A sometimes fascinating, surprisingly musical, and mostly bizarre collection of independent recordings from the 1960s and '70s, The American Song-Poem Anthology is an outsider artifact tailor-made for hipsters. "Song-poem" was a euphemism employed by shady, fly-by-night recording studios. "We'll put your poem to music!," their classified ads would scream. Would-be songwriters would pay 75-400 dollars to have their words -- however odd, fetishistic, or charmingly mundane -- set to music and performed by the studio's stable of songwriters, musicians, and vocalists. Desperate for content and hurting for cash, these backroom studios would accept anything and perform it in any style, so long as the writer was willing and able to pay. Over the years, thousands of song-poems were recorded, with wildly varying results. And like any cultural backwater, the collecting of them became the preoccupation of such notable hipsters as Yo la Tengo's Ira Kaplan and Tom Ardolino of NRBQ (who sold his vast storehouse of song-poems to infamous jokester illusionist Penn Jillette). Naturally, in a classic case of trickle-down pop culture, Bar/None Records has assembled 28 of the most notable song-poems on the first volume of their American Song-Poem Anthology, subtitled "Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush?" Bar/None is a Hoboken, NJ, indie label that's built a reputation as an expert in revisionist hip. It's the same imprint that in the mid-'90s perpetuated the resurgent interest in kitschy '60s bandleader Juan Garcia Esquivel. It also released 2002's Langley Schools Music Project -- a 1976-1977 recording of Canadian school children singing popular rock songs of the day that found favor amongst tastemakers of the so-odd-it's-marvelous camp. Musically, the Song-Poem Anthology offers all kinds of delights. "Rat a Tat Tat, America," "Richard Nixon," "Jimmy Carter Says "Yes," and "The Moon Men" are the products of misguided patriots; Bill Joy's "How Long Are You Staying" is the creepy tale of one man's desire to disco at any cost, set to a chintzy retelling of KC & the Sunshine Band's "Boogie Man." The song typifies the quality of much of this anthology. Since time and money were tight, half-baked arrangements, syrupy vocals, and first takes were the name of the game. But "How Long Are You Staying," "Blind Man's Penis (Peace and Love)," or Bobbie Blake's simple, sunny tribute to the color yellow are memorable not simply for their screwy lyrics or sloppy arrangements, but for the by-chance moment of genius that the intersection of both created. There's no question that The American Song-Poem Anthology will appeal more to hipster know-it-alls than the average consumer. But is anyone's music collection really complete without the MSR Singers' languid "I'm Just the Other Woman (Remake)," sung in a goofy faux-soprano by notable song-poem performer Rod Keith? At the very least, the collection is a gold mine of mix tape material.
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