Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet

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Dim The Lights Chill The Ham , 8/10
Sport Fishin' , 7/10
Phono-Comb: Fresh Gasoline, 6.5/10

Surf music and instrumental music of the Sixties were best represented by Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, but it took a while for guitarist Brian Connelly and his cohorts to release a full-length album. A sequel of superb EPs, such as Love Without Words (1985), Wow Flutter Hiss (1986) and Schlagers (1987), refined their approach to the genre, which is a mixture of nostalgic and neurotic, of old-fashioned and post-modernist. Their instrumental vignettes drew from blues, pop, country, rockabilly, surf, Ennio Morricone, Duan Eddy, and many other sonic icons of the past without ever quoting them "literally". Those vignettes were like metaphors imprinted in a collective subconscious. Their masterpiece, Dim The Lights Chill The Ham (1992), was the first album since the Raybeats to revolutionize the idea of instrumental rock'n'roll, while retaining a humorous attitude a` la Leo Kottke. Sport Fishin' (1993) was sligthly more serious and less effervescent.

(Translated from my old Italian text by DommeDamian)

Shadowy Men OnA Shadowy Planet are an instrumental group that was formed in Toronto in 1983. They were not a holographic revival of surf music. Their short instrumental pieces boast catchy melodies and '60s sounds, but are played with the neurosis of modern times. The operation is similar to that of the american Raybeats.

Brian Connelly on guitar, Reid Diamond on bass and Don Pyle on drums made their debut in August 1985 with the EP Love Without Words ,containing three of their small masterpieces, each representing the fundamental factors of their art: the airy melody of Our Weapons Are Useless, the carefree dance by Bennett Cerf and the swinging Having An Average Weekend.

The much more eclectic and curious Wow Flutter Hiss came out in April the following year and marked a notable leap in quality. The funny funky ballet of Customized, the wild country quadrille of Theme From TV and the languid swamp blues Shake Some Evil are highly spectacular numbers revisiting the "roots".

In the spring of 1987 Schlagers accentuated the nostalgic quality of their music with Good Cop Bad Cop (perhaps their pinnacle), a song that blends the fatalistic atmospheres of "spaghetti westerns" and the crescendo melodies of Duan Eddy; and at the same time opens up to exotic civilizations with Egypt Texas and above all withShadowy Countdown‘s acrobatic ska.

After two more 45s in a very limited edition (the first with You Spin Me Round '86 , a wild garage dance complete with a tune for Farfisa, actually bears the name "46 and a half"; the second containing the cheerful Musical Interlude ) , the material from these first (glorious) years is collected on Savvy Show Stoppers (Glass, 1988 - Cargo, 1990).

In 1991 the group's high prolificity continued with three more EPs: Music For Pets (Jetpac), with Rover And Rusty and Here Kitty ;Tired Of Waking Up Tired (Cargo); and Dog &Squeegie (Estrus), containingSpy School Graduation Theme and Mecca. At the same time, the fame of what is now one of the most original instrumental groups around grew.

Dim The Lights, Chill The Ham (Cargo, 1992) is their first real full-length album in their ten-year career. Instead of providing a finally unified vision, it is an even more fragmented collection than their previous EPs: there are over twenty songs, almost all clocking under two minutes. Connelly gives another example of his classic and wild guitar playing, showing how to incorporate punk heat into the hilarious patterns of surfing (Aunts Invasion) and the epic ones of westerns (Who Painted Whistlers Mother). Connelly is an atypical guitarist, and you can hear it when he tries his hand at country (Jackpot), in imitations of Duan Eddy (Who's Afraid Of Alyson Hymer) or when he sketches a Leo Kottke-style cartoon (Hunter's Thompson's Younger Brother): the theme comes destabilized by a frenzy and volume that sound mocking.
Exotic watercolors (the enchanting Hot Box Car, the ska Babakganoosh, the tropical Siesta Cinema) are other exquisite delights. Connelly's music is, above all, inspired by a semiotics of soundtracks, in which an adagio or a swing immediately refers to a film or television genre (case in point, Case of The Missing Ladyfinger). Each tune stems from a different idea and the album, in its simplicity, can be confusing to listen to, precisely because of this continuous paradigm shift.

