Phil DeGruy, Cranston Clements and Jimmy Robinson would make their guitar teachers proud. They stand up straight with good posture, and their wrists and their left hands are in correct position, not slackly hanging under the neck. Their guitar necks point roughly east-northeast, and as Twangorama all this technique and positioning allows them to play what they call "Seriously Twisted Guitar."
What is "Seriously Twisted Guitar"? Consider their instrumental version of the Easybeats' pop song "Friday on My Mind." "We spent six months on that arrangement, arguing about it," Robinson says. The result is a verse that is all crisscrossing guitar texture. In the melodic chorus, a descending guitar fill that ends each line in the original becomes a precise cascade of notes. If that sounds like art rock, that's fair enough considering Robinson's from New Orleans' art-rock band Woodenhead, as are drummer Mark Whitaker and bassist Paul Clement. Still, there's also a lot of attention to melody in Twangorama arrangements, and there's a greater sense of play than is associated with art-rock.
Having guests join the band each Thursday night at Carrollton Station adds to the fun. "People bring in different stuff each week," Robinson says. "Dave Malone wanted to do In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.' That was the most ridiculous thing we've done." Guitarist June Yamagishi is guesting this week, Astral Project's Tony Dagradi next week, then future guests include bouzouki player Beth Patterson (July 8), the Radiators' Camille Badouin (July 15), David Torkanowsky (Aug. 5), and Bill Solley and Kim Prevost (Aug. 12). Initially, preparing for the guests required a lot of work, but Robinson says the band has it down to a science now. "I try to do road maps or charts for each song," he says, but the preparation doesn't diminish the spontaneity of the shows. Previous evenings with Brian Stoltz and Yamagishi featured the funky guitar pyrotechnic displays you'd expect.
For all of Robinson's technical proficiency, he almost lost the ability to play guitar at all. While studying classical guitar at Loyola, he developed a hand condition that caused the muscles in one of his fingers to contract back toward his palm. "Eventually, I couldn't hold a pick normally," he says. "In college it drove me crazy." He wondered if it was due to practicing too much or practicing too little, then after seeing doctors and going through a number of misdiagnoses, he found he had a condition called focal dystonia. To deal with the condition, Robinson developed a new method of picking, putting a thumb pick on his index finger.
"It took some getting used to, but it leaves all my fingertips free," he explains. "Cranston liked it so much he started using it."
Too often, musician biographies are little more than glorified, sober-minded gossip -- entertaining as hell, but no help for getting closer to the music. Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series is more effective, with writers examining single albums in small, attractive books, the longest approaching 150 pages. The charm of the series has been how the best of them are meditations not just on the album but also on some larger issue. Andrew Hultkrans looks at Love's Forever Changes discussing apocalyptic visions of California, while Elisabeth Vincentelli uses ABBA Gold to raise questions about greatest-hits albums. She wonders why critics appraise them as artistically a level below albums (theoretically) conceived as a whole. In the process, she raises the question of what an album really is.
Not all are that ambitious. Chris Ott's book on Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures is little more than the band's recording and performing history, though since the band's history has become lost in its legend, his book serves a purpose. John Cavanaugh's take on Pink Floyd's Piper at the Gates of Dawn similarly does little beyond give readers some insight into the band and Swinging London, suggesting a psychedelic undercurrent often overlooked. Then again, Joe Harvard plays detective in Velvet Underground and Nico, investigating the Velvet Underground's legend, debunking myths and presenting a clearer picture of the record as a musical object.
All the books are highly readable, and they only occasionally drown in jargon. More often, the writing moves swiftly, as if a smart person is telling you interesting stuff about albums you like. A staple of the series is a track-by-track account of the album, examining the creation or performance of the songs, sometimes simply recounting who did what and how, while adopting more subjective, critical approaches in other cases. Michaelangelo Matos' Sign o' the Times contrasts versions of the songs that appeared on Prince's classic album, noticing changes and the effects of his artistic decisions. The notable exception is the book on the Smiths' Meat Is Murder by the Pernice Brothers' Joe Pernice. In the most radical move in the series, Pernice wrote a novella set in high school to illustrate what he heard in the album.
- Guests at Twangorama's Thursday night shows at Carrollton Station add to the fun. Guitarist Jimmy Robinson (right, beside Cranston Clements) says. "Dave Malone wanted to do 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.'"