Archive for the ‘psych’ Category

Psychedelic Resurrection: The Blues Magoos Interview, Part 2

Friday, December 12th, 2014

Continued from Part One

From a commercial standpoint, The Blues Magoos were largely over after the lackluster chart performance of their third LP. “After Basic Blues Magoos, we broke up, because we knew we were banging our heads against the wall,” Peppy Castro admits.

But the band did continue, albeit in an unusual fashion. With a new lineup – only Castro would remain – and a wholly different musical approach, a reconstituted Blues Magoos would release Never Goin’ Back to Georgia (1969) and 1970′s Gulf Coast Bound. Castro is pleased to be given the opportunity to discuss those rarely-considered (and long out of print) albums.

“First,” he stresses, “you have to understand that at that point in time I was only nineteen years old. My father was born in Bogotá, Colombia. He died when I was five months old, so I never got the history or the culture of being half Colombian. So I decided that if I was going to continue to do music, I wanted to do something new for myself. I started putting a band together to explore, to be the first band to come out with ‘Latin rock.’ And at the time, the only things I had access to were offices with The Blues Magoos’ managers, and they offered me a place to rehearse and stuff like that.”

“My idea was to come out with a whole new band, in that style. But when they saw what I was doing, they came to me and said that they – the managers – owned the name The Blues Magoos, and that they had signed the name to ABC Dunhill. So if I wanted to, they wanted me to continue as The Blues Magoos. They were ready to offer me a deal.” Their strategy would be to take Castro’s new project and leverage it with a “brand” that was already known.

But, Castro says, “I turned down the deal. This wasn’t The Blues Magoos. But what I realized – at age nineteen – is that what I’d have to do is go back to square one with this entirely new entity. And that was going to take an awfully long time to get it off the ground. And I was worried that it might take so long, that the style might come and go, and it wouldn’t be fresh any more.” He recalls what he told himself at the time: “If I take the deal, at least I can still be productive. I can still move along as a talent, as an artist.” So he reconsidered, and took the deal.

Complicating matters, the remaining members (or ex-members, depending on how one views the complicated circumstances) regrouped and released a single of their own, “Let Your Love Ride” b/w “Who Do You Love,” on a small west coast record label, billing themselves as – you guessed it – The Blues Magoos. The inevitable round of legal wrangling quickly ensued. As a result, Castro says, “the release of Never Goin’ Back to Georgia got tied up for nine months. And in that time…Santana came out! I had the record cut, covered, and in the can.” Castro’s plan of premiering the first Latin rock band were preempted by the Carlos Santana-led band’s debut. Eventually Never Goin’ Back to Georgia came out, with the Blues Magoos name on it. Old fans were confused, and as for new fans, there weren’t many. (“It got tremendous airplay in New York,” says Castro.) He pauses. “Looking back on it now, I would have done things differently.”

But Castro makes clear that he can’t – and doesn’t – complain. “I’ve been able to make music on my own terms for fifty years,” he points out with pride. And part of those terms led to Castro reforming The Blues Magoos (with some original/early members plus some younger, new ones) in 2008. He felt the time was right. “There’s a feeding frenzy in modern culture,” he says. “Every week there’s a new this, a new that. Our society is so fast-paced, it’s like a runaway train. You never know where the fashion is going to go, what’s going to hit next. But when push comes to shove, people still look back upon the [1960s] era as being the most potent, the most intense. A new generation comes along every ten years, rediscovering the genre.”

And a key part of that genre was always the visual presentation. The Blues Magoos were famed for their Diana Dew-designed electric suits; the lights grew brighter as the music’s intensity increased. So what ever became of those suits? “God knows what the others did with theirs,” Castro laughs. “But I still have mine. It’s in ratty condition.” He mentions that at some point he might donate it to the Hard Rock Café; I strongly suggest he send it instead to a place of honor at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. “One of the suits,” Castro chuckles, “was put into a time capsule by the Smithsonian Institute. It’s there as an example of 1960s art. It’s to be opened in the year 2065! Hopefully my kid can go see it then with his grandkids, and tell ‘em, ‘Hey, here’s your great-grandfather.’”

“For me to bring back the Magoos,” Castro says, “this is like my high school reunion! I left home at fourteen, and I never went through high school. Now, I’m retired; it’s not about money. This is about a love for the genre, and it’s nice to spend a moment going back to the era that was the most exciting time in my life.”

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Psychedelic Resurrection: The Blues Magoos Interview, Part 1

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

Forty-six years after the release of their last psychedelic-flavored release, New York City-based rockers The Blues Magoos have returned with a new album, Psychedelic Resurrection. From its multicolored fractal cover art to its song titles (“D’Stinko Me Tummies on the Blinko”), it’s clear that the band’s original approach – slightly goofy lyrics paired with aggressive psychedelic melodies – remains largely intact. Prime-era Blues Magoos members Peppy Castro (vocals, guitar), Ralph Scala (lead vocals, keyboards) and drummer Geoff Daking return, and original members Ronnie Gilbert and Mike Esposito make cameo appearances on the disc. Psychedelic Resurrection is a mix of new songs and new versions of Blues Magoos classics, including the Top 5 smash single, “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet.”

