Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: Sun Araw

I’m so glad the PR guy didn’t respond to my request for an advance review download of Sun Araw’s latest album, Ancient Romans. He represents a lot of my favorite bands and independent labels, and he’s usually super responsive. But for some reason this request was met with silence. I took at as a sign and decided not to ask again. Best to wait and get it on release day and experience it for the first time the way it’s meant to be experienced.

I’ve been eager for this release ever since it was announced way back in May as a double LP on white vinyl with a gatefold cover and a 24-page art book – all words that make a vinyl junkie like me start to twitch. Sun Araw, a solo project by LA-based Cameron Stallones, has been one of my favorites ever since I picked up the 2010 Woodsist E.P. Off Duty. A lot of the stuff coming out these days under the banner of psychedelic rock is little more than simple triads bent by effects pedals, and it just kind of drones in the background. But Sun Araw is so rich with overlapping rhythms and freaky twisted notes that it reaches into your head and squeezes the liquid out of your brain. Off Duty is like Remain in Light slowed down, turned inside out, cast in plastic and then melted on a glass plate that rotates slowly inside a microwave oven, under a strobe. Exactly like that. It’s the Talking Heads structure, the micro-rhythms and tones neatly tucked into one another to create a kind of fabric of sound, except with Sun Araw all the micro-rhythms and tones are distorted with effects and feedback so they sound like liquid -- thick, melted-plastic liquid. With a little strobe added. A variable-speed multi-colored strobe hooked up to a rheostat run through a wa-wa pedal.

After I got Ancient Romans on release day, I left it in the brown package until it was dark outside and I was in the right mood. Without opening the gatefold, I pulled out the first disk. As advertised, it was as white as polished marble, with a gorgeous label bearing a painting of Roman ruins bathed in red light. I lowered the tone arm and the room filled with currents of liquid organ sounds and sternum-rattling waves from bass bombs as I settled into my zero-gravity chair with the cover and art book. There was no mistaking it: this record was made for tripping. The cover’s adorned with photos of Roman ruins that are enlarged just to the point of distortion so the colors shift in and out of one another and kind of float. On the front page of the booklet are quotes from Hermetica, Asclepius II -- “Eternity enters into time, and it is in time that all movement takes place” – and William Blake – “Contracting our Infinite sense we behold the Multitude, or expanding we behold as One.” Far out. Inside there’s a page for each track on the album, all bearing images of Roman statues and paintings of how Rome might’ve looked back in the day. Each features cryptic writings such as “The Fragrant Gate” and “Primal Splendour, who sends out innumerable rays, not perceptible by the senses, but collectively thinkable,” all of which are sure to pleasantly scramble the lysergically tainted mind.

The music’s a bit mellower than the earlier Sun Araw records I’ve heard, and Stallones has invited a few guest musicians to help him flesh the project out with angular strains of saxophone, trumpet and harp synthesizer. Stephen Malkmus of Pavement fame even plays drums on a couple of tracks. Over all, it’s got a flowering sense to it, with new rhythms and tightly curled melodies blooming all over the place. It’s fitting because in a recent interview Stallones said that when he was making the album he “was spending every day after work reading in this garden of succulents that’s deep in Griffith Park, being confronted with some very alchemical moments, where seeds were leaping up to meet these ideas about time, attainment of higher worlds, etc. Then I would go home and record all night.” So that we, in turn, can stay up all night enjoying the fruits of his creation.

