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Location: Portland, Oregon

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Singing Bull

Rise of the Common Woodpile (1991) -Caroliner

Caroliner is also known as Caroliner Rainbow, and adds little apellations to their name for each album. Hence, on the album “Banknotes, Dreams and Signatures”, their name becomes Caroliner Rainbow Scrambled Egg Taken For A Wife. On this one, they call themselves Caroliner Rainbow Open Sore Chorale. They are also known as The Singing Bull of the 1800's.

The 1800's loom darkly over all of their work. The songs seem to be the testimony of long-dead pioneers and settlers, complete with primitive god-fear, deep distrust of nature and yes- abject stupidity. Of course, the fear is mixed with awe.

On the all-important lyric sheet, the album describes itself as 'A Hymnal, comprising songs made Popular by Caroliner, the Singing Bull.' Then, at the bottom: 'Mendota, 1860'.

Mendota is the old Wisconsin state mental hospital, and this serves as your first clue as to what this album is really about. The book Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy, is the literary inspiration and companion piece to this album.

The book is a collection of grim pictures from the Wisconsin frontier of the early 1800's, mixed with case files from Mendota, newspaper clippings and anecdotes. Unlike most histories, this one accurately portrays what life was really like for people in that time, including the botched abortions, suicides, incendiary compulsions, mayhem, religious manias and outright fear that gripped our forebears. So the album could be accurately described as what's going on inside the head of each lunatic at Mendota.

The only other album I've heard dig so deeply into the nightmare of the American psyche is Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle, or maybe Tom Waits' Bone Machine. The only other band I know of that makes music so brutal and dark is Coil, or maybe Current 93.

In fact, short of Coil's Gold Is The Metal (which also is on the Periodic Table), I can think of few albums that go so far out of their way to be unpleasant and sound exactly like what people largely do not want to hear. This is not necessarily a recommendation on my part; it's an attempt to explain something I like for some goddamn reason.

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With the creaking of an old wooden door, and the clanking of various metal objects, side one begins with “Hazel Wet Lap”. It's about the revenge fantasies of a bunch of grade school children against their teacher: “Hazel held grudges/ like you wouldn't believe/ she'd spank children until they'd piss or bleed...” and the chorus, shrieking now as loudly as had been deadly guttural growling before, is simply-”OWWIE OWWIE OWWIE OW! OWW-WOW OWWIE OW!” It's fucking terrifying.

You are introduced in this song to two things: the two narrative voices Caroliner speaks in; the screaming child/Kali death goddess shriek, and the so-low-it's-barely-discernible of long-dead rotted and gone back to dirt pioneer/cow. Also, you get a little picture of how these people talk (here and in interviews); archaic/surreal/poetic. “The children envisioned a teacher-fountain/ with a knife in her vein...

The final line is enigmatic, and all the more threatening for it: “If children are shown what makes you griiinnn (this is delivered in a leering, bloodthirsty groan)/ enjoyment will be contagious/ a lesson somewhere therein.”

“Child Heart o' Dirt Pump” is next. It is a revival/hoedown song, replete with out-of-tune organ. In short, it is about a child who eats dirt uncontrollably, and shits out perfect soil for planting. He becomes a sacred rural dying god figure/ coveted posession: “Nailed that child up with Spirit/ in the shed of Farm Equipment”. The proud daddy sticks his hat on his crucified son's head, but evil is afoot: “One mornin' out for How's My Boy/ open the doors, he's not hanging there/ Tell-tale hammer; Someone's took him/ I'll never see my favorite hat again”. It's all like this; hilarious mixed with scary mixed with confusing mixed with grim, grim, grim.

I'm not really certain what the next song, “Beetown” is about. Even after owning and liking this album for years, studying these lyrics closely, I can't tell you. Every verse is about something different and undefined. Here's one I like: “Listen ye people -you can not cry or laugh/ when we sell star jewelry, the North of America we'll own half.” Manifest Destiny? Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way?

“Empty Halo”, the song following, wouldn't make a half-bad cover tune for a straightforward bluegrass band. The shrieking death voice of Kali and this new voice, that of a dirt-dumb back country yokel, trade verses.:

KALI: “Be-caause in dea-th I griiinned!”