Those early Blues Magoos albums were products of their time; the studio tracks have a distinctive mid-sixties vibe to them. The songs on the group’s new Psychedelic Resurrection album maintain some of that vibe, despite nearly everything having changed about recording music in the years between Electric Comic Book and 2014. Peppy Castro says that “it’s probably easier” to capture the band’s intended sounds now than in the old days. “Because, for example, in the old days, editing was a nightmare!” He laughs. “You had to get the razor blade out. But I love challenges – I love solving problems – so for me, the goal has always been ‘How close can I get to the warmth of analog?’ I’m one of those guys who, as the technology was advancing, didn’t want to be left behind the curve. So in embracing digital technology, I bring with it my wealth of history, my experience of being in the business for fifty years. It’s a fun journey.”

The band’s first two albums were very successful, and both Psychedelic Lollipop and Electric Comic Book (both 1967) are exemplars of the psychedelic rock/pop style. As far as the production techniques employed on those records, “that was not so much our call,” Castro says. “We were involved in the music. We found our niche and decided, ‘Okay, this is the direction for the band.’ We were so inside the music; constantly writing, working like gears in a machine. As far as us being concerned with things like ‘panning,’ we didn’t get into that stuff so much on the first two albums. It was all very new to us. We went in, we tracked the songs, we overdubbed the vocals, and that was it.”

At the time of its release, many acts whose songs appeared on Lenny Kaye‘s 1972 2LP compilation, Nuggets, had no idea that their tunes were on that record, or that the record even existed. It certainly had a role in instigating the psychedelic rock revivals of the 1980s and beyond. The Blues Magoos’ “Tobacco Road” is right there on Side Two. “Somebody had told me about it,” Castro recalls. “But I didn’t know Lenny then. I always thought it was a nice thing, and I didn’t pay it any mind. Now I look back on it, knowing Lenny, and I see just how influential the record was. With the perspective, I see it, but at the time, it was just, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ I blew it off; I thought of it as, ‘We’re in the 99¢ bin now,’ like it was a sort of K-Tel thing.”

Castro reflects upon the culture that brought forth the music of bands like the Blues Magoos. “Between the [Vietnam] war, and flower power, and half of the United States getting stoned and dropping out, the music was so creative. Every band was entirely different! It was just an amazing explosion of creativity.” During that time, The Blues Magoos were successful enough to be asked to appear on several TV shows of the era; the “Pipe Dream” clip from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is a classic. Many of those variety shows brought together edgy rock groups who sang – if a bit obliquely – about drugs and whatnot, right alongside what most would consider “square” performers.

“Life was so simple then, in comparison to today,” Castro observes. Cable TV didn’t exist; FM radio was just starting up.” Pop culture was more homogeneous. “And we we thrown onto those shows,” he says, “for the kids. Variety shows were for Mom and Dad and the family…’And now, for the kids, here’s the Blues Magoos!’ So it was taken in stride. In those days, if you had a hit record, these were the normal things that got done. But it was like being in a dream state for me, because I was so young.”

The Blues Magoos’ third release, 1968′s Basic Blues Magoos, is held in high regard among critics today. But it failed to chart at all. “I don’t know if a lot of people know this,” Castro says, laying out the circumstances that led to its commercial failure. “’Pipe Dream’ was the first single from Electric Comic Book. In those days – and nothing’s changed, really – the conglomerates owned the business. And every ABC-owned or -syndicated AM station – that means hundreds of radio stations, all over the United States – banned the record. Because they were afraid of the drug reference.”

It mattered little that “Pipe Dream” carried what was effectively an anti-hard drugs message; that nuance was lost on the suits. “We thought we were putting a positive message on it,” Castro says, “but purely because of part of the lyrics, WABC banned it.” And other stations quickly followed. “We lost the record, basically,” Castro sighs. “Mercury panicked, and they flipped the record, making ‘There’s a Chance We Can Make It’ the new a-side. And then that went Top 40. But once we got banned by ABC, the vultures were out. There was a smell of, ‘These guys got one hit, but their second one didn’t make it. So…’ And thus came the one-hit-wonder tag upon the band.” Going forward, Mercury’s promotion of The Blues Magoos was halfhearted at best.

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A Thanksgiving Feast of Mini-reviews

Thursday, November 27th, 2014

Customarily, I take Thanksgiving Day off from posting to the blog (it’s one of very few days in which I do that). In fact I generally write the pieces days in advance, so trust me: I am taking today off with family. But for anyone who tunes in today or after, I present a few short-form album reviews. The theme here is new music that seeks to pay tribute to music and/or artists from the past. My (as always, wholly arbitrary) word limit for each of these is 150 words.


The Call – A Tribute to Michael Been
Santa Cruz, CA-based straight-ahead rock band The Call was one of those curious bands who got some critical cred, despite other styles having taken over as the rock du jour (See also: Grant Lee Buffalo.) No less a light than Todd Rundgren regularly covered “And the Walls Came Down” – The Call’s signature tune – in live shows, for whatever reason (he also did Red Rider‘s “Lunatic Fringe,” so, I dunno.) Leader Michael Been died of a heart attack in 2010; his son Robert (of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) collaborated with the surviving band members. This album (CD+DVD) is a live concert document of that one-off performance. The set is expertly played and sung, but the mix is lifeless: as a direct result, the whole affair fails to excite as it should. In this role, Been sounds unlike his BRMC material, favoring a vocal style closer to that of Bono.