Sun Araw: Ancient Romans by alteredzones

Monday, August 22, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You On - At the Movies #20 - Shadow of a Doubt (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

Alfred Hitchcock may be one of the best-known directors in the world, but this film – one he often referred to as his favorite of his own films – seems to have been forgotten as one of his best, a masterpiece on par with his more widely known and loved films likeNorth By Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho. To sum up the film’s plot is simple – a man who is possibly a murderer runs from the city police on his trail to hide out in his relatives’ small hometown. There his niece, and also his namesake, begins to suspect that he’s not friendly Uncle Charlie after all. But the plot description can barely begin to convey the feeling of the film and the way it’s shot.
This film, his sixth after moving to the United States from England, can be said to be the first of his American films that’s really his own, after several assignments from his studio on which he managed to put his mark, but didn’t carry through from conception to finished product. Written by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville, this film is a precursor to such modern portraits of suburban malaise as Blue Velvet, where corruption and evil lurk just underneath the veneer of respectable society. Here, Uncle Charlie arrives by train, faking an illness so he doesn’t have to interact with the train’s other passengers (including Hitchcock in his cameo) and as the train pulls into town the skies fill with black smoke (more accurately – the screen fills with smoke) while a shadow from the train engulfs the Newton family he’s come to visit. His niece Charlotte, also called Charlie by the family, has nearly willed him into existence in their hometown, feeling that things have become stagnant and boring in their small-town life (“A family should be the most wonderful thing in the world, and this family’s just gone to pieces”) and that they need a good shake-up from the urbane, sophisticated Uncle Charlie. She doesn’t realize quite what a shake-up she’ll get and that she may be inviting the notorious Merry Widow murderer into their household. (Patricia Hitchcock noted about her father’s ideas for this film – “He loved the thought of bringing menace into a small town.”) Throughout the film Hitchcock made an effort to strengthen ties between Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie, starting with their names and their positions laying on beds as they’re introduced to the audience, continuing through Young Charlie saying that they’re “like twins” and beyond to when the murderer decides that he may stay on longer than anticipated and Young Charlie threatens him with “I’ll kill you myself,” thereby directly linking her to murderous impulses. It’s a doubling motif common to Hitchcock, where a character’s dark mirror image isn’t too far from the supposedly good character – think of Bruno and Guy inStrangers on a Train or Norman Bates saying “we all go a little mad sometimes” – and he plays it to the hilt here, reflecting Charlie in Charlie at every turn. I could go on about how Uncle Charlie is frequently associated with smoke and shade, but his most sinister moment is once Young Charlie is certain that he’s the killer and her detective boyfriend drives away while Uncle Charlie looms in the background of the frame in full daylight, making the porch of her own home an unsafe haven.
The film is hugely effective as one of Hitch’s best suspense pieces as Young Charlie tries frantically to find out if her beloved uncle may indeed be a cold-blooded killer. But it’s also got Hitchcock’s characteristic gallows humor, with Young Charlie’s dad and his best friend constantly joking about methods of murdering each other, with Young Charlie’s younger sister Ann providing hilarious know-it-all moments, and with Young Charlie’s mother oblivious to any sinister goings-on. It’s also an interesting look at the family unit, where even after Uncle Charlie’s vile speech about “useless” women at the dinner table, his sister is broken-down at the thought of his leaving them to their boring old lives again. It truly is one of Hitch’s best of his many terrific films.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts – What Music Does For Us

My wife’s father died about a month ago. This is obviously something we all have to go through. It isn’t unique to any person, but the way people grieve and process this sort of tragedy is absolutely unique. Jill seemed to be holding a lot of her feelings in and not fully accepting the death. We did talk about it, but grief seemed to be walled up inside her. Several weeks after the death we were sitting talking in the morning and I put on the vinyl of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album. It is a favorite of both of ours, but I had no emotional motivation in putting it on. As side one unfolded our conversation started to turn to her departed father. We started talking about her childhood, then all the friends, employees, customers and relatives we have lost in the last decade. I turned side one over and this mysterious album filled the room. As Van started singing the incredible “Madame George” with its repeated refrain of “Say goodbye, dry your eyes” I left the room for a moment. When I returned Jill had her face in her hands and was crying a good old-fashioned cry.
We had talked about this death before and we had certainly talked about the deaths of loved ones in the past, but I am convinced that the element of difference in her emotional response this time was the presence of music. Van’s songs acted as the key that opened the door to her feelings. It has happened before. Once at a Brian Wilson show, we sat through a breathtaking performance of “Pet Sounds” and then in the second half of the show, when he started playing the early Beach Boys hits that Jill grew up with, the floodgates opened and we had to leave the show. Ditto, Paul McCartney; she sat through the huge hits just fine, but when he went to the early 60’s song “I Saw Her Standing There” we were headed for the exit in a torrent of tears. These were not tears of sadness, or tears of joy for that matter. These were that wonderfully peculiar brand of tears that are bittersweet; the type we shed when we watch our children do something remarkably sweet, or watch puppies play or see an old couple holding hands. It is the emotional equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle; it looks like it might be saying something, but you are never quite sure what, until that one piece brings it all together. That one piece in our response to death is often music. Think “Danny Boy,” “Amazing Grace,” “Shenandoah,” or “Imagine.” These songs often reduce people to tears, but they feel better and stronger after doing so. Music gives voice to the unspeakable: sadness, joy and the misty gulf in between.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Snake Rattle Rattle Snake live at Twist and Shout 8/16/11

