As we bid farewell to
winter for the final time this millennium, one can only hope
something will come along and buck the alarming trend of post-bubblegum
teeny bop pop that weve been saddled with over the waning
years of the ME FIRST! decade of the 90s. Theres
still time to salvage whats left of rock and rolls
dignity before we place the final nail in its coffin. Nearly
a score since The Rubinoos announced Rock and Roll is dead
and we dont care, the last scourge of youth is desperately
hanging on to its last dying breath, despite the valiant, yet
ultimately failed efforts of Joe Carducci and his ilk to rescue
it from oblivion. Will the world finally succumb to the pop
narcotic Carducci warned us of via his vitriolic diatribe,
Rock and the Pop Narcotic or, will Y2M (K
is NOT a Roman numeral) present us with enough evidence of life
in the old patient to ward off the coroner for another year?
Judging by the early returns, the jury is till out; but, a few
early salvos offer hope.
Not a very promising beginning to the new year. For their fourth full-length, Loraine, Ohios Songs: Ohia (essentially the one man electrical band, Jason Molina) traveled to Glasgow, Scotland and teamed up with fellow card-carrying depressives, Arab Strap. Taking his cue from their alcohol induced melancholia (The heart has whisky fuel to burn he sings in the dirgy Being in Love), Jason continues to weave his backporch, backwoods tales of loves labors lost around his familiar trademark nasal twang sort of a cross between Neutral Milks Jeff Magnum and Red House Painter Mark KozElek.
The sparse arrangements (most tracks prominently feature just Jason and his guitar) recall Will Oldhams Palace daze, although the opening track, The Black Crow outdoes Godspeed You Black Emperor at their own game of exploring the fast/slow, loud/fast dynamics of sound sculpture, easily outdistancing their weak 12 single from last year, which sounded like nothing other than an outtake from their marvelous ? (Infinity) debut.
Unfortunately, matters deteriorate
into inconsequential, short ditties by albums end and the
closing trilogy of B on T, Body and Just
leave this listener with the feeling that by adding this filler,
Jason has expanded what could have been an exceptionally tight
and poignant EP into another ultimately disappointing full length,
illustrating once again that more does not necessarily mean better.
Woronzows latest signing,
Dorsets Lucky Bishops eponymous debut kicks off with
a refreshing gust of 80s psychedelia, Stratosphere.
Tom Hughes Hammond keeps things as light and airy as the
Right Direction recalls Simon & Garfunkle welded to Graham Nash-styled la-la-las. Methinks the lads were listening to their L.A. classic rock albums for inspiration as this is perfect for cruising the Pacific Coast Highway with the top down and the speakers rattling! Special kudos to Danny Pulmans lilting flute.
Im Convinced, with its backwards guitar filler beckons comparison to the Beatles at their psychedelic best. Everything comes to a grinding halt with a mean XTC-styled guitar onslaught. Al Strawbridges melodic, McCartney-esque basslines meander throughout Casanova until we find ourselves wandering aimlessly in a field of wild strawberries, an illegal smile planted across our faces.
Also included is the third version of the bands hit single, Ashtralia (the demo appeared on the Ptolemaic Terrascope 2xCD benefit, Succour.) This time, the song takes on a new life via a more powerful bed of backward guitars, cellos, violins, studio techno wizardry and a Spector-ish wall of noise that illustrates the benefits of smoking all the time.
Bad Time continues the wall of sound, but leaves the melodies behind and suffers accordingly. All that remains is noise and Im reminded of the old Pete Shelley axiom, noise annoys.
Bottoming out with Evil Thoughts, the boys seem clueless with what to do with all these ideas and sounds in their heads. Unfortunately, all their evil thoughts ended up in the same song and it remains aimless and unfocused.
Picture Box is a shock amidst all this light and airy pop psych. Tom Hughes drags Rick Wakeman kicking and screaming out of the elephants graveyard of ol prog rockers and drops his familiar breaks smack dab into the middle of this testimonial to long capes and longer haircuts. Its a ballsy move and it works in a What the fuck? Why not? sort of way. Space: 1949 could be the next single if folks still paid any attention to those marketing gimmicks of the 60s anymore. Its melody is radio friendly ear candy (a compliment) and Strawbridges lead vox beckon comparison with Olivia Tremor Controls current Beach Boys fixations. The songs also got some fine weird studio collages that the Olivias should take note of for future endeavors.
pretentious lyrics aside (its OK to SOUND like Yes, but
please leave the garbled poetry in the nearest topographic ocean),
the disk ends on a high note of sitars, mellotrons,
FX and a memorable guitar riff that lingers long after the CD
is returned to its jewelcase.
