Issue #117: On The Track by Leon Redbone

June 11, 2018

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On The Track by Leon Redbone
Released In 1975
Released By Warner Bros. Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Laura Burroughs

The simmer of boiling Silver Queen corn barely reaches above the pop and hiss of cornbread gently frying in the cast iron skillet in the oven. Smelling of spring earth, freshly plucked snap beans glisten in a colander, awaiting their turn on the stovetop and quickly drying in the heat of this Southern kitchen. A box fan hurriedly wobbles, spinning away the humidity hanging in this old house once again as my grandmother wipes her damp hands on her damp apron, handing me the egg beater as a reward for being her helper. It’s my favorite, the two whisks running in tandem as you turn the little crank on the side, and I lick off every bit of the coconut cake batter, her favorite, and imagine a clown riding on a very tall, very precarious bicycle as I slowly turn that crank to get to all the sugar. Familiar smoke from a Camel drifts into the dinner smells, yellowing the wallpaper just a bit more, as my grandpa, handsome even in overalls stained with years of red clay, puts down the newspaper to turn the record over to side B.

Lovely, isn’t it, remembering the safety of your very young years. Lovely, yes, if only it were true. Left out of memories like that is the constant awareness of my father’s snake eyes slicing over at me as my grandparents handed me back over from summer vacation, a warning of speaking what went on at home miles away from them. Left out is the time my mom packed us in the car after a fight, all with our dinner plates and real silverware, so upset about returning home that she stopped at a gas station and tossed out the dishes, so long did it take her to decide to go back to that house. Aware, sure, of Redbone’s voice from his contribution to the Warner Brothers’ cartoons, it wasn’t until I was an adult sifting through filthy thrift store records that I found the breadth of his sound and connection back to a past I could never have known. Putting on an album with a cartoon frog on the cover gave no prediction of the smooth, soothing Americana contained therein.

Released in 1975 by a man still private about his personal life, On The Track is an anomaly of a record. From the cover art, to the tracks, to the culture in which it came out, nothing about this record feels viable for a contract. Without a mention from Bob Dylan in an interview, Redbone may have never gotten a full contract, and then to release this debut album and still go on to have the full career he’s had is mindboggling. Unhurried and happy on every track, the album calls back music that would have belonged to the contemporary audience’s grandparents. “Lazybones,” my favorite of the album, plays so quietly indulgent just in the pleasure of making the track. There’s no overt awareness of how the album might be received, but just that unbelievably round voice singing and picking along to music clearly dear to his heart.

Each listen of the album stands timeless because of that effort, that purity in acknowledging the music of that era. In reviving the old blues of the ’20s and ’30s during a time of emerging synth and the fall of the American Dream, Redbone pulls out in me a longing for a nonexistent childhood, all the best parts skimmed off the top to leave the murky sediment down at the bottom.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

A musical sphinx just as comfortable salvaging ragtime & Tin Pan Alley as he is exploring folk & jazz.

I know almost nothing about ragtime, or really jazz prior to bebop. Of course, this means I was more or less going in blind to On The Track. OK, fine. Perhaps having a mental clean slate as it were is the best way to consider it. After all, ragtime is so far removed from today, both chronologically and musically, that it’s practically its own island. Thus, it has no real context in 2018. So, I decided to have some fun and give it some to compare. The impetus for this was that upon hearing the album, my brain immediately went to this Bill Burr joke. Replace Burr’s vocalisms with any part of this record and the punchline works just as well, and maybe better. Then I wondered what would happen if, instead of comedy, you placed this music over something scary — like a creepy doll, for example. And holy shit, that’s haunting. Anyway, this continued throughout the week and went on longer than it probably should’ve. Whether I overdid it or not, I realized something as a result: the context of content matters almost as much as the content itself. When Leon Redbone put On The Track out, ragtime was already out of fashion, sure, but there was also a resurgence in popularity going on at the time. In 2018, we’re four decades removed from that and an entire century removed from the genre’s zenith. On The Track, therefore, can be seen as a bit of a relic, an artifact — and that is its context. To be clear, that’s not a slight against either the album or the artist. I’m simply looking at the content through a prism in an attempt to understand, or maybe to better understand, what I’m experiencing. On The Track is an enjoyable listen, yes, but it can be so much more than that with a little tinkering.

Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That

I had a friend who loved Leon Redbone. Leo was a trumpeter, fancied himself a bit of a jazzy cat, and on my first visit to his apartment, he told me he thought The Beatles were “just a lot of loud guitars.” It was the mid-’70s and nostalgia was all the rage, from the malt-shoppe antics of “Sha Na Na” and American Graffiti (and its sitcom spinoff, Happy Days) to the hit Broadway musical Ain’t Misbehaving, which had everyone singing Fats Waller again. So it was maybe not that unusual for a high school kid to fixate on a dude who looked and sounded like he had crawled out of the grooves of an old 78, or even a wax cylinder. Leon Redbone also achieved a certain ubiquity by appearing on some early episodes of Saturday Night Live (see him at about 25 minutes into this show). That was probably where I had the most exposure to Redbone, finding him an amusing — if curious — interlude between the wacky sketches of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. Unlike Leo, however, I never bought any of his records and the last time I spared him a thought was when I found a used copy of SNL‘s first two seasons on DVD and we watched some with the kids. Revisiting his first album now I find myself amazed by his commitment, the way he never breaks character and truly inhabits the songs. It’s a well curated collection, too, with familiar classics like Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer’s “Lazybones” mixed in with more unusual items like “Big Time Woman” by Wilton Crawley and “Haunted House” by Lonnie Johnson. He has a lot of stellar musicians aboard as well, like Steve Gadd on drums, Joe Venuti on violin, and Milt Hinton on bass. The central instrument is Redbone’s acoustic guitar, strumming along and taking the odd solo — the one on “Some Of These Days” (not the Pink Floyd song, ha!) is especially tasty. I also have to give the man props for getting Chuck Jones — the Warner Brothers cartoonist — to do the cover. Michigan J. Frog, who knew a thing or two about Tin Pan Alley, was the perfect comic avatar for Redbone! In the end, On The Tracks is a tribute to one man’s belief in himself and his ability to use his charisma to get other people to buy into his vision. Call him crazy if you want to, but he was crazy like a fox as he turned his peculiar, anachronistic passion into a career lasting over 40 years (he retired in 2015) and a dozen albums. While I would probably prefer to listen to folks like Bing Crosby, Fats Waller, or Hoagy Carmichael themselves, you could do far worse than getting into Leon Redbone to discover America’s pre-war legacy of popular music. As for Leo, I don’t know what he’s listening to these days, but I’m happy to report that my dedicated tutelage turned him into a devoted Beatles fan!

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

Despite his astonishing talent, Redbone shows considerable restraint here, never letting his robust reinventions outgrow their boilerplate structures.

Sometimes less is more. In the case of this week’s selection, On The Track by Leon Redbone, this turn of phrase is two-fold. First, as a musician whose career thrived around the 1970s, Redbone’s clear love for the unique sound and writing style of ragtime and vocal jazz makes the music on this 1975 release feel dramatically out of place from the psychedelic rock and singer-songwriter folk more famously known to the era. Redbone sounds like a man who wishes he were born decades earlier during the turn of the century or up to its first couple of decades, when ragtime and cabaret style songs were most cherished and most ubiquitous in public entertainment (roughly between 1895 and 1919). Second, even though an artist can channel and write in the style of any period at any given time in their lives, the genre of On The Track isn’t the only thing that makes the record feel out of place. Compared to the digital, perfectionist-minded capabilities of now, sound recordings of the 1970s might seem like a technically lower level of quality. Yet, when pitted against the audio potential from the turn of the 1900s, analog recording and manual tape cutting is lightyears ahead in quality. The thing is, Redbone has such a thorough sense of sonic character when it comes to exemplifying this earlier style that the album almost seems wrong somehow, with its recordings playing out so cleanly. It makes the illusion of early ragtime break apart — almost like the art is tripping at a finish line meant to symbolize authenticity — when the more muddled, warm, and crackling tones of era-appropriate wax cylinders isn’t what Redbone gives. When a man is able to list the singular sound of “throat tromnet” on his skill list, harmonizing vocal support occasionally comes in the form of loose yodeling, and when the natural vocal tendency of the artist at hand is to eliminate hard consonant sounds from the ends of words so as to render most lyrics mildly garbled by default, the music is practically begging for an older form of capture that would gently but artistically frame the music in a complementary way. It might seem like a shot to the foot for music to undergo deliberate muddying when technology exists to clarify. Nevertheless, perhaps in the same way singers from the Metropolitan Opera recently chose to record themselves singing operatic repertoire using early phonograph technology, Redbone’s honest homage to music from the turn of the century could stand to be heard through a chronologically matching audio lens. Much as is the case with paintings done in an impressionist or pointillist style, sometimes distortion is not only intended but necessary to best appreciate the end result.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

