Best of 2013: Brad San Martin


Brad San Martin is a Boston-based musician, most well known in indiepop circles as a member of One Happy Island. Brad also released an EP on February as Secret Charisma. He admits that he doesn’t listen to much new music these days, yet he does find himself digging through crates of old LPs at record stores and buying whatever he thinks looks promising. Brad created a list of his favorite record store finds of 2013.

Ten Best Flea Market or Yard Sale Finds of 2013

The older I get, the less desire I have to keep up with the current Pitchfork graduated class and the more time I want to spend flipping through discarded LPs in junk shops, flea markets, yard sales and the like. Risk is minimal ($2-4 tops), reward is maximal. And, as is often the case, the journey becomes the destination … here are a few cherished records unearthed during this past year’s travels – in no particular order.

cottonpickersThe Cotton Pickers
(Artisan Sound Recorders, 1969)

Terrifying. Not quite sure what this is, but I think it’s a rather large collegiate folk group from the now-nonexistent Sullins College in Virginia. They sing loud and proud, accompanying themselves on ukuleles, bongos, washboards, banjos, spoons, and other household ephemera. Sounds wholesome enough, but add in a ton of reverb, beats of metronomic simplicity, and mostly unison non-harmony, and the result is rather Manson Family-esque. I think their take on the risqué old novelty “The Virgin Sturgeon” is supposed to be sexy in a wink-wink kinda way, but it just sounds like a gaggle of home-schooled psychopaths trying to entice weary longshoremen.

beegeesBee Gees
(Atco, 1969)

Does a grown man need three copies of the Bee Gees’ harmony pop masterpiece Odessa? No. A grown man needs two copies: Rhino’s massive stereo/mono/outtakes boxed set and one of these — an original pressing in comforting bright red velvet. Unearthed in the loft of a New Hampshire junk shop, it’s in near-perfect shape, and, more importantly, boasts some tremendously great songs. Probably not the best of the Bee Gees’ early orchestral period, but certainly worth a buck or two…

stankyStanky and the Coalminers
Polka’s Good to the Last Drop
(Stan-Dotm 1978)

Jimmy Sturr, the multi-Grammy-winning polka impresario and bandleader, once told me (and everyone else – the man speaks in soundbites) that polka is an “underground music,” and damn, he’s right. It’s kind of a punk-rock genre: DIY records, non-traditional venues (like the outdoor pavilion at Palaski Park, which is where we got the title for the second One Happy Island EP), and a die-hard fan base that refuses to cave to mainstream tastes. One could make a very entertaining book of small-press/self-released polka LPs. Maybe there already is one.

I couldn’t resist the title, the band name, the artwork, everything. Turns out Stanky (aka singing accordionist John Stankovic) is something of a legend, and is now celebrating over 65 years in the business. The music is no frills, propulsive, and fun. He utilizes fiddle as a front-line instrument, which folks say was unusual in polka bands. Amazing that no hipster types have tried to give this genre an alt-country-style makeover. Good. It’s fine the way it is.

riniRini and Meredith Willson
… and then I wrote The Music Man
(Capitol, 1958ish)

So, I have a weakness for hearing golden-era Broadway composers and lyricists (who are rarely trained vocalists) sing their own compositions (which are written for trained vocalists). Hearing the complex poetry of the Great American Songbook rendered with an almost casually knowing, offhand avuncular charm is totally fascinating – and often shines a new light on the tune at hand.

That said, The Music Man isn’t one of my favorites…but this disk, again, uncovered in New Hampshire, is a trip. Basically the composer and his opera-aspiring wife (with an unplaceable accent) recount the plot of the musical, and render its songs (with just Willson’s piano as accompaniment) at a manic, breakneck pace. Clearly they’re trying to fit it all on two sides of an LP. It’s like they are pitching the musical right in your living room. Put it on, pretend you’re a big Broadway producer, and refuse to put on their show.

squirrelyShirley, Squirrely & Melvin
(Excelsior, 1981)

I was familiar with Shirley & Squirrely, and was wondering what the addition of Melvin would bring to the mix.

