On this, his 12th solo album, Walter Ehresman has created what he, only half-jokingly, refers to as his “longest and weirdest album yet.” While all of Ehresman’s musical projects have shown a wild diversity of styles and moods, Monkey Paw Situation notches that bar up to new heights. While it certainly has accessible tracks in recognizable styles, there is also a fair amount of music here that is frankly hard to classify. And it's a long album—-a journey of over 70 minutes that’s arranged with a novelist’s sense of arc, pacing and shifting tone. Or, as might have been said in an earlier time, it’s a trip.
The album’s title was inspired by the famous 1902 short story “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs. In the story, a British family is tempted by the promise of glorious riches to be had via three wishes granted by a severed monkey’s paw brought back from colonial India. The wishes go horribly wrong, of course, with death, horror and desolation resulting. According to Ehresman, “I’ve been wanting to use this title for years, because I think it’s a potent metaphor for the various false promises that slick snakeoil salesmen pedal to the public every day (eg. religion; the politics of blame and intolerance; re-wrapped versions of trickle-down economics; etc.)….I knew exactly what I wanted the cover to look like, and so I needed to wait until the fabulous illustrator, Casey Shaw, was available to draw it.” Shaw is the artist who had drawn such effective covers for some of Ehresman’s previous solo albums: “In the Path of the Cat Chasers” (’90), “Split Brain Theory” (’91), “Handwedge From the Trap” (’99) and “No Unifying Theme” (’04). “Casey did a tremendous job on this one, as he has on all the covers he’s done for me, and this time he also did the electronic assembly of the visual elements for the CD package, for which I’m very, very grateful,” Ehresman says. “Casey is a big reason why this project was able to be completed at all.”
Musically, the tracks run from left-field Americana roots to British hard rock ballad circa 1973; from electronica/exotica hybrid to singer/songwriter piano piece; from high-energy electronic dance freak-outs to spoken-word avant-garde; from delicacy to piledriver in the space of a few songs. Lyrically, the social commentary edge is there (as on all of Ehresman’s albums) but there are also equal portions of poignancy, melancholy and even poetry. A wide net is cast, for sure. Will it snare The Golden Carp? You be the judge.
Track #1, Champions of Imagination, sounds different from anything Ehresman has ever done. “A friend of mine had loaned me the 3-disc Tom Waits box set, Orphans, last year and I’d been saturating myself with that wonderful, crazy music and, without consciously setting out to do it, this song just popped out of the depths of my brain,” he laughs. The Waits influence is clear, but even more so is the wry societal observations that Ehresman has traded in for so many years—-as evidenced by the opening ironic salvo:
“They drive out of the suburbs with a shoulder and a chip;
They beat each other with the Miracle Whip;
The know the lion always eats the straggler from the herd
so they do the tortoise shuffle and they scoff at the absurd—
They’re champions of imagination.”
Musically, the track harkens back to some of the feel and tempo of Ehresman’s Handwedge From the Trap album, down to his use of the Deering 6-string banjo. “My favorite thing about the song,” Ehresman says with glee, “is that the drum/percussion parts are largely made with the sounds of body punches and car crashes…..I guess this is my attempt to capture the ‘midgets-demolishing-the-cymbal-factory’ percussion sounds that Waits always uses.” A fun and effective opener for the album.
Track #2, How Can You Believe, had a much longer gestation period. As Ehresman explains, “Back in the run-up to the 2004 election, when all the hateful clubs were being pulled out of the bag to ensure a Bush victory, Rovian politics were working hard to make being an intolerant, angry bigot a badge of honor in this country…..At that time, I had a group of guys that I used to get together with (ostensibly to go carp fishing but actually to drink beer and tell lies with while lounging all night on a boat dock) that included some older retirees I had previously worked with…….As the Right Wing got meaner and nastier leading up to that November, I had the traumatic experience of seeing a couple of these older guys ‘come out of the closet,’ as it were, with some very hateful Rush Limbaugh-type views.” Things deteriorated in that social group, and friendships ultimately ended, and that led Ehresman to write these lyrics. “I usually deal with trauma in my life,” he continues “by writing songs about it….It
serves a cathartic purpose in helping me process what's happened….After I wrote this one, though, I wasn’t sure that I actually wanted to record it and release the song….the feelings were still too fresh.” As sometimes happens in his songwriting, Ehresman shelved the lyrics and went on to other songs. “When I was putting together the tracks for this album, in the Fall of 2008, I found that I needed something different for the number two slot in the running order,” he recalls. “I had a general idea of what kind of musical and lyrical feel would work in that spot, so I went back through the stack of old lyrics lying around and came across these…..When I sat down to work out the music for the recording, I had been listening to a 4-CD Mott the Hoople live box set that had just come out—-which is a LOT of Mott to listen to in a stretch of a week or so—and that had saturated my brain in a way similar to the Tom Waits before the recording of Champions of Imagination.....I’ve always been a big Ian Hunter fan, and loved the way he could put together a power ballad before the term became besmirched by the dreadful hair metal bands of the 80s.”
