REVIEWS #21 - 30

For this review series, and hopefully more in the future, we have been joined by the venerable Aaron Milenski who scrutinizes several interesting psych titles below. Welcome aboard, Aaron!

COMMON PEOPLE
     LILY & MARIA     MIRK     FOOD

MICHAEL RAVEN & JOAN MILLS     CELEBRATED RATLIFFE STOUT BAND

C A QUINTET      FREEBORNE     GANDALF     EUPHORIA


Note: Some of the reviewed titles have not been reissued, while others are out of print. The availability stated reflects the status at the time of writing.


 

(Review #21)

COMMON PEOPLE: Of, By, For The Common People   (Capitol US 1969)

Rating: 8 out of 10

Sounds best on: Methedrine

Info at: http://www.terrascope.co.uk/Features/Common%20People.htm

Availability: The Ascension label CD reissue is currently in print

Talk about your mystery groups – despite 20 years of celebrity among psych fans and being on one of the most respected record labels in the world, no one seems to know much about the 5-man outfit known as the Common People [see update below]. I used to think they were an Eastcoast band because that's what they sound like, but they were managed by Lord Tim Hudson of Seeds & Lollipop Shoppe infamy, and the 1969 album was apparently recorded in L A, so maybe they were westcoast after all. In any event, the LP is an interesting experience, far from perfect but with a bunch of strange twists and turns unusual for a major label artefact.

In hindsight it appears that someone – possibly David Axelrod – connected to Capitol's vast pyramid of talent decided to use Common People as a vehicle to explore a potential new path for psychedelic pop music. The path would have worked beautifully, if not for the unfortunate fact that they ran out of money after the first three songs. So the end result is an LP that starts off by boldly going where no man has gone before; then chickens out and turns 90 degrees towards a much more familiar continent.

Well, let's take the Starship Enterprise material first. I can't say I've ever heard anything quite like these opening tracks, with multilayered string arrangements supplementing worldweary vocals, moody folkrock lurking underneath somewhere. What's great is that the orchestral elements aren't just embellishments or ornaments – they ARE the whole basis for the tracks, and on top of them only Denny Robinett's vocals suggest the presence of the actual Common People. The wind tunnel string sound really defies description and must be heard, I like to think of it as an eerie late night LSD version of the groundbreaking orch arrangements on old Drifters tracks like "This magic moment". The soulful and somewhat harsh vocals help steer the tracks clear from the perfectionist trap of regular LA Sunshine Pop.

The rest of the LP is more of what you might expect from any semi-talented band picked up from the nearest psychedelic club. The sound is stripped down and basic, and I fooled around with the idea that this wasn't even recorded in the same Capitol studio as the three openers, but at a less fancy place, and maybe only as demo recordings. This is not confirmed and probably not true, but the difference vs the opening material is striking. The good news is that it's still pretty good, the band has a nice immediacy to their sound, which reminds me somewhat of the Druids Of Stonehenge. Songwriting ranges from OK to very good, and in fact my favorite track on the whole LP comes from this "garage" face of the Common People, being "Take from you" which is strategically located at the close of side 1. Great minor chord shifts straight out of the Lama prayer book, with a nice flow instilled by the loose yet energetic drummer and bass player, and a cool, completely undistorted rhythm guitar sound which is used throughout the LP.

Side 2 opens with a piece of music hall/vaudeville shit I encourage you to simply skip by unless your favorite song is "Winchester Cathedral". Rest of the side is more of the moody club garagepsych, listenable OK and with one very good song; "Land of a day". To nitpick some, I could have lived without the occasional horn arrangements as they add nothing and sound pasted on a la "Bull Of The Woods".

In terms of sheer potential, the Common People is perhaps the most interesting of the Capitol Trinity. I'm not sure how much of the praise for those three openers that belongs to the band themselves, but they do receive songwriting credit and presumably were in favor of the brilliant plan laid out but unfortunately never completed. Had the whole LP been like that this would have been one of the great late 1960s classics. Now it's more a case of benign schizophrenia, where the fortunate presence of two more tracks that are just as good as the string trio makes it an essential LP all over.

Update: the "mystery" of Common People was solved some years back, and they turn out to be a club band from Los Angeles. Prior to the LP, they recorded two excellent local 45s.

