Only a Mother were something very, very different. Theirs was a most revolutionary combination of ear-bending musical satires with highly unusual arrangements incorporating instruments from marching bands, rural backyards and the philharmonic halls. Although many bands claimed to be cognizant of small town America’s musical traditions, Only a Mother were the wittiest, sharpest and most iconoclastic of them all. Back in the 1980s, only Eugene Chadbourne attempted to provide a similarly detached social commentary by rewriting the history of America’s non-academic, white music.
Frank Pahl from Michigan began to perform under the OAM moniker in the mid-1980s. Despite a nebulous character of the formation, whose line-up overlapped with several other Midwestern bands, the basic core coalesced around Pahl with exceptionally talented multi-instrumentalist Marco Novachcoff, violinist Mary Richards, bassist Bobbi Benson and percussionist Doug Gourlay.
The quintet was ahead of the game in their pleasing syncretism. From medieval troubadour themes, through atonal improvisations for percussion to short folk sketches for toy instruments, Only a Mother never failed to generate a sense of fun – which is remarkable given the frequently morbid lyrics in their quixotic “songs”.
A spontaneous assortment of shawms, ocarinas and whistles produces a multi-reed, inconsequentially tossed-up microcosm. Frank Pahl appears as a super rapid singer, agonizing over bizarre misadventures of a young hitch-hiker. It is unclear if autobiographical reminiscences mix freely with fantasy, or vice-versa… For a relatively simply structured song, the acoustic orchestration is sumptuous – replete with flutes, clarinets, harmonium and a chorus. When Mary Richards fiddles adroitly her descending notes we discover with some surprise that the tune is actually a waltz… There is some affinity here with small choral works of Marek Grechuta, but given the light years that separate these artists, this could be little more here than accidental convergence, not a quotation.
The instrumental track opens with a bellowing violin à la Art Bears and crumpled percussion (is this the “sheet metal wakka” from the liner notes?). Pumped up by Bobbi Benson’s comical double bass, this miniature is bluegrassy in all but its name and unusual instrumentation – complete with two organs and mandolin. The high-pitch violin, placed here in unison with Marko Novachcoff’s harmonica has something of a hirsute, rural quality fondly remembered from Bob Dylan’s “Desire” (1975). Although the acoustic bass keeps the band in pace, it all sounds wonderfully makeshift and ramshackle.
Pardon mon Faux Pas
This could be a train song, were it not for its ironic grit and the notation that makes it “anti-country”. This ode to provincial boredom is all the more truculent and trenchant thanks to cello’s raspy sul tasto. The acerbic, biting irony (“ain’t a question of what you know, It is who you know that counts”) is almost tragicomic.
In a complete change of emotional spectrum, the band invites us to a medieval dance. Irish recorder and Mary Richards’ astral vocals bring back the memories of Pentangle, Trees or Trader Horne. This is medievalism at its most profane, a Carolingian feast within an earshot from the nearest campanile. The timbres are appropriately selected – flute, bass viola, mandolin, melodica and a simple triangle. In between, a more virtuosic, frictionless violin fast forwards the atmosphere by a couple of hundred years.
Rack # 1
The entire band appears on percussion instruments in what apparently is an ‘ancient track of unknown origin’, assembled by Doug Gourley. The topsy-turvy tuning approaches Harry Partch’s idiosyncratic experiments, although Frank Pahl & Co remain far more unassuming in their endeavor. The racket is further augmented by horns brought from a sports arena and a toy xylophone.
Rubbydubs, Mugwamps, and Wobblies
This could be a country-and-western ballad, nonsensical, iconoclastic and fed with the staple of acoustic guitars, mandolin and violin. This last instrument evokes again the aforementioned “Desire” – in articulation rather than intention. The band maintains a distance to the codified Nashville formula, not least thanks to the second-dimension lyrics. Pahl does not try to force a Southern twang and operates in unashamedly nasal Midwestern accent. Bass clarinet, out of its philharmonic element, overlays a woody chalumeau tone. The final vocal roar and a guitar clink chop off this welcome musical heresy.
Warp # 17
A valse macabre scored for accordion and violin with some assistance from a cumbersome bass saxophone and crystalline electric organ. It is a doomed, eternally delinquent track of merciless damnation. An accoustic guitar dances forlornly in the middle. Nightmarish, deviant “oompapa, oompapa” oversees the swiveling theme, repeatedly displayed on reedy accordion and organ. There are other “Warps” in Only a Mother’s catalogue, but “# 17” certainly belongs to the classics of American instrumental music of 1980s…
Bucket of Brains
Marko Novacchoff’s farting bassoon harmonizes dryly for the rest of the band. Soon Mary Richards lurches out and hysterically yelps out some necrophiliac story. Her convulsive drama reaches out for the upper registers, but some stabilizing decency emanates from the lower range occupied by woodwinds. The “song” advances by fits and starts with basso ‘humungo’ and bassoon picking up the pieces here and there. Haunted vocalizing and the brassy “percussion” workshop accompany the messily strummed guitars and mandolins.