In May 1993 the second album, Sport Fishin', was released. With another twenty bizarre titles (including an unequivocal one: We're Not A Fucking Surf Band), the group confirms itself among the most brilliant revisionists, as well as miniaturists, of modern rock.
This time the traditional white genres dominate, inspiring sketches such as the quadrille Spend A Night Not A Fortune, the honkytonk Fortune Tellin' Chicken, the thriller soundtracks of Plastics For 500 and Spy School Graduation Theme , the Peas Porridge Rock 's unmissable surf, all executed with just enough nonchalance and indifference that separates craft from industry. The guitar raves melodically, is at its highest in the arias of Farbs and Haig Earl , which Phil Spector would have approved; it "tells" hilarious jokes in You Will Think You Are A Chicken. The band’s strategy of pure cataloging is increasingly clear: many songs are only the fingerprints of a melody.
What makes this album less joyful than the previous one is a semi-serious intention, which leads the trio to attempt more complex and noisier harmonies than usual, from the thin textures of Cheese InThe Fridge to the violent gallop of Memories of Gay Paree. Sly and mocking, Connelly has an attitude towards music that is the son of the punk ethic: he gets straight to the point, immediately intones his old story and drags everyone into a crazy dance like college students in pajamas. The single Jehrney is also released as a corollary to the disc.

In an era when rock music was addicted to singing and instrumental scores favored dystopian tones, the Shadowy Men's quirky, nostalgic sketching was a breath of fresh air.

Shadowy Men OnA Shadowy Planet transformed into Phono-Comb and, after the single The Crass AndThe Switchblade (Quarterstick, 1995), they resurrected in a new guise with another album of instrumental music: Fresh Gasoline (Quarterstick, 1996). The lineup settled with Dallas Good on guitar instead of Brian Connelly, Beverly Breckenbridge from Fifth Column on bass, Reid Diamond switched from bass to guitar and Don Pyle stayed on drums. If songs like Grip'n'Grin still constitute the summation of the surf and slow songs of the Sixties, the tender jingle-jangle of I Dreamed I Went ToHeaven , the sunny refrain of Pummelled , the country roll of Marvin as well as the solemn western atmosphere by Phonebone leverage the nostalgia of the good old days. The album is full of harmonic experiments, particularly in the exchanges between the guitars. The Lyon Game (funereal step and gospel organ) and In Touch With Stockholm (a long dissonance) are completely out of context. The complicated interlockings of the title track give it an almost transcendent tone. Same with the shuffling blues of Burnt Down WithFeedback , the martial step of Virgo OnMars , up to the explicit sitar theme of Sparkling Agenda.

Gli Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet sono un gruppo strumentale che venne formato a Toronto nel 1983. Il loro non e` un oleografico revival della musica surf. I loro brevi pezzi strumentali vantano si` melodie orecchiabili e sonorita` degli anni '60, ma sono suonati con la nevrosi dei tempi moderni. L'operazione e` simile a quella degli americani Raybeats.

Brian Connelly alla chitarra, Reid Diamond al basso e Don Pyle alla batteria esordiscono nell'agosto del 1985 con l'EP Love Without Words, contenente tre dei loro piccoli capolavori, che ben rappresentano i fattori fondamentali della loro arte: la melodia ariosa di Our Weapons Are Useless, la danza spensierata di Bennett Cerf e la swingante Having An Average Weekend.

Wow Flutter Hiss, ben piu` eclettico e curioso, esce nell'aprile dell'anno dopo e segna un notevole balzo di qualita`. Il buffo balletto funky di Customized, la scatenata quadriglia country di Theme From Tv e il languido blues di palude Shake Some Evil sono numeri altamente spettacolari di rivisitazione delle "radici".

Nella primavera del 1987 Schlagers accentua la qualita` nostalgica della loro musica con Good Cop Bad Cop (forse il loro capolavoro), un brano che fonde le atmosfere fataliste dei "western spaghetti" e le melodie in crescendo di Duan Eddy; e al tempo stesso apre alle civilta` esotiche con Egypt Texas e soprattutto con il funambolico crescendo ska di Shadowy Countdown.

Dopo altri due 45 giri a tiratura limitatissima (il primo con You Spin Me Round '86, danza selvaggia da garage con tanto di motivetto per Farfisa, porta anzi la dizione "46 giri e mezzo"; il secondo contenente l'allegro Musical Interlude), il materiale di questi primi (gloriosissimi) anni viene raccolto sull'album Savvy Show Stoppers (Glass, 1988 - Cargo, 1990).

Nel 1991 l'attivita` intensissima del gruppo prosegue con altri tre EP: Music For Pets (Jetpac), con Rover And Rusty e Here Kitty; Tired Of Waking Up Tired (Cargo); e Dog & Squeegie (Estrus), con Spy School Graduation Theme e Mecca. Di pari passo cresce la fama di quello che e` ormai uno dei gruppi strumentali piu` originali in circolazione.