 



(Review #22)

LILY & MARIA: Lily & Maria (Columbia US 1968) 

Rating: 7 out of 10 

Info at:

Availability: eBay

Not a whole lot of reviews discuss album covers, at least not in the context of the music. But this is a case where I think it’s essential, because this cover reflects the music within perfectly. It is a stark, soft focus photo of two long-haired women, heads together, matching blue eyes pulsating. It’s hypnotic not just because the faces are beautiful, but because the photo makes them appear like sisters, or at least kindred spirits, something that spills over into the music. 

The fact is, a lot of people who sing perfectly well on their own make lousy members of duos. One plus one doesn’t always add up to two. Oftentimes, it adds up to less than one. Here, just as the women enhance each other’s beauty in the photo, their voices blend ideally, hitting all of the right spots, each filling in the gaps left by the other, each seeming to understand what the other is aiming for. The musical backing is as stark as the colors of the photo, and the music is as dreamy and ethereal as the photo’s soft focus. The album’s intense, dramatic moments shine like the blue eyes. 

Most of the songs are long; they drift. The longest, “There’ll Be No Clowns Tonight,” builds to a marvelous peak of passion. If you thought a song about a circus disappointment couldn’t be as dramatic as a song about love lost, or life lost, think again. On “Melt Me,” the voices themselves seem to be melting. And for those who wish the naked photo scanned down further than their shoulders, you can create your own fantasies to the frisky lyrics of “Melt Me” and “Aftermath.” (OK, this particular issue may be lost on heterosexual women, but maybe they can identify with the singers rather than lust over them.) Elsewhere, “Everybody Knows” has some tasty fuzz guitar, and “I Was” rivals Young Marble Giants and Extradition as quietest, most delicate “rock” music. 

This album isn’t perfect; side two is somewhat hit and miss, and the women seem too serious for their own good. Nonetheless, this album sticks with you. A lot of folk-rock singers and duos sound a little uncomfortable, as if the session musicians behind them don’t quite match the singers’ visions. Whether the music here is exactly what Lily & Maria heard in their heads, I can’t say. But, to this listener, the musicians and singers appear perfectly in sync, just like the voices, the faces, and the blue eyes.

P.S. Lily is still active in the music world as a Christian singer. I wonder how her current fans would react to “Aftermath.”

- review by Aaron Milenski

 



(Review #23)

MIRK: Moddan's Bower (Mother Earth 1205 UK 1979)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Sounds best on: Glenmorangie

Info at: http://www.nigelgatherer.com/perf/group2/mirk.html

Availability: Don't tell anyone, but originals can be bought on the Net from an existing supply. Seek and ye shall find...

I think it's fair to say that the British folk/folkrock scene, alongside its "Liege & Liefs" and "Moyshe McStiffs", produced a whole bunch of albums that contain much the same elements as these masterpieces, yet somehow fail to reach the same heights. Nothing peculiar about that, you could say the same thing about US psych, as an example. And much like the vintage psychedelia from the New World, these UK almost-there LPs may still be of interest to genre fans.

Case in point: the obscure LP by Mirk, a Scottish trio of which I know very little, although the liner notes suggest them to be no different from the hundreds of rural bands that sprang up in the 1970s folk explosion, played extensively at pubs and festivals, and in a moment of wild extravagance decided to capture something for posterity. The LP was recorded in London and produced by Saffron Summerfield, whose own solo LPs have gained fans in recent years.

The thing that will strike and delight most listeners on the first few rounds is probably the thick Scottish accent of Margie Sinclair's vocals, present throughout the LP. At least to a non-Brit the sharp and melodic ring of the Scots is a true pleasure whether spoken or sung, and in the case of "Moddan's Bower" this must rank as one of the album's major assets, perhaps even it's defining characteristic.

For as one gets deeper into the LP there is not much exceptional about it. It's skillfully arranged and performed trad/contemporary, with a professional finish that along with the London recording locale suggest that more than a few notes went into it. I am chiefly reminded of "Jack with a feather"-era Spriguns Of Tolgus; both in terms of the acoustic, guitar-oriented instrumentation, and the predilection for trad songs with singalong nonsense refrains that are repeated more often than one may wish. 

There's two Mirk originals on the LP, both written by guitarist Ian Sinclair who I assume was Margie's husband. One is the title track and the other is "The Kings Shilling", and they're both pretty good. These two tracks display a contemporary, somewhat moodier approach which suits the band very well and should have been given more space on the album. Of the trad material I found "The cruel mother" interesting, mainly because it's the same track as "Greenwood Sidee" as done by US Kaleidoscope, which makes for an unusual comparison across space and time. 

