The ultimate cult artist, R. Stevie Moore has released nearly 250 self-recorded cassettes from his base in Montclair, New Jersey. Despite this enormous output, and despite the fact that Rolling Stone listed the original release of this album among the fifty most important indie releases ever, Phonography, a generous 70-minute compilation of his earliest recordings from the mid-1970s, is only the third CD release of Moore's material. (A European retrospective was released in the late '80s, and Contact Risk came out on a dinky New Jersey label in 1993.)
Moore's songs range wildly across a musical spectrum stretching from Tin Pan Alley to Frank Zappa (the angular synth lines of "I Wish I Could Sing"), from Roy Wood of the Move ("I've Begun to Fall in Love") to Sparks and the Bonzo Dog Band. Other songs remind me of Todd Rundgren, Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett (the brilliantly titled "Wayne Wayne Go Away"), Cheap Trick, and XTC. (Nice trick that, sounding like XTC in 1975...) While the songs here are timeless, some of the arranging marks these as '70s products: several songs feature multiple harmony guitars, notably the goofy take on "The Fishin' Hole" (better known as the Andy Griffith theme), and the synth sounds on some tracks are very much of the decade.
Considering Moore's recording methods - on these tracks he used one $30 mic, bouncing tracks between two tape machines, adding up to fifteen tracks in this manner, with the drums usually recorded last - the sound quality is surprisingly good. The distortion that does occur is readily overlooked because the songs are so catchy; often, it sounds as if Moore planned for distortion and made it integral to the song. In comparison with the similar lo-fi home-recordist approach of early Guided by Voices - and either Bob Pollard has several R. Stevie cassettes, or the two writers constitute an impressive case of parallel development - Moore's songs tend to be more finished, even though his output makes Pollard seem like My Bloody Valentine in terms of pumping out product.
In between the songs, which feature hooks galore and lyrics ranging from witty to surreal to simple and heartfelt, are various spoken pieces, silly skits (I'm partial to "The Lariat Wressed Posing Hour," which debates the merits of drinking water on panel discussions), and odd noise collages. In the liner notes Moore claims that he's always presented his recordings in a radio-like format wherein sound snippets, talking, even bogus commercials ("The Spot") coexist with songs. At first listen, the sound pieces (which are usually less than a minute long) seemed more distractions than enhancements, but now they add to the whole experience of the disc. But it's the songs that are the main attraction here - R. Stevie Moore deserves to be more than a cult artist.
by Jeff Norman
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