Phonography CD reviewed1998-99
Milk Magazine issue #31
by Jeff Norman
R. Stevie Moore: Phonography
(Flamingo P.O. Box 40172, Albuquerque, NM 87196)
The ultimate cult artist, R. Stevie Moore has released nearly 250 self-recorded cassettes from his base in Montclair, New Jersey. Despite this enormous output, and despite the fact that Rolling Stone listed the original release of this album among the fifty most important indie releases ever, Phonography, a generous 70-minute compilation of his earliest recordings from the mid-1970s, is only the third CD release of Moore's material. (A European retrospective was released in the late '80s, and Contact Risk came out on a dinky New Jersey label in 1993.)
Moore's songs range wildly across a musical spectrum stretching from Tin Pan Alley to Frank Zappa (the angular synth lines of "I Wish I Could Sing"), from Roy Wood of the Move ("I've Begun to Fall in Love") to Sparks and the Bonzo Dog Band. Other songs remind me of Todd Rundgren, Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett (the brilliantly titled "Wayne Wayne Go Away"), Cheap Trick, and XTC. (Nice trick that, sounding like XTC in 1975...) While the songs here are timeless, some of the arranging marks these as '70s products: several songs feature multiple harmony guitars, notably the goofy take on "The Fishin' Hole" (better known as the Andy Griffith theme), and the synth sounds on some tracks are very much of the decade.
Considering Moore's recording methods - on these tracks he used one $30 mic, bouncing tracks between two tape machines, adding up to fifteen tracks in this manner, with the drums usually recorded last - the sound quality is surprisingly good. The distortion that does occur is readily overlooked because the songs are so catchy; often, it sounds as if Moore planned for distortion and made it integral to the song. In comparison with the similar lo-fi home-recordist approach of early Guided by Voices - and either Bob Pollard has several R. Stevie cassettes, or the two writers constitute an impressive case of parallel development - Moore's songs tend to be more finished, even though his output makes Pollard seem like My Bloody Valentine in terms of pumping out product.
In between the songs, which feature hooks galore and lyrics ranging from witty to surreal to simple and heartfelt, are various spoken pieces, silly skits (I'm partial to "The Lariat Wressed Posing Hour," which debates the merits of drinking water on panel discussions), and odd noise collages. In the liner notes Moore claims that he's always presented his recordings in a radio-like format wherein sound snippets, talking, even bogus commercials ("The Spot") coexist with songs. At first listen, the sound pieces (which are usually less than a minute long) seemed more distractions than enhancements, but now they add to the whole experience of the disc. But it's the songs that are the main attraction here - R. Stevie Moore deserves to be more than a cult artist.
Cool & Strange Music issue #13
In '83, music writer David Fricke said that R. Stevie Moore's records "are a refreshing experience-if you can find them." Time to rejoice. The enigmatic resident of Montclair NJ has released his 1976 do-it-yourself masterpiece PHONOGRAPHY (along with eight bonus tracks) onto one tidy CD.
If one had to quickly sum up the musical artistry that is R. Stevie Moore, it could be Brian Wilson on a budget. The wistful and melodic Phonography fell upon deaf ears when first released (this could be because there were only 100 copies pressed.) However, there was and still is a devoted RSM cult who regularly order up his hundreds of home-made cassette recordings. For the new listener, Phonography is a great place to start. Moore meticulously layered his sounds one on top of another, giving the whole thing a slightly surreal sound. The tape glitches and mike bumps are all there, since his recording method never allowed him to go back and change anything.
The tunes are linked together with seemingly inane yet utlimately telling banter - the sound of a young man alone in his house in the '70s. Most would be embarrassed to let anyone hear their inner brain-workings. Moore decided to let the world to hear it in all its unedited glory.
Special nod should be given to Smithereen's drummer and musicologist Dennis Diken for his entertaining and informative liners outlining the RSM experience. But on "Hobbies Galore," Moore has the final word: "Nobody's here, quiet soft air. Play solitarian life. I notice my hands giving me loud applause. If you're a goat you don't mind." (Flamingo Records, Box 40172, Albuquerque NM 87198)
- Ed Kaz!
Bullseye Canada distributor
R. Stevie Moore
R. Stevie Moore is one of the great musical eccentrics of our time. After 30 years of recording, he's released 18 formal albums, while no less than 260(!) homegrown cassettes are available to his "Cassette Club" members via his catalogue. Phonography is his first album, from 1976, and entirely homemade, so be warned that the sound quality is extremely lo-fi, even a little mushy – as you'd expect from a tape-head bouncing tracks back and forth on two quarter-track, quarter-inch recorders. But it's about the ideas and the moment, not just the charmingly unprofessional sound. Moore's lyrics run from cryptic and subliminal to childlike and literal, and his music twists classic pop melodies into new shapes, and bends them in strange new ways. "She Didn't Know What To Do With Herself" finds him paying a kind of homage to one of his musical heroes (and fellow eccentrics) Roy Wood (of The Move) with a rockin' little number and a fake English accent. "Hobbies Galore" is actually quite simple and sensitive, and a rather confessional piece at that. You can hear echoes of other heroes here – Brian Wilson, Frank Zappa, Sparks, The Beatles – but even 25 years after its original release, Phonography remains a strikingly original work from an entirely original and little-heard voice.
(c) 1973-76, 1998 R. Stevie Moore
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