The late, great singer-songwriter Norma Tanega is overdue for fame.
The late, great singer-songwriter Norma Tanega is overdue for fame. Ralph Weiss

Norma Tanega, “Elephants Angels and Roses” (Anthology)

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The late Norma Tanega's not a household name... yet. But recent events are conspiring to remedy that injustice. Before the Californian singer/songwriter/guitarist passed away at age 80 in 2019, she saw her 1966 debut LP Walkin' My Cat Named Dog get reissued to acclaim, witnessed the stark, riveting folk tune “You're Dead” serve as the theme song to the TV show What We Do in the Shadows, and earned royalties from being covered by indie titans Yo La Tengo, They Might Be Giants, and Osees. Anthology Recordings' new 28-track archival compendium, I'm the Sky: Studio and Demo Recordings, 1964-1971 (out May 6) and the visual biography, Try to Tell a Fish About Water (out April 26), should further raise Tanega's profile. Better late than never.

I'm the Sky contains selections from Walkin' and 1971's I Don't Think It Will Hurt If You Smile, two tracks from the unreleased 1969 album Snow Cycles, and unheard demos found in her Claremont, CA, home that feature just Tanega on guitar. She used her husky, intimate voice to deliver quirky, relatable songs about the vagaries of love, friendship, and pets. Orchestral-pop and Motown elements, as well as unusual time signatures, seeped into her melodically rich and catchy compositions, distinguishing Tanega's work from many of her contemporaries'.

Although she had a hit 56 years ago with “Walkin' My Cat Named Dog” and has enjoyed the aforementioned resurgence of interest, Tanega still isn't nearly as well-known as artists of her ilk such as Bobby Gentry, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Dusty Springfield (Tanega wrote songs for the latter and was her romantic partner for years during the '60s and '70s.) Perhaps being a lesbian of Filipino and Panamanian descent hindered her progress in the music industry.

Verging on the art-rock floweriness of Love's Forever Changes and the Moody Blues' late-'60s work, “Elephants Angels and Roses” captures Tanega's knack for unconventional melodies and song structures, while also hinting at the work of maverick musical chameleon Arthur Russell, of all people. The song casts a happy spell, but in such a distinctive way, it makes you reassess the nature of contentment, even as the tempo changes mirror the heart's accelerated fluttering when love blooms. Lines such as “Every time I smile it's a fragment of you and me... Every song I sing is a fragment of you and me” are simply lovely sentiments that are all the more charming when heard in Tanega's confidential caress of a voice.


Jon Spencer & the HITmakers, “Worm Town” (In the Red)

Yes, the former leader of scuzz-rock paragons Pussy Galore, the Blues Explosion, Boss Hog, and the Honeymoon Killers is slightly less ornery and bombastic than he was in his prime (the late '80s and '90s). Considering how deeply in the red Jon Spencer was during those days, though, one can't blame him for mellowing ever so minutely. But don't worry—on the new Spencer Gets It Lit album, Jon still has enough self-esteem to fill the Taj Mahal and he can still grunt like an Ivy League James Brown when he wants to... and he wants to a lot.

If the tempos on Lit are a bit less hectic and the howls downshifted to tempered growls and confidential drawls than during the man's peak era, the guitars still fuzz and sting and M. Sord's beats punch with a vengeance. (Ex-Pussy Galore sticksman Bob Bert is credited with “trash.”) Additionally, the songs are laced with all sorts of strange electronic intrusions, thanks to synths manipulated by Quasi's Sam Coomes; these elements bring exciting contrasts with the twisted, rootsy rock and blues that are Spencer's bread and butter. The 57-year-old lifer calls Lit “the most uncompromising album I've ever made,” but perhaps he forgot about Pussy Galore's Right Now! It's okay; it can happen after 37 years of building a discography.

“Worm Town” is Lit's funkiest cut and bears some familiar sudden dynamic shifts familiar to die-hard Spencer fans. The track finds our protagonist often sounding like a combo of late-career Lou Reed and Johnny Cash, his voice a world-weary deadpan as he contemplates mortality. Coomes's extended, wigged-out Moog solo after Spencer intones, “Yeah, my mom she always made the best... rhubarb pie,” really launches the song into the stratosphere, a realm where the earthy Spencer rarely has ventured. Great to see JS going out of his comfort zone this late in the game.

Jon Spencer & the HITmakers play Madame Lou's on Sunday April 24, with Quasi opening.