Friday, April 10, 2020

Albums of Influence: Call of the West by Wall of Voodoo

Wall of Voodoo and Stan Ridgway taught me how the limitations and tropes of genre and pulp can provide palettes, fuel, and launching pads for art.

I first heard Wall of Voodoo on the "Urgh! A Music War" compilation, but it was either Steve Huybrechts or Rich Wagner who played me a rare 12" single that including a remix of their cover of "Ring of Fire" and had a live medley of themes from "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" and "Hang 'Em High".

Wall of Voodoo had an immediately identifiable sonic palette. The beats were provided by a rickety, ancient drum machine (a Kalamzoo Rhythm Ace) supplemented by a live drummer playing temple blocks and other odd percussion. The guitar player used a Flying V, but instead of busting out metal riffs, he plucked out clean twang that would have made Duane Eddy envious. Old organs and primitive synthesizers played 5th intervals. And all topped by the distinctive voice (my wife can't stand it!) and lyrics of Stan Ridgway.

The music was pop, but clearly informed by Ennio Morricone as much as anything. Their first EP had some weird instrumentals clearly referencing film soundtracks -- the band itself had started when Ridgway was trying to compose film music. Their songs had some of the sharp angles of  Californian late punk and early new wave, but also suggested sweeping desert vistas. It swapped punk's aggression for cowboy swagger.

They also had a distinctive and clear visual identity, with great, evocative album art. All the pieces fit together -- the sound, the lyrics, the images. Total and complete art.

I was sold.

By the time on board, they had 2 albums out on I.R.S., the coolest of the cool labels. The first one I picked up was their second album, "Call of the West".

The album kicks off with "Tomorrow", which lays out the band's hooky and quirky sound. The lyrics are about a guy who keeps putting things off until tomorrow, and then there's a nuclear war. Other songs on the album document heartbreak and the emptiness of modern society, all seen through the strange prism of Ridgway's pulp-influenced writing.

The entire album is great, with hooky, memorable songs front to back. Perhaps the best song is the title track, which spins Wall of Voodoo's sound into a towering epic.

The big hit single was "Mexican Radio", which has all of the band's signature elements but swaps subtlety and emotion for a poppy sugar rush. It got radio airplay, and courtesy of a video weird enough to accompany the song and band, MTV play, too. It's a great combination, but unfortunately cemented the band's public image as a goofy one-hit wonder, and overlooked their darker and more interesting work. 

Of course that success ruined the band. After playing the legendary US Festival, Ridgway left the band for a solo career. The band continued on with new singer Andy Prieboy, but the magic was gone, and the band faded away after one strong song ("Far Side of Crazy", which doesn't sound like Wall of Voodoo at all), and three more largely unremarkable albums.

Perhaps it is for the best. While the band's early sound was distinctive, it was quite limiting. Ridgway took his unique voice and vision and continued to refine and expand it.

Ridgway's solo career kicked off with a brilliant collaboration with Stewart Copeland -- "Don't Box Me In" for the movie "Rumble Fish". Ridgway made a pile of solid solo records with great (if more conventional) self-production, and lyrics that were miniature movies or short stories.

He had minor college radio hits with "Camouflage" and "Drive She Said" from his first solo album "The Big Heat". His second album, "Mosquitos", had "Goin' Southbound" and "Lonely Town". He went on to write some records for kids and do film scoring. 

Wall of Voodoo's first album, "Dark Continent", is just as good, but slightly darker and rawer.

Wall of Voodoo also made me start a band. In college, on a break from my "real" band, some friends and I wanted to do something fun. So we fused Chris Isaak with Wall of Voodoo. Drum machines, twangy guitars, western tropes. 

It was something both goofy and beautiful, funny and sad. Wall of Voodoo illustrated how a band could embrace all of that. Their music was ridiculous, but also transcendant. 

Thank you, "Call of the West".

[This post was partially motivated by Alex Patsavas' piece on NPR]


Stewart Copeland and Stan Ridgway - "Don't Box Me In"

Stan Ridgway - "Drive, She Said"

Stan Ridgway - "Lonely Town"

Stan Ridgway - "The Big Heat"

Wall of Voodoo - "Tse Tse Fly [live]"

1 comment:

Erin said...

You've inspired me to put this album on while I cook lunch.