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Moondog - Moondog/Moondog 2

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Artist: Moondog

Album: Moondog/Moondog 2

Label: BGO

Review date: Oct. 2, 2003

The fringes of music are rife with lovable oddballs. Those errant tone scientists that march to their own internal and enigmatic drums and devise music that straddles genres indiscriminately. Or better still, does away with such subjective, often stifling parameters altogether. In this informal academy of the unrepentantly weird, Sun Ra and George Clinton talk shop alongside lesser knowns like Bongo Joe Coleman and Robbie Basho. Moondog aligns easily with the latter company.

A blind street-busking savant, his career stretched across four decades and resulted in a body of music that remains stubbornly unclassifiable to date. While he enjoyed several brushes with notoriety as a composer, he also spent long segments of his life in nearly complete anonymity. A trio of initial albums for Prestige in the late 1950s felt more like field recordings than fully fleshed and financed studio efforts. But they successfully embodied Moondog’s early oeuvre by incorporating examples of his eclectic street corner routines. Experiments with folk forms and rhythmic layerings on homemade instruments mixed with musique concrete montages to create a schematic of the quixotic crannies of his psyche. Even so, many viewed the records as more novelty than coherent artistic statement.

Someone in a position of power must have taken notice though. Moondog and Moondog 2, a pair of albums recorded for CBS in 1969 and 1970 respectively, reissued here by the British BGO label, make use of substantially greater resources. Moondog retained the look and trappings of crackpot musical cipher for both. His attire, as connoted on the album covers, alternated between that of eldritch sage adorned with elaborate sorcerers headdresses and mad oracular hermit garbed in sackcloth and sandals. Given his eccentric appearance and equally irregular back-story, it seems a minor miracle that a major label signed him. Then again this was the waning cusp of the psychedelic era and the corporate suits may have seen a modest cash cow in Moondog’s counterculture visage. The music reveals a more mundane reason behind their endorsement. Many of the compositions are more accessible than might be expected, at least on the surface.

Moondog conscripts a symphonic orchestra made up of numerous classical and jazz studio regulars including Hubert Laws, Don Butterfield, George Duvivier and Ron Carter. “Theme” juxtaposes sawing strings with clattering hollow percussion in a droning mélange that eventually opens out into more lyrical vistas with the coming of the horns. “Symphonique #3”, subtitled “Ode to Venus”, unfolds as a contrapuntal collage, voiced first by delicate strings and later by choir-like woodwinds, each lushly orchestrated, but also slightly saccharine in cast. “Symphonique #6” fares better, a roving blend of swinging writ-large syncopation, ostinato bass and fluttering clarinet dedicated to Benny Goodman. Sprawling Morricone Americana suffuses the “Witch of Endor”, another sectional piece shorn from a larger Moondog orchestrated opera that also has whimsical moments that recall cartoon composer Carl Stalling. Snatches of rhyming spoken word philosophy intersperse several of the pieces adding to the semblance of a guided tour atmosphere. As whole, the session carries the calling cards of a modern impressionistic classical affair fused with pop, operatic and film soundtrack elements. Even so, it’s well beyond the scope of easy categorization.

Moondog 2 economizes down comfortably to a modest octet for a run through a populous program of madrigals and canticles. Sung in the round by a small chorus of voices, heavy on harpsichord and rhythmic hand percussion devices, many of the songs seem ideally suited to accompany commercial product endorsements. It’s possible to picture a beehived housewife model clothed in bright rayon muumuu, smile sparkling, holding up the latest, greatest cleaning disinfectant to the strains of “My Tiny Butterfly”. “Coffee Beans”, with its caffeine-addictive singsong melody and percolating simplicity could’ve easily been co-opted as a ’70s Folger’s java jingle. Yet again Moondog breaks orbit with preconception, sliding into a stylistic freefall that is at once disarmingly familiar and hilariously unhinged. Both CBS albums led to a decades-long game of label leap-frogging that continued until Moondog’s death in early 1999. Each has its charms and both fit like square pegs into the standard round hole slots of discographical consistency. I’m betting Moondog wouldn’t have had it any other way.

By Derek Taylor

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