Let the Clueless Hear Candy #1: Ira Ironstrings - Music for People with $3.98 (Plus Tax, If Any)

 

 

Every month, I pick a record from Ear Candy’s used section based on the cover alone. Some audiophiles refer to this practice as “Johnny’s Chancers.” I then review the record. This is Let the Clueless Hear Candy.

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Anyone who stumbles upon a copy of 1958's Music for People with $3.98 and is curious enough to flip the outer sleeve will be greeted with liner notes that could only be construed as either so curmudgeonly or so densely ironic that one can’t help but laugh. A third of the back cover is taken up by a wildly hyperbolic rant on authenticity that would make Henry Rollins blush. It reads like a crash course on juvenoia, but understanding that Music for People with $3.98 is commonly characterized as a comedy record may convince the reader that it’s instead a mockery of juvenoia. There’s no way of knowing the intentions of the author (simply attributed to “the Society”), but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and side with the latter. The notes end with a cryptic question: “just who the devil is Ira Ironstrings?”

 

At the time I picked this record up, I was more or less ignorant to hardcore canon. I was still fully immersed in Black Flag, Minor Threat, and the Minutemen. It wasn’t until much later that I digested the behemoths of the genre and began to move on to your Die Kreuzens, Youth of Todays, Voids, MDCs, etc. Once I made my way to Negative Approach, I was shocked to discover that the cover of the Detroit band’s sole LP (1983’s Tied In) was nearly identical to that of Music for People with $3.98. It turns out the image is a still from the silent short Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life, which film buffs may know as the first notable work to feature the Victorian trope of a dastardly villain tying a damsel to train tracks.

 

The connections Music for People with $3.98 has with the music world commonly indulged in by contemporary listeners doesn’t end with Negative Approach either. In fact, the answer to the liner notes’ closing conundrum is half the reason we have one of indie’s greatest champions. Ira Ironstrings was the pseudonym of steel guitar legend Alvino Rey, which he used to escape contractual obligations to Capitol Records. Rey was the grandfather of Arcade Fire’s Win and Will Butler, and his death was the primary inspiration for the band’s universally hailed debut, Funeral. Arcade Fire chose to acknowledge his significance to the record by using a broadcast recording of Rey’s “My Buddy” for the record’s first two singles.

 

Musically, the content of Music for People with $3.98 likely won't hold up for most contemporary listeners, no matter how diverse one’s tastes may be. While some artists of the style and era (such as Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra) are able to translate to modern music's diverse methods of creation without losing some, many big band and swing artists come across now as a sort of generational juvenilia. Rey’s Ira Ironstrings project showed the performer/composer attempting to reinterpret older genres, particularly ragtime, into a swing context. To a ragtime purist, this would likely come across as a travesty. The sounds of Music for People with $3.98 seem a lot like Lawrence Welk mutilating this beloved style with a marimba and watered-down “smooth swing” arrangement. For example, an untrained ear could very easily mistake this record for the Monsters, Inc. soundtrack.

 

However, Music for People with $3.98 isn’t entirely dated or naive. The record has many moments that could make your $3.98 well-spent. Aspiring beatmakers who fancy themselves disciples to J. Dilla and Madlib may find a handful of split seconds sample-worthy. For example, side B begins with an exotica reinterpritation of Django Reinhart’s much-loved "Limehouse Blues," which borrows from the kung fu movie score sound. Throughout this track, moments of percussive bombast and ancient flavor lie and beg to be looped by their newfound owner. When one considers inflation, this 1958 release becomes grossly mispriced. In today’s dollar, the title would translate to "Music for People with $32.79." Personally, I wouldn’t buy a vinyl copy of Funeral for this price (though the case is certainly different with Tied In). If you stumble upon a copy of Music for People with $3.98, I wouldn't suggest you throw more than 50 cents into it. Perhaps you could stumble upon an Alvino Rey fanatic somewhere in China willing to drop a good amount of money for the record, though they surely would’ve already nabbed one of the 12 copies currently available on Discogs. Maybe you just want a subtle piece of music history to display on a mantle. Either way, I would suggest saving your cash for something a little more familiar.

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