.

The Weissenberg recordings felt like I had come home.

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The Ones that Nearly Got Away: The Ordinaries, One

[The Ordinaires - One]

The Ordinaires’ One should have been an album I held dear.

It was a discovery I made reading Pulse magazine, and the band’s press name-dropped a bunch of rock bands and classical composers — two things that would shape my development as a wannabe musician.

But it faced stiff competition. Naked City and Kronos Quartet monopolized my attention, and I wanted the dopamine hits I got from Winter Was Hard and the self-titled Naked City debut to repeat with every subsequent discovery.

The Ordinaires came close. The first few times I listened to this album, I liked it. It had its skronky moments and its pretty moments. Oddly enough, a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” would capture my affection, despite a growing distaste for Led Zeppelin.

But it didn’t survive a purge for cash. I decided I couldn’t really keep the tape — yes, I bought it on cassette — if I liked only one song. One was weird, but not weird enough. So I let it go.

In the 30 years that would follow, I would find myself missing that cover of “Kashmir”, but the moment would pass too quickly for me to act on it.

Then at the Northwest Record Show in November 2019, I found it on vinyl selling for $2.

Reacquainting myself with this album allows me to rag on my younger self for letting something valuable slip away. Well, valuable to me, otherwise I would have been charged far more than $2 to reacquire it.

The Ordinaires positioned themselves as less weird downtown New Yorkers. They may have hung out with the noisers and no wavers, but they were a bit more tuneful than that.

One smoothes over the jump-cut eclecticism of Naked City and tones down the noise. It’s a gateway album to a far stranger realm of music.

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The ones that nearly got away: Branford Marsalis Quartet, Crazy People Music

[Branford Marsalis Quartet - Crazy People Music]

Here’s a case where I really didn’t know what I was giving up when I let it go.

In high school, my perception of jazz was shaped by the repertoire we played in jazz band, the bulk of which stemmed from the music’s early era. We played your Glenn Miller, a bit of washed-over Duke Ellington, something Stan Kenton-ish and even a Spyro Gyra cover.

But my music program wasn’t sophisticated enough to introduce anything like John Coltrane or Miles Davis, so Ornette Coleman was completely off the radar.

At the end of my high school career, I encountered the intersection of modern classical music and jazz known as “downtown New York”. I didn’t understand the traditions from which either came at that point, but I loved the noise it produced.

Before there were online streaming services, there was the music press, and back then, I would read about all kinds of interesting music more than I would actually hear it. That meant taking some leaps for faith based on something somebody wrote in a magazine.

I took that leap with John Zorn and Kronos Quartet, and I liked where I ended up. I took that same leap with the Branford Marsalis Quartet, and Crazy People Music didn’t last long in my collection.

The press around the album, as I remember it, described the album as forward-thinking and ground-breaking. It went as far as winning a Grammy Award. I went into Crazy People Music thinking it would be another Naked City.

It sounded pretty standard, which was to say it didn’t stray too far from the kind of jazz pieces we played in band. The heads on Crazy People Music maybe sounded a bit off-kilter, but they sounded nothing like what I could find on Kronos’ Winter Was Hard or White Man Sleeps.

For an album called Crazy People Music, it didn’t sound, well, crazy enough. I played through my cassette copy of the album perhaps once, then went straight back to my Nonesuch albums.

I picked up a CD copy of the album at the Friends of the Seattle Library book sale, about 28 years after I first encountered it. By then, I had learned how to listen to jazz, and I had a better sense of history about the music than I did in high school.

I like it way more now.

And within the confines of Marsalis’ idiom, the album actually does have its moments of craziness. I first went into the album thinking it would structurally crazy. Rather, the crazy stems from the performances themselves. There are some hot takes on this record.

But I think what I missed the most about Crazy People Music is the cover. The quartet looks like they’re having a blast, but it’s a fun rooted in mania. The back cover of the album jumbles the text in a manner where you can’t tell which is up. Fishbone employed a similar effect on the cover of In Your Face.