This is another of those anarchic pseudo-country numbers. Nervous guffaws and whistling introduce Ken Stanley’s text ridiculing advice fossilized in old proverbs. Like a Pandora’s Box of giggling dwarfs that got out of control, the clownish song hops and pops… Pahl wields his mandolin, strumming along with abandon. There is probably more chortling per square foot here than on Frank Zappa’s momentous “Lumpy Gravy”.
Fingers of a Pumpkin
Another “medieval” track, but this time with a multi-storied tapestry of rococo arrangements (string trio, harmonium and cymbal). The idea is alluringly simple – the melody flows, bursts out with the cymbal and bass drum, and then returns to the violin line. Only the vacuum-filling mandolin is reminding us that these are Midwestern cornfields, not than a French conservatory.
This simple, working class ballad is initiated with predictably Spartan instrumentation – over-reliant on Novachcoff’s harmonica. It sports a typical structure – two stanzas, a round-off-it-all refrain with intensifying dynamic and a smoother instrumental bridge to another stanza. The music is so overly conservative that only the socially critical text (referring to the 1980 attempt on Reagan’s life) prevents listeners’ gullibility.
Rack # 2
This is the second of those ‘Harry Partch’ moments on the record. Although Only a Mother lack Partch’s ‘spoils of war’ or his ‘chromelodeon’, they the click, clack, tick-tac and occasionally scrunge awright (don’t get a wrong impression. Sonic Asymmetry is fanatically fond of Harry Partch’s music).
At the outset, Doug Gourlay treats us to the rainy shimmer from a palo de agua (now, that must have been at least as simple as the title, we presume). The rest of the band will combine the inputs from harmonium, cello, violin and acoustic bass into a tuneful song with vocal parts jackknifed octaves apart (Pahl and Richards). Critical of middle America’s self-satisfied solipsism, the song has a wonderfully anti-professional, or at least-anti-academic feel, despite the seductive melody line. The long coda descends the scale with determination.
The Romantic Side of Ken’s Cat
A richly percussive moment of atonality, covered with animal-like calls from valved eccentricity of euphonium and extendaphone. Climactic shouting precludes any development.
A Song for Mud
Here’s a longer chug-a-chug. Pahl’s quavering voice delivers a morbid narrative about a disappointed first love. Woodblocks and half-muted alloys barely catch up with the song’s progress. The rapid scrubbing relies mostly on violin and acoustic bass. When the bowed, burly bass retrenches the line-up, balalaika erupts, unapologetic for its belated hyperactivity. The chorus eventually bids farewell to the bewildered audience…
The band’s first two LPs are the classics of the genre – “Romantic Warped” being probably the more folky of the two. “Naked Songs for Contortionists” reworked some of the earlier material. I have not heard the last two positions listed here.
ONLY A MOTHER: “Riding White Alligators” (1987)
ONLY A MOTHER: “Romantic Warped” (1989)
ONLY A MOTHER: “Naked Songs for Contortionists” (1991)
ONLY A MOTHER: “Feral Chicken” (1994)
ONLY A MOTHER: “Dusty Nuggets” (1988-1998)
ONLY A MOTHER: “Damned Pretty Snout” (1998)
Before donning the hat of a one-man-orchestra, Frank Pahl began his solo career frequently supported by his companions from Only a Mother. Certainly the early efforts, as well as “The Back of Beyond” are highly recommended. I have never heard “Loose Threads”.
Frank PAHL: “The Cowboy Disciple” (1991)
Frank PAHL: “The Romantic Side of Schizophrenia” (1992-1993)
Frank PAHL: “Loose Threads” (1995)
Frank PAHL: “In Cahoots” (1997)
Frank PAHL: “Remove the Cork” (1998)
Frank PAHL & KLIMPEREI: “Music for Desserts” (2001)
Frank PAHL: “The Back of Beyond” (2003)
Frank PAHL: “Euphoniums Solo” (2004)
Frank PAHL: “Songs of War and Peace” (2005)
Pahl also appears in Scavenger Quartet, a more sedate and developed affair with little relationship to the sophisticated enthusiasm of the early days. Little Bang Theory is a new and promising adventure for toy instruments.
SCAVENGER QUARTET: “Whistling for Leftovers” (2001)
SCAVENGER QUARTET: “We Who Live on Land” (2004)
LITTLE BANG THEORY: “Elementary” (2007)
In the early days, the musicians from Only a Mother participated in number of formations à géometrie variable. Plug Uglies, Major Dents and Sublime Wedge were the most important of these, but unfortunately cassette recordings and samplers remain the only documents:
SUBLIME WEDGE: “Sublime Wedge” (1987)
SQUIDBELLY PHLEGMFOOT & the PLUG UGLIES: “Mass Murder 101” (1989)
Only a Mother can also be found on “Studio Animals” and “Bad Alchemy Nr.11”. Frank Pahl’s compositions appeared on “Passed Normal, vol.5”, “Haikus urbains”, and “Musique du jouet”.