I am inclined to rate "Moddan's Bower" at least on level with the Spriguns' legendary rarity but before adding Mirk to your want list you should know that I consider "Jack with a feather" a somewhat overrated affair. While Mandy Morton is hard to top, I think Mirk fare better in terms of consistency and maturity. So I'll call it a draw, a couple of goals scored for each side, yet with a lingering spectator feeling of wanting more.

 



(Review #24)

FOOD: Forever Is A Dream    (Capitol US 1969)

Rating: 8 out of 10

Sounds best on: yer favorite weed

Info at: 

Availability: CD reissue currently in print

Over on the back cover of FOOD's 1969 LP there is a list of the tracks, much as you'll find on any album, except that in this case it is a bit of a deception. After listening to it several times here's my suggestion for an alternate track list:

1. JK & Co
2. Dragonfly
3. Mandrake Memorial
4. Fredric
5. Music Emporium
6. Strawberry Alarmclock

1. Millennium
2. Rainy Daze
3. 20th Century Zoo
4. The David
5. Freeborne
6. Lee Michaels

Yep, "Forever is a dream" is one of the most amazing deja vu LPs you'll ever come across. Amazing, because it's still a lot of fun and a solid listen all through... in fact it's better than a lot of the LPs that it sounds like. This isn't strange, because I doubt Food ever listened to the various groups they resemble – instead they, being located in Chicago, managed to place themselves at the absolute intersection of all the musical crosscurrents that ran between L A and London in the whiteboy melodic psych sea of the late 1960s. The end result is a tapestry of zeitgeist sounds that is pretty much the ultimate incarnation of an era. You could hang it in a museum with a "Mainstream psychedelia 1968" affixed to it, or send it out in a space capsule for aliens who want to learn about incense, peppermints and fake John Lennon moustaches.

OK, so why does it still work? Well, the songwriting is good – it's not just imitations, but processed and regurgiated "food", with just enough unique seasoning to be delightfully swallowed by any fan of the genre. Secondly, their A&R guy had a better devised payment plan than the Common People, meaning that there was enough studio time and session hacks available to give the entire LP a uniform, fully realized sound, elaborate and impressive like the David or even the '67-68 Curt Boettcher LPs. And finally, the glue that holds the LP together is Steve White's vocals, which aren't necessarily brilliant but with a clear identity and presence throughtout the various chameleon tricks of the album.



(Review #25)

MICHAEL RAVEN & JOAN MILLS with SAGA: The Jolly Machine (Folk Heritage 053 UK 1974)

Rating: 9 out of 10

Sounds best on: Bad urban moonshine

Info at: http://www.michaelraven.co.uk/

Availability: A vinyl-sourced CD reissue exists on Raven's own label, it's a split release with a Halliard/Jon Raven album

Subtitled "Songs of industrial protest and social discontent from the West Midlands", this ain't your average joss stick hippiefolk trip. In fact, I haven't encountered a single LP that takes the original folk music credo in such a literal manner. After years of hanging out with Shide & Acorn and Vasthi Bunyan it's easy to forget that this was music originally born out of despair, as one of the few forms of expression available for people at the bottom of a strictly stratified society.

The most commonly used word on this album is "wages" which should tell you where it's coming from. All songs relate to a specific place and time, namely the mid-19th Century onslaught of the Industrial Revolution in the West Midland cities. Several songs lament the coming obsolesence of old crafts and professions with the introduction of machinery and automation - nailmakers, potters, needlemakers. Others deal with the exploitation of workers in factories and building projects, such as the self-explanatory "Waiting for wages", or the "Tommy Note", which describes the use of payment in a local currency which could only be used in stores owned by the employer. Hope, humor and joy are given room in a few songs, but comes off more like a wild Friday night drinking binge squeezed in between workweeks of grinding oppression. 

Two paragraphs and I still haven't said anything about the music. Well, the music is perfect; flawless adaptations of trad melodies along with a few equally flawless compositions by Raven, Mills and/or support band Saga. Most of it is moody, minor chord acoustic contemporary with guitars, violin, harmonium and occasional percussion; the few merry footstompers are appropriate for their subject matter. One may be inclined to compare it to Peelers or Green Man but this album is clearly superior. Apart from the lyrical and topical strength, the main reason for this is Joan Mills' marvellous voice, which seems to carry the lament of thousands of working class women. I don't know if this suffering timbre is her natural style, but in any event it's a match made in heaven for our particular album. There's nothing wrong with Raven's or the Saga guys' voices, but you really wish Mills would have sung it all. They share vocals on the wonderful title track, the "jolly" part being a cruel irony presented in an equally ironic manner.