Last night we had the pleasure of hosting an in-store performance with one of my favorite local bands Snake Rattle Rattle Snake.  In celebration of their new release Sineater 150 loyal fans packed our vinyl room for a great free show.  The band played a few songs while the crowd enjoyed a keg of beer from our friends at Great Divide.  The whole evening was an exiting time for us because we have been looking forward to this in-store for months.  Few bands get as much praise yet still maintain a humble and sweet demeanor.  This band may have a rockstar quality but they were a true pleasure to work with. The music has a hint of darkness with some truly danceable rhythms and this new album captures all of the energy in their live performances.  The band will be touring soon and I hope that you all are able to catch this exciting new band.  I see big things in Snake Rattle Rattle Snake's future, and I look forward to the day where I can say "I told you so!".

Monday, August 15, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On #38 - Sam Cooke - Live at The Harlem Square Club

I love to listen to Sam Cooke’s Live at The Harlem Square Club so loudly that my ears are ringing by the end of it. When it’s playing, I can almost see Miami's Harlem Square Club in 1963, when the concert was recorded. I imagine a small, dark place with a low stage at one end. The room is packed; Sam Cooke stands above the crowd on the stage, impeccably dressed in a suit with narrow lapels and tie, slightly under the lights, always smiling. During the opening number, "Feel It," Cooke yells at the crowd, “If you feel the feeling let me hear you say, OH YEAH!” And the crowd screams OH YEAH! so loudly that I picture the tiny club bouncing off the ground and pulling apart at the seams like a caricature of a swinging joint in a cartoon from the 1940s.
The album seethes with energy. Cooke's voice is forceful and full of emotion, but still wonderfully smooth. Keith Richards once said that listening to Cooke sing is like having a great weight lifted from you; it's a release. Very accurate description. Sam Cooke's singing makes me feel the way I do on stressful days when the sun is shining brightly and I stop to take a breath and I notice the day's warmth and I feel relieved. And that’s just his studio recordings. The Harlem Square Club album pushes Richards’s analogy to the limit and beyond. On every number, from “Chain Gang” to “Bring It On Home,” Cooke hits notes that’ll make all the nerves in your body stand on end and tingle. And the crowd is right there with him, too, singing along, hollering, howling in ecstasy.
I bought Live at the Harlem Square Club on used CD more than fifteen years ago, when I was first getting into Sam Cooke. Soon thereafter I purchased Sam Cooke Live at the Copa, which was recorded in 1964. I was eager to listen to it, because I loved the Miami recording so much and I expected more of the same. But this recording had nowhere near the energy of the Miami concert. Performed in front of an all-white crowd, the same songs sound like Bailey's Irish Cream - smooth and intoxicating, but sweet and syrupy, lacking that dangerous bite that says “It’s party time!” When I listen to it, I picture the scene in Goodfellas where the main characters are sitting in the front row at the Copa with their mistresses and Joe Pesci's character makes racist comments about Sammy Davis, Jr. I see small round tables covered with white tablecloths, each with its own dim lamp, and white couples in suits and evening gowns. They don't dance; they don't even bob their heads.
Played side by side, the two recordings form a poignant document of America a year before passage of the first real civil rights act. They also make for a fascinating portrait of the artist in the last year of his life. Cooke was one of the earliest and most successful crossover performers, and he was about to hit it really big. In the months after these two performances he signed with a powerful Hollywood agent, appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and performed a screen test for The Cincinnatti Kid. At the same time, though, he was hanging out with notorious black Muslims at a time when the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad, was at its most powerful and popular and frightening to white America – he produced Muhammad Ali's single, "I Am the Greatest,” for instance, and he attended Ali's world title bout against Sonny Liston with Malcolm X.
It’s worth owning a copy of both for historical comparison alone. But the powers that be at Sony Legacy were wise in choosing the Miami show for reissue on 180-gram vinyl. Played at the appropriate volume, this platter will transform even the most suburban home into a hot and hoppin’ nightclub for one of the greatest performances of all time.
- Joe Miller

