Recordings

Mark Snow
The Truth and the Light: Music From The X-Files
(Warner Bros.)

Canoofle
Unorganized Flying Objects
(Lazy Eight)

I recall both a fondness for and an annoyance with Ben Cooper Halloween costumes -- a cheap, flimsy line of garish polyvinyl chloride jumpsuits and die-stamped plastic masks. Yeah, I was glad to see your Ben Cooper Wolfman or Fonzie or Incredible Hulk, but those masks were ultimately disappointing. Bad enough that the rubber bands that served as straps quickly broke, forcing the young consumer to walk around the rest of Halloween night holding the frigging disguise firmly to face. Worse that the glamour of the things waned within hours, revealing cheap, mass-produced pieces of shit. But the ultimate failing of the Ben Cooper mask wasn't its shoddy construction, but its anemic terror. The things were about as frightening as bathtub stickies.

TV's The X-Files isn't anemic: It actually manages to be creepy on occasion, in part due to its synth-moan-laden musical score. When background succeeds in heightening drama (as opposed to coddling it), it's done its work. But can background stand alone? I suppose that The X-Files' popularity assured the release of The Truth and the Light, a compilation of the aforesaid scores (most but not all of them by the credited Mark Snow), which will probably shift as many units as those PVC Halloween costumes. But when the glamour wears off, consumers will hear the obvious: Bereft of its context -- you know: actors, story, action, drama -- score music becomes as disappointing as a shoddy costume. (Producers did take this into consideration: The disc bears outtakes of dialogue from the show. They're inert without the story.) Whether it's for movies, TV, or radio, background music is intended to complement car chases, dry humping, or pouncing umbral presences. Take these away and you've got sounds from nowhere,for nothing; strains as cogent as the ramblings of a UFO abductee.

Canoofle's Unorganized Flying Objects thrives on just this sort of cogency, built on a flimsy premise of UFO abduction and gobs of weak jokes conceived during a 10-day studio session. And I do mean thrives, because as thoroughly goofy, half-baked, and unrocking as this music is, it creates its own context, and manages, somehow, to be catchy. "First Sighting," loaded with swoopy electronic effects and monotonous "What was that? I don't know" lyrics, isn't quite funny, but I've had it on mental autorepeat for a week regardless. Though the subject matter of UFO abduction has been used frequently on The X-Files to effective horrific ends, Canoofle's abduction is appropriately absurdist. Which is fine, since their music operates from the same benchmark as Ben Cooper masks and bathtub stickies in terms of scare value. Therein lies the charm.

-- Michael Batty

Sun Ra
The Singles
(Evidence)

If you think the strangest Sun Ra tales revolve around his proto-hippie space trips on early '60s LPs like Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy or Other Planes of There, guess again. Imagine Herman "Sonny" Blount (as he was known circa 1948), fresh out of Fletcher Henderson's big band, accompanying torch singers and contortionists at Chicago's "black and tan" clubs. It gets better. Flash-forward to 1954, when Blount starts directing doo-wop groups -- like the Rhythm Aces, Nu Sounds, and Four Buddies -- under the moniker "Lucifer." A year or so later he discards the ill-conceived satanic joke and takes a leap of faith into his now-infamous "Space Age" persona.

As Sun Ra, pianist/poet/composer/extravagantly costumed bandleader, he assembles the first incarnation of the renowned Arkestra and co-founds the Saturn record label with partner Alton Abraham. From 1954 to 1982 (in addition to releasing 71 Sun Ra LPs), the company sporadically issues doo-wop, blues, R&B, and jazz 7-inches in ludicrously limited editions -- often only 50 copies each. Either flight of fancy, spare finances, or a keen eye for collectibility steers the Saturn course. Regardless of motive, music historians are praising the heavens for the two-CD set The Singles. Its 49 tracks contribute more significantly to a consummate grasp of the artist's Jovian myth than any of the dozens of reissues currently glutting the market.

From doo-wop director to swinging jazz cat to cosmic poet to bluesman to free-jazz assailant to freaky spaceman to Monk/Ellington soloist, Sun Ra could convincingly transform himself at whim. His huge passion for the blues unfortunately yields a superabundance of indistinguishable tunes, but "Blues on Planet Mars" features the kind of camel-cantering-on-the-craters percussion that gives Ra junkies convulsions. The doo-wop sides are enjoyable (and illuminating), and the early synth experiments are black light mood music. Only with Sun Ra can you sing along to the four-part harmony of a Gershwin classic while walking "the bridge to the cosmic age." Forty years running, Sun Ra's music still surprises.

-- Sam Prestianni

 
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