Here Comes the Reign Again: The Second British Invasion
I’ve always held that a good song is a good song, and stands up to reinterpretation in many styles. Clearly those involved in this album agree: a collection of 27 songs – from what we could rightly call the MTV music era – recasts pop songs in a modern-rock/pop format. There are lots of winners here; Chris (Fountains of Wayne) Collingwood‘s cover of The Dream Academy‘s “Life in a Northern Town” opens the set in delightful fashion. Several of the artists manage to add heft to what otherwise might be thought of as lightweight piffle (“Relax”). A few covers hew too close to the originals to make the exercise worthwhile (“West End Girls,” “True”), but overall this is an excellent set from the same high-concept folks who brought you Drink a Toast to Innocence. People on Vacations‘ shimmering rethink of Bananarama‘s “Cruel Summer” is delightful. A few missteps, nonetheless essential.


Light My Fire: A Classic Rock Salute to The Doors
Overstuffing a project with talent – the kitchen sink approach – is no surefire recipe for success. So bringing together 45 male rock stars for a Doors tribute doesn’t mean the results will be any good. As with many of these things, it’s a Billy Sherwood project; Sherwood (who plays bass on nearly all tracks) likely laid down reference demos for everybody to follow for their flown-in parts. Lesser lights (the late Jimi Jamison) share the spotlight with some big names. Larry Coryell reminds us that he can rock. Lou Gramm shows us why he’s not fronting Foreigner any more. Leslie West solos all over “Roadhouse Blues,” wasting Brian Auger‘s presence. YesTony Kaye and Steve Cropper? Okay: that’s an interesting pairing. Robert Gordon‘s vocals on “Touch Me” are positively gruesome. “Light My Fire” reunites Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman. The Jim Morrison-as-a-winged-Jesus cover art is good for a laugh.


Garden Music Project: Inspyred by Syd Barrett’s Artwork
This project differs significantly from the three discussed above. All of the sounds here are original music, inspired by the work of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett. But not by his music: no, the songs are a product of synesthesia (simply put: hearing colors) experienced viewing the paintings Barrett did in his cloistered, post-Floyd days. True, that concept reads a bit gimmicky, but the results are quite interesting. The four piece group that produced this work are European musicians following the lead of artist Adriana Rubio, who spearheaded and produced the session. The vocals (by guitarist Alexander Ditzend) are reminiscent of “Baby’s On Fire” era Brian Eno, and Stefan Ditzend‘s sax work recalls Psychedelic Furs circa Forever Now. Musically, the style does favor Syd-era Floyd, but then it would, wouldn’t it? It’s appealing, retro-minded modern psych, like Robyn Hitchcock used to do. Enjoyable even without knowing (or appreciating) the backstory.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Album Review: The Movements — Like Elephants II

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

Less than a year after releasing Like Elephants I (reviewed separately), The Movements came back with 2014′s Like Elephants II. And the two discs truly are of a piece: sonically related, thematically linked. In fact, with a combined run time of just shy of 80 minutes, The Movements could have combined the entire work onto a single disc. But having done so would have overstuffed the resulting work: by the time one got to the material that comprises Like Elephants II, that music’s charms might not get the attention and appreciation they deserve.

The reverbed guitar lines that accent “Six Feet Under” give the tune an epic, cinematic feel; the tom-heavy drum work creates a feeling of anticipation, and the George Harrison-styled slide guitar (often in unison with single-note organ lines) fits perfectly. “Stolen Love” delivers on the promise of more minor-key psych-pop. “Icecold” is a companion piece to Like Elephants I‘s “Shady Wind.” The insistent beat of “Give it to Me” heightens the tension quotient.

“Everybody Needs Something” is space rock a la Nektar; notes are often left hanging in the air, and the spaces between them create drama. It’s a sort of Shadow Morton meets The Lords of the New Church, with psychedelic guitar for extra effect. And after all that, a comedown is necessary: “Redemption” serves that purpose expertly. Its deliberate pace is adorned with keening pedal steel, gentle electric piano and a fragile lead vocal.

With that song’s countrified feel fresh in your mind, the mania of “Yesterday, Now and Forever” feels like cowpunk crossed with psych rock: space cowboy music, perhaps? “Like Elephants II” has little in common with the previous disc’s title track; the droning organ sounds more like a harmonium here, and the ghostly guitar accents take on a vaguely North African feel.

But then it’s back to hypnotic guitar pop, with densely layered vocal harmonies for “Winter’s Calling.” An extended vamp provides a sympathetic bed upon which the band adds an extended, wah-wah guitar solo. As the track unfolds, the arrangement heads father toward the outer reaches of psychedelia, with what one might call structured jamming.

Like Elephants II closes in similar fashion to its companion disc. “What Would Happen If I Tried” rewards those who’ve hung on for the full ride. Heavily distorted organ lines are joined by acoustic guitars and hand-held percussion. A vulnerable lead vocal enters, joined by swooning guitar figures, all atop a simple, two-chord foundation. The instruments fade, leaving behind a heavily echoed repeat of the the song’s title.

