Michael Penn has not been the most prolific artist. Even taking into account his label disputes, he’s released only five full-length CDs since 1989 – that’s more than three years between each recording on average. But as sometimes happens when gaps between releases get large, other musicians sometimes step up with astonishing facsimiles (prog rockers might remember Starcastle a/k/a Maybe (not quite Yes) and Triumvirat a/k/a Emerson Fake & Palmer). Shortly before Resigned broke Penn’s five-year silence since Free-For-All, a Minneapolis musician calling himself Willie Wisely released a song called Raincan. Producer John Strawberry Fields (yes, that’s how he’s billed) cannily apes the sort of compressed sound Penn favors.
About a year ago, I ran into an acquaintance of mine and a former fixture on Milwaukee’s music scene, Dan Franke (who’s since moved to Austin). He’d run into my website, and had some nice things to say about it, and eventually offered to burn me a CD of a whole mess of Milwaukee bands’ music, mostly from the late eighties and early nineties. It’s rather a drag that so much was going on here just before the ability to make cheap CDs, since much of this material was documented only on self-released cassettes or unreleased tapes. One of the more interesting (and inconsistent) characters then was a guy named Ward Wiesenthal, who billed himself simply as Ward. He was in a band called Simpleton with several future members of the Blow Pops and the Lackloves, but mostly recorded solo. In 1991 he got together with an all-star collection of local musicians (including past and future members of Die Kreuzen, Yipes!, E*I*E*I*O, Plasticland, and Maki) and released a cassette called simply Four by Ward. This was his most elaborate production, with tons of vintage keyboards courtesy Bill Dempsey – but in this case the production served the songs. Too bad there weren’t more recordings like this from Ward. Anyway, the opening track, and my favorite song of his, is “Dream.” The song takes us through several different sections, and I’m particularly fond of the recurring Townshend-like thundercrack guitar, followed by low-register wobbly piano.
On a completely different note, the other day a song, I think by St. Etienne, came up in my car, with a sample of an obscure ’50s doo-wop record with a bass voice saying “I am the Japanese Sandman.” Now I knew I’d heard it before, but I couldn’t place it…so of course I had to go digging around online to find it. Turns out to be a 1957 track by a band called The Cellos, with the somewhat unwieldy title “Rang Tang Ding Dong (I Am the Japanese Sandman).” (The one part of that linked summary that I doubt is the bit about the title and copyright: there are, of course, many many songs that share titles with pre-existing songs, so I suspect the title change was motivated more by commercial considerations than strictly legal ones.) It’s a completely goofy record, its faux-oriental guitar opening interrupted by slap-echoed falsetto “who are you?” – and then that bass response. The song itself is pretty straightforward doo-wop, but I like the part where the one singer interrupts to complain that everyone else gets all the cool parts. (The song is about “Japanese” in pretty much exactly the way that Jonathan Richman’s “Here Come the Martian Martians” is about actual Martians: that is, not at all.)