YOKEL: “I grinned the widest when ah when ah sinned.

KALI: “Grinning more than ever now!”

YOKEL: “My face is gone!”

The narrarator of this song is dead. There's no other way to put it. “Pleasant smiling cold white skull with a thoughtful sinning song.” More great lines abound: “Accidents do happen, and I'm the man who makes them.” It's about learning to be bad in the world and make it pay, just to die anyway and sit thinking about it for eternity.

“Burdensome Blood” is the next song. It is a pleasant melody, matching sitar and banjo, quietly sung verse with shrieking death voice chorus. After a few verses, it becomes clear that this song is told from the perspective of someone who abducts children, cuts off their legs so it can have more to walk around on.

Children wonder they fold legs, frown/ grabbing arms and legs, holding down...” (and people worry about the deleterious effects of listening to gangsta rap) “Children can't let loose of my leg/ they got big idea; plead and cry, beg/ OK now walk on two legs more/ lift my torso up, walking on four!” Frightenin', frightenin'.

And now the title track. Throughout the album, there are intimations freely given that nature is trying to take our (that is to say humans') place. “Long since gone; family left the hill/ long left, a woodpile sitting under roof, smiling still.” The worms and the woodpile begin to learn: “Taking up loose by-and-bys/ Knowledge collecting/ From good-deeded minds, worm and mankind/ round them up and one listened to my old banjo/ setting them down, it thanked this old fellow.

And the chorus goes, “Rise, rise up and take the instruments of man/ put them to use in better use than we can/ Rise, rise up and take the instruments of man/ RISE, RISE, RISE!” It soon falls out of its

groove, into chaos. At the end, all you hear is this dead mechanical spinning.

Ending off the first side is “Gut”, a song about a man who “stuck out his neck/ and that cost both eyy-es”, but gains solace from the many sounds he hears in each of the 1,000 cupboards in his house. Like most Caroliner records, the song is cut off by the needle picking up.

The second side (they only make records; no tapes or CDs. They recorded one of their albums on an Edison-era wire spool that still had ghostly bits of turn-of-the-last-century music on it) starts off with “Recorrupting Checkerfield”. It is a surreal American history lesson: “Change at a glance/ wood to wire fence...For every History describes a lone philosophy.” If I understand you correctly sir, you're saying that history is told by humans, each doomed to see things only as they see them?

With the fences changing, so too is God: “Only ones stuck by river/ knew no Beaded Curtain Wearer/ Taking Checkerfield asleep instead/ submerged world in counterfeit.

The music is three different genres; fast bass-driven rave-up, free jazz chaos, breaks of deliberately sloppy bluegrass. Actually, within this structure there are also breaks of pure, threatening machine noise. Large and foreboding like the very hills are coming to get you.

The last line- “Origins! History unrevealed! Recorrupting Checkerfield!” History is a bloody lie in America.

“Brittleback” comes next. The new world of trains and gambling halls. The music has changed in response to this leap ahead in history; more organ, but with trombone, dance hall ambiance. As the old man gambles on the newfangled train, his geneology remains with him -he's still the rustic ghoul his parents were. “Brittleback hard straw arm/ Brittleback straw hard leg/ Lop-horned Mom birthed him all along; Stove pipe's making back frame.” This is wandering into Tom Waits territory, but much harder to follow.

Our next hymn begins with the sound of a needle scratching on an old record, then the drunken horn band begins. What sounds like an extraordinarily drunk old Irishman begins to sing: “Being a part of God's Kingdom/ our blessed house is a holy diadem...Pulling family away from sin/ accepting Bible as friend.” Behind this, an oddly lovely clarinet melody is competing with tuba and trombone. This is “Climbing Jacob's Ladder Through the Fireplace”.

The story unfolds; one night whilst in holy contemplation before the fire, a golden ladder appears to a man, going right up his chimney. Of course he and his family start climbing, “to climb on up and meet God's Son.” But about halfway up, they catch fire: “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! My finger's wounded/ and Wife's nose ugly-rounded/ Kid boy cried for a year/ Bible wrong; falsely founded fear!” Now he no longer believes: God's let him down. “Hair is not working on parts of me...Couldn't read the Bible anyway/ now in compost it decays/ I durst not want to ever pray/ Even tho I'll speak again one day.

