In Essential Albums, our favourite artists dig up a handful of records that they consider “Essential” by any definition they choose. This week, prolific songwriter and rock historian Slim Twig guides us through the best of the world of records - about 95% - that never made it to mass market.
Those who are familiar with Slim Twig — the thoughtful and prolific 27-year-old, Toronto-based songwriter — know that he is a serious student of music history. His songbook is a pastiche of tropes, techniques, and aesthetics cut from bygone eras — say, '50s boogie, '60s baroque pop, or, on his newest Thank You For Stickin' With Twig, '70s freak funk — executed expertly and assembled into a grand collage that tells the long history of rock and roll.
He is a voracious listener and a curious producer. It's unsurprising that once he'd exhausted the popular rock canon, ingested all the Frank Zappa and Joe Meek and Todd Rundgren, his inclination was to keep digging into lesser known releases — the world of home recordings and private press albums. "They're records that were issued by individuals rather than corporations," he explains, "often by the people who are making the music themselves or — I’m not sure boutique is the right word — but smaller, individual-driven labels that were usually poorly distributed." 95% of recorded music doesn't hit the wider market, he estimates. There's precious material right beneath the surface.
I feel encouraged by the idea that there are gems out there that most people haven’t heard. And it’s music that can change your life.
"I feel encouraged by the idea that there are gems out there that most people haven’t heard," he adds, "and it’s music that can change your life." We spoke with Twig by phone and he was kind enough to turn us on to a few of his favourites.
For further reading, Twig suggests you check out Enjoy The Experience: Homemade Records 1958-1992 and Patrick Lunborg's The Acid Archives. Slim Twig's Thank You For Stickin' With Twig is out now on DFA Records.
Circuit Rider, Circuit Rider (1981)
I don’t know very many records that are this disturbed-sounding. There’s a biker gang element going on. Like a weird, speed-dealing biker gang made like a loner folk-rock album. It’s a very particular sound. And it’s a legitimately terrifying experience. It’s a crazy mix of rockers and drugged out sonic nightmarescapes. You can close your eyes and feel totally immersed in a world that’s foreign — hopefully foreign — to you.
Jim Sullivan, U.F.O. (1969)
I just think that this is one of the most beautifully-arranged records ever. It’s kind of unique in the private press sphere in that most private press records aspire to have qualities like mass market records, trying to fit into specific sounds, but this record has personnel that literally came from that world. There are a lot session musicians from The Wrecking Crew — the famous L.A. group who recorded all the Spector stuff, including the drummer Earl Palmer who also worked on the David Axelrod records, which have a really funky flavour that’s a totally unique and amazing mix of funk and orchestration.
And that’s sort of the vibe of the record. I think it sounds like a Gene Clark lost album that was produced by David Axelrod, which is, for people who like those things, a very exciting proposition. It’s in the folk rock territory, but it’s very unusually that it has this funky, orchestral production. A lot of breaks and stuff like that. It’s highly sample-able.
It’s also one of those records that’s served well by having an insane story that goes along with it. Jim Sullivan just disappeared. His album’s called U.F.O., which is very spooky. He just drove into the desert, checked himself into a hotel. His car was discovered, but his body was never found. And he left this spooky album behind.
Armand Schaubroeck, I Came to Visit, but Decided to Stay (1974)
This is a weird concept album about some kind of forbidden religious romance. It has one of the most amazing covers: it’s a picture of Armand Schaubroeck in a priest outfit, lying drunkenly against a snowy grave, he’s holding a picture of a nun, and drinking some sort of a 40. He’s just a total nutcase. He has a very deranged vocal style. He’s compared a lot to Lou Reed. And his vocals do sound a lot like Lou Reed, if he stopped taking some sort of medication that he needed.
The first song on the record, “Father Michael Loves Sister Jennifer,” was the first song I ever heard of his and it made me seek out the album. It could be on a Lou Reed record. It’s an amazing song. It’s totally catchy. It’s got this strange vocal performance, but otherwise it’s totally palatable. It’s an example of something that was probably too weird for a larger audience, so you can imagine why there hasn’t been a higher profile reissue of this record yet, but it’s definitely worth looking into.
R. Stevie Moore, Phonography (1976)
This one is literally a homemade record. R. Stevie is known to many who have an interest in underground music as one of the godfathers of home recording. He has recorded in studios throughout his career, but I think his best known work is the stuff he’s made on a 4- or 8-track at home and put out himself. For years, he had a tape club, where he’d send you cassettes for pretty cheap.
A lot of people attribute an Ariel Pink influence to my work, but I think it can more accurately be traced to R. Stevie Moore. Ariel Pink wouldn’t exist without this guy. I think Ariel is an amazing songwriter himself, but there’s no denying that the music R. Stevie was making from the ‘70s on is a cornerstone to anyone who’s interested in that hugely diverse, home-recorded mode of songwriting that Ariel Pink has come to define. I think R. Stevie is quite simply one of the best pop songwriters of any era. He’s hugely undervalued.
His first record Phonography is a mix of expertly written and expertly played pop songs interspersed with these weirdo comedy segments that he performs. I think one of the great things about this record is that you really get a sense of his personality. Listening to this album, you feel like you’ve spent a week hanging out with him, getting to know his fascinations and what kind of music he’s into. I could definitely see an alternate universe where he was a songwriter to the stars and had multiple hits credits to his name. But that’s not what he’s interested in.
Jade Stone & Luv, Mosaics Pieces of Stone (1977)
This is the newest discovery on this list for me. But the first time I heard it, I felt like this record was made for me. The production, the songwriting, the arrangement, the performance — everything is firing on all cylinders here. The intricacy of the arrangements and the brilliance of the chord progressions are completely the equal of records that would have topped charts in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It had the misfortune of having these influences that weren’t very cool when it came out. It came out in the later ‘70s.
His voice is a combination of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison with a crazy rock and roll edge and the music was inspired by The Doors and Badfinger and Elvis — classic influences, but stuff that probably wasn’t that cool in the later ‘70s. It was inspired by an era that was 10 years prior when psychedelia was flirting with popular song. It’s comparable a little bit to The Poppy Family: it’s got a male-female romantic dynamic, super classy production, a lot of diversity in the songs, really serious grooves, string arrangements, insane lead guitar lines. It’s one of those records that just fell between the cracks because it was mining influences that weren’t trendy and because it was uncompromising.