Monday, June 30, 2008

Neo-Psychedelia's Short List

Fourth in a series, apparently, this week...Off to Neo-Psych’s highlights, but if my “brief” comments continue as prolifically as those on their forebears, this’ll be a monograph. Mercury Rev with “Yer Self Is Steam” began their upstate N.Y. career with weird, college-grad indie rock meets twisted studio loopy and convoluted, but catchy, dives into whirlpools. Avoid anything past its follow-up “Boces,” which AMG ranks at #2 but I never would. Don’t confuse them with later albums, as politely dismal as those done by producer Dave Fridmann for the once-promising Low or Flaming Lips. Let weirdos near him and he dopes them into the type of pledge-drive giveaway music makers NPR listeners can rotate in their hybrid-SUV changers. Or, I guess iPod-GPS-cellphone gizmos.

College radio used to be more daring, indeed. Here’s some successes which you might have heard on a local station of taste, twenty years ago. Rain Parade’s two best, “Emergency Third Rail Power Trip” and the misleadingly titled “Explosions in the Glass Palace” take their sweet time roaming about the softer but no less lysergic primrose path, into darker hints of unease. Guitarist David Roback, before Mazzy Star, did the slow dirge drone with soporific cute singer deal with Kendra Smith in Opal. “Early Recordings” and “Happy Nightmare Baby” should please any fans of replacement Hope Sandoval’s narcotic seductions. Great late-night listening, a bit more raw than Mazzy Star, more unnerving. Smith wound up with a solo LP, “Five Ways of Disappearing,” worth rescuing from the bargain bin for what a girl who fled-- another neo-hippie goin' back twenty years after the Byrds, this time to a Humboldt Co. goat farm-- can prove in a some solar-powered studio near her dwelling in a forest cave, communing with druidesses. Then, she wandered off the grid. Mary Timony of D.C. Dischord-era punk evolved with first Helium and then solo CDs into a similar performer of a unicorn-in-laps of non-virgins feminist New Age post-rock.

The Elephant 6 collective from the South has birthed many bands, albeit far less concerned on record with sex, spirituality, or seances. Originally, I guess that Robert Schneider was among their masterminds. His band “Apples in Stereo” before they started a downhill slide for many albums gave colorful and compact, yet sturdy and vibrant, pop on “Fun Trick Noisemaker” and, for me, even better on the less heralded odds and ends of “Science Faire” superbly studied second-generation sonic successes. They capture the thrill of making music in a garage, and the need to mix melody with fuzz. They could use more female vocals, in fact; they remain closest to some Platonic ideal of “psychedelic pop,” which strays into wimpiness without enough grounding pedals or tweaked amps.

Neutral Milk Hotel
, mostly Jeff Mangum with help from Schneider and pals, made what many regard a supremely realized concept album at least in part based on the story of Anne Frank. Not sure how much you can trace this conceit, however; I only found out about this tie-in—- see the poignant “Holland, 1945”—- a decade after listening-- preferably on headphones-- to this overwhelmingly stuffed CD. The sound’s loaded with a mixture of singer-songwriter coming-of-age angst, Brian Wilson-levels of obsessed arrangements, warbles, shouts, whispers, and a driven mad genius that sui generis. It’s crammed with wizardry, and from the cover art to the graphics to the lyrics bespeaks a very complicated vision in its totality. A (small) book in the 33 & 1/3 series appeared on the gnomic, brash, steampunk, everything in the kitchen sink arrangements, and one-man-band defiantly hermetic “In the Aeroplane Under the Sea,” suitably.

Olivia Tremor Control
, the best named of these three Elephant 6 groups, explains their music’s intent and mood in the title of their first and best CD: “Music from the Unrealized Film Script—- Dusk at Cubist Castle.” They combine the esoteric artsier one-off whatevers with more linear if still bent semi-commercial songs. It fits together cinematically, evoking sensations more than logic, and should appeal to you dreamier, poppier adepts.

