"I'd always loved to sing, but the stuff I liked wasn't really suited to my voice," says Christina Marrs of Austin's Asylum Street Spankers, who will be playing at Tipitina's on Saturday, March 13. "When I heard the blues, I realized, 'Yeah, that's it. That's where I belong.'" Marrs grew up on punk rock, but "I got into the blues in my late teens, and one door opens the other." In her case, that meant Koko Taylor led her in auto-didactic fashion to older, acoustic blues and to the hot jazz that often gets a raunchy handling by the Spankers.
If there is one place where Marrs and co-founder Whammo's punk backgrounds are evident, it's their choice of covers. On Mercurial, the band's new album, traditional songs aren't given undue reverence. They're taken seriously, but jazz standards like "Digga Digga Doo" and "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" aren't treated as too pristine or perfect not to be found side by side with songs like Black Flag's "TV Party" and the B-52's "Dance This Mess Around."
"It was my idea," Marrs says. "It's cool to have something people don't expect and I knew it would work for the band." It might be too close to the original to fit on the record, but the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere," when turned into boogie, sounds right at home next to Bessie Smith's "Sugar in My Bowl."
Ultimately, though, all the covers are platforms for the band's hyperactive imagination. On "Digga Digga Doo," for instance, the band carefully inserted the cantina section from Star Wars (" I don't know why we did that," Marrs admits). In other cases, the band's additions are more obvious, as in the case of "Tight Like That," which also features a verse and chorus of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died." Moments like that raise the question of whether the Spankers are smuttily satirical in the Frank Zappa tradition, or if they're simply class clowns goofing because they can. Most likely, it's a little of both borne from entertaining audiences, with dirty jokes one of the fastest ways to get to a drinking audience. If the jokes have a subversive dimension, all the better.
The album emerged from the band's live show, where many of the songs were crowd favorites. Besides the combination of standards, eccentric covers and the band's own, often-racy material, the Asylum Street Spankers have made a name for themselves by performing entirely acoustically where possible.
"We've played a number of plugged-in gigs at big festivals and it got across, but we were uncomfortable," Marrs says. For a band that often swaps instruments around, microphone set-ups can prove hard to work around, but more than that, the band has come to appreciate the beauty of acoustic instruments. "There's something really beautiful about wood and wires," she says. "The instruments mix themselves." In the beginning though, playing without "demon electricity," as the band calls it, was not an aesthetic decision. "The person supposed to bring the PA forgot to do it," Marrs admits.
It seems like there's something doomed about the marriage of electronica and world music. Does it really give either genre's fans what they want? There's little evidence night-clubbers want to hear a dhol or pipa, and much of the appeal of traditional instruments is how they connect to a culture that is obscured by the new musical context. Still, compilations Planet Buzz and Edge of the World (Narada World) suggest how much life is in the sound because the songs invite such interesting associations.
Mosquitos' "Boombox," for instance, recalls a stripped-down Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, not only in the bossa nova but in how Juju Stulbach's voice recalls Lani Hall. At the same time as it hearkens back, its contemporary sound reminds us that the bossa nova was the pop of its moment. Edge of the World is the trippier of the two discs, and thankfully only "A Gathering Storm" by Terry Hall (late of the Specials) & Mushtaq has that musty "progressive-er than thou" vibe that world music can sometimes take on. Most of it sounds more engaged in its moment than most pop, rock and rap being made today.
U. Utah Phillips' I've Got to Know and David Rovics' Behind the Barricades: The Best of David Rovics (both on AK Press/Daemon Records) are reminders that records exist for many reasons, many having nothing to do with Beyoncé-size stardom. Both are folk music in the Pete Seeger tradition, with Phillips' the more interesting as it captures an afternoon spent in the studio with his guitar, his wit and a book of poems to work out his rage at the first Gulf War. Rovics' songs are broad in that rally-the-faithful way, but they're one-dimensional by design. They don't deliver new pleasures through repeated listenings, but both document ways of confronting authority, which is probably more valuable though not more fun than Dangerously in Love.
- Austin's Asylum Street Spankers return to New Orleans for a show at Tipitina's on Saturday.