One of New York’s least glamorous and most under-publicized bands is also one of its most musically adventurous and rewarding. Although properly included on ROIR’s New York Scum Rock compilation, Fly Ashtray are not prickly post-punkers but friendly purveyors of a warped noodle fuzz. Formed at Fordham University in the Bronx by guitarist/singer/bassist John Beekman, guitarist Chris Thomas and bassist/guitarist Mike Anzalone, the band’s first release (a 1987 single, “The Day I Turned Into Jim Morrison”) was as a quintet with guitarist/keyboardist/bassist/singer James Kavoussi and drummer Eric Thomas, Chris’ younger brother.
Nothing Left to Spill is a compilation of early tracks that captures a British Invasion bent and the snazzy off-kilter maturation from Fall/Television-inspired rock to underground brain treasure. The songs range from giddy psychedelia to eclectic country; “To the People Who Fold Clothes, Thank You for Folding Clothes” typifies the band’s odd view of the universe. Around this time, Eric Thomas moved to Japan and was replaced by Glenn Luttman; Anzalone also exited the band, though continued playing with Kavoussi in Uncle Wiggly.
The 7-inch Extended Outlook contains one song each by Kavoussi, Beekman, Thomas and Luttman. In a lot of ways, this EP and the three-song single (containing “Soap,” “Bip” and “Feather”) that followed it in 1991 are prototypes for ’90s sensibilities, with plenty of sonic mayhem, nonsensical diagrams and immutably classic songs buried under piles of purposeful mis-mixing.
Signed to Shimmy-Disc, Clumps Takes a Ride is a catalytic mash of catchy guitar excursions. Like Fly Ashtray’s previous releases, Clumps is less a distinct dot on the band’s timeline than a well-conceived cluster of material from as far back as 1988. Anzalone’s “Ostrich Atmosphere” is a fanciful pop highlight. The band is a fountain of inspiration, pouring out strange dreams, like “Dolphin Brain” and “Anyway,” that seem musically inevitable. If not for Fly Ashtray, someone in Pavement or the Thinking Fellers would have eventually penned these tracks.
The 10-inch, eleven-song Let’s Have Some Crate blurs all boundaries, slipping tons of out-of-phase vocal and guitar tracks in to create a swampy swarm of sweet confusion. Where Fly Ashtray usually tucks its eccentricities into faithful song arrangements, the band pushes away from tradition on this one. The more demanding approach weighs on the band’s ability to deal with heavy issues without being direly serious, but it doesn’t scrape their adventurous brilliance.
Retreating from the vortex, Fly Ashtray made its most concise release yet, the Kramer-produced Tone Sensations of the Wonder-Men. Spilling sound everywhere in a bouncy Ashtray-groove, the eighteen-track album kicks off with the bossy “The Big 1-2-3-4,” and songs pile up in rapid succession from there. Exotic nuggets like “The Girl From the Chinese Restaurant” are insanely catchy on first listen, and complex enough to withstand the rigors of multiple plays. Kavoussi’s forlorn and wistful “Morale Polyp” burns time away with its languid lament “How do I/get out/of this…wish I/never.”
Phoaming Edison is a murky-psych nom-de-solo for Kavoussi, a musician-engineer who has recorded scads of New York indie albums. His first album of sonic gunk is low on structure but high on charming, confident and well-mannered mind-shifting sound experiments. With all the clanging arrhythmia and incidental sound, the Grady records are a peek into the gunky, confusing guts of Fly Ashtray’s extraordinary machine.