This is the best UK folk LP I have heard for some time. It didn't hit me right away, and I think perhaps the documentary toil & soil vibe may be too much for progressive folkrock fans. This is a shame as the stories told in the 14 songs are still being played out in 2002 in other parts of the world, and there's not much that manages to cut through the current media and entertainment noise to tell us so. The updated old folk music has a unique advantage as it goes beyond modern politics and its petty partisan powerstruggles, back into the actual everyday experiences out of which popular uprisings and ultimately modern democracy was born. There aren't many albums from which one could learn, in a literary sense, and still enjoy.

Michael Raven is one of the big names in the resurrected British folk scene, but I must admit not having heard any of his other recordings. He collaborated with Ms Mills on several, and judging by the results on "The Jolly Machine" these are works that need more exposure.




(Review #26)

FREEBORNE: Peak Impressions (Monitor US 1967) 

Rating: 7 out of 10

Sounds best on: a shroom trip gone slightly awry

More info: 

Availability: Distortions CD reissue

This is probably the album that has the least in common (other than blatant drugginess) with the other Bosstown bands of the late 60s. The heavy use of keyboards, martial drums, and dreamy, almost hidden soundscape is unique. It’s not heavy, but it’s not mellow either. The best songs on it sneak up on you. In fact, an initial reaction might be to remember the wacky instrumental freakout in the closing “But I Must Return To Frenzy” but nothing more. Hey, it’s not often you hear a band of the era that makes better use of a trumpet than a lead guitar. And in the long run, once everything sinks in, some of the album isn’t all that successful. But like the little girl with the curl, when it’s good it’s very, very good.

The album opens with a catchy two-keyboard song intro, leading into the verse of Images,” which is perhaps the most instantly likeable song. A dreamy melody gives way to some discordant piano soloing and a trumpet solo, before returning with another verse. Though the album gets weirder and more experimental as it goes along, the listener immediately knows what he or she is in for here. The jazzy chord progression to the next song, “Land Of Diana,” is turned upside down by heavy reverb and dreamy backing vocals. A brief organ solo is followed by a scream and an equally brief guitar freakout, one of the few noticeable guitar moments on the whole album. The song eventually moves from some freaky echo to some old-style jazz scatting, followed by otherworldly reverbed “ah” vocals and a tad more keyboard weirdness. This is truly unique stuff. 

“Visions Of My Own” follows, coupling some quiet acoustic guitar with an incessant recorder riff. The pace continues to be slow, the lyrics dreamy and quasi-intellectual, the melodies irresistible, once their odd sensibility grow on you. A brief anti-war statement follows, disrupting the pace a little, though it has a nice, sparse arrangement. Side one ends with the album’s masterpiece, “Peak Impressions & Thoughts,” a song with an absolutely relentless beat and chord progression, mind-melting lyrics and keyboards that build in intensity until they’re all over your room.

Side two is kind of a let-down, by comparison. It’s not bad, and the songs are still full of ideas, but they’re not as unique or memorable as what preceded them, as they mine blues, jazz, gospel and garage rock and repeat themselves a bit. The long instrumental section that comes near the album’s close goes in and out of focus, and though these guys often write like jazz musicians, they don’t have that kind of chops. Of course, I lose interest a few minutes into the Velvet Underground’s “European Son,” too, so take my dismissal of this song in that light. Like all of the other choices for this session (except The Smoke), the Freeborne get definite points because they just plain don’t sound like anybody else. And side one is a completely solid listen.

- review by Aaron Milenski

 



(Review # 27)

CELEBRATED RATLIFFE STOUT BAND: Dan, Half-Dan and the Spaceman (no label UK 1976)

Rating: 8 out of 10

Sounds best on: Shrooms & a pint or three

Info at: obituary

Availability: limited, to say the least

This is the second of several LPs from an obscure rural British folk outfit that started out late in terms of recording and kept the beard/crumhorn banner flying well into the Duran Duran era. I've heard one of the later "Rats" (as their 7 fans called them) albums which I would be inclined to describe as "eclectic crap", save for a passable title track.

But "Dan, Half-Dan and the Spaceman" (hey, I didn't name it) is supposedly their best LP, and it made for a very enjoyable 37 minutes I must say. Despite their majestic name the band actually consisted of only 2 people, a Mr Tom Hall and his lovely wife, Diane. Hall looks like a complete loony on the sleeve photos, but fears of this being another "humoruos" folk LP turn out to be -- mostly -- unwarranted. The first track displays a heavy Incredible String Band influence, with jester-like vocals and an unpredictable song structure relating the "Frog's enchantment". Not bad at all. This is followed by a tune that I should in theory hate, a super-English vaudeville snapshot of an actual trainspotter, full of dorky childhood nostalgia. I like that one too, in a Ray Davies kind of way. The thick countryside pronounciation of the word "shunt" makes it rather irresistable, I must say.

