Undoubtedly the rockingest singer/songwriter ever to exercise his muse on ukulele, San Francisco (then Los Angeles’) Carmaig de Forest emerges on his debut album (produced with creative electric ferocity by Alex Chilton) as a strong, independent voice with plenty on his mind. Following in the tradition of John Hiatt and Billy Bragg, de Forest is a brilliant folk-based tunesmith who synthesizes rock and other influences into a characteristically wry style that owes something to both Jonathan Richman and the Violent Femmes. (Not coincidentally, de Forest has toured with two of the three Femmes.) Chilton surrounds his (Lou) Reedy singing and polite ukework with a simple, effective band that deftly realizes such sharp-tongued originals as “Big Business,” “Hey Judas” and “Crack’s No Worse Than the Fascist Threat” at assorted energy levels. I Shall Be Released exudes confidence, righteous political anger and enormous originality.
The French live EP was recorded at a pair of October 1987 San Francisco gigs with a bassist, drummer and guitarist. The material includes two tracks from the album, a thrilling cover of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and three previously unwaxed tunes, one of them quite good.
Fans may be frustrated that Carmaig leaves his little four-stringer home for all but one of the songs on Death Groove Love Party, a rollicking collection recorded under various circumstances with an assortment of pals (including such visiting dignitaries as Gordon Gano, Will Rigby and Jim Sclavunos) between 1988 and 1993. No matter. De Forest’s guitar playing is passable, and his electric folk/rock songs — funny, sardonic, rude, ribald — are unimpeded by the small instrumental disappointment. Singing in a wavery Lou Reed-like voice, he covers Bob Dylan’s “Million Dollar Bash” and makes a federal case out of fashion crimes in “The Ponytail Song” (while wallowing in his own sartorial hypocrisy). He wonders “Why can’t your husband be a flaming asshole…then I could steal you away from him” (in the covetous “So Happy Together”) and faces a series of daily disasters with a shrug in “I Can’t Get Used to It.” Life as it should be.