It feels like I’m constantly on my feet these days. My job requires a lot of physical movement, which I was aware of when I signed up for it, but even on my days off, it feels like I’m always walking somewhere — to the bar, to a park, to the store — so when I have gotten a moment to sit down and relax in the past week, I’ve been too exhausted to do anything but sit and relax. Fortunately, listening to music is something that I can also do while I sit, and Leon Redbone’s On The Track is exactly the type of album that I can put on after being on my feet for more than half the day. I’ll admit that I had a very specific idea of what to expect from listening to this based completely on the fact that Michigan J. Frog appears on the front cover, and while Redbone doesn’t cover “Hello! Ma Baby” here (quick tangent: a co-worker recently asked me to name some of my favorite movies, and I completely forgot to mention Spaceballs), it still lived up to my set of expectations. I don’t venture into Tin Pan Alley often, but Redbone’s gruff renditions of “My Walking Stick” and “Lazybones” made for the perfect soundtrack after a long Friday night of working and walking out to a bar, then realizing it was actually a dance club, and walking back home. In fact, while I was listening to the former, I even had thoughts of looking forward to being a grumpy old man with a walking stick. In all of my years of being a devout music fanatic, I don’t think I’ve ever listened to an album that’s had that effect on me. This one is going to get a lot of repeat plays from future me when I’m cranky and tired after being out all day long.

Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie

If you’ve spent time flipping through records at a thrift store or sidewalk sale, you know about the ratio. Maybe you don’t call it that, but I bet you’ve thought about it: The quality vs. quantity ratio. How good an album is vs. how many copies are readily available for a buck. When you’re crate digging, you’re looking for records that break that ratio — that are excellent in some way even though they’re devalued, whether for an acute reason (damage, usually) or for a persistent one (they pressed a zillion of them back in the day and demand hasn’t kept pace with supply). Leon Redbone’s On The Track is a classic example of the latter. I hadn’t heard it until this week, but I’ve seen that cartoony cover dozens of times. In fact, I went to Plan 9’s sidewalk sale on Saturday looking for it in particular, and there it was. $1. Like clockwork. Yet it’s all sorts of excellent. I’ve been spinning it repeatedly while cooking, cleaning, writing… the album’s relaxed tone and vocal delivery offset the sneaky sophistication of the arranging to achieve a wonderful loose-tight balance. The great DJ Mentos asked me over Twitter what the album sounded like, and I told him it was like listening to someone practice for an afternoon gig at Jay Gatsby’s house. The world it creates feels both warmly vivid and vaguely distant, somehow. On a more specific note, I can’t remember being called out by a song more directly than when Redbone sings “When you go fishin’ I bet you keep wishin’ them fish don’t grab at your line.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thrown a line in the water hoping I’d have time to reel and relax instead of having to awkwardly unhook a fish I didn’t want to inconvenience in the first place. I am “Lazybones.” And I’m convinced that, regardless of where you buy it or how much you pay for it, On The Track is well worth your time: uniquely charming and infinitely relistenable.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

Little verifiable information exists of Redbone, adding another layer of intrigue to his already coercive music.

