Out of time

Only days ago, the mysterious CD appeared on a colleague's desk here at the newspaper, buried beneath piles of publicists' releases and other kept detritus. No one knew how long it had been there, where it came from, what the hell it was. The cover, featuring a nattily clad monkey holding a lit cigarette, was intriguing; the band's name, M.C. Duncan's Dog and Pony Show, kind of funny. But the disc, titled Human Cannonball!, remained in its shrink-wrapped condom, unopened for lack of interest, for God knows how long--a week, most likely a year (this colleague upon whose desk this disc was uncovered is not, well, the tidy sort). It was just one more lo-fi, low-rent CD abandoned to the crapheap. So it goes around a place where Billy Squier and Meat Loaf best-ofs arrive in the mail every week, not to mention dozens of releases by homemade nobodies who think theirs is a sound worth writing about (nope, sorry). Every now and then, a little bit of paradise goes ignored.

So it went with this record, at least until the plastic was popped and the jewel case was opened up to reveal that this Dog and Pony Show was no animal farm. Indeed, the names listed in the credits were too familiar to ignore: Jon Cunningham, better known as Corn Mo, on vocals; Ian Bjornstadt of Dooms U.K. on vocals as well; Drew Phelps, long gone from Cafe Noir, on bass; and other prominent and lesser-known members of the Denton-Dallas-Farmers Branch rock-and-roll trifecta. Then there were the names of the producers: Matt Pence and Dave Willingham, two guys who lend their names only to quality product. A few of us looked at the roster and wondered aloud: What the hell is this damned thing?

The question became even more pressing when we listened to the record, this splendid, hypnotic, oddball melange of cabaret sounds and circus echoes: accordions and saxophones, harmonicas and trumpets, banjos and electric guitars, pianos and trombones, all manner of penny-whistle contraptions coming together till it sounded like homeboy Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks. But not quite. There was more dead-on jazz (the big-band-esque bop-swing of "The Bathosphere"), more melancholia ("Carolyn"), more whimsy (the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory sample on "The Last Cha-Cha," and indeed), and less sense to the whole proceedings. Hell, man--this was a record right up our alley, a made-in-Denton wet dream! So why was the contact number in...Missouri?

Turns out that's where 27-year-old Matthew "M.C." Duncan has lived ever since April 1997, or shortly after he completed work on Human Cannonball!. Duncan now makes his living as a substitute teacher, a part-time musician, and, appropriately, a circus performer. He's one of those guys you might see juggling some balls while keeping his balance on a unicycle--a real entertainer, ladies and gentlemen. Until last week, when I called and asked him about the record that bore his name, he had pretty much forgotten all about it. So, too, had the musicians who appear on it: Cunningham and Phelps say they've had their copies of Human Cannonball! for...well, they don't really know. And, well, gosh, no: They haven't opened them up either.

As Duncan tells it, the pressed-and-polished CD finally landed in his hands in November 1997, and he celebrated the moment with a release party at a friend's house. Just some beer, some pals--real low-key. Duncan also sent out a few copies of Human Cannonball! to a few local newspapers, looking for a little ink. He figured he'd get some good reviews, then try to find somebody to distribute the record. Never happened: Not one word was ever printed about the album, till now. And so one of the most ambitious, delightful records to come from these parts in some time disappears--unless it surfaces on somebody's messy desk.

"I haven't been very good about publicity," Duncan says from his St. Louis home. He is apparently more than just a good songwriter and accordion player, but also a master of the understatement. "When you work on a project for a long time, there's a feeling that it's done, and you don't want to think about it for a while. The last thing I was ready to do was hype the thing. I sent out copies to 20 people, and when they didn't call back, I didn't call them either, given that I'm a shy person."

Duncan's story is the same tale told by about a fifth of the population of Denton: He moved from Missouri in fall 1990 to study jazz at UNT, became disillusioned with the program, switched majors (to English), then hooked up with John Freeman's band of genius misfits in Dooms U.K., which sooner or later employs anyone in Denton who has an instrument and knows how to use it.

He signed on as the band's accordion player, wrote some songs, and stuck around long enough to appear on the Dooms' Greasy Listening, recorded over several years and finally released on CD in 1995. His one songwriting contribution to that album, a little something-something called "La Vache D'Utopie," would later appear on Human Cannonball! in a different form. Where the Dooms' version is fast and smarmy (in a very good way), the song that appears on Human Cannonball! is leisurely, almost lovely, sung through Jon Cunningham's frown instead of John Freeman's lounge-lizard sneer.

But in 1994, Duncan had decided to take a year abroad and landed in France, where he didn't play his instrument at all. This is despite Freeman's assertion that Duncan went to France "to roam the countryside and play accordion and wear a jewel-encrusted eye patch." Duncan returned a year later and rejoined the Dooms--or "bullied" his way back in, he says with a shrug. Eventually, he was replaced by Cunningham, though Duncan also appears on the Dooms' recently released Art Rock Explosion!, playing electric vibes.

"He's a very eccentric and talented man," Freeman says of Duncan. "He's all into that kind of cabaret-style, '20s music. He's into anything accordion-based. He's a die-hard accordion aficionado. He definitely belongs in another era. You get the feeling he isn't comfortable in the latter half of the 20th century, and I mean that in a good way."

Duncan had a brief stint in Tier-Na-Nog, an Irish band that also featured future Slobberbone bassist Brian Lane. But he wanted to play his own songs, material that reflected a St. Louis childhood spent listening to soundtracks to old musicals. After all, his mother had been a dancer in summer stock, and his father was, for a while, a drummer in a big band till he became a high school music director. Rodgers and Hammerstein was his speed, not Celtic breakdowns. Eventually, he and guitarist Chuck Voellinger formed the trio Full Windsor, which gave way to the gang-bang production that became Human Cannonball!, which features 11 musicians--all of whom recorded their parts at different times over a period of three months in early 1997. Hell, Duncan didn't even know some of the guys on the record, including Phelps, whom he had met through a mutual friend.

That Human Cannonball! sounds like a Little Jack album isn't coincidental: Duncan had toured with the Young Turks for a while, and Steve "Little Jack" Carter encouraged Duncan to record the album though the "band" had never performed live. But Carter put together a band, got some press--hell, even landed in Esquire. But not Duncan, who left Denton last year and went home to live with Mom and Dad in St. Louis. He doesn't even play in a band anymore, just spends some time goofing around every now and then with Centro-matic's Matt Pence, who also left these parts for St. Louis a while back.

The record's not completely dead. Duncan wouldn't mind some distribution and says you can even pick up a copy of Human Cannonball! if you e-mail him at [email protected]. It'd be worth your while. His, too.

Send Street Beat your unheard music at [email protected]. Happy Christmas.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky