Perfection Ends When Life Begins (Santa Dog)

This week a strange little recording has come into my life.  It’s called Santa Dog, and it is the inaugural release of a new label called Ralph Records.  The pair of 7-inch records compiles four songs from four different artists:

  • “Fire” performed by Ivory & The Braineaters
  • “Explosion” performed by The College Walkers
  • “Lightning” performed by Delta Nudes
  • “Aircraft Damage” performed by Arf & Omega featuring The Singing Lawnchairs

Ivory & The Braineaters have the standout hit.  It’s a catchy little surf tune with echoes of “Jingle Bells” that’s clearly been put through the filter of psychedelic experimentation.  You can see why Ralph Records chose to name this compilation after the lyrics of this song.  The Braineaters are the flagship band on the label, and Ralph Records is betting money on their success to support the other acts.

The College Walkers’ contribution starts off as a loungy, jazzy piece that sounds not too different from a lot of records from the past decade.  I expect the cover of their LP to feature not the band but an attractive woman in some sort of sexy pose: draped on a grand piano, wearing a belly dancer costume, or nude with strategically placed potted plants in the frame.  But that lasts less than a minute before we’re treated to a percussion piece that then skirts into the avant garde.  It sounds a lot like the crazy percussion records my uncle had when I was young.

The Delta Nudes’ track continues in this vein, but unlike the first two acts there is no attempt to begin with a mainstream sound, other than starting with the “Jingle Bells” melody.  It could very well be an extended jam session from The College Walkers.  These two groups might cross-pollinate, but at the very least they must be friends.

Arf & Omega round out the collection with poetry accompanied by barking dogs.  The meter of the poem at times bears a strong resemblance to Shel Silverstein’s “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out,” which was released earlier this year.  The Singing Lawnchairs (I’m not sure if they are a fifth Ralph Records group or just one-off guests) finish the song with a lovely blend of voices singing decidedly ugly words: “kick a cat today, fish are dumb pluck an eye from one.”

By the end, you come to realize that this is not a traditional record label sampler that merely collects the singles with the best selling potential.  First of all, the titles seem to have nothing to do with the songs themselves, and instead are part of the packaging, which mimics an insurance company’s holiday card.  It’s clear that we are meant to judge the piece as a whole, and not as a group of individuals.

Amongst the songs there is much sharing of ideas and themes.  “Jingle Bells” appears in two tracks; the close pairing of “present” and “future” is made in two songs; the uncommon (for pop music) word “effervescent” is used twice; and dogs permeate the collection with the overall name, the lyrics of the first song, and the percussive use of barking in the last piece.

And, if played in the correct order (which takes conscious effort, as the discs pair sides 1 and 4 together and sides 2 and 3 together), what you get is a collection that begins sounding like it could be a radio hit with a bit of work, and slowly delves further away from the mainstream towards the avant garde.  But it’s not cowering away from the effort needed to produce pop hits, nor is it all-out rejecting that aspect of music.  What is happening is a growing confidence in doing it differently.  We have been taken by the hand and led from our comfort zone to the land of Ralph Records.

It seems a little scary, and maybe there will be no hand-holding from this point forward, but I’m interested in seeing what these four (or five) artists on Ralph Records will bring next.