I remember how pleased I was when I discovered Porcupine Tree around the time of the release of Fear of a Blank Planet: not only was that a great album, but the band already had a catalog nearly two dozen discs deep. So I had a lot of digging to to, and greatly enjoyed nearly all of it. I’m equally intrigued to explore The Movements’ back catalog, a collection of four or so albums dating back to 2005. It will be interesting to hear if the sound as presented on Like Elephants is present on their earlier work, or if the current approach is one they grew into. Meanwhile, look for Like Elephants I and II on my Best of 2014 lists, coming in late December.

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Album Review: The Movements — Like Elephants I

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

Every so often an album comes along that really pushes all of the right buttons with me. And as with most listeners, for me, what exactly those buttons are constitutes a very eclectic, nearly unknowable mix.

I recall an evening several years ago, when I arrived for band practice at the home of our bass player. He always had the stereo going ahead of practice, and he always had something interesting and unusual on the turntable. This particular evening, I entered the room to the ambient sounds of flies buzzing, crickets chirping, and a small, single-engine airplane whirring distantly overhead. And when the ambient section ended, the music itself was very appealing.

A select few of you might recognize my description of Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle, the 1996 album from Athens, Georgia’s Olivia Tremor Control. For me, that album – with its near-perfect balance of weirdness, found sound, hooks and melody – is an all-time favorite.

That all-time-favorite list rarely gets appended, but it looks like another album – or, more accurately, pair of albums – might join the ranks of Dusk at Cubist Castle, The Flaming LipsThe Soft Bulletin, Radiohead‘s OK Computer, and Teenage Fanclub‘s Grand Prix.

A shaggy Swedish group calling themselves The Movements have recorded and released a pair of albums titled Like Elephants I and II, and their mix of space rock, psychedelic and garage rock – all with a strong sense of melody and flow – is as strong a new-to-me set of tunes as I’ve heard in a very long while.

My mentioning Dusk at Cubist Castle is relevant beyond my love of the music: there’s a very similar musical sensibility at work on the Like Elephants albums.

The first Like Elephants album kicks off with “The Death of John Hall D.Y.,” and at first it sounds like a single-mic recording of a band practice. But a few measures in, the fidelity improves, the aural equivalent of a stage curtain opening wide to reveal the band behind it. Soaring vocal harmony and a country-inflected rock approach – sort of The Byrds meet Quicksilver Messenger Service meets The Flaming Lips – start the album in grand fashion. The lengthy “Boogin’” is built around a hypnotic riff based on repetitive guitar licks and a bracing combo organ figure. The song’s arrangement will sound familiar to fans of, say, Black Mountain, but the melodies within this tune are more memorable. The band does engage in some jamming mid-song, but the feel has more in common with Love or Jefferson Airplane than The Grateful Dead. Put another way: the band seems to know where they’re going.

With its ramshackle piano and acoustic guitar, the brief “Shady Wind” is reminiscent of early Neil Young, but with some delightfully psychedelic guitar that sounds as if it’s being played with an e-bow.

A sustained guitar note leads into the speedy “Two Tongues,” a tune with all the elements of a hit rock single, but (happily) rendered less commercial by its breakneck pace and wild, distorted approach. Like most everything on the disc, the song is deceptively simple on the surface, but quite complex (almost but not quite “busy,” in fact) when one listens more intently.

Like Elephants I is structured so that most all songs tumble into each other; when breaks do exist, even they seem on-purpose. It may not always be clear what The Movements are singing about – they’re from Gothenburg, Sweden, and their English is perfect, but they remain inscrutable – but they get the ambiance and emotion across without ambiguity. They rock hard, as one listen to the guitar break on “Great Deceiver” illustrates, but they do so with finesse. The four chords that form the foundation of “All the Lost” have been used this way in countless songs, as have the drum beats and the sinister-sounding organ lines. But while The Movements are conjuring 1966 in the tune, their music doesn’t feel as if it’s looking backward.

The lilting “David’s Song” has hints of Merseybeat, and its placement on the album makes plain that the group is capable of many different musical colors and shades; Like Elephants I is a deeply textured work. The title track feels like Led Zeppelin at their most Fairport Convention-influenced, and sends a reviewer such as myself to the thesaurus looking for different ways to tell you how hypnotic the song is. A pair of acoustic guitars — one six-string, one twelve-string – engage in delicate interplay.

Another longish tune, “Ingeting Kommer Ur Ingeting” may remind some listeners of Dungen, another Swedish group who has found inspiration in the past while always looking to the musical future. The song unfolds into a gauzy sonic swirl, but keeps a toehold on the ground; once again, no mater how far out The Movements reach, they never lose their way, never trail off into self-indulgence. And Like Elephants I closes with its finest song, “It Takes a Spark.” the tune induces a sense of déjà vu: you may swear you’ve heard the song before, but you haven’t. Its dialogue between shimmering, jangly guitar and combo organ provides lovely support as the band sings the song’s (and the album’s) most memorable line: “The first thing that you said to me / was the last thing on my mind.” And then it’s over.

