= MARCH 2008 =
|The Quarter After
|The Exploding Madonna
(CD / 2LP from Ecstatic Peace)
My, how far our good friend Matt Valentine has travelled since we first happened across him performing (along with PG Six) in Tower Recordings, back in 1997 or so. It’s always fascinating to watch when one of the flowers of the Terrastock Nation blooms and catches the prevailing wind of the comparative mainstream. Suddenly they are clutched to the bosoms of the media at large and acclaimed as “leading figures of the new America underground”, neatly filed in some familiarly shaped pigeon-hole, and trusted to behave at least predictably from then until the next new wave washes everything away.
After releasing last year the latest and arguably the finest of their folk-psych musical notebooks to date, ‘Mother of Thousands’, an album awash with fractured melodies and sprawling instrumentation underpinned by Matt Valentine (MV)’s fancifully obscure lyrical playfulness, MV & EE (the EE standing for Erica Elder) confounded expectations by focusing more on structurally sound songcraft and aiming for a more down-home, countrified sound for this, the follow-up. With MV turning his previously understated guitar into a lead instrument that firmly puts the Axe into woodshedding, (“I had to start playing loud in order to get myself heard”, he laughed after a recent gig when I asked him about this), comparisons with Neil Young were bound to follow fairly soon afterwards. This is, remember, the band who have a pet dog named Zuma, after all. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before their majestic new MV/EE with the Golden Road album ‘Getting’ Gone’ was being moved out of the “loner/stoner folk” section and into the main racks.
'Speed Queen' and 'Mama My' are perhaps the guilty parties here, as brilliant as they both are. There are undeniably echoes of Mr. Young in his pomp. Matt’s guitar bleeds on the knife-edge of feedback on the latter, while guest drummer J. Mascis, better known perhaps for the Fender Jazzmaster he normally wields with Dinosaur Jr., lays down a pounding barnstorm of a rhythm behind him; whilst on the former the band adopt that scrunched-up, frazzled '70s amp sound that sets the Crazy Horse albums apart.
Seen and heard live, the songs on here really come into their own. The sprawling, epic dreamlike meanderings of ‘Love Ranges’ and the shorter but no less intense ‘Hammer’ both become behemoths of lush, swirling, all-embracing sound: helped in no small part it must be said on recent UK dates by the addition of Mick Flower from the Vibracathedral Orchestra on bass. Likewise ‘The Burden’ features some restrained and truly beautiful guitar playing from MV. And all the while, Canadian slide and pedal steel player Doc Dunn's soaring sounds cast a majestic authority over everything, echoing B.J. Cole in all his glory. And therein lies the key to true understanding. One listen to songs like 'Country Fried', and the knowing will nod sagely and tap their pointy boots. MV&EE aren’t the new Crazy Horse; they are tapping into a long-gone altered-state form of wasted country rock once championed by the likes of Cochise, with sublimely structured songwriting coupled with magnificently lacerated guitar passages.
Formed in the Notting Hill area of London in 1969, the seeds of Cochise were sown when pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole, desperate to break out of the traditional country music bands that his choice of instrument straitjacketed him into, joined guitarist Mick Grabham and a bassist and drummer from Cambridge to form a band playing “not country rock, but a rock band with a bit of a country sound”. They spearheaded a handful of fine bands who ploughed a similar furrow for a while back then, many of them signing to United Artists Records: the Buffalo Springfield-influenced Gypsy, with their three guitar/four vocalist line-up; Brinsley Schwarz, and Help Yourself (the latter spoken with a hushed emphasis, since as anyone who knows me well will tell you, Malcolm Morley and Helps are the fountainhead who lead directly to my abiding love of psychedelic rock).
Matt Valentine recently wrote an essay extolling Help Yourself for ‘The Wire’, and the band have also been known to incorporate a version of ‘ The All Electric Fur Trapper’ into their set, lifted from the Helps’ second album ‘Strange Affair’. You have to love them for that alone. Well, I do anyway. This is a fine, fine album though either way. (Phil McMullen)
(CD from Sunnyday Records, 7 Lansdowne Terrace, Twyford, Berkshire. RG10 9DY)
Carrot Top Records)
First a little history on this band, itself named after the American Civil War battle that was to become the bloodiest day in US history. From 1978 to 1983 guitarist Tara Key and bassist Tim Harris formed part of Kentucky punk outfit, the Babylon Dance Band, an outfit that toured the Mid West and East Coast of the US extensively. Based on incendiary live work, Key began to build a reputation as a singular guitarist, one some thought the best female rock guitarist on the planet. The ultimate collapse of the Babylon Dance Band led to Key and Harris relocating to New York to form Antietam. Initially, Antietam was an expansive avant-punk concern, with a Key's guitar work underpinned by a poly-rhythmic stew courtesy of multiple bassists and a drummer drawn from the jazz sphere. Homestead released the albums 'Antietam' (1985) and 'Music from Elba' (1986), during their vintage period – at the time they were upending the culture with acerbic early releases by Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. Then reinvention as a power trio followed, with Josh Modell on drums, and further irregular albums for various labels. Almost, by 2004's 'Victory Park' on the discerning Carrot Top imprint, one could be forgiven for thinking they had hung up their spurs and drifted into well-earned retirement. It was their first album in ten years. Tara Key had explored her pop and folk side on side and solo projects, Tim recorded with Terrascope favourites The Special Pillow (illustrating the connectedness of all things indeed). Arriving eventually at 'Opus Mixtum', 17 years from their formation as a trio, with line-up, influences, and coolness intact.
Survivors, but not just content to survive, with 'Opus Mixtum' the band have drawn from their histories, both together and in collaboration, and seamlessly woven the main elements of their sonic obsessions into a fascinating fabric. Quoting the band "The title comes from a method of laying brick in ancient Rome that combined rectangular and diagonal patterns, but we use it to connote the mix of three styles: Antietam rock, the acoustic pop of Tara Key solo releases, and the instrumental soundtracks of our lives." (Quoted here because it's difficult to put it any better than that.) The first disc opens with a deceptively mellow acoustic guitar and cello instrumental before launching into a blistering set of tracks that largely fall into the garage-punk transitioning into power-pop category. 'RPM' is great garage rock, pure 1978 CBGBs in feel, and one can really get that the Stooges, Clash, and Dead Moon were/are major influences. 'Shipshape' is a wonderful tune, with splintering, coruscating Crazy Horse influenced guitar work. Interesting here and elsewhere how guitar is used to carry so much of the melody. It's an extraordinary track, but there is so much in store one barely gets a chance to doff one's cap in its direction. 'Turn it on Me' is classic power pop, postulating what the Bangles might have sounded had the music driven the vehicle alone, without other passengers with different agendas grabbing the steering wheel as well. 'Miss Me Bliss' is exemplar of the first disc as a whole, gloriously melodic, structurally perfect, and radiating like a burning star nucleus. A moment here to mention various guests who add curlicues and arabesques: Mark Howell on horns, Katie Gentile (Run On, Special Pillow) on violins, and Rick Rizzo (Eleventh Dream Day) on (because you can't have enough) supplementary guitar.
The second disc gets under way with the trippy trumpet and acoustic guitar dialogue of 'Hasten' and it's just so different to anything on the first disc that it really brings home the diversity on offer here. And it's clear that even though ostensibly made from the same mix of rock, pop and exploratory instrumental pieces as the first disc, a more wide-ranging journey is being taken. Certainly there is more focus on pure instrumentals. 'It's Not About You' sets off brain stem recollections of both Bob Mould's solo work, and Throwing Muses at their most muscular and angular. 'Pennants and Flags' burns like the best Australian post-punk: think the Scientists meets Radio Birdman but with Mo Tucker on vocals. Soaring strings and electric guitar work launch instrumental track 'The Gat Closed' to the stars, and it's emblematic of how strong the instrumental tracks are here – not fillers, but bold, confident compositions like their song counterparts. (There are 11 instrumentals among the 26 tracks here.) Other standouts here are the exquisite, piano-driven 'March Echo', the driving rock bliss of 'Time Creeps', the Jurassic metal of 'Crawl' and the explosive Bluely Cheerful 'You/I'. Counting out the disc is the desert rock instrumental 'Tierra del Fuego', and it's allowed to range free at a length of nearly 10 minutes.
In many ways it's an 80s record, but made greater with the wisdom of years, than if the band had attempted it back then. Partly recorded live to two-inch magnetic tape in a live room, and partly constructed digitally at home, it's an ideal mix: on the one hand of retrograde sonics and thick impenetrable post-punk mixes, and on the other spacious, looped and carefully assembled digital sound-scapes. Kudos to auxiliary live band member Josh Clark for the atavistic rock sonics and Tara and Tim for the digital work. Their theoretically divergent aesthetics mix together seamlessly. Catch them tearing up the place at Terrastock 7 in their birthplace in June. (Tony Dale)
Two albums from relative newcomers to the Terrascope, both offering a wealth of talent and potential and featuring two wonderful voices, each with their own unique sound.
Hailing from New England, Allysen Callery is a friend of Marissa Nadler and it was Marissa who suggested she got in touch. I am so glad she did, for her album “Hopey” is a sparkling collection of west coast folk gems that gets better with every listen. As soon as the sweet melodies of “Feathertouch” fill the air, it is apparent that here is an artist with an ear for a good tune, a delicate touch and a definite love for Joni Mitchell, something that manifest itself in the quality of the songwriting rather than Allysen merely copying a style. On “Another Girl At The Bar”, the lyrics are a statement of intent and confidence stating “I can play guitar better than you” although the addition of “Just make me blue” suggests a sadness at the core of the song. Else where I am reminded of the bitter-sweet songs of Kristin hersh, especially on the beautiful “Midway”, a song worth the price of entry on its own. There is plenty more to enjoy however, in fact pick any song and you will enjoy some sweet sadness, soft smiles, and a wonderful glimpse of sunshine. Perfect music for a drive through the desert, or in my case a lazy afternoon in a sunlit lounge.
Hailing from Merry old England, well Cheltenham to be more precise, Rebsie Fairholm has created a shimmering masterpiece with her first solo album “Mind The Gap”. With a folk heart, the album cross into psych territory on a regular basis, taking in a west-coast vibe and a healthy dose of English humour as well.
Opening with the gentle sway of “Round Window”, all soft focus vocals and chiming piano; the album suddenly changes gear with the arrival of a pulsing electronic drumbeat heralding a vibrant rendition of “The Unquiet Grave”, the superb vocal performance adding majesty to the atmospheric arrangement. In her covering letter Rebsie describes her style as "Ethereal English dark psych-folk”, something demonstrated on the spoken “Spirits of the Dead” and the excellent “Geordie” a song which could be a lost acid folk classic from the early seventies. Elsewhere the voice comes into its own on the droning ache of “MacCrimmons Lament”, whilst “Buain A’Choirce” is a slice of mellow folk-rock with hints of electronica in its backing rhythms. Leaving the best until last (although I love it all), A drifting cover of “Julia Dream”, which sounds as though it could be the work of The Smell of Incense, so wonderful is its mellow floating psych vibe, is quickly followed by an intense and sonically perfect reading of “She Moves Through The Fair”. Opening with a soft drone and distant pipes, the vocals drift like mountain mist across the soundscape, creating five minutes of tender sadness as soothing as evenings fall on Midsummer.
Oh yes, not to ignore the English sense of humour, anyone owning a Leafblower or living next door to one should check out “Leafblower”, a psych-pop gem with modern relevance. Genius. (Simon Lewis)
Steered by Dominic Campanella and his brother Rob, the Quarter After have produced a divine blend of The Rain Parade and The Byrds on this, their second album, which is a joyous listen from start to finish.
Opening with the driving bass riff of “Sanctuary”, the band quickly find their groove, some wonderful chiming guitar and harmony vocals adding colour and texture to the tune. Once “She Revolves” kicks in you will be in paisley heaven, the best song Roger McGuinn never wrote and a gentle psychedelic classic with some fine fretwork to boot. As if to emphasise the Byrdsian influence, “Counting The Score” has a mellow country twang, before “See How Good It Feels” takes us into modern times with a crunchy guitar riff adding grit to the rocking tune, although the band demonstrate their use of light and shade as well, the song never running away with itself.
On the six-minute “Nothing Out of Something” the band pulls out all the stops, the guitar shimmering and snaking through the song like incense smoke, whilst the rest of the band lay down a serious West-Coast vibe, beautiful harmonies and a good time guaranteed. One listen to the nagging Hammond and dynamic arrangement will tell you that here is a band with class, worth the whole trip by itself.
Filled with subtle flavours, an eastern groove is laid down on “Winter Song”, the insistent Tablas and drones giving the song a hazy psych heart, whilst a mellotron adds some wonderful melodies behind. After all this mellow loveliness, the band crank it up for “This Is How I Want To Know You”, the band trading guitar riffs and vocal harmonies to perfection.
Finally the band close the album with the strange country garage of the weirdly named “Sempre Avanti (Johnny Marr Is Not Dead)”, a lazy shuffle of a song that features more wonderful playing before breaking down into a blissful drone. Whilst they may wear their influences on their collective sleeves, the songs on this album are so much more than mere copies, instead proving to be mature and long lasting songs that will remain in your collection for a long time.
Meanwhile back in the U.K. a bunch of Ladbroke Grove freaks, blag a coach and take a trip in the country, or so it seems, as Stephen Palmer AKA Mooch, re-creates the heady daze of British psych on his rather excellent album “1967 ½”. Whilst previous Mooch album have been awash with instrumental spaciness, this album is filled with short whimsical ditties that evoke that late sixties feel with consummate ease, complete with suitably twisted lyrics that complete the illusion. After the child-like opener “The Ice Cream Song”, things get stranger with the Brilliant “Truth Fairy” a song filled with effects, phasing, and backward noises, Not since The Dukes Of Stratosphere, has this period been resurrected so well. This standard is maintained on “Sylvester the Protester” which features a lovely guitar motif, and on “Wouldn’t It Be Good” a song with a definite Pink Floyd feel, Floyd under the control of Syd of course, as the sing-song verse is interrupted by tumbling electronics to great effect.
Elsewhere on the disc “In Time” cranks the guitar up for a bit of a freak-out, whilst “Haight Ashbury” features recorded voices and sounds mixed with droning electronics, whilst wistful poetry is read over the top, creating a dream like feel. On “Early Mornings”, droning sitar and eastern flutes are blended with organ chords and understated guitar to create the traditional mystical song, before “English Wisdom” brings us back to earth, the sound of early Moody Blues woven within the song. Finally “The Tea Song” is a suitably trippy way to end a fantastic voyage that sounds better each time you listen. The album comes with a pastiche of the International Times and has a lovely cover as well making it an essential purchase for lovers of UK psych pop.
Both these album are wonderful, invoking the sounds of the psychedelic sixties on both sides of the pond, whilst retaining a freshness and vitality that makes them relevant to today. (Simon Lewis)
(CD from SOFT ABUSE www.myspace.com/softabuse)
Recorded in 2002/03, this brief album is an intimate and fragile collection of songs and instrumentals from the talented Donovan Quinn (Skygreen Leopards, Verdure).
Opening with the title track, the music has the feel of a country fair, a soft recorder melody drifting above the organ and percussive splashes, the tune displaying the same wistful psych sadness as “Eleanor Rigby”, or “Strawberry Fields”. On “Blackbird Headspace” a melancholy folk melody is perfectly captured by a understated vocal performance that is intense and memorable, bringing to mind In Gowan Ring, whilst the song structure reminds me of the Norwegian Ring.
The same atmosphere is continued on “The Guttering Flame”, the albums finest track, every note placed with precision, wringing emotion from the dark lyrics, offering stark contrast to the sweetness of the music.
After the brief sketch of “At The Tent Revival”, the ghost of Dylan is found hiding in the guitar riff of “One Thousand Matchsticks”, although the instrumentation is far more ornate than on those early Dylan tunes, not that there is that much of it, just droning sounds and the occasional melodica flourish. The lonesome sound of the Banjo is used to great effect on “Saw A Ghost On The Water”, the picked strings adding an eerie rhythm to the song, whilst on “The Crooked Smile Of A Jack’O’Lantern” the instruments takes part in a wyrd folk hoe-down, a brief moment of humour amongst the general melancholy.
There is a stark directness to “Miner”, a deeply disturbing song that belies its simplicity with its lyrical bleakness, the song a powerful piece of music that will not easily leave your head. Finally we end with another version (or a continuation) of the title track, ending the album with a moment of clarity and warmth. Running for only 27 minutes this collection is highly recommended, if you can find it, limited as it is to 100 copies, and to my shame released at least four months ago. (Simon Lewis).