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: Meat Puppets - Up On the Sun

The consensus seems to be that the Meat Puppets’ second album, Meat Puppets II, is their best. Nirvana covered a few songs from it for their MTV unplugged release—“Plateau” “Oh, Me” and “Lake of Fire.” Pitchfork named it one of the hundred best records of the 80s, and it’s among the 1001 Albums You Must Listen To Before You Die. It’s long been available as a Ryko vinyl reissue, complete with a gatefold cover that includes essays attesting to the album’s status as a classic. And I agree; it’s an all-time great. But I’ve always preferred the band’s third release, Up On the Sun.

It’s a more consistent and cohesive work than its predecessor, with no jarring transitions back and forth between screechy hardcore and jangling country. The sound is more mature and confident, fuller, more nuanced and layered. The beauty lies in the interplay between the Kirkwood brothers, Curt on guitar and Cris on bass, both of them spinning spirals of scales that blend and swirl in and out of one another, forming lovely moirés of sound—an effect that’s enhanced by copious overdubbing. I got the album right before summer vacation between my sophomore and junior years in high school, listened to it everyday, several times a day, and I marveled at how I heard something new with each play. Yet it still feels and airy, not overwrought, because the sonic density is in service to a dozen wonderful songs, standard two-and-a-half minute affairs that are easy to hum along with, full of weird lyrics about “birds that dance on invisible air” and “pistachios” and a “hot pink tornado.” All the singing is off-key, but somehow it sounds just right. If the lyrics were sung in tune, the album would be too slick and kind of boring (like some of the band’s later albums).

And it’s a psychedelic album from an era that was decidedly unpsychedelic – the mid-1980s. Legend has it that when the Meat Puppets played at the Rainbow Music Hall in early 1984, a year before Up On the Sun came out, they were on somewhere between five and ten hits of L.S.D. Some readers may recall that they opened for Black Flag along with Nig Heist, who were hauled away in cuffs because they got naked on stage. Barry Fey himself apologized to everyone and promised to never allow such offensive crap to grace a Colorado stage again, oblivious to the fact that the audience was full of punks who were pleasantly entertained by such crap, and more offended by the likes of Barry Fey. Who knows if the rumor is true, but back then I believed it, and it deepened my appreciation for the band. In those days, Grateful Dead concerts were just about the only readily available option for hallucination chasers. I’ve never heard the Dead mentioned as a direct influence for the Meat Puppets, but Up On the Sun’s relaxed but richly ornate sound suggests that they were, especially on “Swimming Ground,” which bears an uncanny resemblance to “Sugar Magnolia.” It makes sense, too, because Greg Ginn, who ran SST, the Meat Puppets’ record label back then, was (and is) a major Dead Head, which was pretty radical back then: SST was a punk label, and hippy music was blasphemy against the dogma of punk, which the Meat Puppets abandoned entirely for their third record. So it’s not only a classic example of tenacious psychedelia, it’s an historical artifact, and a significant one, because it, along with a handful of other albums, many of them released on SST, documents pretty much the exact moment when punk broke open and paved the way for post punk and the whole wonderful DIY scene we have going today.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Keb' Mo' Wrap-Up

