Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Three O'Clock's "The Hidden World Revealed": Music Review

The Three O'Clock started in the South Bay, with humble studios, small labels, and eager punks in the late 1970s. Some Southern Californian musicians started Black Flag, The Last, or the Circle Jerks; some stayed eclectic, as the Descendents or The Minutemen. A handful of curious teens with eclectic tastes formed the Salvation Army. After a lawsuit over that hallowed name loomed, a shift towards poppy psychedelia ushered in the group, now as The Three O'Clock. Listen now to twenty tracks: fan club singles, alternate takes, ten unreleased tracks or versions. Often, this variety portends a sonic barrel being scraped. Instead, The Hidden World Revealed, in many facets, sparkles.

I played The Salvation Army's debut LP a lot, and that inventive (if primitive due to recording limitations, low budgets, basic skills, and hormonal haste) punk-psychedelic fusion arguably jump-started L.A.'s Paisley Underground (Bangles, Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, Long Ryders, Rain Parade, Opal) scene. You can hear echoes of that intensity on this compilation documenting 1981-1986, but most of this offers different versions of more sophisticated songs, often from their first full-length Sixteen Tambourines and the transitional e.p. after the Army became the Clock (the time they rehearsed gave the band its new moniker), in their period captured on the aptly titled Baroque Hoedown.

"All In Good Time" starts with what I had wondered--after having downloaded this for review from a file--might have been my mistaken click on an Irish folk collection in a nearby MP3 folder. Its Celtic reel threw me. Given half of these inclusions are not those on the Frontier Records releases I own, the confusion proved enjoyable. On this version, Mike Mariano's keyboards must have been programmed like Big Country's rather than Louis (Greg) Gutierrez's guitars. Bassist Michael Quercio's distinctive voice, often hesitant, slightly high and reliably yearning, always made for an intriguing contention against Salvation Army's lo-fi roar and rattle. In The Three O'Clock, his emotional expression found an easier way to be heard over uptempo but better recorded, less aggressive, mid-tempo material.

Drummer Danny Benair contributes brief but informative context for each song; "With A Cantaloupe Girlfriend" starts with his firm pounding, and Mariano's filigrees enrich Gutierrez on a soaring guitar for an oddly titled but truly catchy song. Quercio's bass I have found mixed too low on the band's original records--this weakened the band's effect as it needed a firm foundation given his airy vocals.

The band during this phase favored a woozy, watery ambiance under a wash of percussion as on "In Love In Too". One of the best songs from their debut LP, "Stupid Einstein" keeps a nimble guitar jangling. A more amiable tune than its title may let on, Benair writes it reminds him of autumn.

Of course, for musicians such as these, an appropriate cover penned by a trippy 1960s icon appears. Syd Barrett's "Lucifer Sam" gets a solid rendition. KROQ-FM d.j. Rodney Bingenheimer, another icon for local listeners and Sunset Strip scenesters from the hippie heyday through the glam, punk, and new wave eras, receives tribute in a quick radio spot. Its Latin melody may show another, if less sonically apparent, influence on the band as they grew up in diverse suburbs south of Los Angeles. 

Benair opens the band's best known song, "Jet Fighter", with a determined delivery on drums. The band has (perhaps due to its later, post-Frontier Records years and association with Prince in his Paisley Park "Raspberry Beret" period) suffered by association with a later legacy of less assertive material. So, listening to this track should remind audiences of the band's ability to combine the slash of punk with the pulse of pop. Full of whoosh, psychedelic ambiance, and tuneful riffs, this feels like an confident rendition of a Nuggets garage band's cover song from fifteen years before, to its credit. 

Contrasting with five years earlier, an earnest nod to disco comprises "When Lightening [sic] Starts"; I've never warmed to its "whoo-whoo-uh". While this alternate version lacks horns (which increasingly filled moments on their lusher albums, tellingly), it isn't all that different. A competent song feeling more like a novelty, it's still disco. To my punk ears: as a contemporary of the band, I reckon we were all exposed by choice or force to this ubiquitous genre, in our growing years. 

This collection concentrates on the indie-label Frontier period, but a couple of songs come from the period when a 1985 album was released on I.R.S., Arrive Without Traveling. Another well-chosen  title. But the band drifts towards less heft and more waft. The demo "Sound Surrounds" finds Mariano's piano and Quercio's vocals aping the Kinks who in turn mimicked the British music-hall tradition. To my punk ears (much as I admire that group's recorded peak between 1966-1971), it's a doubly dated sound, one that while recreated in decent fashion moves The Three O'Clock into too twee a tone, imitating rather than innovating from its late-'60s inspirations. 