We go back to the land again briefly for the next tune, “Sullivan's Lower Trunk”. It is banjo and that crazy dumb yokel again. The song is about the necessity of dowsing; divining water where “the only bath that a man could take was by wiping knee blood off the ground.” But the song is also a parable, sort of. It's not Thom Sullivan who was the best diviner of water: “Thom strained his face, loosening pants; out came young brother Pride.” Pride is a whole other set of legs growing out of Thom's lower trunk. Better still, it finds water (and 'could smoke a cigar with no mouth').

It approaches the level of a folk tale when people (or vestigial appendages) have names like Pride, but usually there is some sort of discernible message. Here, there is just a crazed tale told as if it were perfectly normal, because to the narrarator, it is.

The final song, “Victory Arm Force”, reminds me of something a friend said to me once; “No wonder our asylums are so full. Once every generation, we send our young men off to fight some war they can never understand.” In the case of this song, it's unclear what war is under discussion here, but it hardly matters: there's always a war.

That War was a real puncher/ red dirt all the summer/ I saw Hell in the arm of a chair/ pillow your blown hand there.” As everyone around him begins dying, he begins to see that the earth is indeed a living organism. First, he sees a fence made of human arms: “A fence, strung together and darned/ the armposts go slack and angle/ companion them with leeches to wiggle,” and then he sees- “Why the ground is a Body complete! Each blade of grass-hair sweet!

The strange, metal-like music accompanying gets louder and more screamy. Summer is replaced by rain- “lay face on ground Forever/ until I woke up later, circling/ to find a glass-stored Summer.” He's dead, and he's part of the earth now. The earth continues to swallow all, and it becomes clear that the real war is between man and nature.

Then, as the song seems to be screaming to a close, it goes into this barbed lull. Very low, someone is

growling through their teeth: “Buried in the ground/ entire American legs/ fingers coarse-mouthing/ tugging at Blood in vain.” And it all begins again; we take up with our narrarator as he is now- after going through wind and tearing up the clouds; “The War has changed me new/ Mountained me this summer/ 100 arms, 10 legs and long green-haired.” Yup, the hills really were coming to get you.

I needn't belabor the obvious point of this record; that we shit on the earth and it shits back. One of the big images these guys use is that of a bull's head atop a Victorian dress-ed lady's body. In the midst of this surreal history lesson, it's easy to miss the point. Also, you notice that the way they put things is unique indeed; I don't know of any other band with a lyric voice so entirely its own.

I once saw them in the basement of a house in Olympia. Old-timey posters asked ten cents for admission. They were every bit as insane yet lucid in person, which is a very large compliment. They were all dressed in rotted Victorian finery, splattered with Day-Glo paint. At one point, a Floozy joins the crowd. She is dressed in tattered petticoats and skirts, sprayed Day-Glo as well. As she holds on to her enormous hat, she commences to stamp the floor like this here's a good old hoedown. Perfect. At one point, the singer runs upstairs and finds the drunkest guy in the house, gets down on the floor -on all fours- and rides him like a pony.

They stopped recording and touring some years ago. It was said that the entire band was financed by the state-assistance money that the two brothers who formed the nucleus of the band received for being crazy, and they lost it. The funding, that is.

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The main body of this review was written ten years ago. I just found their MySpace page, and it's a doozy. I particularly recommend that you read "The Most Callous of Pacific Northwest Tours". It seems to suggest that they're touring again (and they're definitely still making records), since they reference Portland's own Someday Lounge (which in Caroliner speak becomes 'Somewhat Lounge').

Other web content I've found on this exceedingly strange band includes a Wikipedia entry, of course. It includes the line, "lyrical vantage points so convolutedly arcane to make comprehending them impossible," I wonder about that. Am I reading wayyy more into this album than is necessary? Possible. The Wiki entry also includes one of the band members citing "buckets of nails being kicked down the stairs,"as an influence.



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