Stay tuned: tomorrow I’ll review The Movements’ followup, Like Elephants II.

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Album Review: Casual Strangers — Casual Strangers

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

A fellow music lover and good friend of mine is quite wary of what one might call deceptive packaging in music. You know, that thing where a band says that the sound like some other band, or that they’re in some particular subgenre (or when their publicist uses the RIYL* and references another well-known band), and then they sound nothing like you expect.

It happens more often than he or I would like. Oftentimes, my resultant disappointment is enough to put me off the band completely. But occasionally, I’ll find that I appreciate what they have on offer even if it doesn’t sync with how they were being marketed. That’s largely the case with Casual Strangers. On their self-titled and self-released debut (vinyl) LP, this Austin quartet purports to have elements of krautrock and psychedelia in their mix. And while there’s a droning vibe to some of their songs (ostensibly, that’d be the krautrock), and they have male-and-female lead vocals a la fellow Austinites The Black Angels (that’s where you’d check the psych box), Casual Strangers have more of an 80s alternarock sound about them.

Certainly there are elements that at least partially justify the genre associations in their press kit: Moog analog synths on the record, and 3D graphics on the cover (complete with 3D glasses in the package). On the opening track, “Tune Your Brain,” crunchy/grunge-y guitars are supported by thudding basslines and sampled drums. But the song quickly unfolds into something more interesting and deeply-textured. “Casual Strangers (We Used to Be Friends)” has a romantic, slinky feel, and the juxtaposition of gentle picking on electric guitar with warbling synthesizer provides a dreamy air of regret. But when Katey Gunn launches into her spoken-word monologue (complete with “no duh” and “dude,”) I couldn’t help be reminded of Moon Unit Zappa on “Valley Girl,” or Julie Brown‘s “Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun.” Comedy songs both; I’m pretty sure that’s not the association that Casual Strangers were hoping for.

Several of the songs employ drum machines that give way to real drums; it’s an odd signature, but it pulls the listener into the songs in unexpected ways. The band goes all-out with a stinging lead guitar solo to open “Looking Good.” Coupling that with the song’s male/female vocal dialogue between Gunn and Paul Waclawsky, and you end up with a rocking take on Berlin‘s “Sex (I’m a…).” That said, the tune could use a few more lyrics; here, they’re approaching Silver Convention territory in their lyrical sparseness.

“Banshee” features more of Gunn’s icy spoken-word approach; here she has a sort of Nico feel (without the Teutonic accent, of course). Waclawsky’s soaring guitar is the best thing about the song (and, I’m beginning to think, the album as a whole). “Space Blues” could well be titled “Hey Joe, Part 23.” But the band’s combination of the blues form and a psychedelic feel might remind some of Muddy WatersElectric Mud album. It’s not very original, but it’s fun, and I expect it goes over great live onstage.

“Caribbean Cask” applies the band’s style to a vaguely exotica-flavored tune (courtesy of Gunn’s lap steel), with bonus points for spaghetti western-styled reverb guitar. An instrumental track (save for some “found” vocal snippets), it’s one of the best and most original tracks on Casual Strangers.

The start-every-song-with-a-drum-machine schtick being to wear thin by “Don’t Worry About a Thing.” The song itself is good, full of Dream Syndicate-style melodrama. Here Waclawsky takes his turn at talking-not-singing, which is fine if you enjoy an album filled with that kind of thing.

Despite its drum machine intro (see also: too friggin’ many other tracks here) and yet more spoken vocals (Waclawsky), the guitar and sonic effect on “Cats Meow” make it worth checking out.

The less said about “Put Your Mussy On My Mussy,” the better. It might be a piss-take on early 80s suburban punk; it might not. Either way, listening to it is an annoying way to spend 1:48.

More found audio provides the opening of the album closer, “Casual Strangers (See You Around).” Once the drum machine does its obligatory thing, the brief number serves up a catchy melody. Though it features a too-spare-by-half lyric, its boppy, Cure-like arrangement is catchy. And when I hear the “See you next time” shout-out as the song fades, I want to respond, “Okay, but bring more songs like on Side One and this last bit, leave the drum machine at home, and…sing!

Verdict: Mostly not psychedelic. Mostly not krautrockish. But not without its charms, in a vaguely 80s retro sort of way.

* “Review If You Like…”

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Album Review: Orgone Box — Centaur

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Looking backward for one’s musical inspiration (and/or sound) is not a new approach. Countless bands and solo artists have built careers out of recreating a style that has come and gone, and quite a few of them have won critical and even commercial success for their efforts. But more often than not, when this approach is employed, the results manifest themselves as overly studied: they may impress aficionados of the style, but they fail to offer much in the way of anything new or exciting.

What that means is that when an act that creates a pastiche of an old style comes along and does manage to be new and exciting, it’s a rare thing. And that is what has happened with Orgone Box. Another in a proud and long line of bands-that-are-mostly-one-guy (see also Karl Wallinger‘s World Party, Trent Reznor‘s Nine Inch Nails, etc.) Orgone Box is the brainchild of Rick Corcoran. Corcoran’s approach is to make music that sounds as if it were written and recorded either in 1967 England (think of The Pretty ThingsSF Sorrow and much of the music on Nuggets II: British Empire and Beyond) and/or the late 1980s (think of the so-called “Paisley Underground” groups out of Los Angeles), and/or the 1990s Britpop explosion (See: Oasis, Cast, Blur). In my estimation, one could do a lot worse than reference those musical touchstones.

