Monk Turner: LA Song Writer and Concept Album Creator

by Robert Nagle on 6/6/2011

in Audio,interview,music

(See also: the Interview with Monk Turner, his official website and musical blog. All songs are free to download and a playlist of most of the songs mentioned in this essay follows at the bottom).

Suppose you were a songwriter and someone asked you to write this song:

I have a serious medical condition and only have minutes to live. However, could you please write a song about a clown riding a unicycle powered exclusively by hate?  He’d probably have a fish down his or her pants and should be assaulting people with Seltzer or pies.  The clown also needs to go on a retard adventure in which he finds something of importance … a sock — a missing TV remote, God, etc.  I know only you could craft such a masterpiece…. (for the Song  “Clown”).

Could you write such a song? What about this kind of song:

I’ve been thinking lately about macaroni and cheese from  a box.  It’s a silly thing  really and pitted against most  laws of nature even the lovely organic  white cheddar cheese kind with shells. But I miss it. It doesn’t exist in Ireland — not even the neon tangerine-colored Kraft kind. I thought you might oblige me  and write a song about a girl who misses mac and cheese and   the length she is willing to go for it. You might resort to violence, but please avoid reference to white chocolate and Nicolas Cage (as both are heinous).  I miss my Wilco double album, so if you could write in the style of Wilco under the influence of Nina Simone…  (for the song “Macaroni”).

Impossible, you say?   L.A. songwriter and concept album creator Monk Turner enjoys such challenges. He   wanted to make an album called Taking Requests (2007) and asked various people to suggest ideas for songs.  Then he wrote them.  It’s one of those madcap challenges that only a lunatic could accept;  the results are  inventive and fun. One  DJ suggested that Monk write a song about “his nuts,”  so Monk wrote a song called Nuts – the legume kind.596173335-1

I don’t regard  Taking Requests as the most notable of Monk Turner’s concept albums (Emergency and Love Story are much more interesting and important). But Taking Requests  show  the range of Turner’s  gifts and the adaptability of his muse to different musical styles.  Not all of the songs are brilliant, but some are (Clown is written in a swaying mock-melodramatic fashion, and Macaroni is a brilliant  joke song written in a plaintive tone).  Purely from a creative point of view, it is fascinating  to see how Turner incorporates parts of the request into the song and which musical style he uses.     Some use jazzy styles and  Overheard in NY turns a series of randomly-heard phrases from subway rides (“Those shorts are chronic”  “This isn’t my stuff,” “ That’s it — tomorrow, you’re moving to Egypt” “I can’t get the taste of rubber out my mouth”)  into a electronic sound poem. The result is not only funny and hypnotizing, but the chugging style seems reminiscent of the ambient creaks of transit machinery. (I am typing this on a Houston bus and I can attest that mass transit provides an interesting jukebox of hums and rhythms and creaks).

Monk Turner has been creating these kinds of  concept albums under creative commons licenses for the last decade now.Despite his unerring ability to write  catchy Devo-esque songs like Take Your Vitamin and Company Toad, at about 2006  Turner began to emphasize albums over songs.  He dubbed himself “Galactic Defender of the Concept Album.’ new-amer2His New American Songbook (2006) has a mix of messages and styles ranging from the traditional folk song (I was Born an American) to political fable (Young Politician Who was going to make a change) to upbeat post-consumerism (We’re Going to Take Back America).  A little less 1984, A little more 1964 is a fascinating mélange which is really  a  homage to the sixties both philosophically and stylistically, with reggae beat, electronic sampling and lots of  psychedelic effects (reminiscent of  Overheard in New York).  The lyrics explicitly use the language of protest (revolution, demonstrate, motivate), but in fact the words remain  subordinate to the   bopping rhythm, and almost sounds muted  (a kind of acknowledgement of  how distant the 60s spirit feels to us today).    Shh the American Dream is Sleeping is a hazy mock-lullaby to a country dazed by its ideals.  All American Hippie Girl is a delightful satirical song that tells the story of a boy in love with a “hippie girl” who is talking about political causes but never gives him attention.

