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The best of the newest with Ernie Paik
Monkey Banana Kitchen
The British collective Family Fodder—founded by Alig Pearce (a.k.a. Alig Fodder) in the ’70s—is one of those groups that this writer wants to scream and shout about, with arms flailing like a madman, until everyone in the world has heard them.
It presses all the right buttons, with an unusual pop aesthetic that is informed by post-punk, dub, classical music, tape-loop and sound experimentation, dadaism and the joy of absurdity. The band’s insanely inventive 1980 album Monkey Banana Kitchen is a bona fide underground cult classic, and until now, oddly enough, it has never been properly reissued on any format since its original vinyl release over 30 years ago.
If there’s a track that serves as a litmus test, it’s the third track on the album, “Savoir Faire,” which stretches the notion of new wave pop, bursting with excitement and a propulsive beat; Dominique Levillain’s singsongy vocals are in both English and French, with synth sparks in the background, electric guitar tremolos and junkyard percussion blasts.
If you don’t like this track, Family Fodder is not for you, and this writer can’t help you. The album’s weirdest moments are “Monkey” and “Banana” which take inspiration from (collaborator and contemporary) This Heat’s tape loop exercises, tattooing vocal snippets onto the listener’s brain, such as “Reasons in the monkey house” and “With a banana” with studio manipulation and a teasing, child-like playfulness.
The new reissue on the German label Staubgold is available on vinyl and CD, and the CD version is a jam-packed 80-minute disc also featuring the EP Schizophrenia Party and two singles, “Film Music” and “The Big Dig.” As much as this writer loves this music, this reissue has a few issues.
First of all, the track order is not the original order, and “Monkey” has been abridged so that all the material would fit on a 80-minute disc. Much (all?) of the material has been apparently remastered from vinyl, so surface noise and high-frequency distortion can be heard at times. Finally, surely this edition merits an essay or at least ample liner notes, but apart from credits, it’s lacking in that department.
Despite these issues, this writer welcomes any opportunity to introduce newcomers to the strange and unique world of Family Fodder, a culture mash-up of highbrow and lowbrow aims fueled by an unfettered, entertaining cleverness.
The nebulous field of Americana is a crowded one, with a built-in audience, and it seems like any individual who knows his or her way around open tunings and can pose for photos standing on railroad tracks can get a gig.
However, that also underscores the difficulty of standing apart from the crowd with a distinctive, memorable touch, and Knoxville-based singer/guitarist Leah Gardner has managed to offer a refreshing and satisfying take on well-worn musical territory on her new self-titled solo debut EP, with several key features.
First of all, Gardner has cultivated her own unique voice, with both grace and grit and an admirable control. While not blatantly aping any particular singer, Gardner’s singing has a little bit of Dolly Parton’s country enunciation, a smidgeon of Billie Holiday’s pretty and bluesy wilt and just a hint of Hope Sandoval’s shadowed, breezy, wistful reverberating bliss-out.
Also notable is Gardner’s backing band, which is a perfect complement to her calming singing and strumming, with the nuanced rhythm section of bassist Taylor Coker (like Gardner, a former member of The Black Lillies) and percussionist Jon Whitlock, Seth Hopper on violin and trumpet, and cellist Cecilia Miller.
The 6-song EP includes four originals and two adapted traditional tracks, “Two Soldiers” and “Same Old Man,” spotlighting Gardner’s affinity for balladry and Appalachian folk with country and soul infusions, and the release is impeccably recorded, with a natural sounding balance that just feels right and the fluidity of a live performance.
The bright original “Make Me Blue” features earworm melodies and a moderately paced take on gypsy jazz, with standout vibrant violin playing from Hopper; his downward glissandos mirror Gardner’s line, “Some say trees fall, you pretend you don’t love me at all.”
“Mess Up My Hair” assumes a sauntering, smoldering warmth with trumpet and cello accents, and “Waiting” features the gentle amble of a frontier ballad with a pleasing cello/violin call-and-response. While ostensibly modest and unassuming, Gardner’s debut slithers in and stays with the listener, with gorgeous singing and spotless performances.