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The Ones That Nearly Got Away: Television, Marquee Moon

[Television - Marquee Moon]

If ever I had an on-again, off-again relationship with an album, it’s Marquee Moon by Television.

Kronos Quartet introduced me to the band when they covered “Marquee Moon” for the compilation album Rubáiyát.

I didn’t get around to listening to the actual album till the early 2000s, when file sharing and a record store job made access to music easy. At the time, the likes of Interpol, the Killers and Franz Ferdinand were repackaging Joy Division, Duran Duran and Gang of Four (respectively) to much acclaim.

Television was a commonly cited influence and a gap in my knowledge of pop culture. So using my employee discount at Waterloo Records, I bought a copy of Marquee Moon.

I eventually sold it back to the store because I needed cash, but I had miscalculated my attachment to the album.

Marquee Moon had the disadvantage of being a garage rock influencer, and my tenure at Waterloo eventually soured me on the genre. That is, my co-workers played way too much garage rock, and I dislike it to this day.

But the album had already sunk its hooks into my subconscious. Over the subsequent decade and a half I would not own it, certain riffs would play in my head. The stuttering open of the title track, for one. The cadence on the word “Evil!” another.

If I encountered a track from Marquee Moon playing in the wild, I would start humming along as if the album had always been a part of my youth. It was an odd reaction to a work I relinquished but was unwilling to reacquire for more than what I originally paid.

I would eventually spot a used copy of a remastered version, and I’ve welcomed Marquee Moon back into my collection. Then I played it in its entirety and remembered why I may have let it go.

Marquee Moon was not designed for the compact disc format. The epic length of the title track makes sense as a conclusion to Side A, but it’s less effective when building to a mid-point. On CD, the subsequent tracks seem to lose steam. On vinyl, it feels like a reset.

Tom Verlaine’s voice is an acquired taste. The Kronos cover of “Marquee Moon” seemed to lack a clear melody. Listening to Verlaine’s delivery serves as an explanation.

But it’s tough not to be lured in by the guitar interplay between Verlaine and Richard Lloyd or by the funkiness of Fred Smith’s bass lines.

I may not feel much sentimentality for Marquee Moon, but I’m certainly charmed by it.

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The ones that nearly got away: Shudder to Think, Pony Express Record

[Shudder to Think - Pony Express Record]

On paper, Pony Express Record by Shudder to Think ought to be an album I adore. It has complex rhythms, angular melodies, dissonant riffs and lots of distortion. It even arrived at time in my life when modern classical music started occupying my wheelhouse.

But for many years, I could muster at most an intellectual appreciation for the album. Something about it prevented me from internalizing it the same I would music by, say, Wayne Horvitz or Meredith Monk.

Part of the problem was the fact I never paid for it — Pony Express Record was an assignment for the student newspaper. I listened to the promo and found the album had potential. Because I didn’t discover it the way I did with Jayne Cortez or Bang on a Can, I didn’t feel invested in my opinion.

And because I was a snob where avant-garde music was concerned, I couldn’t take Shudder to Think too seriously. Just what were their bona fides anyway?

That ambivalence meant Pony Express Record would not survive a purge for cash. I don’t even know at what point it left my collection.

But it has always nagged at me. I felt I was missing something about that album, something that made it difficult to dismiss.

I’ve tried at different times after subscribing to Google Play Music to give Pony Express Record another shake, but my attention would drift, and it would end without my realizing I had it been playing.

When I spotted a copy at Lifelong Thrift Store for $1, I welcomed it back into my collection, and I gave it the attention I couldn’t afford it in the past.

As it turns out, my inability to embrace Pony Express Record comes down to my tolerance for odd, angular music — which is pretty high. For all its weirdness, Pony Express Record sounds quite normal to me.

I call this my Beck affect. When Beck released Odelay, critics couldn’t stop tripping over themselves to praise his whiplash cuts. I thought it was just poorly-executed John Zorn card pieces.

Pony Express Record is strange, but it’s not the strangest thing I’ve heard. It doesn’t stop it from being a good album, even an important one.