She invited me to a protest, and I said, I’d rather not go.
She said, “You’re just a boy who should be saving the world
And don’t be so concerned with this hippie girl.”
So I stood up and told her,
“Why can’t you see that world peace begins with ME?”

Besides being  clever and hummable, this song  comes with  trademark kazoo choruses, slow moments, simple guitar accompaniment plus subtle musical sampling to punctuate the song.   Overall, the album has great ambitions; one has to welcome the audacity  of  trying to write an album about a thing called “America” in an age of  500 cable channels, political polarizations, and cocooned suburban consciousness. Back in the days of Woody Guthrie, I think everyone knew what  America was.  Now…I am not so sure.

In 2008 Monk Turner released two more albums Calendar and Love Story.  Calendar is  a grab bag of 12 songs inspired loosely by each month of the year.  Sometimes the link is tenuous; the  August song Agustus is more about the Roman emperor than the month while  the fun and joyous  “March in March”  is more about marching than the eponymous month. On the other hand,  two of the more successful songs, Halloween Night and Turkey Time follow the assignment more literally. Turkey Time is a rapid funk rock celebration of the holiday a la Lenny Kravitz; Halloween Night has the campy spookiness of a haunted house, replete with sound effects and dramatic flourishes.  Imagine stripping out the vocals from Halloween Night, and you’ll find that the  instrumental part  still has a magical, sparkling  quality which embodies the adolescent Halloween spirit.

The Love Story album (2008) presents 10 songs on the nature of love with a structure roughly parallel to a series of 10 Zen poems on self-discovery  called   10 bulls. It is a remarkable album and a radical departure for Turner.  It features amazing performances by the  Christian soul/rap group   God’s Will, able tenor sax  by Chad Bloom and an ensemble of other people who provide vocals, guitar and other instruments. Each song on the album are  pop-song short and have nice memorable melodies, a hopeful attitude towards love  and a soulful urban sound.  Raise the White Flag (Surrender) is a gentle reminder that the way to win the heart of the beloved is surrender.What makes this song so winning is not only the message, but the amazing soulful vocal riffs by gospel singer Cherdale “Sip” Smith (here’s another song featuring his voice with R.P.M). Easy on the Eyes is a grooving almost soulful duet  with a simple message.  All the Time is a vintage 50s era doowop duet  ballad with a simple innocent skipping beat. Get Up, Do Your Thing is a witty rap conversation about romance; it has attitude  and lots of saxophone riffs to keep it fun.  Game is an edgy lament with a strong backbeat about modern romance;  through voicemail samples, it reveals the little lies people tell while dating.  Actually though,  this is really the only somber song in the bunch; the rest are full of hope and even joyful. If  she gives you her heart offers gentle advice (with a slow jazzy beat)  on how to treat your women

If she gives you her heart
don’t let it go
keep her close but take it slow
if she gives you her love
treat it like wine
it will keep you high
all the time

All the songs on Love Story are great and provide unexpected pleasures. This definitely ranks as my favorite album of the bunch.

To be honest, the Coordinates album  (2010) didn’t initially grab me, but over time I’ve grown to like it (parts at least). All 11 songs are about an urban  location  (the hair salon, freeway parking lot, Michael Jackson’s grave, the club, etc.) and some songs  tell a story; the rock ballad,  Dive Bar off Main Street is a kind of “urban Eleanor Rigby,”  (but with an  electric guitar).  The album  has a slower downtempo jazzy sound with lots of Ooh’s and Ahhs and other doo-woppy stuff. I like to call it more lackadaisical and smoother than his usual fare.  Unlike Turner’s other albums, it doesn’t have an agenda and isn’t shouting crazy jokes.  Fortunately the multiple singers on the tracks provide a lot of harmony and variety and soul; the wistful Hair Salon could easily have been sung by Beyonce – though Lauren Rasmussen and male singer Chris Warrior do it admirably.  The duet also sings with fake enthusiasm in New Downtown about the city’s improvements:

Mom, Dad you said you left the city to get away —
too much crime and urban decay
well, we took it back
locked up all those people hooked on crack
’cause this town belongs to us.
We evicted all the welfare moms
Got rid of all the bums
gutted all the buildings
gotta make room for
New Downtown…that’s where I want to be…

from the song New Downtown in Coordinates.