Twist and Shout has a long love affair with Keb' Mo'. His first album came out in 1994 when we were still at our first location on South Pearl Street. He was a phenomenon in a number of ways. We sold the heck out of him, he kind of represented a “type” of musician that really resonated with our clientele and he taught me the power of KBCO. He was a KBCO favorite then, and still is now and that has served him and us well in terms of sales. I have been requesting a Keb' Mo' instore since 1994 and we finally got one. It was worth the wait. Keb' Mo' (Kevin Moore to his friends) was every bit as cool and genuine as I had hoped. He was friendly, engaging and totally approachable. When I told him that I’d been trying to get him to play here since his first album, he said: “alright man-you pick the setlist.” I did, and he played a fantastic half hour with three songs from his new album “The Reflection” as well as Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain” and two of his early classics. It was mesmerizing and heartfelt and the crowd of over 150 ate it up and bought almost a hundred copies of the new album as well as bunch of old stuff. Keb seemed genuinely moved by the experience when he came off stage. He kept talking about the vibe of the room-how great it was. I guess good things come to those who wait.
-Paul Epstein

I'd Love To Turn You At The Movies #19 - Me And You And Everyone We Know (2005, dir. Miranda July)

For a few years (at least the 16 I’ve spent dabbling in various film-stuffs) I’ve adopted the moniker of Constant Watcher for the obvious reasons of constantly watching movies and other visual art. Not so obviously I took to that name as I spend a lot of time constantly watching people and how they interact in these various spaces that we all tightly share. I’m that guy that’s content holding up a wall at a party as long as I can observe the comings and goings of the various people and imagine why they are who they are and pick up on the subtle details that comprise a picture of their life, which I will probably never get the chance to know for myself.  It is the capturing of those valuable details that also defines what makes performance artist, writer and director Miranda so special and what gives her debut feature film Me And You And Everyone We Know such an original and charming aura and proves it a delicious choice for your own collection.
Quietly introducing us to literally me, you and everyone we know the film is about a slice of random souls living in Los Angeles and filling in the gaps in their lives with the unexpected interactions they all have with each other. July herself stars as Christine, a timid and weird performance artist who catches the eye of Richard (Deadwood’s John Hawkes), an exasperated father of two who is in the middle of a separation that he seems to have not seen coming. His kids, Peter and Robby, spend all day either at school or online experimenting in chat rooms or creating large detailed pictures out of keyboard symbols.  It is through these four characters that we meet “everyone else” in July’s picture of life. Like dominoes touching and knocking down each other, each person has four or five other people they know who cleverly and perfectly complete the circle. Each person has their own foibles and problems and needs to connect with someone and it is through their various small actions that the film really comes to life and allows July’s genius and observation of people to shine through. 
Christine’s pursuit of Richard comes from his selling her a pair of shoes because she deserves to be comfortable, a foreign idea that seems to send her into an uncomfortable danger zone of trying to make a love connection. Richard, still licking his separation wounds only wants to connect with his sons who seem more interested in making random and weird connections with strangers in internet chat rooms (how young Robby connects with a stranger over his own simple idea of intimate connection is truly one of the best and most touching scenes captured on film, PERIOD) than they do with their dad. Meanwhile, the oldest son bounces between two female peers exploring their burgeoning sexual power and a young girl who collects household items in an effort to furnish the home of her still far away adult life.
At first glance this menagerie appears to be of the “bizarre” variety until they start speaking July’s dialogue and you realize that their odd concerns, observations and feelings of isolation are what we are all whispering under our breaths in these modern times.  July finds the loose threads hanging off of all her characters and tugs at them gently to show us that sometimes it’s only a chance interaction at a department store or bus stop that leaves an impression that lasts a lifetime.
Part of the joy of watching Me And You And Everyone We Know is in picking up the little details that July scatters throughout the film. To go into actual detail about any of them would take away from the riches of this contemporary masterpiece so I invite you to watch the film and try not to interact but simply watch and allow yourself to imagine the continued adventures of the group of people you’re about to meet. Your time with them will be short but I truly believe that you’ll make a connection that will last a lifetime.
This debut from July also serves as a great primer for her second film coming out this summer entitled The Future. Let this film acquaint you with July’s voice and vision and check out her new work with an equally open mind, you’ll be so glad you did.
- Keith Garcia – Programming Manager – Denver Film Society/Denver FilmCenter