Dropped from the original Sixteen LP, "Around The World" combines a perkier pace with Quercio's lilting voice. Due to its softer quality, it can get lost in the louder songs, but the alternation of Benair's confident drums and Gutierrez' guitar fills until Mariano's keyboards take over makes this a worthwhile example of their pop-psych. "On My Own" in an alternate version--with strings--foreshadows the mellower evolution of the band. It features a fine riff, but tends towards modesty. You can hear similarities with a collaborator of Quercio's to be featured soon, the late Scott Miller.
More echoed than its released version, "I Go Wild" in its alternate take feels tiny and tinny. But this "recording in a can" quality (as with Salvation Army) can reveal charm. The guitars wobble here more, and the airless compression of the vocals enrich the buzzing melody and atmospheric jitters.

"In My Own Time" from the Bee Gees in this horn-less version works as well as the released one, if less dramatically in its harmonies. If you did not know its origins, you'd believe it was an original. This speaks to the skill with which the band integrated their forebears into their own songwriting. 

You can also hear how a studio, or practice, improves a song. Comparing "Why Cream Curdles In Orange Tea" in its hesitant playing and Quercio's strained (and interestingly, deeper) register with its evolution into "In Love In Too" shows the band's progression from a rough demo to a better version. I am not sure if they heard an equally raw R.E.M. at this time (for whom they would later on open), but there's a similar fumbling yearning.

A pleasing whirl, "A Day In Erotica" (a title I imagine caught Prince's attention) shimmers in a slightly altered take. Swirling keyboards, fingered guitar, and measured drums highlight the hopeful singing. In the middle, it breaks out to a merry-go-round tune and fairground noises, and tape loops, in pleasingly Beatles-like fashion. It's a pastiche, but it's enjoyable. 

We need to hear from the band's predecessor, so "Jennifer Only" gives a home demo from The Salvation Army, a tape lost in transit to Rodney on the ROQ (a showcase for local hopefuls). As you'd expect, this documents the band's inception, and sets off their sophisticated phase tellingly. You can hear the melody--even if it must be handled more by the hint of the vocal as the instrumentation is so rattling--and you can discern Quercio's talent and Gutierrez' drive within their embryonic states.

Leader of like-minded power-pop Game Theory and a more experimental The Loud Family, Scott Miller collaborated with Quercio. "The Girl With The Guitar (Says Oh Yeah)" shows how these singer-songwriters share lyrical and vocal styles. Miller, more self-deprecating than Quercio perhaps, once on an album credited himself as "miserable whine". These hints of a folksier, earthier approach, which both talented frontmen in their bands tended to underplay, make this an appealing inclusion. 

A fragile tune with a hint of bossa nova, perhaps "Seeing Is Believing" presages the Prince period. A slight lounge ambiance gives this a lighter quality, and opens into the band's subsequent, calmer style. Still, Benair's drums find the right touch, and help ground this as so many of their delicate songs.

Another entry into higher atmospheres, Quercio's "Regina Caeli" shows him delivering this Marian hymn; gradually the band enters with its spacier effects. The song opens up, then, after the vocals, into a massed manipulation of the material recalling a denser song like "Jet Fighter"--or "Strawberry Fields Forever". It's worth noting Quercio's lower register for this as opposed to his band's own tunes. None of the members may find themselves solo in a choir, but it's a surprising, off-beat diversion. 

Gene Clark of the Byrds created "Feel A Whole Lot Better"; as only 27 vinyl copies of the Clock's version as a thank-you for Rodney Bingenheimer exist, this is welcome. David Roback (Rain Parade/Mazzy Star) on guitar guests. I am not sure how the send-off lyrics fit with a tribute to mild-mannered Rodney, but whoever covers it, I will always cherish this country-rock classic.

In closing, this handsomely assembled look back at a band who thirty years ago blended the immediate excitement of punk with the blissful immersion of psychedelic pop deserves rediscovery. The Hidden World Revealed lives up to its title. For old fans or new arrivals, it's a realm worth a visit. (Edited/revised--Amazon US does not accept, I found now for the second time, "Circle Jerks" -- on 9-15-13; as above, 9-11-13 to PopMatters)

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