Shudder to Think made a loud, noisy album that relies on precise musicianship to pull off. Rather than dial up the metal influences of grunge the way nü metal bands would eventually do, the band made the punk influences veer into something a whole lot brainier. And they do it while throwing in an occasional hook over mountains of crunchy distortion.

I’m a lot more familiar with Pony Express Record now, and I’m OK with not being able to hum more than a few measures of “Hit Liquor.”

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The Ones That Nearly Got Away: Various Artists, Common Ground

[Various Artists - Common Ground: Voices in Modern Irish Music]

In an attempt to ride the successful coattails of Clannad and Enya during the 1990s, labels attempted to package Celtic music as the next new thing in world music.

While folk labels such as Green Linnet and Shanachie played up their indigenous creds, major labels opted for the safety of crossovers. So in 1996, EMI released a compilation titled Common Ground: Voices of Modern Irish Music.

The intent was simple enough — survey the various forms in which Irish music takes, ranging from such traditionalists as Davey Spillane and Dónal Lunny to superstars in the form of Bono and Adam Clayton of U2.

Of course, Máire Brennan opens the compilation with a traditional song sung in Irish and arranged for a pop band. After that, the concept splinters. The big names — Elvis Costello, Sinéad O’Connor, Tim and Neil Finn, Bono and Adam Clayton — stay in their pop music realms, while the traditionalists remain in theirs.

When the twain meet, it doesn’t come across as organic as it ought to. Brian Kennedy and O’Connor turn in nice performances of their respective traditional choices, but that’s all they are … nice. They aren’t illuminating nor particularly daring.

Kate Bush, on the other hand, takes the biggest leap, singing in Irish, and Liam Ó Manolaí of Hothouse Flowers tackles mouth music in a searing performance.

Otherwise, the parts don’t really add up to a very compelling sum.

When I spotted a copy of this compilation at the Lifelong Thrift Store selling for $1, I had forgotten why I let it go, considering the inclusion of Bush, Brennan and a number of Irish musicians I followed at the time.

After listening to it again, I’m reminded of the Chieftains attempt to do something similar with their album The Long, Black Veil. They couldn’t make it work either.

Crossover is fraught with all sorts of issues about appropriation and performance practice, and in the title alone, Common Ground takes too diplomatic a stance. I would rather see these musicians mix it up further, blurring distinctions entirely or embracing roles furthest outside of their comfort zones.


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The ones that nearly got away: Spice Girls, Spice

[Spice Girls - Spice]

It was the start of the century, and I volunteered to work behind the scenes at the Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Crowd control during screenings meant a lot of standing around, waiting for something to happen. Another volunteer with incredibly fashionable shoes started singing a vaguely familiar pop song.

“Who is that?” I asked.

“Spice Girls!” he answered, aghast someone who would identify as gay would not know something so basic.

Unbeknownst to him, I had been familiar with Spice Girls at one point.

You couldn’t go to a gay bar without hearing the quintet’s latest single. I had enough gumption to buy the album that didn’t have Geri Halliwell. And yeah, I owned Spice and Spiceworld.

They were casualties of a collection purge after the dot-com bust, and my tenure at Waterloo Records inflamed my rock snobbery. Spice Girls had been washed from my memory.

But like Sugababes’ “Overload”, “Say You’ll Be There” is one of those ear confections that don’t wear out. I could happily never encounter “Wannabe” for the rest of my life but not so with “Say You’ll Be There.”

At the same time, I wasn’t about to drop any more than $1 to bring the album back into my collection. (Thank you, thrift stores!)

Spice is certainly a relic of the late ’90s, but it ages pretty well. The quintet’s girl-power mantra feels sincere on this first outing, while subsequent albums would suffer under the pressure to turn a quick buck.

The album has its share of duds — I’m looking at you, “Mama” — but they’re offset by the likes of “Who Do You Think You Are” and “If You Can’t Dance”. On the whole, Spice is actually a cohesive effort, a pop album shooting for something beyond the top of the charts.


The ones that nearly got away: Shawn Colvin, A Few Small Repairs

[Shawn Colvin - A Few Small Repairs]

The success of Shawn Colvin’s A Few Small Repairs was a huge deal in Austin.

Despite its billing as “The Live Music Capital of the World”, the Austin music scene didn’t have much of a national profile beyond music industry insiders. Seattle had its moment with grunge, and Prince was synonymous with Minneapolis.

Austin had a statue to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

I had heard about Shawn Colvin before I moved to Austin in May 1997 — 20 years ago this month! — but I hadn’t heard any of her music. My parents still didn’t have cable television when I moved away, so tuning into MTV in the St. Edwards University apartments where the Austin American-Statesman housed its interns was pretty novel.

That’s where I encountered the video for “Sunny Came Home.” The chorus of the song grabbed me, and of course, it was all over local radio. Before there was Kanye vs. Taylor Swift, P. Diddy infamously grabbed the mic from Colvin as she was accepting her Grammy award.

The late ’90s were kind to the Austin music scene. Flush from the dot-com boom, transplants such as myself were eager to spend our cash, and the entertainment districts in Austin gladly took it. Beside the usual country acts, Austin supported singer-songwriters and indie rock bands. Colvin was the first to emerge nationally, followed a year later by Fastball.

I hadn’t been to many concerts before moving to Austin, and it was the live music experience that made me realize gay bars weren’t really that much fun.

A Few Small Repairs and my first summer in Austin are pretty much entwined.

Then the economy tanked four years later, and A Few Small Repairs got traded for cash. My motivation for selling the album was based on the reason I bought it: peer pressure.

I really hadn’t chosen to live in Austin — it was just the place that allowed me to leave Honolulu. By embracing the local music scene, I could embrace the city that was to become my home.

The dot-com bust landed me a job at Waterloo Records, where I was subjected to music I just didn’t like. Up until then, I tried to be a cheerleader for everything new I encountered, but that experience made me realize I didn’t have to like everything.

As money got tight, I couldn’t justify devoting shelf space to an album if I liked only one song on it, so A Few Small Repairs got purged.

I was wrong, of course. A Few Small Repairs had more than one great song on it, as evidenced by “Get Out of This House”, the track following “Sunny Came Home”. “Wichita Skyline” and “Nothin’ On Me” provide further evidence.

I did have the presence of mind to rip the album before I sold it, suspecting I was making a foolish decision, which I confirmed years later when I found that rip and listened to it.

I wouldn’t welcome the album back into my collection till I found it at a book sale for the Friends of the Seattle Public Library.

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The ones that nearly got away: Capercaillie, Sidewaulk

[Capercaillie - Sidewaulk]

The clerk at the Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Shop got a kick when I approached the counter with two copies of Capercaillie’s Sidewaulk, one on CD, the other on vinyl. Even I was astounded by the serendipity.

I had surrendered Capercaillie to a collection purge more than a decade previous. My fascination with Celtic music had long passed, and I was pressed for cash.

A playlist I created on Google Play Music based on some old mixed tapes brought Capercaillie back to my attention, and I craved to hear the band again.

Capercaillie also holds the distinction of being one of the first bands I discovered through the Internet. Numerous recommendation threads on mentioned them, and I was already enamored of Solas by Talitha Mackenzie.

Sidwaulk also introduced me to medleys of reels. While Clannad included instrumental tracks on their traditional albums, they didn’t perform them with the same dance tempo as Capercaillie or Altan.

My classically-trained, pop-raised ears at first found the simple A-B structure of reels a bit … wanting. But now, I appreciate the level of virtuosity required to perform them at such a frenetic pace.

Capercaillie, like Clannad, have a keen sense when to pull back from tradition and be a straight-forward pop group. “Fisherman’s Dream” would have found a spot on an adult contemporary radio playlist at the time of its release in 1989, and “O Mo Dhùthaich” can find admirers among Enya fans.

Listening to the album again makes me realize that some of these past collection purges may have been a bit excessive. Or else I was really desperate for cash to have part with an album as enjoyable — and instructional — as Sidewaulk.

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