Friday, August 5, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: Matt "MV" Valentine

I know you’re not supposed to judge a record by its cover, but the second I saw Matt Valentine’s What I Became I knew it was something I would own and love. What I didn’t know was that it would be first glittering jewel in a treasure trove of music that’ll likely take me years and lots of money to collect.

The cover itself is pretty simple: A picture of a longhaired, long-bearded guy who is leaning against an old Honda Civic and smiling like he totally loves his life. In the background there’s a big country barn-style house and a guy hunched down on the ground, going over a director’s chair with an electric sander. It’s obviously summertime in the picture, and tall trees tower all around. In other words, it screams “hippy,” and you know the music is going to be mellow or freaky or both, which, for my ears, is a good thing. The latter is the case here. The album’s seven tracks meander from folksy acoustic guitar strumming to cosmic synthesizer echoes to the infinite array of warbles and fuzz tones that a daisy chain of foot pedals can squeeze out of an electric guitar, with a few pinches of sitar and hand drums thrown in to make it a little more exotic. If I were to compare it to anything, I’d say it’s like something Neil Young might have made if he’d toured with Sonic Youth in 1974, after On the Beach, and if the tour had included a run through India and Nepal, and if Sonic Youth had been forced to meditate a lot. The songs are all songs; it’s not a free-form record, there are singing and inviting melodies, but all the songs tend to unravel at various points into blissful free-formed-ness.

One of the best things about the record is it comes with a full-color insert that’s covered with snapshots of Valentine and his wife (or life partner) Erika Elder, their dog and a few of their friends, and it’s clear from the photos that they have a life worth dying for. They appear to live in the country, judging from the images of barns and open spaces, and it looks like they just make music and art all the time. So I went poking around online and I learned that Valentine is the MV part of MV + EE, a two-person band that he’s in with Elder (EE). And they’ve been making music since the 1990s, starting out in New York with a band called Tower Recordings. Sometime around the turn of the millennium they abandoned the city for rural Vermont, where they’ve produced an extraordinary amount of music together, solo, and with a revolving cast of musicians such as J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and bands with names like Bummer Road, The Golden Road and the MV + EE Medicine show. We’re talking tons and tons of stuff – LPs, 7” singles, cassettes, CDRs – on dozens of different small labels, including Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace. They even have their own Dick’s Picks-style series of live recordings called Heroine Celestial Agriculture Records.

Since picking up What I Became, I’ve added several MV + EE albums to my collection, and I’m really impressed with the range of sounds. Drone Trailer, by MV + EE and the Golden Road, is song-oriented like Valentine’s recent solo release, but with a bit more harmonica, while The MV + EE Medicine Show’s The Uranium Ray is mostly instrumental and very far out, while Ragas from the Culvert by plain old MV + EE is basically Indian music on acid, with veils of sitar strands wafting through a haze of electro-cosmic sounds. Among them all, though, Valentine’s new solo release stands the strongest. It conveys a level of confidence and cohesion that takes artists years and years to find, and I’m glad I got it first, because now as I collect every MV + EE related thing I can find I’ll be able to see how he became what he became.

