The first time I realized how truly subversive pop music could be, under the right circumstances and when handled with the right balance of panache, chutzpa and perversity, was around 1977 when I encountered a record called Bionic Gold. A tribute album long before anyone had actually coined the phrase “tribute album,” it featured a slew of NYC New Wave/punk artists covering Phil Spector-identified material in myriad idiosyncratic manners – most notably The Scratch Band remaking the Spector-produced Crystals hit “He Hit Me (and it felt like a kiss)” and effectively undoing a decade-and-a-half’s worth of groovy girl-group memories to plant a metaphorical black eye and busted jaw on the Gary Goffin/Carole King-penned classic. Couched within the context of the punk era’s embrace of the transgressive (see: S&M, fetish gear, etc.), and considering Spector’s own forays into a signature, er, brand of Battered Wife/Girlfriend Syndrome, it was eyebrow-raising on several levels.
Stepping up to the plate now with a similarly subversive, though perhaps less physically pugnacious, intent is Mark Kramer, known far and wide as simply Kramer and infamous for his bands (Shockabilly, Bongwater), productions (Galaxie 500, Half Japanese, GWAR, Will Oldham, Urge Overkill and scores more) and collaborations (Butthole Surfers, Ween, Half Japanese, Fugs, John Zorn), not to mention founding the maverick label Shimmy-Disc. Currently living in South Florida where he operates a recording studio, Kramer’s been relatively quiet for the past decade, having released his last album, The Greenberg Variations, back in 2003. But as The Brill Building so vividly demonstrates, his brain still buzzes with the same type of feverish devotion to music’s left-of-center possibilities that he brought to those early Shockabilly and Bongwater albums and to such solo platters as 1992’s hallucinatory The Guilt Trip.
As you might surmise from the title, the album is a tribute to the storied Brill Building songwriting factory, which in its heyday nurtured and spawned such musical giants as Goffin & King, Neil Diamond, Burt Bacharach, Doc Pomus, Lieber & Stoller, etc. Here, Kramer has assembled 10 songs, both hits and obscurities, written at the BB from 1960-66, and like the above-mentioned Spector trib, it works on both reverent and twisted levels. We’re talking a record that turns Bacharach’s “Baby It’s You” into an ethereal slice of woozy dreampop while layering in snatches of a Martin Luther King sermon, and renders Diamond’s eternal “Cherry, Cherry” as a Cubano-flavored, Spanish-language gem so lushly gorgeous it literally brought tears to my eyes. There is indeed a Kramer-watered rose growing somewhere in Spanish Harlem. (And yes, before you ask, he also covers “Spanish Harlem,” albeit not with any appreciable Latin influence; it’s more in a Ween-does-Country-Greats vein.)
Tuneful though much of this material is, Kramer still can’t resist pulling out all the gonzo production stops on a few of the songs. Strangeloves/Bow Wow Wow classic “I Want Candy” is a melange of processed vocals, cheesy carnival-esque keyboards, psychedelic guitars and canned percussion that only vaguely references the original’s vaunted Bo Diddley-style beat. Meanwhile, “Do Wah Diddy” commences, as do many of the tracks, with samples taken from ‘60s-era American TV/radio (here, it appears to be from a parade broadcast), then yields to a bizarrely mesmerizing, staccato raps/croak of a voice that’s part Captain Beefheart and part Rainman; somewhere along the way the producer flies in a sweetly contrasting croon wah-uh-wah-ohh I knew we were falling in love…. Manfred, we’re not in London anymore.
“He Hit Me,” though, is the track which ultimately sends the most scintillating shivers of sonic delight down the listener’s spine. Whether it’s the spot-the-sample buzz you get (yes, that is a soundbyte lifted from the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”); the freshly potentialized gay subtext to the lyrics (something that the Scratch Band’s ’77 version didn’t really unveil, even though it was, likewise, sung by a male); or simply the stately, gospellish arrangement (which in its choirlike anthemism additionally boasts nylon string guitar plus some tasteful whistling) that suggests how, yes, love remains a holy entity… suffice to say that next time you hear the original Crystals single come wafting in over oldies FM, it won’t sound quite the same having now heard Kramer’s take on the tune. Someone get this over to the producers and writers of Glee, pronto. [Ed. note: Lest anyone think that the foregoing is intended to suggest that Mr. Kramer is gay, we should note that he has been married, divorced, and remarried, and has a daughter. As ½ of Bongwater he also recorded an album titled The Power of Pussy. Just wanted to make that clear.]
Kramer handled most of the instrumentation, sampling, loops and voices for The Brill Building, while guesting on lead vocals are Jad Fair, R. Stevie Moore and Danielson’s Daniel C. Smith, which makes for an impressive roster of weirdos. That the album is released on John Zorn’s Tzadik imprint may seem incidental, but fans of the avant-garde saxist/composer and his label’s eclectic roster will no doubt draw further sustenance. Okay, let’s all go grab our significant others, lock arms, and sing together: “He hit me… and it felt like a kiss…” For an encore we can even take a swing at The Angels’ ’63 hit “My Boyfriend’s Back” if you wanna.
DOWNLOAD: “He Hit Me (and it felt like a kiss),” “Cherry Cherry,” “I Want Candy,” “Save the Last Dance For Me,” “On Broadway” (feat. Jad Fair) —FRED MILLS