Other recent Americans who deserve attention: the past ten years have featured the heirs of Spacemen 3's honed, droning concentration. Seattle's Kinski's issued assertive albums that nudge closer to hard rock with a repetitive, but adeptly nuanced, post-punk skip. L.A.'s Farflung scoops up the S.F. assault of late 70s noise terrorists Chrome and dusts this with the stoner rock originating with Kyuss from the California desert and the celestial probes of Hawkwind's missions. Wooden Shijps, from San Francisco, to me gathers the spray of Spacemen 3 and cools it distilled into a dreamier wake akin to Loop's 1980s phased, flanged mantras from exurban England. This reminds me I must mention Flying Saucer Attack from Bristol, with what they called "rural psychedelia." Difficult to choose one CD from this 1990s outfit, but they're closest to the intersection of folk, electronica, and processed effects that nourish an organically computerized marriage of impressionistic mood pieces that capture changing weather on a wet island. It's as if cybernetics spawned a happier musical offspring, spinning yet still skittering away from wires and algorithms into a formerly pristine meadow. This approaches revelation at its most inspired moments.

Earlier, long before gospel and shrooms joined to spawn Rugby's Spacemen 3, L.A. pop-punks in Salvation Army turned to their personal sonic messiah—- after threat of lawsuit—- The Three O’Clock with acid-laced garage rock. They got twee and wound up working with “Raspberry Beret” Prince, but “She Turns to Flowers” captures their early promise—- a couple minutes' rush of backwards tapes, distorted riffs, and whiny whimsy. It's on a hit and miss compilation of their gawky birth, appropriately titled “Befour Three O’Clock.” The California revival around ’82 of psychedelia among veteran punks never panned out as I’d hoped, but The Bangles’ first few records, along with Rain Parade and Opal above, managed to set the scene as well as Arthur Lee once did, “between Clark and Hilldale” along a Sunset Blvd brought back by new wave before it succumbed to hair-metal.

Their Northern Cal counterparts, Scott Miller and whomever he played with, including Salvation-Three’s leader, the too-winsome Michael Quercio, risked a coy cuteness himself as he brainily composed clever, exceedingly intricate tangles of words and music into pop twists that began aping Alex Chilton and then, with producer Mitch Easter (before the studio wunderkind of power-pop, Helium and countless indie bands, and Southern quirky non-commercial jangle lured away Mrs. Miller), managed to reverberate for me into more controlled transmissions of talent. It's what a part-time musician on his spare time from his computer programming (it shows, sometimes overbearingly self-referentially trying too hard to please its maker, as it must have with Joyce) could create if he aspired to sing the ideas of Finnegans Wake via his typically awkward math genius and musical magpie bildungsroman into the radio-friendly brevity of Big Star. An acquired taste lyrically and vocally, as Miller’s own credits once billed himself with “the usual obnoxious whine.”

Too tactile to be escapist music, it could bite beneath the superficial sweetness. Miller's liking for twinkly keyboards and synth-drums appears half-genuine, half-satirical. He buried classic guitar runs beneath mountains of track overlays. His music can wander within extraordinarily layered textures. Never trapped by neo-psych for long, particular compositions survive meticulous assembly; they shine with elegance and emotion. Taken from four studio albums made as Game Theory and its successor, and five studio discs from a harder-edged, bitterer (post-divorce), and tougher ensemble named magnificently in a typical double-entrendre The Loud Family created for me (next to the far more acclaimed, if deservedly so, Yo La Tengo) consistently smart, memorable, and intricate sour pop music 1984-2004, or so.

An Australian band had another brush with a knack for tunefulness that could tip into smarminess, with annoyingly overplayed college radio hit two decades ago. But The Church polished two earlier LPs—- well before the one with “Under the Milky Way”-- to a smoother finish: despite ponderous verses declaimed that ironically match their pop-prog-paisley penchant, “The Blurred Crusade” has smoldering, languid guitar epics that crest and build woozily; “Heyday” witnesses them in on their own pose, as they don paisley shirts on the cover of a more concise set of songs, their punchiest would-be hits and most accessible homages.