Old has a sound and it sounds a lot like blues. Leon Redbone’s On The Track was released in 1975, the year after I was born and so I can never claim to understand the cultural context of the time and jazz within it. Everything I know about the ’70s I learned from family photographs, vague recollections of childhood things, and Hollywood depictions. None of that fits with the low-fi, warm sound of On The Tracks. It’s as though even within its own time it might have sounded old and classic — from some unidentifiable place where things were more straightforward. In a time when popular music was leaning most notably toward the beginnings of psychedelic rock and disco, jazz of this form somehow managed to exist, siloed into a dark club somewhere. Even in spite of a 1988 CD re-release, the album (streaming digitally as I write this) still manages to maintain the character of comfortable familiarity. No Hollywood depiction of the era ever really painted the ’70s like a noir crime drama in black and white where a detective retreats to a sparsely attended, underground jazz club to see a show and have a drink. These are the velvety tones of the playful but subtly blue jazz of Redbone’s On the Track. Live jazz instruments which seem parked too far from the mic off in the back somewhere. Perhaps it’s the recording style and limitations of the time, but ’75 wasn’t exactly the technical dark ages. One has to imagine that a certain amount of the scratchy, smoky swirl of “Lazybones” was deliberate. The more upbeat “Desert Blues (Big Chief Buffalo Nickel)” has Redbone confidently indulging in some scat performance as he sings with a swing. Horns bump and plod in the background — far less brash than a horn ought to be. Something is lost in today’s production when everything is jacked up to 10 and every detail of a sound is polished with surgical procession. It’s easy to get lost in the imagined history associated with something for which perfection takes a back seat to live performance. And though it’s not a live record in the traditional sense, one can easily imagine being that audience. Pour yourself a drink, slip into that club down the alley, and give Redbone a nod as you take your seat.

Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage

In another life, before a peripatetic baby girl and weary desk work, I had a roaming work schedule that contained a lot of perks. Sleeping was an obvious one — staying in bed into whenever on most days, and taking extended afternoon naps on the others — but I also much enjoyed being able to live in “off” hours from the majority of other people. For instance, this allowed me to experience the hustle and bustle of consumerism away from the crowds of shoppers, something you don’t really appreciate until its gone and you’re out at the same time as everyone else in the city, or world as it seems. I didn’t take advantage of this the way I should have — hindsight and all, you know — but I did explore one area in this fashion pretty thoroughly over the years: the guitar shop. Doesn’t matter which one — Sam Ash, Guitar Center, some local shop — I always found myself in a guitar shop when it was probably the “dead” time of day. One or two employees and just whoever wandered into the store. Sure, you’d still get the random metalhead flaunting their ability to flawlessly perform a Dimebag Darrell or Randy Rhoads lick, but they were few and far between, much more likely to be there when there was an actual audience to “impress.” The people showing up at this time to try out a guitar, they weren’t there except to feel the guitar out… and the best way to do that would be by hearing how their favorite songs sounded on a guitar. That’s what I always loved hearing and I definitely heard it all from Charley Patton to Tim Fite. I was one of those people too, always eager to hear how my folk-punk version of “Personal Jesus” would sound on every guitar that caught my eye. Listening to On The Track brings these memories back as I can hear Leon Redbone as one of these people: Walking off the street, picking up a guitar, and finding out how the songs he loved and knew best would sound on each different guitar. Of course, there’s much more going on in this music. You have legendary session musicians like Steve Gadd and Gene Orloff sitting in (and even a legendary musician in his own right, Don McLean!) providing a wealth of unobtrusive layering that helps flesh out Redbone’s own voice and guitar-work. He also brings along his “throat tromnet,” his own term for his vocal hums and scats that fall in brass line between a trumpet and trombone and adds a great deal of vitality to the music. I’m not going to say that all of this makes songs by Irvin Berlin and Hoagy Carmichael sound “new” or “fresh,” but it definitely doesn’t moves past the antiquated feeling one might initially hold. It’s not about updating this sound though — songs like “Polly Wolly Doodle” don’t really need updating and Redbone knows this. What it does do is make a relic of the aural past sound endearing, offering countless reasons why it should be preserved and championed like any other style, sound, or genre. It makes you want to sit-down and ask Redone about these specific songs he chose and the stories they’ve soundtracked in his life, in the exact same fashion you would of some random musician at a guitar shop at 10:30 AM on a Tuesday would randomly be strumming and humming a song such as “Paper Doll.” I never got the chance to ask that middle-aged man about that song, and I will most likely never get to ask Redbone about these, but both instances are so fascinating and compelling that they become experiences in my own life, stories with their own soundtracks I’ll now eagerly tell people, which gives new life and preservation to these iconic classics, lifetimes past their conception.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
After Bach by Brad Mehldau
Chosen By Kira Grunenberg

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Hannah Angst, Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Catherine Dempsey, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Chelsea Kostrey, Steve Lampiris, David Munro, Drew Necci, Jeremy Shatan, & Darryl Wright

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