For his second full length excursion into FSAs Phase 2, Dave Pearce takes us for a spin through his recent record collection. Recorded between 1997 and 1999, almost everything has a sense of, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra déjà vu all over again. The title and album cover artwork alone are nicked straight from Neil Youngs collaboration with Pearl Jam. The opening cut, Space (1999) is yet another rendition of the track Dave covered for the Pearls Before Swine/Tom Rapp tribute album, For the Dead in Space. [NB: Toms version finally makes an appearance on his current Woronzow release, A Journal of the Plague Year see below for more info.]
Suncatcher wouldnt be out of place on that LP either: a quiet melancholic dream accompanied by Daves gentle finger picking and whispered vocals that wouldnt wake your grandmother. Based on the evidence of this track, Dave has opened a whole new vista of possibilities for himself. Id like to see him try an entire LP in this folky vein. Could Phase 3 lurk around the corner?
Borrowing its melody from the traditional Captains Apprentice, Islands ventures back into old familiar FSA guitarritory. His droning, amplified glissando guitar wafts over a driving, repetitive bass riff, but once again his airy, almost breathless voice is almost lost in the swooshy production like a lost soul in outer space. The lyrics, therefore, are unintelligible, so the vocals serve as an additional instrument to be tweaked, bended and distorted with the rest of the mix a la Liz Fraser from vintage Cocteau Twins. Returning to his folky (!?) roots, Tides gently ebbs and flows like a bright summer day. Its so beautiful (and startling, based on what weve come to expect from FSA in the past) that the lyrics dont really matter. Late night fireplace fare for lovers of the ethereal!
Hip hop jungle beats seem to be pretty popular these days, so next Dave rips a chapter from the Chemical Bros. book of magic tricks and gives it a go. If Chemicals was meant to be a tongue in cheeky satirical jab at this unfortunate new subgenre of studio wankery and electronic wizardry, Ill give it a 6: its giving me a splitting headache, but you can sort of dance to it if youre David Byrne trying out for the role of the Elasticman superhero! However, if this is supposed to be a serious exploration of the next big thing in electronic dance music, Ill take OMD any day. Unfortunately, Dave doesnt know when to leave bad enough alone and Wintersong comes on like a Chinese fire drill, kitchen (out of) synch included. Over an annoying electronic jackhammer drumbeat, Dave goes all Kevin Shields on us. Now Im as troubled by My Bloody Valentine withdrawal symptoms as the next guy, but this is no way to curb my (or anyone elses) bloodlust. Nor is River, which attempts to marry MBV with Jesus and Mary Chain and fails at both. Divorce papers are in the mail. Gounds: aural cruelty.
Having tried and failed miserably at replicating the Chemical Bros. mess, Dave unearths the Dust Bros. next with much better results. Chanting She is all that I can be/She is all that I can see like a stoner mantra over a wicked bass line, Dave turns in his finest guitar work in years. The melody imbeds itself into your cerebellum long enough to ignore the lockgroovefest that is Rise. More annoying motorik drum machines get the heart racing faster than a speeding bullet and the Wobblesque bass ruminations are amongst the heaviest this side of the PiL box, which is what youll be reaching for halfway through this migraine inducing fodderstompf. Could those be strings wandering around in there cascading to the flatliner ending? STRINGS? On a FSA album?! What is the world coming to?
An end, if Star City is any indication as it wraps things up in an industrial apocalypse where outer space white noise dissects vintage Hawkwind metal machine music in a Loop-y operating room. Paging Dr. Caligari; your patient is ready now.
Like a greatest hits package
covering an amalgam of styles, false starts, radio friendly ear
candy and avant garde experimental What the fucks?,
Mirror reflects what Dave Pearce has encountered over the final
years of the closing decade of the 20th century. His appearances
at Terrastock have opened his ears to what the kids are up to
these days, but old timers like Tom Rapp and Neil Young have
also buried themselves in his musical psyche. Regurgitating folk,
jungle, drone, white noise and electronica onto a K-tel style
platter of this weeks special leaves the listener
with a queasy stomach and a headful of noise that encapsulates
what the 90s have wrought. Mirror may be too much of a sonic
overload for the less discerning music fan, but the envelope
pushers among you may just want to try discovering what its
like Being Dave Pearce.