I’ve mentioned England's standard-bearers The Soft Boys in earlier entries. Later English groups in the early 90s inherited rave's dosage, post-punk's compression, and psychedelia's imagination. They concocted their own blend, louder, punchier, and produced. Liverpool's Boo Radleys stirred impressively overdriven engineering into sturdy pop underneath that on mid-90s albums "Everything's Alright Forever" and "Giant Steps" with Sice's winsome vocals vs. Martin Carr's nimble guitar combined the studio craft of XTC with the layered warmth of shoegazing-- and that's a whole sub-genre that builds well upon these languidly uneasy inspirations. Here, I find "Loveless" from My Bloody Valentine, "Rev" from Ultra Vivid Scene, "Going Blank Again" from Ride, "Chrome" and the b-sides "Like Cats and Dogs" among fine albums from The Catherine Wheel, and nearly all of Swervedriver rewarding me most after the test of fifteen years. All these bands mix erotic yearning, emotional frustration, and electrifying textures into a scrappy, edgier strain of neo-psych.

Wales with Ectoplasm opens up the melodic prettiness of Echo & the Bunnymen circa "Ocean Rain" with a Krautrock homage to a lengthier locked and loaded potency, extended over pilgrimages into hallucinogenic garden paths and forest meadows. They feature a female singer who's gentle yet not cloying. They avoid fragility, and know how to stop mincing and start marching.

Their fellow adventurous Welshmen I've made asides to in yesterday's blog entry; they also made their earliest releases on Ankst, the same label as Ectoplasm. Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci in my post-punk entry yesterday. Those two Welsh bands matured from schoolboy punk or frenzy into skilled interpreters of their own Sain Welsh-language heritage, best chased down on the hit-and-miss outtakes and B-sides of SFA’s “Outspaced” and GZM’s “Bwyd Time,” which with “Patio” and “Tatay” were not remastered as had been planned a few years back, so I must be content with the “Introducing” compilation for the foreigners—- yet, as with the Furries, their best moments, as with so many psych bands, lay in the casual asides and one-offs.

Photo from collage at Last.FM Psychedelic station.


Zonk Monk said...

speaking of the super furries, we went to see them in wales at greenman this past summer and opening that days' show i saw a band you might like. from canada even. the saffronsect. they even "borrowed" yeats' "stolen child".

found your blog looking for language cd's on the sly, incidentally.

Fionnchú said...

Welcome! I even have a tag over there somewhere for "monks" or "monasticism," although I've never cross-referenced such a blog entry with "psychedelics." Or, perhaps, Welsh language, although the latter category'd work well in many cases.

I trust that The Saffron Sect (I like the name better than the forgotten punk band The Subway Sect) even though Canadian did a better cover than Loreeeeeena McKennitt, yikes. Or The Waterboys.

zonk monk said...

they just quoted the poem in a chorus of one of what i presumed was one of their own songs. reminds me of gryphon meets tyranno rx. weilding sitars, krumhorns and recorders/whistles.

the band that came on right after, 9 BACH, sang exclusively in welsh, and were really spectacular, hard to describe musically, but really good.

the obvious highlight was seeing the re-formed pentangle.

Fionnchú said...

Annywl, ZM...

Pentangle back-- not to mention 9 Bach plus The Saffron Sect-- I wish I was there. Now I have two more bands to look up for a possible entry update. Gryphon meets T-Rex: certainly krumhorns with sitars intrigue me no end.

You might look up earlier albums by Athens, Georgia band Elf Power; their mid-period works around "When the Red King Comes" wandered into horns and percussion, although sadly not sitars. I don't hear them enough in rock, actually. Those, applied well, really energize raga-ish neo-psych for me, and I will certainly hunt down SS (and 9B0.

Diolch yn fawr i chi!