Dim The Lights, Chill The Ham (Cargo, 1992) e` il loro primo vero album in dieci anni di carriera. Invece che fornire una visione finalmente unitaria, e` una raccolta ancor piu` frammentata degli EP del passato: sono ben ventitre i brani, quasi tutti al di sotto dei due minuti. Connelly da` un altro saggio del suo chitarrismo al tempo stesso classico e selvaggio, che sa come incorporare la foga punk negli schemi ilari del surf (Aunts Invasion) e in quelli epici del western (Who Painted Whistlers Mother). Connelly e` un chitarrista atipico, e lo si sente quando si cimenta al country (Jackpot), nelle imitazioni di Duan Eddy (Who's Afraid Of Alyson Hymer) o quando abbozza una vignetta alla Leo Kottke (Hunter's Thompson's Younger Brother): il tema viene destabilizzato da una frenesia e un volume che suonano blasfemi.
Gli acquerelli esotici (l'incantevole Hot Box Car, lo ska Babakganoosh, la tropicale Siesta Cinema) sono altre delizie prelibate. La musica di Connelly e` anche e soprattutto ispirata a una semiotica delle colonne sonore, in cui un adagio o uno swing subito rimandano a un genere cinematografico o televisivo (per esempio, Case Of The Missing Ladyfinger). Ogni brano scaturisce da una trovata diversa e l'album riesce, nella sua semplicita`, persino difficile da ascoltare, proprio per questo continuo cambiamento di paradigma.

Nel maggio del 1993 viene pubblicato il secondo album, Sport Fishin'. Con un'altra ventina di titoli bizzarri (fra cui uno inequivocabile: We're Not A Fucking Surf Band), il gruppo si conferma fra i piu` geniali revisionisti, nonche' miniaturisti, del rock moderno.
Questa volta a farla da padrone sono i generi tradizionali dei bianchi, che ispirano sketch come la quadriglia Spend A Night Not A Fortune, l'honkytonk Fortune Tellin` Chicken, le colonne sonore da thriller di Plastics For 500 e Spy School Graduation Theme, l'immancabile surf di Peas Porridge Rock, tutti eseguiti con quel tanto di nonchalance e indifferenza che separa l'artigianato dall'industria. La chitarra delira melodica al massimo nelle arie di Farbs e Haig Earl, che sarebbero piaciute a Phil Spector; "racconta" barzellette spassose in You Will Think You Are A Chicken. E` sempre piu` chiara la sua strategia di pura catalogazione: molti brani sono soltanto le impronte digitali di una melodia.
Cio` che rende un po' meno godibile questo album rispetto al precedente e` una mezza intenzione seria, che porta il trio a tentare armonie piu` complesse e rumorose del solito, dalle esili tessiture di Cheese In The Fridge al violento galoppo di Memories Of Gay Paree. Sornione e beffardo, Connelly ha un atteggiamento nei confronti della musica che e` figlio dell'etica punk: va dritto al sodo, intona subito la sua solfa e trascina tutti in una folle danza di collegiali in pigiama. A corollario dell'album esce anche il singolo Jehrney.

In un'epoca in cui la musica rock era tossicodipendente dal canto e le partiture strumentali prediligevano i toni scuri, il bozzettismo nostalgico degli Shadowy Men rappresento` una boccata d'aria fresca.

Gli Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet si tramutano in Phono-Comb e, dopo il singolo The Crass And The Switchblade (Quarterstick, 1995), resuscitano sotto nuove spoglia con un altro album di musica strumentale: Fresh Gasoline (Quarterstick, 1996). La formazione si e` assestata con Dallas Good alla chitarra al posto di Brian Connelly, Beverly Breckenbridge dei Fifth Column al basso, Reid Diamond passato dal basso alla chitarra e Don Pyle sempre alla batteria. Se brani come Grip'n'Grin costituiscono ancora delle summa dei brani surf e lenti degli anni Sessanta, il tenero jingle-jangle di I Dreamed I Went To Heaven, il ritornello solare di Pummelled, il rullo country di Marvin, la solenne atmosfera western di Phonebone fanno leva sulla nostalgia dei bei tempi andati, il disco pullula di esperimenti armonici, in particolare negli scambi fra le chitarre. The Lyon Game (passo funereo e organo gospel) e In Touch With Stockholm (una lunga dissonanza) esulano completamente dal contesto. I complessi incastri della title-track le danno un tono quasi trascendente. E cosi` il blues strascicato di Burnt Down With Feedback, il passo marziale di Virgo On Mars, fino all'esplicito tema per sitar di Sparkling Agenda.

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