Here's a secret. You know all those bands that have released "unplugged" albums in the past 15 years or so? They all plugged in.
The Asylum Street Spankers perform unplugged -- really. They play "music the way God intended it, with no demon electricity."
But before you go thinking they're some sensitive folkie group, think again. Think of a 1920s jazz diva with 21st-century sensibilities. Think of a vaudeville act with gospel and heavy metal tendencies. Think of a band with the same prurient interests as blink-182, only with musical talent and creativity. Think of "inspired lunatic brilliance" -- as lead singer, mandolin and musical saw player Christina Marrs likes to refer to the band's music.
The Spankers started in Austin, Texas, over eight years ago. Blues singer, guitarist and harp player Guy Forsyth was busking in front of a restaurant when waitress/single-mom Marrs came out to sing with him. Forsyth was blown away by her Bessie Smith-like capabilities. Marrs introduced Forsyth to pig-tailed poet lariat Wammo, then in a loud band called W.O.R.M. Over a late night of drinking and playing old songs, they decided to start a band -- one in which they could have fun and showcase talent in an acoustic setting. The irreverent mix of old-time country, swing, rock and general revelry -- not to mention the washboards, kazoos, stand-up bass and lack of amplification -- attracted many of the best players in their musically saturated hometown.
A high turnover rate has been both a problem and a benefit for the Spankers. During its six-CD (plus two EPs of dirty songs) career, the band has seen more than 35 members. The only original members left are Wammo, Marrs and jazz clarinetist Stanley Smith. (Forsyth, who records and tours with his Guy Forsyth Band, is now only a "studio Spanker.")
Through it all, the Spankers have continued to put out quality music, as evidenced by their latest release, My Favorite Record, a theme album of sorts. The band has released theme albums before: Spanker Madness is their tribute to drugs, and A Christmas Spanking needs no explanation. On My Favorite Record, the theme is subtler. "It's about how much we love vinyl," explains Wammo. "We all have 78 collections, and walls and walls of vinyl."
The album begins with the sound of a needle coming down on a record; you can hear the record turned to side two, which ends with the title track, a jazzy number that contains elements of traditional country and heavy metal. (The needle gets stuck at the end of the song.)
While the Spankers first began by reworking many old jazz and blues songs, here they've come full circle and paid homage to them with their own timeless tunes. The album is full of sexy, smart, surprising and hilarious tunes. But Wammo doesn't expect much in the form of radio airplay.
"Commercial radio in America sucks," he says. "I don't think we're not radio-friendly; we just don't do payola. We don't have a major label shoving us down radio's throat. It's hard for an independent."
The group's label, Spanks-A-Lot Records, is as independent as they come. "Me, Christine and Jon [manager Jon Riedie] -- that's the label," says Wammo. "I've been screwed by majors and minors [Wammo's first solo album, Fat-Headed Stranger, was released on Mercury]. Now, we're in charge. We're actually making money off our records now. We've gotta take care of everything. Everything is our responsibility. But God bless Jon Riedie. He does it all."
And that gives the band time to do what it does best: play music. The Spankers may be the only band that can scat their way through the "Sesame Street" classic "Ma Nah Ma Nah," and follow it with the white-trash anthem, "If You Love Me (You'll Sleep on the Wet Spot)."
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