The song is led by a very effective piano part, with a slow, stately beginning before all the other instruments come surging in at the second verse. By the end, we have crushing power chords, singing leads, and even a string section, with a nice trap kit part played (with mallets) by Delphi Rising drummer James Rader. A concise, tight song that packs an emotional punch.
Track #3, Sprinting Nowhere Through the Air, is a song Ehresman wrote and recorded as an entry in a unique international songwriting competition called “Comprosers” (see www.comprosers.com)
. Based out of a university in Holland, the idea of the contest was that a short story was provided, following which the musician had 30 days to write, record and submit a song inspired by that story. In this case, the story was “Is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter” by Jacob Silverman. “There were multiple facets to the story,” Ehresman explains, “but I chose to focus on the disintegration of the couple’s relationship caused by their overall disillusionment at the sad state of the world.” This is another song which features Ehresman’s piano work, with background vocals by Austin dancer/model/artist Mandi Santiago. The song made the top 10 in the contest, and Ehresman has since submitted his mid-90s song “Shadow of a Love” as source material for the next phase of the contest, where writers are provided 30 days to write a short story based on a provided song.
Track #4, Outside of Time, You Call, is a love song Ehresman wrote in 2008 and dedicated to his girlfriend Jenny. According to Ehresman, “I’ve always been scared to death of writing lyrics for love songs, because there are so many trite ones out there…..I’ve written instrumental love songs before, but this is a major plunge, for me, into the frightening waters of love song lyric writing….But I feel ready now to give it a shot.” Primarily carried by electric/acoustic 12-string guitar, the song also features classical guitar passages, a killer lead played on a RKS Wave guitar, and some effective bowed standup bass parts played on synth. “What can I say,” he says sheepishly, “she inspired me!”
Track #5, Deep Tiki, is another piece in the Ehresman discography that reflects his love of retro tiki culture. An owner of countless strange tiki mugs, masks, lights, shirts, mixology books, etc., he warms enthusiastically to the subject. “I’ve been a tiki nut for about seven years or so, and have been fascinated with the idea behind the original Exotica genre of music…..The whole notion of creating what is essentially a fake world music, all about an exotic lounging soundtrack.” Not entirely happy with music he’d heard that attempted to bring Exotica into the 21st century, Ehresman has occasionally tried his hand at creating such music himself. “When I wrote and recorded the song ‘Only On Islands Like This’ for the No Unifying Theme album, I was taking my first stab at Exotica, and I’m fairly happy with how it came out, except that I had a hard time finding a female vocalist to sing it and ended up going with someone who had no experience and was very reluctant to do it,” he says. Clearly that was not a problem with “Deep Tiki,” because the vocals here by Patricia “Pele” Jacobs-Munoz are stunning. “Patricia and I are friends, but we hadn’t worked together before musically….I had known she was a singer, but hadn’t actually heard her voice before until she came over, put on the headphones, and started to sing…..Wow! I was totally knocked out by not only her wide vocal range, but also just the beauty of her tone and how well she captured exactly what I wanted for the song,” he explains. The music itself is Ehresman’s attempt at melding the elements of traditional Exotica with more modern electronica sounds. The impetus for the song was Ehresman’s desire to write and record a theme song for his theme camp’s tiki bar at the Burning Flipside festival in Austin, May 2008 (the Austin regional Burning Man event).
Track #6, Silk Road Processional, is the last of Ehresman’s pieces written for parades staged by SCARAB (Society of Creative Arts and Radio at Burning Man) theme camp at the Burning Man festival, held in the Black Rock Desert in far northwest Nevada. “As a member of SCARAB, I was the musical director for the camp and organized our annual parades,” he relates. “We had several fine belly dancers in our camp, so for 2007 I decided that we would have a parade that gave them a chance to show their stuff.” To accommodate the parade format, the song is lengthy and provides multiple dynamic shifts, within the rhythmic structure of the piece, to give the belly dancers changes to work with. The song’s intro features Ehresman’s first recording with his acoustic Egyptian oud from Cairo, and progresses on to highlight his work on dumbeks, acoustic bouzouki, and keyboard string parts. The overall feel is cinematic. According to Ehresman, this song marks the end of the “processional” series of parade songs that have been an integral part of his last several CD releases. “I started attending Burning Man in ’99, and went nine straight years….That first year, there were 9,000 people there, and my last year there were 56,000….The event has gotten too big, too full of yahoos and too much of a rave for me, but I’ll always treasure my weeks on the playa, the wonderful friendships I made, and the opportunity to bring my music and other artistic works to share with other Burners” he says wistfully.