Mr. Rapps first studio recording in over a quarter of a century opens with an a cappella rendition of Yeats Silver Apples. Its a bold move which announces Im back! warts and all. That beautiful voice crackles a bit here and there, but adds to the cozy campfire feeling of the songs that follow. The Swimmer is dedicated to Kurt Cobain (and a second, full instrumentation version of Silver Apples is dedicated to Simeon Coxe from the band of the same name that, like Rapp, had its nascent career jumpstarted via appearances at the recent Terrastock festivals. Rapp and Simeon were two of the few performers who appeared at all three festivals.) Assisted by fellow Terrastock alum, Stone Breath and Green Crown multi-instrumentalist Olivardil Prydwyn on harp, Rapps eulogy to the troubled star questions societys role in ignoring not only Cobains demons, but all like minded troubled individuals:
we all pass by so silently
like swimmers in the dark
lost inside the pull of tides
that keep us all apart
people drowning all among us
if only we could see
and theyre lost like all the fishes
that can never find the sea.
Here Rapp, as he did so often with Pearls Before Swine, displays a knack for creating what superficially appears to be a simple tale of a lost sole (sic) floundering in a sea of indifference, but actually is a scathing indictment of societys ignorance of everyone but themselves.
Blind opens with the riff from Buffy Sainte Maries Universal Soldier (on harmonica, no less!) and puts another spin on the old life passing before my eyes cliché while Space features Rapps finest vocal performance on this welcome return. (A demo version of this old PBS track is also available with the current folk issue of Ben Goldbergs wonderful Badaboom Gramophone #4 magazine. Also, note that Dave Pearce of FSA was actually the first to commit this song to vinyl on the Rapp/PBS tribute album, For the Dead in Space and an updated 1999 version appears on his Mirror release [see above.])
Most of the LP was produced by Damon Krukowski at the studio, Kali, that he runs with partner Naomi Yang (both are ex-members of Galaxie 500, current residents of Magic Hour and have three of their own releases available on Sub Pop.) Damon & Naomi also performed with Rapp at the Terrastock festivals, making this album a reunion of sorts (Dave thanks many Terrastock alum on the back cover) and Damon returns the favor by adding drums to Mars, a rather inconsequential rambling piece that seems unfinished. Damon and Prydwyn also contribute to Hopelessly Romantic, which also features Toms son David from Shy Camp. Tom performed an early solo version of this song on his tribute album, but the vocal here is crisper, the production stronger and the additional instrumentation (including Toms old PBS partner, Carl Edwards) rejuvenates the song into a wonderful campfire singalong. Kudos, also to Prydwyns wonderful mandolin work here. Damon, Naomi and Prydwyn also join Tom for Wedding Song and one is immediately reminded of their Terrastock collaboration and how seamlessly this quartet blends together. Its nice to finally have a studio performance of them captured for posterity. Speaking of being hopelessly romantic, this song contains my favorite lyric in the whole set, The only thing I love more than you is us.
This brings us to the albums centerpiece, Shoebox Symphony. Tom discovered the track in a shoebox on an old PBS tape marked 1968 and it is presented here for the first time. Recorded and co-produced in London by Nick Saloman and Ade Shaw from the Bevis Frond and at Kali Studios in Cambridge, Massachusetts by Damon & Naomi (and featuring all four), the trilogy opens with Where is Love? featuring a lengthy organ solo by Nick, who combines the riff from The Beatles Nowhere Man with a lilting merry-go-round styled funhouse melody. Tom enters with his best Dylan impersonation, circa Highway 61 and were off and running with the first shoulda been a hit single of 2000. Part two, State U is another scathing diatribe against the phony peace and love myth of the 60s as Tom recounts the lifestyles of the ungrateful generation that seemingly had everything handed to them on a silver platter, yet still found the time to write FUCK on the bathroom walls. The symphony ends with the nursery rhyme mantra Just Let the Grass Grow accompanied by Ade Shaws special FX of children laughing in what appears to be a pastoral picnic outing.
[Special note: the CD version
of the album features a hidden track recorded at Terrastock I
in Providence, Rhode Island in 1997, where Tom does a perfect
rendition of Woody Allens stand up comedy routine as he
recounts a hilarious drug story from the old days,
peopled with the likes of Wavy Gravy, the New York City Drug
Enforcement Agency and Electra, er, a major recording label on
the east coast. Hopefully, a full version of this concert will
see the light of day sometime soon.]
The new year is all abustle with releases from Terrastock alumni (not to mention Nick Salomans Woronzow imprint) and this may be the best of them all. Seattles Green Pajamas have been around for a decade and a half and this, their 15th full length (and third in less than three years) may be the one that finally elevates them above cult status. Wasting no time, Jeff Kelly and company pick up where they left off on last years best album, All Clues Lead To Meagans Bed (Camera Obscura) with the wonderful one-two pop psych punch of Just A Breath Away from the Night and Shes Still Bewitching Me. The formers opening Taxman guitar riff yields to Joe Ross melodic McCartney-esque basslines and were off on another of Kellys excursions into Revolver-era Beatlemania, while the latter is another example of the genius of Kellys uncanny knack to effortlessly produce some of the finest "shoulda been" hit singles of the last decade. A melody that refuses to release its stranglehold on our heartstrings, Jeff once again relates his undying devotion to wife, Susanne with a universal Valentine that men everywhere can offer to their sweethearts. Once and for all, the GPJs emphatically answer the question: what would the Fab Four sound like if they had an opportunity to hit the reunion circuit?
Keyboard player Eric Lichters Riverfull of Reasons opens with the guitar riff straight out of the younger Dylans 6th Avenue Heartache and features some nice slide guitar from Kelly. Joe Ross My Visit with Magpie reveals the GPJs secret weapon: like Teenage Fan Club before them, the band boasts three major songwriters, each with their own unique voice and sound, yet each with the ability to focus their energies and vision on the Pajamas ethic without seemingly auditioning for a solo career.
Newest Pajama Laura Weller breaks into the old boys club with her backing vocal contribution to She Doesnt Love You Anymore. Having previously duetted with Jeff on Strung Behind the Suns Secret Day, Weller previously led Capping Day, one of the bands Ross migrated to during his brief GPJ hiatus. Here, she adds a wonderful softness to Kellys melodic confections. Joe told me recently, "Laura fits in well with the Pajamas 'sound' and I'm sure Jeff is glad to finally be working with a professional." and this tightening of previous songs tendencies to overstay their welcome augurs well for the bands future.
Not content merely to replicate
the Beatles circa 66, Kelly also shows a fondness for their
US counterparts, the Pre-Fab Four Monkees, pilchering the melody
from the chorus of their version of Neil Diamonds Im
A Believer for Bronte Moon. The old Nick Lowe
game of Spot the Riff continues with Swans
and Butterflies. Both Here Comes the Sun and
The Records Starry Eyes are in there somewhere
amidst this laid back country tinged tale of passage and change.
Just as the ugly duckling transforms into the beautiful swan,
so, too, does the butterfly symbolize evolution and the lyrics
relate the desire of the storyteller to advance beyond a platonic
relationship, all the while realizing the impossibility of this
ever coming to pass.
Jeff hikes his voice up an octave for Planet Love, another toe tapper that recalls AM radio hits from the 60s. In fact, the whole album is almost presented as a game of Name that Tune. A longtime trademark of the GPJs is that many of their songs remind you of something youve heard before, yet they are all unique. Kelly and Co. wear their record collections on their sleeves and invite you to join the party. After all, the best hosts always seem to have the most adventurous record collections to enthrall you with at friendly get togethers.
Still Never Away reminds me of lullabies my mom sang me to sleep with and also demonstrates Kellys fascination with Leonard Cohens method of assembling lilting madrigal-like melodies into a basic three minute pop song. The title track is a bit of a departure from its surroundings and resurrects the bands old pension for endless jamming, a staple of their early live sets. It doesnt totally work for me because it doesnt seem focused on a final destination. Perhaps the point of the title, but Im not so sure it wouldnt have been more effective at half its 9 minute length.
So, title track aside, Seven Fathoms Down and Falling adds another masterpiece to the increasingly impressive discography of The Green Pajamas, perhaps the finest pop band in the world today.
[ED. - My utmost apologies to Jeff for publishing this almost 3 month's after recieving them. Things got a bit weird at the home office and sadly it meant a big hiatus on updates. Again, sorry Jeff.]