Tag Archives: Dressed In Black

Ramblerin’ Gamblerin’ Man

It’s never a bad day to pimp Ben Vaughn.

Fourteen years ago this Friday, I felt the same way. Lots of people were going the indie route and recording in their home studio. Not many were doing it in their car. (Recording, I mean…I’m sure lots of people were “doing it” in a car. Some things never change.)

Here we go, from April Fools’ Day in 1997, and I was most certainly not pulling anyone’s leg. Still not. Get your Vaughn on.

If it sounds good in a car, why not record it in a car?” – Ben Vaughn, 1996

Probably the only people not shocked to hear that Ben Vaughn recorded his new CD inside his 1965 Rambler American (“the Fender Telecaster of cars“, says Ben) are his fans; they know that Ben is capable of just about anything. So what to do after less accessible side projects like Cubist Blues (recorded with Alex Chilton and Alan Vega) and the pairing with Kim Fowley? Vaughn uses his zaniest concept to date to create his best record since Dressed In Black.

Two songs are co-written with Bill Lloyd, and they’re both killer. The opening track “7 Days Without Love” rocks, complete with feet slapping on the car’s floorboard. “Boomerang” combines Vaughn’s megaphone-induced vocal with an instrumental punch straight out of the Sir Douglas Quintet. (I’d believe they were actually on the track but I know he couldn’t have fit them in the car). “Rock is Dead” is an example of Vaughn’s wit, an ode to the future when there’s “a blank space on your TV/where the music channel used to be” and “abandoned tour buses scattered across the hills“.

Outside of the sitar solo on “Levitation”, the stripped-down arrangements force Vaughn’s songs to be judged on their own merits. One listen to a simple melody like “Song For You” and those who are not Ben fans may be quickly converted. A Vaughn album is always a mix of surf, pop, country, rockabilly and anything else he can get his hands on. Rambler 65 is no different, with pop oddities like “Perpetual Motion Machine” (suggesting his work for TV’s “Third Rock From The Sun“) countered with bluesy wisps like “Beautiful Self Destruction”. An actual Rambler ad is even tossed in just to keep you honest.

Vaughn claims he was able to record the record in six afternoons because “everything was a first take because I just wanted to get the hell out of the car!” Cramming a small mixing board, effects pedals, a turntable, mikes and a reel-to-reel inside a car with the windows rolled up is about as intimate as you can get. And while recording in a car has other drawbacks besides leg room, Vaughn made the best of them. With airplanes flying overhead every so often, he finally gave up avoiding them and included one as the intro to “The Only Way To Fly”. Typical Vaughn, using whatever is necessary to deliver the goods, and it works.

And yes, there’s an engine solo

Ramblerin' Gamblerin' Man?

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Blast From The Past: Ben Vaughn

Let's see Ted Danson try and pull this off!

Let's see Ted Danson try and pull this off!

I first encountered Ben Vaughn when I went to see Marshall Crenshaw perform at a small college; Ben was the unannounced opening act who was the sacrificial lamb to a group of stoners impatient to hear the headliner. I must admit that I was not open-minded either; Vaughn was far from dynamic given the circumstances and the ambiance of a gymnasium certainly didn’t help. But right near the end of his half-hour set he pulled out “I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)”, a song Crenshaw would soon cover himself. I knew from that moment I needed to follow this guy. (This thought was reinforced in spades years later when he recorded an album using the interior of a 1965 Rambler as his studio)

By the time Dressed In Black came out, Vaughn was respected enough to call upon the services of guests like John Hiatt, Alex Chilton, Peter Holsapple and Foster & Lloyd to join him in the studio. The result was probably his most accessible pop album, with takes on punk (“Cashier Girl”), rockabilly (“Growin’ A Beard”), commercial pop (“Big Drum Sound”), retro/surf (“Don’t Say You Don’t Wanna”) and even pop music tragedy through Neil Young flavored Americana (“Poor Jimmy Gordon”). The songwriting is clever; the performances note perfect.

Video for Cashier Girl

Songs like “Words Can’t Say What I Want To Say” and  “The Man Who Has Everything” are as effervescent and accessible today as they were in 1990, and the brooding “Too Sensitive For This World” should be on many artists’ short lists of songs to cover. There’s really not a weak track on the record; in the days of auto-reverse cassette decks I would often let this ride two and three times in a row without regret.

He’s found great success as a producer – That 70s Show and Third Rock From The Sun feature his music – and his musical bandwidth continues to grow. But Dressed In Black remains not only my favorite Vaughn album, but also one of my favorite albums, period. If you do not own this record I can not recommend it more highly.

I’m now off to pay closer attention to his recent Vaughn Sings Vaughn series; if he’s re-recording his catalogue with a new band, I’m willing to listen.

Ben’s website

Ben Vaughn on MySpace

More info at Wikipedia.

Dressed In Black for a song

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