Track #7, The Horse, the Flat Rock, is rooted in Central Asia. The song features Ehresman playing his authentic rawap, which was purchased on E-Bay and sent in a crate to Austin all the way from Uzbekistan. “I’ve loved Tuvan throat-singing since I first heard about it on NPR, during a piece about the documentary Genghis Blues,” he recalls. “After I saw the movie, I ordered a CD by Ondar, a legendary Tuvan figure who is considered, by the people of Tuva, like a cross between JFK, MLK and Elvis (according to the film).” This led Ehresman to other groups, like Tuvan rock pioneers Yat-Kha, which in turn led to the inclusion of lots of Tuvan music during Ehresman’s DJ sets on Radio Electra, the principle pirate radio station at Burning Man. “I had the pleasure of freaking quite a few people out with this stuff over the years,” he remembers with a smile. “During 2004, my friend Matt and I were doing my annual late night radio program called "The Send Your Mind Over the Edge Show" and, around 3am, we started rounding up people from out in the street in front of the station to come in and fill the studio with Tuvan throat-singing, which we miked and brought up in the mix as a Tuvan CD was faded down….We ended up with about 12 people crammed in the RV, going ‘EEEEEEOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWAAAAAAAA’ and trying their best to make that sound….None of us could do it, of course, but Matt came the closest.” Fast forward four years, to when The Horse, The Flat Rock was recorded. Ehresman continues: “I had the idea in my head for several years to do a Tuvan-style song, with this title, featuring Matt doing his faux-Tuvan throat-singing (aided by some electronic processing)….The title is a play on the time-honored Texas expression about it raining harder than a cow pissing on a flat rock…..The reference was changed here because, as everyone knows, in Tuva it’s all about the equine, not the bovine.” Indeed.
Track #8, Tamdin Goes to Washington, is a strange bird. Part Central Asian ritual music and part techno dance track. Ehresman explains: “I had read this novel ("The Skull Mantra," Eliot Pattison) some time back about monks in a Chinese prison camp in Tibet who conjure up Tamdin, an ancient pre-Tibetan revenge demon, to unleash a little justice……This was a very satisfying idea to me, and I made a note on a little scrap of paper at the time that I should do some kind of instrumental piece based around it.” Ehresman later confessed that he, not surprisingly, has such “little scraps of paper” all over the place. “One night, I was feeling like recording something but didn’t have anything written in advance, so I found this particular little scrap of paper, sat down at the keyboard, and constructed this piece……trying to musically convey this unleashing of a great and terrible karmic force of accountability…...a reckoning, if you will.” The song intro/outro again features the Uzbeki rawap, joined by all measure of gongs and other percussion, morphing into a full-on electronica full-speed dance number (albeit with the ominous growlings of Tamdin surfacing throughout the track). “Doing the demon vocals was great fun,” Ehresman says with a glint in his eye. "Of course, the neighbors won't make eye contact with me after the late night I tracked the vocals, but it's a small price to pay."
Track #9, Die Like Trotsky (Iceaxe to the Skull), has been a rarity in the Ehresman discography, and its inclusion here is the first time it has been made generally available. The song was originally released on a limited edition Monkey Boy Records SXSW Sampler in 2005. The lyrics were started back in the 1990s, with the title referencing the ignominious demise of the Russian revolutionary in his Mexico City exile. A short, violent metal/punk/techno/world music freight train, the song gives a litany of the world’s spoilers (predatory mega-corporation CEOs; hypocritical misery-dealing religious leaders; polluters and general death-dealers) who should, the song posits, meet the fate of Mr. Trotsky. The tortured vocals were recorded by running the microphone and the guitar through the “Tazmanian” effect on the DigiTech GuitarTalker. As Ehresman remembers it, “I had these lyrics around for many years, but had never felt I had the right musical approach that would be violent enough to do them justice…..but my friend Kurtis, who owns the punk rock record company Monkey Boy Records and the affiliated Million Dollar Sound recording studio, and I decided to do some recording and he brought in the other guitarist, Rigo Perez, from his band at time (Los Platos)…..I programmed the basic rhythm track on the groove box, and we recorded the whole thing over at Million Dollar Sound…..Kurtis played the pulsing keyboard part, Rigo played a rhythm guitar track, and I played rhythm and lead guitars and electric solidbody bouzouki, and did the GuitarTalker lead vocals…with all of us overdubbing the background vocals late one twisted night…..there may have been a case of Pabst involved….Now that’s punk rock!” The recording was produced by Jaime Estrada (who had mastered the first Snipe Hunt album), assisted by Ehresman. The pie’ce de re’sistance, as Ehresman recalls it, was the sample at the very end of the song: “We wanted the sound of the titular iceaxe to the skull, but several Halloween sound effects CDs didn’t quite have it…..Finally, we created it by splicing together two different recordings of pumpkins being squashed….I think it came out quite well,” he says innocently.