Fables of the Reconstruction: Woods

One of the best things about record collecting is the whole discovery aspect, the way you can venture off in any direction into music and find the most amazing things, which lead to more amazing things, and even more, and so on. And sometimes you come across something so big you have to actually step back and try to figure out how it’s going to fit into your life. Because it’s more than, say, a half dozen albums and a concert DVD. It’s years and years of music on vinyl and CD and CDR and cassette and video and sometimes even books, and a lot of it is hard to find and quite expensive, but you have to have every last note.

A couple years ago I made a simple little iTunes purchase that started me down the path to the mother lode. I was on the hunt for new music, reading Pitchfork everyday, when I came across a good review of an album by a Brooklyn band called Woods. I listened to the whole album, Songs of Shame, for free on some Internet start-up that’s now defunct, and I liked its blend of ramshackle garage sound with psychedelic guitar sounds, peculiar vocal harmonies and solid songwriting, so I tossed another ten bucks Steve Jobs’s way. I’d play to it on my iPod when I’d go running, or sometimes on my computer while I worked, but I wouldn’t have called it a favorite or a main staple. But then, after I bought my turntable and started collecting records again, I came across a used copy of it on LP in the new arrivals bin at Love Garden in Lawrence, Kansas. When the clerk rang me up he told me their most recent release, At Echo Lake, was even better, but it was early in my new record-collecting adventure and I wasn’t very adventurous yet.

That all changed when I listened to it on vinyl, of course. It was like I’d never heard it before, rich with complexities that hadn’t revealed themselves to me through my puny ear buds or $50 computer speakers. I went right back to the record store and got At Echo Lake, and the clerk was right – sturdy songs with fetching pop melodies adorned with trippy distortion/noise and bent and twisted notes weaving throughout. I couldn’t get enough so I went online to learn more about them, and I found that they had a new record coming out, and, for the first time since college, I started counting the days to an album release date. I bought Sun and Shade directly from the label before it showed up in stores, and when I put it on the turntable I realized I had found an incredible band early enough in their career that I could actually listen to them grow – explore new sounds, tweak old sounds and mature. Sun and Shade is a lot like Woods’ earlier records, ten songs with melodies so catchy I find myself humming them when I’m in a bad mood and a couple of long instrumental jams that are chock full of weirdness. But there’s a mastery here that wasn’t as fully developed on Songs of Shame and At Echo Lake. The vocals are smoother, a little less high pitch and off center, and they’re richly layered with lovely harmonies. One of the alt music blogs I read regularly said that a lot of the songs would’ve sounded right at home on stage at Woodstock, and I agree: they’re bright with sunshine and flowers even when the lyrics are sad and lead man Jeremy Earl’s voice is full of emotion; but they’re also unmistakably new, full of curlicues of distortion and twisted tones that take into account every rock and roll revolution since Sgt. Pepper’s.

So I loved it, and now I’m hooked, which is fun but not easy. Woods has been making music since 2006, but all of their early stuff was released on short runs of a few hundred copies and it’s all out of print. I managed to find a few things at the record store, most notably a one-sided 12” of live acoustic versions of a few tunes from Songs of Shame with photo-copied art glued to a blank white album sleeve. But most is only available online, where the shipping charges are steep, and some of it you have to really flex your Google muscles to find - like their first release, a split 12” inch they released with the now defunct Raccoo-oo-oon. It’s a true “got to have it” artifact with a hand silk-screened cover and a real rabbit foot attached. I searched for hours and days and finally found one – literally ­one – listed on Woodsist’s site for $40. But by the time I was ready to place an order a week later, the listing was gone. So I emailed the label and got a reply from Earl himself saying he might have one but I’d have to wait until he got back from his summer tour before I could get it, which is pretty cool in and of itself.

