I’m going to cut to the chase here. You need this album, The Sounds of Grassy Sound, if for nothing else than its deeply, weirdly beautiful rendition of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” I’ll admit that I have some history with this song and the personnel involved. I was a huge fan of my dad’s Sons of the Pioneers records back when I was 12 or 13 years old and still thought being a cowboy would be a viable lifestyle for me. A friend and I both learned to play harmonica at the same time, and on them we played Sons of the Pioneers songs, wearing our cowboy hats and boots and pearl-snap shirts. (The Pioneers opened the way for me to appreciate Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks about that time, too.) Then a few years later when I’d become a fan of Michael Nesmith & the First National Band, I dug his cover of the song on that band’s final album Nevada Fighter … and still do. A few years further on I became a huge fan of The Meat Puppets, who it turned out were also big fans of country & western music from the likes of Marty Robbins, George Jones, and the Sons of the Pioneers. Not being into hardcore punk, however, I’ve never been a fan of their debut self-titled release, which includes a purported cover of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” Of the lyrics, critic Robert Christgau said it best, “None of which they go so far as to pronounce over or under the hardcore roar.”
I’m here to say the “Pups” have remedied that little oversight, with a little assist from guitarist Nick Millevoi and keyboardist Ron Stabinsky on that duo’s debut album as Grassy Sound. The final glorious track presents them performing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” with Cris Kirkwood on bass and vocals, Curt Kirkwood on vocals, and Derrick Bostrom on drums and joined by Millevoi and Stabinsky doing what they do.
Cris Kirkwood says their mother taught them the song when they were growing up in Arizona. “We have a familial, affectionate relationship with that tune,” he says. “When I heard the Grassy Sound tracks, I liked them immediately. In particular, Nick and Ron’s treatment of ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’ was so creative and, of course, very different from our demented version of it all those years ago. It was fun to harmonize on it with my brother, Curt, and I just love playing with Ron. He’s such an incredible musician, a force-of-nature improviser way beyond us and our punk-rock backgrounds.”
Says Bostrom with typical humility, “I immediately felt simpatico with Nick’s concept and tunes. And working with Ron is always great – he’s an amazingly resourceful musician who can play anything from free jazz to polka to The Meat Puppets’ brand of psychedelic country rock’n’roll. As musicians, both he and Nick humble me, so they were gracious to allow a simple punk-rock drummer to join in on things. It was really fun.”
The rest of the album is really cool, too. I’ve not tumbled across Millevoi or Stabinsky before, but I love their post-modern take on the bachelor pad exotica music of the 1950s, which they combine with early ’60s surf guitar, all of which totally pushes my buttons. Stabinsky has been playing keyboards with the Pups for the past few years, and he and Millevoi have jammed together in various configurations since meeting in 2014.
Everything here is original except for that cover of Bob Nolan’s “Tumbleweeds,” even though some songs like the opener “Skylark” have titles that could refer to jazz standards. “Skylark” is one of the more stripped down affairs, mostly just Millevoi on guitars and Stabinsky on Hammond C-3, with some vintage Fender VI bass from Millevoi as well. Lovely melody and some excellent jazz soloing from both. “Another Blue Moon” is a very languid affair, pretty much just jazz guitar and organ. Fans of Jimmy & Wes should check this one out; it’s less soulful but still in the groove. “New Harbor Light Boogie” has some ambient ocean sounds and it may be a deconstruction of The Platters’ hit “Harbor Lights” or it may not – I’m not great at deciphering that sort of thing. It’s very deconstructed in terms of its boogie-ness, though, being a mostly solo guitar piece where the boogie is more in the spaces between the notes than in the notes themselves.
Millevoi’s playing on the jaunty “Worried” reminds me a bit of the great old duets by Chet Atkins and Les Paul, with Strabinsky taking on some of the feel of Paul in his inventive improvising on the Wurlitzer electric piano.
Drummer Bostrom joins on a couple of other tracks without the Kirkwoods. “Astronaut” rocks and has a definite Ventures vibe to it, with Strabinsky doubling on organ and electric piano behind Millevoi’s surf licks. “Lu Fran” is on the cool side, Bostrom relying more on the hi-hat and rimshots than the kick and toms. For the most rocking track, check out “Flitzer,” which is definitely more Dick Dale than Dick Van Dyck. Just know that it’s not entirelly representative of The Sound of Grassy Sound.
Sorry, but I have to go back to “Tumbleweeds” briefly. It ties in to something Stabinsky says in the liner notes. After noting that even the album’s title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to some of the exotica album titles of the ’50s, he says, “… I didn’t want this to be any pure nostalgic exercise, so we incorporated some ‘fringe’ elements into the music, like shifting meters and a bit of abstract tonality, to make the tunes feel more personal and of the moment. I wanted to update that fun, cocktail-party sound with a modern compositional perspective and my own more warped tastes, a bit more Monk or Captain Beefheart.” The shifting meters are most evident on “Tumbleweeds,” where they’ve changed it from a 6/8 rhythm to a more or less straight 4/4, which shifts the beginnings and ends of some lines. (At least I think that’s what they’ve done. Math isn’t my strong suit.) It sounds like the way A.P. Carter might have arranged it.
In case you can’t tell, I really enjoy this release from Grassy Sound. It’s a short and sweet album, very much like you’d find on a vintage LP – at eight tracks in 34 minutes, it probably takes less time to listen to than to read this gushing review. It’s definitely one of my feel-good albums of the summer.
(Destiny Records, 2022)