Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Wall Of Voodoo Camouflages Stan Ridgway - Parte Dos

Following his split from Wall Of Voodoo, Stan Ridgway’s ‘Fred Schneider style’ vocals were soon heard on the track ‘Don’t Box Me In’, a collaboration with Stewart Copeland of The Police, which was featured on the soundtrack to the film ‘Rumble Fish’. He followed this with an appearance in the 1986 feature ‘Lost In The Stars: The Music Of Kurt Weill’ performing a song. No surprise really given Ridgway’s strong dedication to the cinematic craft, his work often closer to that of a pulp novelist/film noir narrator than straight pop-rock musician.

Born Stanard R. Funsten in the Californian desert town of Barstow, Ridgway started out with a love of folk/country music during his teen years, reflected somewhat in his covering work by Johnny Cash and Tennessee Ernie Ford. It would be the story telling aspect, rather than musical inclination, of folk/country music that would run rich through the waters of Ridgway’s river of work. Ridgway would take his passion for film scores, and hard won experience fronting a daring and innovative new wave band, to inform the style of his solo work post Wall Of Voodoo.

Ridgway’s debut album, released on I.R.S., took some time to surface but was worth the wait. The brilliant 1985 set ‘The Big Heat’ (OZ#61/US#131), was an atmospheric collection of vividly evocative musical vignettes, featuring tales of crime, war, and the human condition, dripping with cinematic characters and exotic locations. The lead out single ‘Drive She Said’ (OZ#60) tells the story of a taxi driver forced at gunpoint to be a getaway driver for a bank robber. Ridgway’s singing voice acts as first person narrator to the unfolding events. Amidst the danger and chaos the taxi driver finds time to entertain romantic thoughts toward the bank robber who happens to be a woman. Trust Stan Ridgway to approach a love song in such a way, imbued with a sense of inevitable alienation as the taxi driver’s fantasies are destined to remain unfulfilled.

The follow up single ‘Camouflage’ was an epic ballad that recounted the tale of an American soldier lost on patrol in Vietnam, who encounters the mythical character of ‘a big marine named Camouflage’. The larger than life tale truly did paint a virtual film in your imagination. The song was a surprise #4 hit in the U.K. (#76) but would prove to be the only major hit single thus far of Ridgway’s twenty plus year career. The next single (and title track) ‘The Big Heat’ (OZ#91) saw Ridgway return to his love of Ennio Morricone’s film score work, creating the perfect musical backdrop to the lyrical exploration of the seedy underbelly of urban life. Around the same period Ridgway contributed two tracks to the Pierre William-Glenn film ‘Terminus’.

Quickly gaining a reputation for being a perfectionist in the recording studio, it took another three years to emerge with his first album for his new label Geffen, 1989’s ‘Mosquitos’. For the album he was backed in the studio by his touring band Chapter Eleven, and on one track ‘Peg and Pete and Me’ the backing vocals were provided by a then unknown Tori Amos. The theme of the album focused intently on issues of alienation and the disenfranchised, daring listeners to depart from the comfort of their own lives into the cold and desperate world contained within the album’s songs. The style of music is more adventurous, a country and western sensibility with cold undercurrents designed to at once unsettle and intrigue. Tracks such as ‘Goin’ Southbound’ (US#8 Modern Rock Tracks), ‘Lonely Town’, and ‘Calling Out To Carol’ (US#13 Modern Rock Tracks) showcase the complexity of Ridgway as a songwriter.

1991’s ‘Partyball’ featured the single ‘I Wanna Be A Boss’ (US#13 Modern Rock Tracks), but otherwise proved to be a largely inaccessible album to the general record buying public. The title was somewhat of a misnomer for the mood of the album, which even as Stan Ridgway albums go, was a dark and bleak affair. It was arguably Ridgway’s most insular and introspective effort, dripping with sarcasm and dabs of ironic humour. In between times Ridgway indulges with five instrumental tracks, again reflecting his love of film scores. The suits at Geffen were less than impressed with the offering and parted ways with Ridgway soon after.

Ridgway then took an extended break from his own solo work over the next few years. He continued his involvement with various film projects, contributing the track ‘Talk Hard’ to the 1990 feature ‘Pump Up The Volume’ and composing the score for the 1991 Damian Klaus film ‘Future Kick’. Ridgway then became involved in the group project Drywall, with his wife (and frequent musical collaborator) Pietra Wexstun on keyboards, and Ivan Knight on drums and percussion. The trio cut their teeth on the L.A. club circuit during 1994, and released their debut album ‘Work The Dumb Oracle’ in 1995. It marked yet another curious chapter in the eccentric career of Stan Ridgway. To call Drywall’s sound experimental or avant-garde would be understating it. Keeping to his cinematic leanings, a short film called ‘The Drywall Incident’ was released the same year, as a companion piece of sorts.

Ridgway’s next album ‘Black Diamond’ (1996) saw him take yet another surprising turn in the musical road. The album’s style was a hybrid mix of cocktail-style jazz, with the film score work of Henry Mancini an obvious influence, and more straight forward acoustic guitar numbers, yielding the singles ‘Big Dumb Town’ and ‘Knife & Fork’. An EP titled ‘Film Songs’ surfaced in 1997 (a compilation of Ridgway’s contributions to film soundtracks), and this was followed by 1998’s album ‘The Way I Feel Today’, which found Ridgway wheeling out 19 pop crooner standards circa 30s and 40s. Lush orchestral backing accompanied such classics as ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘Under My Skin’ - is there nothing Ridgway won’t attempt?

1999’s ‘Anatomy’ saw Ridgway return to the dark streets of a film noir narrative, with an accompanying sombre, understated musical style to match. It was Ridgway’s most cinematic album to date, but it was to be outdone in a literal sense by ‘Holiday In Dirt’ (2001) which was accompanied on its release by an exhibition of 14 specially commissioned short films by various independent filmmakers, each film a visual companion to a song (in 2005 a DVD featuring all 14 films was released).

In the last few years Ridgway has continued to combine his own solo work, including the 2004 album ‘Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads & Fugitive Songs’, with another Drywall album ‘Barbeque Babylon’ in 2005, as well as playing banjo/harmonica with his wife Pietra’s band Hecate’s Angels. In 2006 Stan Ridgway fronted an all new line-up under the name Wall Of Voodoo, as the opening act for Cyndi Lauper, with more shows following.

The work of this musical maverick is best summed up by a quote from New Musical Express (NME), which described Stan Ridgway as “equal parts Raymond Chandler and John Huston, Johnny Cash and Rod Serling”. High praise indeed, but duly merited. As Stan Ridgway himself stated in the liner notes to the 2004 album ‘Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads and Fugitive Songs’, “My records are designed to be seen as well as heard.”. Few but the most skilled of musical auteur can manage to realise such an all encompassing engagement of the senses.

'Camouflage' clip courtesy of YouTube user gnotangerup

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