Mark Kramer stopped using his first name long before Jerry Seinfeld’s not altogether dissimilar, if less musical, neighbor became part of the cultural vernacular. Joining Eugene Chadbourne in the Chadbournes, he played bass and “cheap organ”; with the addition of drummer David Licht, that group became Shockabilly. A rapid, voluminous output resulted before the group splintered to an end in 1985; Kramer then spent six months playing bass for the Butthole Surfers. After returning from a debauched European tour with that band, he turned his attention to his studio, Noise New York (later relocated to become the larger and more remote Noise New Jersey), and label, Shimmy-Disc, which he quickly filled with an endless stream of his productions for others — as well as the output of his own ’80s bands, B.A.L.L. (which became Gumball upon his departure) and Bongwater (a duo with actress/performance artist Ann Magnuson that ended in an ugly legal battle).
Kramer’s first proper solo album came on the heels of the dissolution of both of those groups (in, respectively, ’90 and ’91). The Guilt Trip is a monumental feat. Recorded with Licht and guitarist Randolph Hudson III, the three-record set (also issued on two CDs) is structured with a complete understanding on the pacing of six sides of music. Sonically, Kramer layers on an array of hot-wired psychedelia — some of it grafted to simple pop song structures, some of it to grand instrumental overtures. Lyrically, it’s a highly personal work that throws love, devotion, forgiveness and atonement into the mix. Although Kramer announced the release as the first of three such tripleheaders attending a film project, what followed was The Secret of Comedy, a conventional-length single album. Although similar in sound, it’s ironically less focused than its enormous predecessor, a dark work laced with Kramer’s catchy songs and brimming with surprises. The Japanese Music for Crying compiles nineteen songs (recorded between ’85 and ’94) from Kramer’s solo and collaborative albums.
Carney-Hild-Kramer is a trio with Ralph Carney (Tin Huey, Tom Waits, etc.) and Daved Hild (the Girls); other players from inside and outside the Shimmy compound also contribute. The group seems to exalt in the process of composing in the studio-improvising, seeing what comes up and then building on it. Despite the high indulgence factor potential in such an enterprise, Carney and Kramer have the instrumental skills and Hild the cliché-free lyrics to make the effort pay off. The European CD of Happiness Finally Came to Them adds one song; the Black Power CD incorporates eleven of the first album’s eighteen cuts as a bonus.
Jad Fair came into contact with Kramer when the latter produced two Half Japanese albums. Guests on their joint effort include Penn Jillette (who duets with Jad on “Subterranean Homesick Blues”) and John Zorn, but it’s Jad’s lyrics of romance and hope and Kramer’s layered instrumental tracks that unify the diverse, sometimes experimental, set of short songs. They began work on a second album, The Sound of Music, but the project was shelved in 1992 and not released until 1998.
As producer, arranger, instrumentalist and label magnate, Kramer played an essential role in the career of King Missile (Dog Fly Religion); he subsequently made albums with both of that group’s original principals. Kramer provides an aural setting for John S. Hall’s drolly comic monologues on Real Men. Using his own compositions, samples and a barrage of sound effects, Kramer succeeds in upping the ironic ante of Hall’s surreal metaphysics without stepping into the cliché-ridden quagmire of poetic noodling. Officially teamed as a duo, Kramer and Dogbowl (Stephen Tunny) made Hot Day in Waco and Gunsmoke, the solidest musical offerings in the Dogbowl canon (which also numbers four solo albums). Either one is a perfect entry point into the singer/guitarist’s idiosyncratic but friendly songs.
The rotating lineup of Australian-born progresso Daevid Allen’s Gong included Kramer in the late ’70s; Who’s Afraid?, a far-ranging excursion from folk to psychedelia, features Allen’s lyrics and guitar playing, Kramer’s music and production and David Licht’s superb drumming.
Tracing Allen’s career back even further, to the late-’60s jazz/prog-rock Soft Machine (whose sound and approach may well be close to the center of Kramer’s sensibility), Kramer made a record with that band’s bassist, Hugh Hopper. A Remark Hugh Made is by turns forceful and dreamily atmospheric. Onetime Hopper bandmate Robert Wyatt makes a vocal cameo on “Free Will & Testament”; Gary Windo’s tenor saxophone playing is among the final recordings he made before his death in 1993. (The album credits cite its recording date as 1994, which is obviously incorrect. Many Shimmy-Disc releases bear copyright dates a year earlier than the actual release.)
Captain Howdy is Kramer’s band with Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller), a much more serious outing than Penn’s prior joke band, Bongos, Bass & Bob. Tattoo of Blood features Deborah Harry, guitarist Billy West (the voice of Ren & Stimpy, among many others), drummer Bill Bacon (replacing Licht, who left to play klezmer, as the Shimmy-Disc house drummer) and a title song written by Lou Reed. Kramer manages to find effective musical means to support, surround and propel Jillette’s limited singing voice; “Dino’s Head” is, in fact, a monologue set on a painstakingly sculpted musical bed. If that sounds like the Bongwater approach, it is, and in this case it’s also used as an opportunity for publicly continuing the ongoing battle over money being waged between Kramer and Ann Magnuson.
Egomaniacs is a trio with drummer Jamie Harley and singer/guitarist Kim Fahy (leader of the Mabuses, who have a Shimmy-Disc album of their own; the two Britons previously played together in the Assassins). The songs are largely Fahy’s, but Kramer’s swirling production and arrangement touches, as well as his always-inventive bass playing, are equally key to their propulsively hypnotic sound.