Archive for the ‘psych’ Category

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

Monday, August 25th, 2014

In that heady summer of 1967, one of the songs that captured and embodied the zeitgeist was “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” a fuzzed-out psychedelic miniature masterpiece by the trendily-named Electric Prunes. While the original group managed only to squeeze out two albums – the debut LP titled after the hit single, and Underground (both released in 1967) – before surrendering to their producer’s vision, an approach in which their participation was minimal to nonexistent, they left behind a number of excellent tunes.

Serious fans of the band often dismiss Mass in F Minor and the two albums that followed it as not being part of the band’s true canon. But those early tracks, including numbers like “Get Me to the World On Time” and “The Great Banana Hoax” displayed a vibe that was as at times as dark as The Doors, but yet seemingly also possessing of a more good-timing disposition.

Bassist Mark Tulin and guitarist/vocalist James Lowe were the prime movers in that original lineup, and after a decades-long hiatus, the pair reactivated the Electric Prunes for the 21st century. A pair of studio albums – California (2004) and Feedback (2006) – showed that the group had new material in the vein of their 60s work, and their live shows displayed their onstage fire to a new generation.

Tulin passed away in early 2011, but by the time of his death, a new Electric Prunes album had already gotten started. Lowe and the rest of the band finished the material, released in 2014 as WaS. Recently, I spent some time in conversation with Lowe, discussing the new material, the old songs, and the forces that have helped the music of The Electric Prunes to endure for so many years. – bk

Bill Kopp: When Lenny Kaye‘s original and influential 2LP Nuggets compilation first came out on Elektra in the early 70s, how aware were you of it and the fact that “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” was on it?

James Lowe: I wasn’t aware [of it] at all. I didn’t know; I had no idea. In fact my son told me about it…I don’t know what year it was; years later. He said, “Do you know you’re on Nuggets?” And I said, “What’s that?” Here’s the thing: I didn’t tell anyone I had been in that band. I was doing commercials and films and stuff, and nobody knew me as the guy in The Electric Prunes. So nobody would bother to mention it to me.

BK: The first time I recall seeing your name was on liner notes for Todd Rundgren‘s Runt album; you engineered it, right?

JL: I engineered Nazz, Nazz Nazz, Nazz III, Runt, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, Someting/Anything…we did a bunch of albums together.

BK: So in the period during which the Electric Prunes essentially went inactive, and up until when you reactivated the group around 2000, what were you doing musically?

JL: I had a commercial production company, so I was doing corporate image films and stuff like that. Other than underscoring those things, I wasn’t doing any music projects.

BK: When you did reunite around the turn of the century, what was it about that particular time that made it right?

JL: A guy named David Katznelson from Warner Brothers wanted to release an album of our stuff from the 60s. And we couldn’t figure out why he did; we didn’t think anyone would want to buy it. He seemed so knowledgeable and involved, that we just sort of surrendered ourselves to him. So we made a compilation called Lost Dreams. And that reinstilled my interest in music. I had gotten Mark Tulin on board when they called me to do it. And with both of us sitting there listening to these old tracks after all those years, we thought that we didn’t sound that bad! I gotta be honest: it wasn’t bad.

BK: The liner notes the new album, WaS, are sort of cagey about whether this is the end: “Maybe the last we will ask you to support.” With Mark having passed, are you keeping your options open, or is this really the end?

JL: Well, to be honest with you, the band – the guys we’ve been playing with for the last seven or eight years – these guys really like playing, and they’re interested in still performing. So…I”m not sure if we’ll do any more records; we’ve got some stuff in the can, enough to do some more records. But these guys wanna play. And I wanna play, too. I’ve been playing this stuff for the last year, year and half while we recorded it. But it’s also a lot of fun to go out and play it for people.

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Album Review: Steve Hillage – Rainbow 1977

Friday, August 8th, 2014

This week of archival, previously-unreleased live sets wraps up with one that’s both accessible and of excellent sonic quality. In 1977, guitarist Steve Hillage (erstwhile of Gong) was near the apex of his commercial ascendancy, on the heels of the Todd Rundgren-produced L album. This date, captured at London’s Rainbow, finds Hillage and band wheeling out several songs from that album onstage. The perennial Hillage concert favorites that bookended LDonovan‘s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and George Harrison‘s Yellow Submarine-era Beatles track, “It’s All Too Much” – get some of their earliest live performances here.

While Hillage’s voice isn’t the strongest instrument, he holds his own vocally amidst the swirl of his guitar, backed ably by his longtime partner Miquette Giraudy (synths), drummer Joe Blocker and bassist Curtis Robertson. The band previews more than half of the songs that would appear on L‘s followup, 1977′s Motivation Radio; that LP ranks with L as among the best of Hillage’s long and varied career. With its oh-me-oh-my vocals, “Light in the Sky” makes the best of Giraudy’s voice, while – as every song here does – highlighting Hillage’s fluid and spectacular guitar work. “Radio” is among the set’s most subtle pieces, and among its most musically effective as well. A pleasing mix of short, snappy tunes and longer (but not meandering) pieces renders Rainbow 1977 the second next best thing to having been there. (A concert DVD would be the next-best thing, of course.)

There’s a fair amount of overlap between the tracks on this live set and with those on Hillage’s live compilation 2LP set Live Herald from 1977; the primary appeal of this set is that it (purportedly) represents a single show rather than picking-and-choosing from a tour’s worth of recordings.

Space rock with mystical hippie trappings and ecological subject matter was and remains the metier of the multifarious Hillage, and it’s all shown to good effect – and excellent fidelity – on Rainbow 1977.

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