Orgone Box’s new album Centaur isn’t really a new album, though: the group’s 2001 self-titled debut contained a dozen songs, and 2014′s Centaur (released on the Kool Kat Musik label) reprises seven of them, albeit with slightly altered titles (and possibly different takes/mixes/versions). (A 2005 album called My Reply may be the source for some Centaur tracks; I haven’t done an A/B comparison.) But the fact that Orgone Box failed to make any impression stateside a dozen-plus years ago more than justifies Kool Kat bringing this fine music to the attention of contemporary audiences.

The entirety of Centaur hangs together nicely, but there are true standouts among the ten tunes. The mid-tempo “Anaesthesia” is vaguely reminiscent of The Church, and features a straightforward and brief but exceedingly memorable lead guitar solo. “Mirrorball” leans on the phase shifter a bit heavily, but it delivers a hypnotic vibe.

The shimmering, folk rock of “Ticket With No Return” sounds like The La‘s fronted by Robyn Hitchcock. And that points out a quality of all Orgone Box music: Corcoran’s voice sounds a heckuva lot like the former Soft Boy. As Corcoran’s themes center more around love and other workaday concerns, he does answer the question “what would Robyn Hitchcock sound like if he didn’t sing about spiders, frogs and lightbulb heads?”

“Hello Central” adds a Help! era jangle to an 80s-style arrangement. But one of Centaur‘s two finest tunes is the earworm of “Judy Over the Rainbow.” Yes, the title alone evokes thoughts of 1967, but the hard-driving guitar riff (effectively doubled in places by the bass guitar) has more in common with Revolver. If you don’t nod along with this tune, you’re probably wasting your time with this review. The song is a delight.

But “Judy” isn’t even the best tune on “Centaur.” That honor goes to “Find the One,” a gentle, breezy We Five-styled folk rocker with impeccable production values. The volume peal work on the signature riff is reminiscent of The Beatles‘ “Yes It Is,” but the tune itself is timeless. Corcoran’s densely overdubbed vocal harmonies (full of la-da-da vocalisms) float effortlessly atop lovely acoustic guitars and softly jangling electric guitars. Some very subtle string synthesizer work adds the finishing touch. Notably, it’s the only track on Centaur that exceeds the four-minute mark.

Much was made at the time of Orgone Box’s debut about the album’s so-called lo-fi production aesthetic. That DIY spirit remains on Centaur, but there’s enough polish here to make one thin the songs were cut at Abbey Road. It’s a fully realized sonic effort.

If you like the sonic approach used on this album, you’ll love the songs. If retro-minded music isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll likely want to look elsewhere for your new-music fix . As for me, I’ll be hoping that Centaur sells well enough to spur the recording and release of more new Orgone Box tunes.

Centaur is available on CD from Kool Kat Musik.

UPDATE: I’ve just learned that Centaur was also released earlier (2013) on vinyl; it’s available from UK-based Sugarbush Records.

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Festival Review: Transfigurations II, Part 2

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Continued from Part One

I’ve long been a fan of what is sometimes labeled “kiwi pop,” the jangly guitar-based music – mostly made by a very interconnected community of musicians – that began in 1980s New Zealand. The Chills, Toy Love and Tall Dwarfs are a few of the better-known (a relative term!) exponents of the style. The Clean is another; guitarist David Kilgour was/is a member of both The Chills and The Clean. A North American performance by any of these bands is a true rarity, and the Transfigurations II organizers chalked up a serious score in bringing The Clean to North Carolina. As the band began their set on the outdoor stage, it was clear that the crowd was in for some long (but not meandering) guitar-solo based readings of songs from the group’s catalog.

A few songs in, Kilgour addressed the crowd: “We’re having fun up here, but we’d be having more fun if you were up here with us.” A couple dozen of us took his statement literally, and climbed up onto the stage. Camera in hand, I stayed safely off to one side, no more than two or three feet from the group’s bassist (and his loud’n'large speaker cabinet). With fans crowding around them, the trio played the remainder of their set, clearly energized by the onstage activity.

Once The Clean concluded their set, I grabbed some food and (another) local beer and headed back to the gymnasium to see and hear Reigning Sound. The group, headed by former Goner Records (Memphis) owner Greg Cartwright, became a nominally Asheville-based group when Cartwright moved here several years ago. The lineup of the band has changed since then: only keyboardist Dave Amels remains with Cartwright. But the changes have arguably resulted in a more cohesive unit: the vocal support behind Cartwright is much stronger now, and the current players have a much better feel for the r&b-inflected garage-rock aesthetic that remains at the center of Cartwright’s songs.

Oddly, though it had long since gotten dark outside, Reigning Sound chose to perform with the stage’s (fluorescent) ceiling lights left on, not making use of the colored/ambient lighting at all. This gave the whole affair a vibe much closer to what one might have experienced in the mid 1960s, when your favorite local garage band played a teen dance. The result didn’t do wonders for my ability to get decent photos, though.