My good friend Tracy Lee Jackson, erstwhile production maestro for Terrastock 3 in London and for many years the driving force behind the Dreamy Records imprint, tipped me off about up and coming London band Lunar Dunes, and I’m really grateful that she did as their album has quickly become something of a favourite hereabouts in recent weeks.
The first thing that strikes you about it is, inevitably, the sublime artwork by Terrascope’s house-artist Iker Spozio, a stunning example of his art featuring twin girls rising above a desert shoreline, held aloft by budding flowers brought forth by the sun as their hair billows like rain across the night sky on the reverse. Details about the band themselves are sparse: they are primarily instrumental, with Adam Blake leading from the front on guitars and keyboards, someone referred to only as Hami plays drums and percussion and Ian Blackaby plays fretless bass, although we won’t hold that against him, particularly as there’s no sign of that dreadful early 80s signature looping wallow which was so often a trademark of dodgy pop groups around that time.
Lunar Dunes are anchored firmly in the fragrant musical compost of a decade or so before that as it happens, pulling in references as diverse as Jody Grind, Amon Duul and Spirit – ‘Loophole’ (track 4 on the CD) sounds uncannily like an outtake from the ‘Son of Spirit’ / ‘Farther Along’ period, and ‘Yaman’ (track 7) is jazzy and guitar-led enough to sound like a natural progression. There’s also hushed undertones of bands such as the keyboard-driven ‘Alcatraz’ (they of ‘Doing a Moonlight’ fame) who grew out of those legendary free-festival denizens the Man Band, particularly on the grandly named ‘Herzogovina (interpolating la Petit Chevalier)’.
Somewhere between Ladbroke Grove, Dusseldorf and Los Angeles lies the motherlode that Lunar Dunes have tapped into, and all credit to them for pulling it off with aplomb. Adam Blake is a good enough guitarist to transport the listener back to when it mattered, and the band as a whole are tight and effective enough to play the Progressive Rock card without a trace of irony. There are times, particularly early on in the album, when Lunar Dunes noodle off towards the bass-heavy, meditative festie groove dub sound personified by the Ozrics and a thousand minor imitations, but this is to be forgiven in the light of what follows....
The stand-out number is undoubtedly track 11, ‘My Lagan Love’ (to the best of my knowledge, emphatically not a cover of the Sinéad O’Connor song of the same name, though presumably named after the same Irish river) which features a similar slow-burning yet incendiary guitar line to that crafted by the oft-grieved over Crazy Alien, who adorned a Ptolemaic Terrascope cover disc several years ago and similarly knocked us completely sideways when we first heard it. The drumming on here is fantastic as well; all in all, fabulous stuff and worth checking out for this track alone, though I suspect many regular readers will be just as taken with the earlier psych-space trance rhythms and lunar groove jams laid down by this ineffably tight little outfit. Definitely one to watch. (Phil McMullen)
CD from www.theexplodingmadonna.com )
Featuring, guitars, bass, synths and
samples, plus some drifting space-rock vocals, ”Joe Namath’s
Laboratory” is a good example of the bands identity, with plenty of
light and shade amongst the electronic squall, the song almost
buried behind the drone. On “Beneath Naked Heaven”, things are
slowed down majestically, the droning organ laced with synths before
a gorgeous guitar line lifts the song into the clouds. From this
point the song slowly builds, changing as slowly as clouds in a blue
windless sky, until they fade altogether.
As with many bands beloved of the
Terrascope, it is the longer songs that appeal more and the
nine-minute “Hyperxiological Sky” is no exception, a warm rolling
bass-line paving the way for some stately prog spaciness before the
band crumble into dust with a chilled mid section of electronic
bliss. Mind you, the short songs are great too, as proven by the
brief atom-bomb of punk noise that is “The Stansbury Case”, whilst
“Blank Space Ocean” is a primal therapy session turned into ritual
and is easily the most psychedelic track on the album.
Finally, this three-piece band from
Tallahassee lead us out in merry confusion with another slice of
psychedelic happiness as “Mary In Slow Motion” manages to sound like
every band you have ever loved, all in eight and a half minutes.
Best played loud, this is a wonderfully deranged slice of space heaven, and the collection of improvised material they sent me suggests their live shows are well worth attending, complete with a suitably trippy lightshow. (Simon Lewis)