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Moondog—8

 

Released: 1956

1) Caribea  2) Lullaby  3) Tree Trail  4) Death, When You Come To Me  5) Big Cat  6) Frog Bog  7) To A Sea Horse  8) Dance Rehearsal  9) Surf Session  10) Trees Against The Sky  11) Tap Dance  12) Oo Debut  13) Drum Suite  14) Street Scene 

 

"Moondog," the debut album from the legendary New York street performer, is a strange mix of drum solos, string arrangements, animal noises, piano pieces, and spoken word portions, with each track featuring a crazy time signature.  Hearing “Moondog” all the way through is like spying in on Moondog’s eccentric mind.  It surely isn’t something you can listen to at anytime; you really have to be in the right mood… a calm, introspective, and thoughtful mood.  For some reason, this is one of my most played CDs while driving though.  It really has a lot going on under the surface, which is a huge testament to Moondog’s atypical approach to drumming.  He has a virtual tribal sense of rhythm, which helps keep the listener locked in on the earthly beats and patterns, and really is easy to get sucked into.       

 

The album opens with “Caribea,” featuring Moondog on piano, with a strange, almost waltz (but not quite) time signature kept by pounding bongos, rattles, and creeks.  The piano picks and chooses its inclusion points with the whole piece only lasting a minute and a half.  Still, the odd mood it portrays is very off-putting, yet cleverly comical; something along the lines of that scene in “Billy Madison” where Steve Buscemi crosses Billy’s name off his “To Kill List” and then lies back on the coach while putting lipstick on and gazing into the sky…something like that.  Lullaby” follows with a disturbing baby’s cry merging into tribal drumbeats and Suzuko singing in Japanese to their daughter in a baby voice.  The vocal melody is nice, and the strange backbeat is interesting, but Suzuko’s voice is a little annoying.

 

Tree Trail” is better, although the birds chirping in the background are almost as annoying as Suzuko’s singing.  The melody though is absolutely strikingly beautiful.  This sounds like music as old as music is…foreign, beautiful, absorbing…just so different and delicate from Moondog’s appearance.  Death, When You Come To Me” is a duet with Moondog and his wife, with strange noises in the background.  When the couple chants together the tune is lovely and genuine, but overall, the song is creepy and just plain bizarre.  Big Cat” starts with trial drumming and strange percussion noises, slowly including Moondog on the recorder.  The focal point of the track though is clearly the field recordings of a various big cats roaring.  Towards the tale end though, Moondog’s recorder plays a calming melody, seemingly trying to tame the tiger down, like a snake charmer does with a snake.  It isn’t amazing, but it is interesting.

 

Frog Bog” is compelling and one of the best melodies on the album.  The frogs croak and the crickets chirp, while Moondog uses their natural time signatures and arranges some gorgeous string pieces, battling each other.  First one, then the other, and it really is an amazing duet.  Conversely, “To A Sea Horse” is just Moondog on the piano, playing his heart out.  It isn’t fast, there aren’t notes flying at you all at once, but every note he plays has such feeling.  I know nothing about classical music, but this is just so emotional…so gripping, and very unusual.  Dance Rehearsal” is under a minute of Moondog playing a cute little flute melody while someone named Naila teaches a girl named Violetta a dance routine.  Weird. 

 

The epic “Surf Session” follows.  By far the longest track on the album at seven minutes, this is similar in sound to “Frog Bog,” but is even more intense.  The background storm sound effects really help punctuate the mood, and the strings again, battle each other flawlessly.  After two minutes, the music and drumming drops out, and return at a much slower, mellower pace, but are even more breathtakingly beautiful.  Once again, after two minutes, the music drops out, but this time the strings come back faster and more powerful, drawing you in with their intensity. 

 

Following such passion, Moondog lightens things up with a swirling duet with himself overtop of his distinctive drumming.  Just a fun, throwaway track, it is cute and artsy.  A similar mood is projected in “Tap Dance.”  Here Ray Malone tap dances overtop of Moondog’s percussion.  The ad-lib, free style is a cool experiment, but it would have been better to hear a piano or recorder or something included.  Oo Debut” is Moondog simultaneously playing solos using the oo and trimbas, two instruments he invented.  The former is a triangular, stringed instrument struck with a clava, while the later is a triangular-shaped drum.  It kind of sounds like someone playing windpipes with a backbeat of tribal drumming…nothing spectacular and fairly routine sounding.  Drum Suite” serves the same purpose, but is a little better.  Here Sam Ulano guests on Japanese drums, while Moondog flashes a little trimbas to keep things interesting.  The tune stops three different times only to slowly come back into form. 

 

The closing “Street Scene” was recorded on the street while Moondog solos on drums and talks a little.  It is obviously meant to portray what Moondog actually sounded like on any given New York day on the streets (with cars, talking, and a dialog Moondog has with a fan).  Moondog rambles on, acting out a sort of play with different people.  In one line, a woman says to Moondog, “You remind me of someone I know,” to which he replies, “Just look closer and see that I am the one that I remind you of.”  Strange beatnik poetry stuff, but compelling in its way.               

 

The latter half of the album is clearly not up to par with the first half, but still, this has to be one of the most interesting albums released in the Fifties, or any decade.  On his debut, Moondog sets the stage for a career in avant-garde music that is beyond classification.  Over the years, he sometimes ventured into straight jazz or classical, sometimes into pure instrumental percussion, and even sometimes into piano pop music with his strangely attractive voice, but no matter where Moondog ventured, elements of his first album can be found throughout his career.  This isn’t his best album, but to understand the man’s legacy and future output, it is important to hear where he came from.  

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