Category Archives: Little Critters

CDs I bought in 1998

For my 12th birthday, I received a particularly great gift – a $50 gift certificate to the local music store.  Back then this was a pretty big deal and not something to be taken lightly.  I had maybe six CDs tops, plus whatever I could steal from my parents.  And with a two-dollar allowance, whatever I got was probably going to have to last until Christmas at the very least.  But it’s more than that when you’re in those preteen years; music was an identity.  I have no clue if middle schoolers these days are sharing Spotify playlists or whatever but back then it was all about what’s in your CD jacket.  As someone just about to enter 7th grade this was very important to me.  If you had cool music tastes then you were somewhat cool, unless you weren’t cool, then you were a poser.  If you listened to what your parents liked, then you were a loser, or you were poor.  If you liked stuff that nobody ever heard of, then you were an enigma, but nobody wanted to talk to you.  Am I getting this right?  Unfortunately there were not very many avenues for me to discover new music; I had MTV and the radio, and that was about it.  Every music video was like a sales pitch.
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Little Critters: Obscurities – Country Mike, Ken, My Barbarian

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)

countrymikeOn 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 albumken 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)

clovenMy 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.

Little Critters: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Cake, Mike Doughty

Ryuichi Sakamoto – Works I-CM (2002)
Since I’ve already done a Hosono and a Takahashi album here, I figure it was only a matter of time before I got a Sakamoto one in. Problem is I haven’t really been listening to much Sakamoto lately, as there have been so many soundtracks and collaborations and other assorted compilations that I don’t really know what is what anymore. Furthermore, I’m a little more picky with him. Works I-CM is the one album of his I’ve been playing a lot lately, and it’s not an album proper, but rather a compilation of music that he did for commercials between 1982 and 1984. If you’re a fan this should make your ears perk up a little, as 82-84 was a particularly fertile period for Sakamoto, and as you may expect this album has several gems on it. In fact it probably warrants its own feature on Critter Jams, but the fact that all the songs (outside of “Expo 85”) have Japanese titles make it difficult to talk about.

Essentially this is 50 minutes, spanning 19 tracks, many of which are quite short. Most of this sounds somewhere between his crystalline Naughty Boys work and Ongaku Zukan. The first track is “About You” from the latter, originally written for a Life Insurance company. The others are generally unavailable elsewhere, though pieces of them sometimes show up on later compositions. Akiko Yano appears on a number of them. None of these pieces are very sophisticated, but they do sound good (many use the same shimmering synth tones that were so apparent on Naughty Boys). I’ve been down on RS’s pop sense in the past; I feel that on some releases he feels he has to dumb himself down too much. But the music here is crisp, effortless, and fun. Many of the pieces just loop the same jingles over and over again; I have no idea why the ten-minute track is so long, but everything is a breezy listen so you don’t much mind the repetition. Sometimes it reminds me of leaving the Nintendo 64 on a menu screen for too long. It sounds like a lot of these tracks intended to eventually get vocals over the top, but the instrumentals are good on their own.

Overall the experience is not unlike Hosono’s excellent Coincidental Music; not as adventurous but it’s brisk and many of the pieces are quite interesting. Apparently there is another collection called Works II – TV and Inst. which I believe is more of the same.

Cake – Live From the Crystal Palace (2014) (vinyl only)
This and the next one sort of go together. Cake are not really a band I listen to anymore, but I loved them so much as a teenager that I figure I owe it to myself to check out their new stuff. I believe we’ve been hearing about this album for like…six years now, so if nothing else it’s kind of cemented some sort of legendary status in my mind. That said, I’ve heard for a long time that Cake weren’t exactly a great live act and this disc proves it. I have always wanted to go to a show, as their songs are wonderfully easy to sing (or shout) along to, but the constant tales of John McCrea’s pissy and depressing demeanor eventually turned me off. Simply put, I dig the guy’s music and I’m sure he’s super intelligent, but I would imagine that spending an evening with the dude would just be a massive bummer. That’s kind of ironic, as Cake’s music is usually a lot of fun.

As for the album – I guess it wasn’t really worth waiting for. The performance itself is nearly a decade old by this point, so you almost wonder why they released it at all. Cake’s studio music always had a spontaneous atmosphere to it and quite frankly they don’t sound a lot different live. Occasionally DiFiore (trumpet) will blast out a new line or something but there’s not a lot of excitement here; they have trouble really getting into a groove, as there are a lot of timing issues between instruments. They certainly don’t sound like a band that’s been together for over a decade. Still, good to revisit some of these tunes and I may just break out those first four albums again, still classics in my mind.

Mike Doughty – Live at Ken’s House (2014)
It’s no secret that I didn’t like Doughty’s collection of re-imagined Soul Coughing tunes; it felt a bit unsavory for one, but more than that it just wasn’t very good, attempting to bury the work of three very talented musicians through an unimaginative array of loud drum machines and garbage samples. Live at Ken’s House is a live (in the studio) take on a bunch of Soul Coughing material, featuring bassist Catherine Popper and drummer Pete Wilhoit, and thankfully he lets them loose and allows them to create the sort of grooves that at least resemble what the originals were all about. It’s so much better than the studio album that it’s downright baffling why this wasn’t the actual release; it retains a lot of the chaotic nature of the originals, throws a number of interesting wrinkles into the mix, and even re-does some songs completely (“Lazybones”, turning into a dreamy chiptune dirge). There are a few missteps – an acoustic version of “Super Bon Bon” is completely pointless, but the remixed version with female hip-hop collective HJA is downright offensive, featuring new lyrics like “got my mind on my money and money on my mind” and throwing in the same bits that worked so poorly on the Super Bon Bon Circles Sleepless album. In fact, the mini-acoustic set is kind of a waste altogether, considering that he already did so many SC songs this way on Water and Washington, and quite frankly I think this new band has a real groove to ’em; both the medleys are a lot of fun, and the snappy takes on “St. Louise is Listening” and “Bus to Beezlebub” are great. In other words they sound like cleaned up, more professional takes on what Soul Coughing did; maybe the soul of it is different (if anything, this whole project highlighted how integral De Gli Antoni and Gabay really were – Steinberg was as well, but Popper isn’t a bad replacement), but they’re 90% of the way there. It’s exactly what I was hoping his “re-imagined” disc would be like.