Track #10, Ranger Jim, is the first of the three spoken word pieces on Monkey Paw Situation. Somewhere between Ken Kesey and a more-enlightened Ernest Hemingway, the poem follows the life of a self-exiled white man in a remote Papua New Guinea jungle village, a loner who builds more relationships than he imagines through his actions and sympathetic attitude. The music is largely driven by a Scottish 10-string Freshwater bouzouki, used is a decidedly-unconventional way: the right hand technique alternating between finger-picking and flat-picking, with the left hand alternating between chording and slide work. The bouzouki is miked and recorded clean in stereo, but with the signal split and run through extreme digital stereo processing to create a backdrop of dark, ominous drones. Ehresman has been seen doing wildly differing versions of this piece live, using a variety of unusual instruments.
Track #11, Lager All That’s Left?, was written and submitted to a poetry contest held in 2008 by Flying Dog Brewery of Colorado. The challenge was to write a poem that mentioned beer in some way, with the winner to be chosen by famed artist, and Hunter S. Thompson illustrator, Ralph Steadman (who also drew all the labels for the company’s various brews). As Ehresman remembers it, “The contest's sample poem, written by Steadman, was a typically violent political screed that was very similar in style to the prose in Steadman’s many books.” Having read that, Ehresman recalls thinking “I can write like that!”, and very quickly wrote the text and constructed a recording of it with some bizarre musical backing. The insane electronic chattering sound that weaves in and out of the mix was made by an obscure and rare device which has no official name, but which Ehresman has dubbed the Opti-Freak. “I was over at Million Dollar Sound one day, visiting my friend Kurtis, when I saw this strange metal box on the counter…..It had one big oven knob on it, two metal toggle switches, and a flexible arm wrapped in multi-colored wire that led up to a small LED bulb,” Ehresman explains. “Once you turn it on, if you hold the light down by the optical sensor protruding from the metal casing of the chassis, it emitted wild, unhinged sounds that can be further manipulated by moving the switch and toggles….There wasn’t even a visible speaker…..It was the proverbial ‘black box,’ and I knew I had to have one…..$40 later, and it was mine….Evidently, it was made by hand by one of Kurtis’ mad scientist friends…..I’ve never seen another one.” Needless to say, Lager All That’s Left? did not win the contest, presumably proving too disturbing even for Mr. Steadman. This is not entirely surprising, with lines like: “When the psychopathic checklist has become a voting guide/and all the commerce lions paint it proudly on their hides.” But it is included here for your edification.
Track #12, I’d Like Ta Pub Ya Sunday, is a short, largely improvised piece on an Australian electric solidbody mountain dulcimer.
Track #13, Near November, is the final spoken word piece on the album, recorded in October of 2008. According to Ehresman, the inspiration for the piece is twofold: “That October was the 2nd anniversary of the sudden death of my previous girlfriend, Kathleen, and it was a difficult time for me….The passage of time certainly helps, but when October 12 comes near, my thoughts turn to the waste and tragedy of it all.” Feeling the need to express the complicated feelings of melancholy as the anniversary approached, Ehresman was struck by another figure who died tragically too young, never understanding her own worth. “I’ve always been a huge fan of the late English singer/songwriter Sandy Denny, and have searched out and bought everything that’s out there that she recorded during her all too brief life….When I read the book about her, I was struck by the sad fact that the woman regarded by many as the finest female vocalist of all time never in fact had any confidence about her own talents, which ultimately lead to a self-destructive path and an early grave….And I saw a commonality between her and Kathleen, in that inability to see all the fine qualities that everyone else saw.”
Inspired by the 2002 Groove Armada song “Remember,” which uses a recurring sample of Sandy singing her song “Autopsy” with Fairport Convention, Ehresman found verse flowing and filling up the pages. Mixing sad, simple piano and organ with downtempo groove box patterns and manipulations, the result is a haunting, heartbreaking musing on the destructive filters of self-perception, and the wreckage in those left behind. When a brief, faint reverb-drenched sample of Sandy singing the a capella “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood” glides through the mix at the very end of the piece, it’s like an automated ghost has been triggered…..with no trace of life or flesh. A very moving piece, and a fitting end to the strange journey that is Monkey Paw Situation.