After doing absolutely no research, I’ve concluded that the Chipmunks (of the Alvin/Simon/Theodore persuasion) had three eras of popularity: Their original ’50s heyday, their ’80s Saturday-morning resurgence, and the current David Cross-abetted CGI movie thing. This little wonder is an attempt to cash in on that second phase, with lots of helium-voiced covers (“Soul Man,” “Get Back,” “Mercedes Benz,” even Jackson’ Browne’s “Boulevard” for Christ’s sake!) and retch-inducing originals such as “I Like Reggae, Too.” The title promises awful things, and the song delivers. The version of “The Gambler,” delivered absolutely straight as a duet with guest vocalist Denny Richards, is spine-spasm hilarious. Hear it for yourself here:

changesDavid Robert Jones
(Grace, 1983)

Ah, the most elusive of flea market/yard sale treasures: An actual good record that is exceedingly rare. This bootleg LP, augmented by the Spirograph-inspired doodles of a previous owner’s child (I assume), gathers up a bunch of choice David Bowie outtakes – many of which were eventually officially released on the expanded Rykodisc CD editions of Bowie’s classic catalog. It’s cleverly disguised as an official release (the label graphic is a play on RCA), in line with RCA’s Changes series of Bowie compilations. This was actually at the SAME flea market for several weeks in a row, giving this digger the hopeful impression that no one flips through LPs anymore. Otherwise it would have been gone.

Hold Your Fire
(Vertigo, 1971)

I’d read about these guys for ages in various zines (like the fantastic Ugly Things), and heard guitar geeks whisper Olly Halsall’s name in hushed reverence…but I never quite got it, based on the little that I heard. But this…despite it’s atrocious cover (“Let’s just put our faces in an alien’s head, ok?”), is a fascinating spin on late-60s/early-70s blues-rock. I’m not sure if I like it, but Halsall’s guitar playing is remarkable: fleeter, more fluid, faster, and jazzier than anyone else on the scene at the time. He blows through notes – clearly articulated, mind you – with the speed of a bop sax player. It doesn’t always fit the music, but here is definitely a unique voice that never really got his due…although, yes, he did sing and play on The Rutles LP.

hulabluesHula Blues
(Rounder, 1971)

You wouldn’t know it by their current release schedule, but Rounder Records (now absorbed into the vast Concord Music Group family of labels) was once the go-to outlet for eccentric, expertly annotated releases spanning a variety of roots music genres. This examination of the intersection of pop music and Hawaiian instrumentation, which thrived in the ’30s and ’40s, is a delight, right down to the adorably pre-computer artwork. There’s a CD of this stuff, but what fun is that?

motorheadchuckChuck Higgins
Motor Head Chuck
(Rollin’ Rock, 1974)

Rollin’ Rock was a west coast label that seemed to be Italian-born “Rockin'” Ronnie Weiser’s one-man campaign to return record making to the ramshackle energy and minimalist production values of early rockabilly and R&B. This title, like many a Rollin’ Rock platter, sports type-written sleeve notes and DIY cut’n’paste graphics.

The idea here is certainly intriguing: Take an aging, honking’ R&B sax player and vocalist (who had some regional hits long before these sessions) and have him sing and blow over a program of new and old tunes, accompanied by…one guy: Rockabilly revivalist Ray Campi, who provides upright bass, guitar, steel, and beats out the rhythm on a trash can lid. A totally beguiling mix of two distinct old school genres, made all the more urgent and otherworldly by the one-man-band overdubbed backing.

rayparkerRay Parker Jr.
(Arista, 1984)

Fifty cents bought me this limited edition UK-pressing of Ray Parker Jr.’s mega-hit single. There just aren’t enough pop-up record sleeves. Also, “The Blockbusting Theme from the Ghostbusting Movie” is just a terrible, terrible slogan.


Opening photo by Amber Duntley. Album photos by Brad.

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