Now a highly successful composer for television, Ben Vaughn was first a journeyman singer, songwriter and all-around rock’n’roll classicist. In 1978, he issued his first record — an independent EP — as a member of a Brinsley Schwarz-ish New Jersey band called the Gertz Mountain Budguzzlers.
Four years later, having outgrown Philadelphia’s punk scene, where he was both a player and a producer, Ben Vaughn made his first national mark as a songrwiter when the Morells covered “The Man Who Has Everything” on their 1982 album Shake and Push and Marshall Crenshaw cut the witty “I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)” on his ’85 LP Downtown. That was enough to get Vaughn a record deal of his own.
Vaughn’s own sleepy acoustic/country rendition of “I’m Sorry” is a letdown and, contrary to its title, The Many Moods showcases only two main strengths: clever lyrics and catchy tunes, the latter usually grounded in vintage rockabilly and ’60s pop song strategies. Vaughn pokes fun at the tyranny of trendies (“Wrong Haircut,” “I Dig Your Wig”) and defines down-to-earth suburbanism (“Lookin’ for a 7-11,” “M-M-Motor Vehicle”) with an implicit jab at Bruce Springsteen’s poetic bombast. The Combo (the now-deceased Aldo Jones, later of Go to Blazes, on bass, future solo artist Lonesome Bob on drums and Gus Cordovox on accordion) provides raucous support for Vaughn’s unstylized singing and guitar.
Beautiful Thing has a fresh, easygoing feel, but too much restraint can be dangerous: halfway through the first side, this mild record threatens to slide right off the turntable. (Flat-sounding production, sorely deficient in highs and lows, exaggerates that impression.) The LP’s other shortcomings are its lack of funny titles (“Jerry Lewis in France” is as good as it gets), the paucity of overtly clever lyrics (two exceptions being “Shingaling with Me” and “Big House with a Yard”) and a decided shortage of raveups (a crazed polka called “Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie” and the peppy guitar instrumental “Desert Boots” notwithstanding).
Opting for the Combo-free life, Vaughn nonetheless made Blows Your Mind with instrumental and vocal contributions from his former bandmates. Where the last record’s lack of energy was a drag, this one has the creative spine and sprightly production to low-key its way into the pop pleasuredome, somewhere between Jonathan Richman and Yo La Tengo. The relaxed love songs (like “She’s Your Problem Now”) are delightful; the vintage- styled rockers (“Darlene,” the gentle instrumental “El Rambler Dorado”) are lively without getting out of hand. (The CD adds three songs.)
Vaughn undertook a four-date tour of East Germany — reportedly backed by the group Pankow, although that’s hard to envision — in December 1989 before releasing the star-studded Dressed in Black, whose cover, for reasons unknown, pictures Vaughn in blackface. The strongly played rock record features John Hiatt, Marshall Crenshaw, Alex Chilton, Peter Holsapple and Gordon Gano (playing violin on a slow acoustic ballad called “New Wave Dancing”). Although he runs out of wit too early to keep the record afloat, Vaughn does manage to rip through the cool title track and a great version of his old “Man Who Has Everything.” After that, it’s down to a Velvet Underground quote at the beginning of “Cashier Girl” (an old idea that didn’t merit a return visit) and a fairly amusing ode to facial hair (“Growin’ a Beard”).
Given the inconsistency of his individual records, Mood Swings is the best sample of Vaughn’s pithy, playful retro-vision. The 21-track collection includes many of the aforementioned songs; the mix of Combo tracks, solo waxings and the 1984 single “My First Band” (literally recorded in Aldo Jones’ parents’ basement) captures Vaughn’s genuine love of rock’n’roll history, the way he adroitly revitalizes the old ways with contemporary enthusiasm and the genial, anthemic quality of his finest writing. This best-of is truly Vaughn’s best record.
Mono U-S-A is Vaughn’s variation on the Basement Tapes idea crossed with David Bowie’s Pin-Ups: home-made monaural tapes of obscure covers reflecting Vaughn’s deep roots in country, blues and rockabilly. For added authenticity, he cut the album’s eighteen songs in 7-track (an 8-track machine with one track on the fritz). The whole notion is entirely too precious, and the one-man band act doesn’t allow for dynamic instrumental interplay (the version of the Ventures’ “Exploration in Fear” is soporific, not scary). But there is an intimate charm to these playful, unabashedly nostalgic performances (“Just a Little Bit of You” is Charlie Rich by way of the Sir Douglas Quintet) and admirable nerve in the way Vaughn tackles heavy complaints like Fred Neil’s “Blues on the Ceiling” and Willie Nelson’s “Suffer in Silence” all by his lonesome.
Rambler 65 is another production-concept project: Vaughn recorded the entire thing on 8-track in his car. With very audible nods to Nick Lowe, simple rock songs like “7 Days Without Love,” “Perpetual Motion Machine” and “Heavy Machinery” prove that music can effectively be made, not just enjoyed, in the front seat of a jalopy, but the album isn’t spectacular on its own merits. The use of a drum machine and cheap synthesizers in all their dinky splendor points the sound in some odd directions, and “Rock Is Dead” is a bit too corny for its own good, but Rambler 65 does have its seconds of pleasure. The American model of the CD is resequenced and remastered.
Even more minimalist in concept and tone, Instrumental Stylings does without words and — in many cases — arresting melodies. As a backing-track sketchbook covering everything from zydeco and spaghetti western twang to swinging-bachelor mush and Stax-cum- Creedence blues grooves, the album is okay aural wallpaper. But there is nothing here to make you whistle while you work — and that includes the bonus vocal track, a dull, heavy-rock pastiche called “Stretch Limo” featuring the robotic drone of Dean Ween.
The paucity of new original songs on recent Vaughn records may be due to his increased workload — and success — as a producer and a TV score star. In the early ’90s, he worked on superb comeback records by rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers and the late R&B great Arthur Alexander, then Ween’s Nashville album. Kings of Saturday Night, a collaboration with LA gadfly Kim Fowley, isn’t in that league by a country mile. Recorded by long-distance, the album consists of instrumental tracks recorded by Vaughn and then overdubbed with Fowley’s ghoulish vocals and superficial lyrics. The project must have looked like a fun idea on paper. That’s where it should have stayed.