Earl has his own record label, Woodsist, and my love of Woods led me to explore their catalogue and listen to samples of the bands on Myspace and found an entire world of psychedelic music ranging from highly structured stuff like Woods to completely out there improvisational sounds like Herbcraft, who I wrote about here recently. And when I say “world,” I mean it. Pretty much all of the bands on the Woodsist label had released albums for other small labels such as Not Not Fun, Mexican Summer and Thrill Jockey. And they all comprised a nationwide community, a burgeoning subculture of artists – Real Estate, Ducktails, Sun Araw, Raccoo-oo-oon, MV + EE and a bunch more I’d never heard of – who walk on the far-out side and who have been releasing music for years on LP, 12” EP, 7” and cassette in short run, like the rabbit foot record. Suddenly I had a lot of things to collect. Hundreds and thousands of dollars worth. More than that, my hobby had a new imperative, and I felt like I was part of something wonderful and amazing that few other people knew about, and that’s an awesome feeling.

Monday, August 1, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On #37 - Country Joe and The Fish - Electric Music For The Mind and Body (Vanguard Records)

More than other San Francisco group of the 1960’s Country Joe and The Fish extolled the virtues of LSD. They openly sang about taking it, but more importantly they managed to capture the overall gestalt of the experience in music and lyrics. CJ and the Fish were the first band to combine a light show with live music. They played at a drive-in movie theatre and had imagery projected on the screen (why didn’t that idea catch on?) They were politically radicalized. After all, the name Country Joe referred to Joe Stalin and The Fish was code for Mao. Joe had served in Vietnam and came about his politics honestly. When Electric Music For The Mind and Body came out in 1967 it was a clear shot across the bow of straight society. Something strange was going on in the bay area, and lots of young people across the country were hearing it.
Kicking off with “Flying High” there is no doubt what this band is all about. The protagonist is high on acid and trying to find a cool place - a theme that would preoccupy most hippies by the end of the decade. Next is “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine” which again accurately describes the prevalent mindset of the era telling of a cosmic gypsy woman who entices both the mind and body of the singer. Martha Lorraine is a composite of every alluring hippie woman who can seduce with an edge of danger. “Death Sound” is a cosmic blues that ponders mortality with some great heavily reverbed lead guitar by Barry “The Fish” Melton. “Porpoise Mouth” is kind of Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex on LSD. One of the centerpieces of the album is “Section 43” a seven and a half minute raga instrumental that beautifully gets all the psychedelic modus operandi into one song. There are slow, then fast passages that swoosh in and out of the mix led by a shimmering organ and spine tingling guitar leads. The song really mimics a trip, taking the listener through joy, sorrow, death and ultimately ecstatic rebirth. Pretty heady stuff! “Super Bird” is a straight-up protest against then-president Lyndon Johnson. It is brave and outrageous - they call him out by name and claim they will send him back to his ranch and make him drop some acid - in exactly those words! No wonder the FBI and CIA were watching these guys!
Every song on this album is a bona-fide classic of 1960’s radicalism. This band was not fooling around with their desire to turn on the world and tear down the curtain that cloaked the paisley future awaiting those with courage to look it square in the face. Obviously this kind of intense commitment to a drug-fueled ideology was not going to last -it couldn’t - and this line-up of the band would only make it for two albums. By the time Joe got on stage at Woodstock two years later and led a confused youth movement through his anti-war anthem “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” the cracks in the tie-dye facade were starting to widen. However, if you want to hear the movement in its pure, nascent form, free of the self-conscious glare of Life Magazine, Electric Music is the album for you.
The other key track is “Bass Strings” a completely haunting description of an acid trip that again combines organ and guitar into a spooky swirl that ends with Joe whispering L…S…D… into the microphone as the song fades out. It is both creepy and beautiful at the same time - just like the drug. The album starts heading for the exit with another perfect instrumental called “The Masked Marauder” which again neatly captures the zeitgeist of the era. Electric Music For The Mind And Body closes with “Grace” an incredible seven-minute lysergic ballad for Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick, whom Joe was romantically involved with at the time. This song moves on rarified ground, which simply could not be confused for any other era. The lyrics are twisted, cosmic poetry while guitars wail and scrape in competition with wind chimes and hissing cymbals. It is a perfect encapsulation of the times. Joe tells us “every day is colored gold” and for this brief moment in time, it actually seems true.
- Paul Epstein