Speaking of Dave Amels, I met him after Reigning Sound’s set ended; he was outside near the outdoor stage, waiting for Lee Fields & the Expressions to come on. I introduced myself and told him that I’m a big fan of a (relatively obscure) album he did back in 2002, a holiday-themed record called Christmas in Memphis. Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken (who plays on the disc) had given me a copy of the CD back in 2009. The theme of the all-instrumental record is straightforward yet quite inspired: versions of Christmas songs (hymns and pop tunes) rendered in a style that sounds like one or more Memphis-based groups. So you’ve got tunes that sound like Booker T & the MG’s, The Box Tops, and so on. Listening to Christmas in Memphis can be a fun spot-the-reference game, and it’s a great record on any level. In addition to project coordinators Amels and Diken (who bill themselves as Husky Team), the list of players reads like a who’s-who of under-appreciated pop musicians: both R. Stevie Moore and Richard X. Heyman are featured (on bass and keys/guitar, respectively).

Amels told me that he’d very much like to reissue Christmas in Memphis on vinyl for the holiday season, but that owing to the resurgence in vinyl (coupled with the limited capacity of existing pressing plants), a 2014 release doesn’t look likely. But it’s worth keeping a lookout for; meanwhile, at press time a total of sixteen copies (including one new copy) are available on Amazon.

But I digress. Lee Fields took the stage around 10:30pm, and thrilled the crowd with his Stax/Volt Revue styled r&b. Fields worked the crowd like a pro, involving us in call-and-response routines, and delivering his original songs (mostly from his latest album) in the most heartfelt, emotive, passionate manner possible. He even did a bit of the old James Brown leave-and-then-reluctantly-come-back bit, but somehow that old performance trope felt fresh and new in the masterful hands of Fields. In 2014 there are quite a few acts reaching back to classic soul for inspiration and/or material (Sharon Jones, Mayer Hawthorne, Charles Bradley, Fitz & the Tantrums, etc.) but Fields tops the list.

Earlier in the evening, Transfigurations II co-organizer Marc Capon of Harvest Records addressed the crowd, thanking us all and letting us know that he’s very interested in making the festival an annual event. Now, that may have just been the exuberance of the day talking, but I hope that when the dust settled and the checks were all written, the festival ended up being in the black. Because a smallish festival like this – with the high caliber of performers it featured – is a rare and special thing indeed. Whenever the next Transfigurations festival happens, I’ll be there.

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Album Review: Hedersleben — Die Neuen Welten

Friday, August 29th, 2014

According to our friends over at Wikipedia, krautrock is defined as “a form of rock and electronic music that originated in Germany in the late 1960s, with a tendency towards improvisation around minimalistic arrangements.” Though the style had its adherents in the 1970s – famed tastemaker/DJ John Peel among the most well-known of them – the style never caught on in a commercial sense outside Germany.

But the style – hypnotic, pulsing, almost tone-poem music – never went away. Julian Cope went so far as to write a book about it, 1995′s Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide to the Great Kosmische Musik – 1968 Onwards. And thanks in no small part of Cope’s championing of the music made by groups such as Amon Düül II and Faust, krautrock has persisted right into the 21st century.

The music of Nik Turner (late of Hawkwind) lends itself especially well to a krautrock approach, especially in a live setting. So it’s no surprise that beginning around 2013, Turner enlisted the able aid of an outfit naming themselves after a city halfway between Hanover and Berlin. Hedersleben features the guitar work of Nicky Garratt, the British musician best known for his work in seminal punk group UK Subs. American drummer Jason Willer also played in UK Subs with Garratt, and Bryce Shelton (from San Francisco) plays bass with Hedersleben. Keyboardist Kephera Moon is also from San Francisco. All of this may make you wonder what exactly is the German connection to this band. Good question; the answer lies within their music and their overall sonic approach.

The band does a bit of shape-shifting: when they record or perform with Turner, they’re sometimes billed As Nik Turner’s Hawkwind. When backing Swiss musician Joel Vandroogenbroeck, they’re the current-day lineup of psychedelic band Brainticket.

But when they play their own music – the largely instrumental examples of which are showcased on Die Neuen Welten (The New Worlds), Hedersleben have a personality all of their own. With Moon’s Ray Manzarek-like organ work out front, the dreamscapes of tunes like “Zu Den Neuen Welten” and “XO5B” take their time to unfold. The densely-layered music floats along; Shelton’s bass lines weave their way under the textures in a way that sometimes feels like Gary Wright‘s Moog bass circa The Dream Weaver. Garratt’s often heavily-treated guitar soars above the mix in a decidedly non-punky fashion, and Willer’s spellbinding drum patterns evoke warm memories of Nick Mason circa A Saucerful of Secrets.

Kephera Moon makes extensive use of synthesizers: Mellotron-sounding samples recall early Tangerine Dream, and gurgling analog synth sounds show that she understand the intelligent uses to which synths can be applied; the synthesizers are never used as mere “sound effects.”

