Album Review: The Three O’Clock – The Hidden World Revealed

The whole so-called “paisley underground” scene happened during my college years. Like many of my generation, I had expanded my listening experiences beyond classic rock into what would eventually be known as “college rock.” And through my experience working in a record store, I was exposed to even more then-current music, much of it – unlike my heroes The Beatles, Pink Floyd and so on – made by people a mere five or six years (at most) older than me.

The sounds out of southern California were of particular interest. Having little in common with that region’s early 60 stock-and-surf scene, the paisley underground umbrella encompassed artists who took the work of later L.A. scenesters (The Byrds, Love, etc.) as their musical touchstones. In addition to a healthy dose of jangle, they also drew upon the late 60s psychedelic stylings of San Francisco (Moby Grape) and England (Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd).

Chief among this crop of like-minded (but each decidedly distinctive in their own way) groups were The Bangs (later the Bangles), Rain Parade, and The Three O’Clock. The last of these was fronted by the high- and fragile-voiced Michael Quercio. Originally calling themselves The Salvation Army (you can guess how that played out), the group eventually hit it relatively big and released an EP and four albums (on three labels) in the period 1982-88.

Jason Falkner was a member of the band during the tail-end of this period (during which they released Vermillion on Prince‘s Paisley Park label), but the band folded shortly thereafter. All the members went on to other projects, and in 2013 the group (Quercio plus prime-era members Danny Benair and Louis Gutierrez) reunited to perform in support of the new compilation The Hidden World Revealed.

The Hidden World Revealed is not a best-of collection; instead it’s twenty tracks (half of them previously unreleased) of demos, alternate versions, fan club releases, and relative rarities. Nearly all of the material dates from the band’s earlier days (up to around 1983) prior to signing with I.R.S. The result is a cohesive listening experience, though perhaps not the best starting point for those new to the band’s catalog.

The Three O’Clock’s musical style was a poppy mix of slightly baroque pop, the kind of thing that felt and sounded like an 80s update of Summer of Love radio pop. Quercio’s approach to the bass guitar owed a lot to Paul McCartney‘s Sgt. Pepper era manner of playing. But there was an insistent hard-charging dimension applied to the baroque’n’roll, as evidenced on “With a Cantaloupe Girlfriend” (yes, Quercio’s song titles would fit comfortably on a mixtape with those of Syd Barrett and, say, Robyn Hitchcock). In the new set’s track-by-track liner notes, drummer Danny Benair characterizes “Jet Fighter” as the band’s most well-known tune, and that Macca -style bass is here as well, contrasted with some (then-)modern sounding synthesizer lines.

The Barrett influence is worn on the band’s sleeve as they take a stab at “Lucifer Sam,” originally a fan club-only b-side. Uniquely, the band’s generally sunny disposition is nowhere to be found on this vaguely menacing tune (there’s really no other way to play the song). “When Lightening Strikes” [sic] sounds a bit like an American answer to The Teardrop Explodes crossed with, say, Haircut 100; that pop-trifle vibe set against a rock feel is perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the Three O’Clock sound.

“Around the World” pointed the way toward a decidedly more rock-oriented approach the band would explore in their I.R.S. era. An early, unadorned mix of The Bee Gees‘ “In My Own Time” reminds modern-day listeners that early Bee Gees music was influenced more by Revolver-era Beatles than anything else; The Three O-Clock’s version has a similar feel. Some listeners may find the woefully out-of-tune vocals on the previously unreleased “Why Cream Curdles in Orange Tea” rough going, but the tune is not without its charms.

And so it goes with the other tracks, of which a closing cover of The Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better” remains a highlight. Longtime fans of the band will find this collection a welcome addition to The Three O’Clock’s relatively slim catalog; new listeners are advised to start elsewhere.

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