Perhaps  the most interesting about the album are the musical arrangements. The reverberating effects in  the  slow and eerie Trapped in My Head are something you’d find in the next David Lynch movie. First and Central has some radical Nu Jazz saxophone improvisations   by Chad Bloom. The slow ballad Rooftop Balcony compliments Rasmussen’s lovely voice.  Even  Michael Jackson’s grave has the campy theatrical feel of 1980s pop – as fitting a tribute as any to the pop star.

The 2011 album Emergency Songs is the latest and greatest; it’s beautifully polished and unlike Love Songs – where a lot of songs can stand out on their own — you really have to listen to the whole album from start to finish to appreciate the album as a whole.  Turner says that Alanna Lin cowrote all the songs on the album; as a  vocalist,    Lin  has a slow, understated way of singing even in the fast jazzy numbers;   but her voice has enough  range to handle the agitated pace of a rock song like Hold On or Where’s My Horse,  the cheerful irony of  After Disaster, the jazzy hipness of Trust is Just a Word and the solemnness of  O Say Can You See the Future.  For several of the songs (Letter to Los Angeleans and Lover Won’t You Hold Me) the musical arrangement is so minimal that it almost feels like Lin is singing a capella (though the  gentle guitar  strums  in Lover Won’t You Hold Me provide a tenderness befitting  the song’s subject).   Musically, there’s a lot of interesting things going on in this album – pauses,  sound effects, abrupt transitions,  jazzy piano and sax,  crescendos, choruses and a variety of musical styles – even a dollop of  country rock.

The songs in Emergency Songs definitely flow easily and naturally into one another, and by the last song, I definitely feel that I have completed   an incredible musical journey.  Turner adds labels  to the song titles (BEFORE, DURING, HOLD ON)   to suggest a direction; each song provides a kind of personal snapshot of how people respond to a crisis, how it tears them apart and brings them together, how it awakens  fears and longings, how it rescues some  and leaves others stranded and helpless.   The “emergency” in these songs is presumably an earthquake, but I think it could as easily have been  a hurricane, a tornado, a blackout or even a civil war. The real subject seems to be  complacency towards life and the all-too-human  assumption that our lives are less fluid than they really are.  In After Disaster, she sings:

after disaster you changed your name
or changed your  mind.
All the same.
after disaster you broke my heart
and never saw the pain.
After disaster everything changes
After disaster, it’s not the same.

There are comic interludes; Prisoner tells the story of a convicted murderer on his way to prison who manages to escape when the bus crashes after an earthquake.  But Prisoner is a slow almost plaintive song, as though the prisoner  is more shaken than elated at this strange twist of fate. All the songs are thought-provoking and ironic, especially O Say Can You See the Future (probably the most amazing track on the album) which meditates about life and  its desolations.    This otherworldly  song is slow and eerie and beautifully arranged; in the middle the song crashes into something (but what? that is the question);  by the end the flute gently picks the listener up and deposits him  in some safe and peaceful place. I can’t help but be struck at the title which combines the first line of the US National Anthem with  a question about fate and the possibility of annihilation.

So Monk Turner’s albums have progressed from songs about nuts and macaroni   to meditations about  life itself.  Ironically, the Emergency Album seems not only to be  the most fully realized of Monk Turner’s concept album, it also was the most collaborative;  in fact, as a creative commons masterpiece, it is likely to be weaved by others into future music fabrics.  In an allegedly meaningless world torn apart by all kinds of things, it is reassuring to know  that there is still  enough collective energy and enthusiasm to bring about such a profound and unsettling album.

Nov 8 2012 Update. Here’s my review of his latest album project Kaleidoscope.

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