Garratt’s lead guitar is a highlight of “On the Ground (Safe and Sound),” in which he solos over a chugging one-chord vamp. As with most of the band’s work, vocals (here little more than the whispered/chanted recitation of the song’s title) are mostly used as a textural element, rather than to convey anything like a story. That role is left to the music.

Garratt’s acoustic guitar underpins some stinging lead guitar overdubs on “Nomad World (Dreamstate).” It’s the gentlest tune on the disc, and some chanted ahhh-style vocalizing from Kati Knox adds to the dreamy vibe made explicit by the title. The faraway-sounding “XO5B” feels like a Pink Floyd jam from the More/Obscured by Clouds era; Garratt’s fret-buzzing guitar and Moon’s celestial organ work are the track’s highlights.

The five-track album closes with “Tiny Flowers/Little Moon,” at once the most conventional and most accessible tune on Die Neuen Welten. With standard signing (again courtesy Knox) and recognizable lyrics, here Hedersleben sounds of a piece with bands like The Black Angels. A vaguely sunshine-pop texture lends the tune an air not unlike the rare pop-leaning moments of The Velvet Underground and Nico. Moon’s delicate piano work – occasionally punctuated by guitar stabs from Garratt – ends the album on an extended, reflective note.

Though there are no Germans on the album; though it was recorded in Oakland, California; , though it veers close to tuneful rock in places; Hedersleben’s Die Neuen Welten is highly recommended on its own merits.

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Never Had It Better: A Chat with James Lowe of The Electric Prunes (Part Two)

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: In 2012 I wrote a blog entry in which I suggested that Syd Barrett may have – consciously or otherwise – nicked the intro of “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” for Pink Floyd‘s “Astronomy Dominé.” The two are too similar for it to be coincidence, I think. And it’s well established that Barrett was listening to a lot of American music, having admitted to being inspired by the riff of Love‘s version of “My Little Red Book” when he wrote “Interstellar Overdrive.” So although the Electric Prunes weren’t active for a very long period back in the 60s, the band’s influence outpaced its record sales. Do you hear the sound and approach of the Prunes in bands that would come after?

James Lowe: I think what it probably was, most of all, was is that “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” was a really weird sounding record. So I think that we got thrown in the weirdo category when we were actually pretty normal. I can see why the music of that time became a sort of turning point, because things were going electronic. And with stuff going backwards and sliding around, maybe that was there at the right time. I like that record. A lot of people don’t like their hit records; I love it.

BK: Also in 2012, Real Gone Music put together a complete singles collection of the band’s Reprise releases, The Complete Reprise Singles. The thing that made it special was hearing the mono versions of all of those songs. On the first couple of albums, what degree of input did the band have regarding things like arrangements, mixes and so forth?

JL: We did all the arrangements. And I did the mixes with Dave Hassinger, mostly. People have asked that before, about mono versus stereo. The first mix was always the mono mix. Because some people had stereo; some didn’t. So you’d sort of be making a stereo mix for a few people. But the mono mix was the thing that went on the radio. At American studios, we’d make a mix of something, and then we’d go out, transfer it to the car, and sit in the car and listen to it on the radio. Mono was very important. I know why a lot of people collect it, because it does sound different.

BK: It’s much punchier; if it sounds good through a crappy little car speaker over AM radio, it sounds good.

JL: Amen!

BK: That said, the stereo effects are cool. But I still prefer those mono mixes.

The songs on WaS: were they written expressly for an album or is the album a sort of collection of material you had floating around, and you just decided that now was the time to put something together?

JL: We had some things floating around. This was the album Mark and I were putting together before he died. There were some things that we had already recorded, and some things that were partially finished. And there were other things that we had sketched out, that hadn’t been completed yet. So WaS is sort of a compilation of all those things. And I think it represents what Mark and I would have done for the final album if he hadn’t checked out.

BK: I’m impressed by just how – dare I say – authentic sounding the new album is. In the age of ProTools and digital recording, it’s paradoxically, I think, more difficult to make an album that has that particular sonic quality of the mid to late 60s. I think you succeeded. What did you do special to make that happen?

JL: I think that a lot of the things that make it sonically the way that it is have to do with this: we always did everything through the amplifiers. On our recordings, when we wanted to get an effect, we’d get it with the amplifier. Rarely did we really use the studio devices to create an effect. So a lot of the stuff on disc is just the way we really did, trying to – for example – take a Fender Reverb amp and do something weird with it. And I think that makes a difference; there’s a certain kind of warmth to my ears. I like digital stuff, but this is kind of a combination of those things.

BK: I would think also that if you’re achieving the sounds that way in the studio, it’s going to be that much easier to recreate those sounds live onstage.

JL: It does, yeah. It at least gives you a handle to hang the stage act upon. So there’s nothing so abstract that you could never play it.

BK: What’s coming up as far as live dates in the near future for the Electric Prunes?

JL: I don’t know; I was hoping that you were going to tell me! We’re hoping to go to Europe. We keep getting these adventures offered to us, but the hardest part is to get people off the couch and to come out to a show and see the band. People always tell us, “Hey, I had no idea you were in town!” And I think, “Why not? Why wouldn’t you know?” It seems that people would rather hang and watch Netflix than they would go down to some place and see an old band play.

More information about the band and their new album can be found at http://www.electricprunes67.com/

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