Phonography - R. Stevie Moore (1976)
Phonography marks the vinyl debut of R. Stevie Moore, and remains one of his most popular releases. It's easy to hear why this is the case, with its signature RSM attributes like indisputably strong songwriting, top-notch musicianship, spoken work, humor, and a prophetic and iconoclastic DIY esthetic.
Start with: "Goodbye Piano" and "She Don't Know What to Do With Herself"
Why it’s worth revisiting: R. Stevie Moore’s first LP, this home recording masterpiece was dubbed one of the “Fifty Most Significant Indie Records” by Rolling Stone’s Rob O’Connor in 1996. Easy and fun to listen to, it's a classic in its own rite, and a great introduction to RSM.
The eerily atmospheric synths of "Melbourne" give way to a brilliant series of chord changes. Though an instrumental album lead-off track might be unorthodox for some, anyone familiar with R. Stevie Moore’s albums knows it’s commonplace in the world of RSM. The track has the feel of a pop-rock overture, but doesn’t reveal the contents of the album that awaits. "Explanation of Artist" is a brief spoken autobiographical piece of sorts, with RSM talking as he urinates in the restroom. "Goodbye Piano" – an offbeat R. Stevie Moore classic – follows immediately. Reverb-laden falsetto vocals, a strong melody, playful percussion, and clever chord changes played on a the very piano that inspired the song* make this an eccentric gem. Stevie’s seemingly casual approach to the song (we hear what sounds like a mic being bumped at one point, and an exclamatory “Sorry!” after an apparent mistake) is just the sort of characteristic that has endeared the “Godfather of Modern Home Recording” to legions of underground fans in the years following this release, and it’s a treat to hear it so early in his fabled body of work.
"Explanation of Listener" echoes the approach of the earlier “Explanation of Artist”, with RSM commentating on found spoken word (RSM confirmed this for us). "California Rhythm" pleases on several levels with its bizarre intro, groove shifts, backing vocal harmonies, hooky lyrics and melody, and delectably dirty guitars. "I've Begun to Fall in Love" is a stellar example of the poignant and more introspective side of RSM. The spoken word in "The Spot" seems to be a verbatim excerpt from a bank advertisement before "I Want You in My Life" enjoyably chugs along, leading to the off-kilter fun of "I Wish I Could Sing". As the title suggests, "Theme from A.G." is a brief, fun, and worthwhile RSM interpretation of the theme from The Andy Griffith Show. The pure spoken word (sans musical accompaniment) of "The Voice" precedes "Showing Shadows", which in turn yields to an RSM classic, “She Don’t Know What to Do With Herself”, a brilliant track that kindred spirit and collaborator Ariel Pink would cover two decades later.
"The Lariat Wressed Posing Hour" might best be described as an interlude sketch mimicking a fictional TV show. "I Not Listening" initially appears to lack the luster of much of the rest of the album, but warrants repeated listenings. Especially given its context of a self-recorded album in the mid-70s, the track is compelling. "Mr. Nashville" is a return to RSM’s spoken word sketches, and possibly a reference to his own music biz experiences in his native Nashville. "Moons" is a discombobulated treat with its rough edges that handsomely reward the patient listener.
* Stevie confirmed for us that the piano is both the instrument on the song, and it's inspiration, adding, " [I] don't remember how I acquired it, it was somehow in an apartment I lived in very briefly. Always moving around back then, dunno how I did it. Old out-of-tune Fischer cabinet grand upright piano, Nov 5, 1975 @ 913 N. 12th Street, East Nashville TN."
Happy listening, weirdos!