This week we’ll be talking about obscurities on Critter Jams, so most of you will probably want to skip on past this one. By obscurities I mean albums you thought you’d never hear for one reason or another. I’m guessing none of these sold more than 500 copies and I don’t think either of the first two really intended to. Regardless, let’s take a dive:
Country Mike’s Greatest Hits (1999)
On the excellent Beastie Boys anthology Sounds of Science there are a couple of tunes credited to “Country Mike”, both of which were kind of dumb, but they stood out in a collection that was already fairly eclectic. In the liner notes there was some story about Mike hitting his head and waking up as a country singer, and if the other members of the band didn’t play along and let him record this album he could wind up dead. Clearly the story was fake and I doubted that Country Mike’s Greatest Hits ever actually existed. Sure enough the album is real; intended as a gag gift for friends and family, everything about Country Mike’s Greatest Hits suggests some forgotten bargain bin album. Really I think that’s part of the joke, that somewhere in the dollar bin in some small town thrift store exists this obscure album that was actually produced by the megastar Beastie Boys. That some unsuspecting teenager might buy this album because of its terrible cover, unaware of who was actually behind it. That’s the sort of humor the Beasties got off on (see also: their small-time tours as the punk band Quasar) but thanks to the internet Country Mike’s Greatest Hits is a thing you can actually hear now.
Anyway, the album itself really is as advertised; a bunch of terrible country songs which sees Michael Diamond sing in both a bad country drawl and an even worse falsetto. Some of the songs are just enough to get stuck in your head (“Railroad Blues”, “Country Christmas”, “We Can Do This” which is hilariously staged as “live” with constant cheering throughout). Outside of “Country Mike’s Theme” there’s no sign of the other Beasties – Mix Master Mike adds some record scratches to “Country Delight” (a send-up of “Rapper’s Delight”) but that’s about it. The best thing you can say about it is that it’s charming; it’s not trying to necessarily be funny, it’s just the honest result of the Beasties taking a day or two to record a legit country album. Should you, devotee of all things Beastie, track down a copy? I mean, if you’ve got nothing better to do for forty minutes, yeah, but keep in mind that half the joke is that nobody would ever hear it.
Ken – By Request Only (1976)
By Request Only is a true internet success story. The album spent years as a regular feature on those infamous “Worst Album Cover” lists, but like most such albums, nobody knew a thing about it. What makes this one special is that there was even less information out there – half the cover is given to Ken’s enormous, perfect face, and his decision to go simply as “Ken” made it a lot harder to figure out who the guy actually was. It certainly felt like Ken, who apparently plays his songs by request only, was a big deal somewhere. Alas, Ken was a total mystery – there was no evidence that this album actually existed; it wasn’t listed anywhere, and the album only seemed to exist for its cover to crop up over and over on those lists. I mean, all these albums were obscure, but Ken was unique in that apparently nobody had ever heard it, period. Who the hell was Ken, anyway? Was he even a real person? How did this (mint condition) cover image make its way online? Was it all some kind of hoax? If not, does the real Ken know how much of a legend he became online?
By Request Only is also an example of how the internet ruins mystique. After improbably finding a copy on eBay, a couple of people noticed that the newly unearthed back cover contained the man’s phone number, and by some stroke of luck the number still worked, allowing these internet detectives to actually call the man at his house. To answer these questions – yes, he’s real, and he’s a pastor in Iowa. The album was self-released and sold out of the back of his van, and therefore wouldn’t be listed anywhere online. He’s aware that the album was considered to have one of the worst covers of all-time but had no idea how big a deal it was until he was informed that the copy in question went for 150 bucks.
Unfortunately, the music on By Request Only is pretty much where the joke ends. While before you could only speculate on the music contained within (I always assumed it was a disco album), the reality is that it’s a rather bland country-gospel album. Despite the fact that his Ned Flanders voice matches his Ned Flanders appearance there’s not a whole lot funny about it. “Modern Religion” is probably the closest chance the music had at going viral, with it’s almost-funk beat and scornful lyrics – “When you go to church on Sunday/You let them know who you are/As soon as the service is over/You head for the nearest bar”. That’s about as fire as Ken gets; otherwise most of the lyrics are made up of stuff like “He left his home in glory/to bring me redemption story”.
When I was in high school, sophomore year, I had a print-out copy of this album cover in my locker. I thought it was funny and everyone else thought it was weird, so it pretty much did its job. This was back in 2002. I never thought there was ever a chance I’d actually get to hear the album. I never thought I’d see the day that it would gather 65 reviews on RateYourMusic or be posted in full on YouTube (which didn’t exist in 2002, but you get the point). Now that it is, I kind of feel like the joke is over, the air’s been let out of the tires a bit; Ken is just some dude who self-released an album of original gospel songs. Still, kudos for actually tracking this guy down. I guess we’ll always have Country Church.
My Barbarian – Cloven Soft-Shoe (2004)
My Barbarian are an LA-based performance art collective that are difficult to figure out; they do the sort of self-important brand of theater which is overwrought and full of symbolism and allegory, but it’s unclear how seriously they take the whole thing. A good example is the “Unicorns LA” video; diving face-first into low budget fantasy land, it’s unclear if it’s supposed to be funny or if it just is. I feel like it tips its hand with the dice-rolling overlay and the finale with the three members of the band dancing on the park bench, but then again maybe not. The song stuck in my head enough to buy this disc off Amazon for the totally reasonable price of one penny, and if you act now, you can too (plus postage and handling, naturally). That means it didn’t have to live up to much – hell if there was just one other song I’d want to hear again I’d consider it a win.
It’s tough to talk much about My Barbarian based off this CD since most of it is meant to be part of a longer performance piece. They’re not musicians, or actors, or really anything, as their list of projects is so strange and eclectic that you never can quite figure out what their deal is. “Unicorns LA” doesn’t represent the rest of the disc, but the rest of the songs aren’t bad. The band itself is kind of bare-bones, with bass, drums, and one hell of a cheap synth, over which you’ve got three different singers who more or less take turns. A lot of times they sort of fall into a dirge but the hooks are generally there. “Morgan Le Fay” is the standout, just a great pop song with a chorus that won’t leave your head. Though once again you’re probably better off watching the video, which also raises more questions than it answers, but in a good way. Otherwise there are several songs I like – “Upstairs”, “Bette”, and “Dance You Witches (Dance)”, which is a brief B-52’s send-up. The members of the band are constantly lapsing in and out of character which further confuses the point. So really you’ve just got to take it as-is; most of the time it’s too out there to really connect, but there are some gut-punch moments like the answering machine message on “Erik”.
Really, I just wanted to mention this album because nobody else has. There’s not a whole lot to recommend about it but it’s still worth every penny. If you live in an area where My Barbarian performs, go see them, because based on what I can see on YouTube, they really are something special.