Album Review: Donovan’s Brain – Turned Up Later

There’s a kind of powerpop that steers well clear of the candy-ass end of the spectrum, yet manages to avoid macho, posturing cockrock-iness. That sweet spot is where Donovan’s Brain lives. Just when you think every good riff has been used, here they come with a menacing bass line figure around which they build the opening track on their latest, Turned Up Later. And true, that bass figure on “Take Me With You When You Go” may in fact have been used before – okay, maybe a few thousand times, if we’re honest about it – but here it feels fresh and new.

But at their core, Donovan’s Brain aren’t a powerpop band at all: that label is far too limiting for them. Decidedly retro, yet in a more modern/classicist, Tom Petty sort of way, they are equally at home with windmill guitar figures and rocking guitar solos as they are with laid-back psychedelic excursions.

To wit: the band shifts gears completely for “As the Crows Fly,” which feels like a cross between Their Satanic Majesties Request era Rolling Stones (note: that’s a compliment; it’s my favorite Stones LP) and 80s paisley underground heroes Rain Parade. And this is one band that understands the conventions of a pop song: most of the tracks on Turned Up Later fade out long before they get overly familiar.

Swooshy, phase shifted guitars and Mellotron are among the highlights of “It’s All Right With Me.” In fact the mighty Mellotron figures prominently on a number of the tracks by this supergroup-of-sorts. I don’t use that term lightly: the personnel includes Deniz Tek (Radio Birdman), Bobby Sutliff (Windbreakers), Ron Sanchez, and Matt Piucci of the aforementioned Rain Parade, among other notables. That Donovan’s Brain features tracks by no less than five composers ensures that it’s a varied offering, yet the tracks hold together as a cohesive whole. The baroque-psych textures of “My Own Skin” evoke memories of both Brian Jones and The Verve (who, you may recall, famously nicked the Stones awhile back). And this is done without any sort of nicking.

That Mellotron rears its (tape) head again on Sanchez’s “Small Circles,” which filters The Moody Blues through a waltz-tempo melody. But then the powerpop approach returns for a Byrdsy rave (complete with oohs) on “Restless Nights, Many Dreams.” The dreamy “Cardboard Army” illustrates that the band understands that a Mellotron has more than one built-in sound (it has three, in fact). Some synth layered atop the ‘Tron lines makes for a magic carpet ride.

That slow, spaced-out vibe is continued on “Manager of Time,” which is vaguely reminiscent of The Beatles‘ “Flying” (albeit with lyrics). Sutliff’s “Morning Side Dream” conjures that immortal AM radio wistful sunshine pop feel, and the result feels like a hit; Sanchez’s bursts of electric lead guitar make a great tune even better.

The doomy tones of “Red Wing Spy” recall The Move; the band pull out all the stops – and toss in all the instruments – for this one, and do so effectively. Listen closely and you’ll even hear some vibraphone amidst the sonic swirl. “Fulcrum” is timeless, tuneful pop that fits nicely amidst the other songs, brightening the mood a bit as well. Turned Up Later‘s dozen tunes are wrapped up with “In Search of Connie Companion,” a warbly, watery, lysergic trip through the sixties. Ric Parnell‘s tom-centric drumming specifically evokes the fadeout of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Off-topic postscript: Congratulations and best wishes to Bobby Sutliff, who married his sweetheart just last week.

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