On the rare occasions this record is available for sale, you may see it listed as "acid-folk" by those eternal tricksters in the record dealer legion. One reason for such a heading may be the third track, an atmospheric hippie folker which even has some electric guitar floating in the background. Trad folk it ain't. Then there is a brief spoken bit about pubs and cricket in Northamptonshire, and we are promised a "bawdy, atmospheric alehouse noise"... and I guess the jolly little fiddle-led tune that follows supplies all the local colour a non-Brit could ask for.
 
Side 1 closes with a fullblown trip back into the Restoration era, or whenever it was when people played recorders, crumhorns and psaltery. Four brief musical interludes, all nicely performed, some unexpected electric bass there just to surprise you. Interestingly, these are original compositions by Tom Hall rather than trad material.

There's more of the good-timey rural alehouse stuff at the outset of side 2, and again the neat little details and overall enthusiasm make you want to get up and a dance a jig rather than pulling some cynical 2003 grimace. Hard to figure that this was being cut at the same time that jolly raconteurs like Johnny Rotten was spitting loogeys at audiences in roach-infested London squatter clubs, but that's what the calendar says. This is followed by a brilliant, moody violin-led contemporary folker which sounds remarkably like Barry Dransfield on Polydor... and you know what that means. Diane Hall handles the vocals on the renaissance-flavored tune that comes next, closer to sacred music than rural folk, contrasting starkly with the public house singalongs, but as is the case over and over with this LP, the weighted average comes out favorable.

The "Dam on the Amstel" is perhaps the most easily accessible track on the LP, a slightly progressive folkpsych tune describing a trip to Amsterdam, with echoes of the ISB once more and a whiff of Fuchsia and/or Moonkyte. As is the case throughout the album, the violin and harmonium arrangements are flawless. After a brief woodwind interlude, the LP closes with the title track, another progressive folker with excellent male/female vocals and about 5 different melodies in rapid succession. The spaceman lyrics are obscure to say the least (e-mail me your interpretation) but the mood is right on for genre fans, and the Halls bring in their whole arsenal of instrumentation in skillfully juxtaposed arrangements.

This is one of those "grower" LPs they talk about; I find myself liking it better with each play. I think its most remarkable aspect is the balance achieved between the moody folkpsych stuff that record collectors hallucinate just before going to sleep, and what you might call the sideshow material; the alehouse chants, the jigs & reels. In one way or another, the Hall couple managed to put together a complete and highly personal mosaic out of these pieces, whereas on most UK folk albums -- including some really good ones -- you may want to skip by a few tracks. So even among the wealth of fine records from the British 1970s folk era, "Dan, Half-Dan and the Spaceman" stands out as an unusually wellcrafted piece. I can't really rank it among the sacred COBs and spellbinding Stone Angels, yet it is an album I expect to be playing years from now. Who knows, maybe it will even be reissued some day.

PS Tom Hall passed away in 2003 at the age of 59.



 

(Review #28)

C A QUINTET: Trip thru hell    (Candy Floss US 1969)

Rating: 10 out of 10

Sounds best on: LSD, but keep the Thorazine handy

Info at: Sundazed liner notes or Lost & Found magazine; see also my recent Q & A with Ken Erwin

Availability: CD and vinyl reissues are in print

"Look at life here on Earth and think about how similar it is to that normally depicted in Hell."
– Ken Erwin

The 1969 "Trip Thru Hell" album by local Minneapolis band C A Quintet is one of the best examples of how absurd the traditional "pyramid" view of rock music history is – you know, the one that says that the most famous and commercially successful artists also are "the best" and most interesting. Despite massive proof to the contrary this view remains common, especially among those who grew up with the rock critic generations of the 1970s and 1980s, when it seemed important to establish a Canon.

Well, C A Quintet only sold about 500 copies of their album during the band's existence, and it's unlikely that it was widely distributed outside the Twin-Cities area, but like so many other 1960s bands that simply were in the wrong place, or refused to compromise on major label terms, they have aquired a posthumous reputation that makes them near household items in well-informed circles.

And no wonder. Right off the bat, "Trip Thru Hell" sends you into a musical landscape quite unlike anything from the time, or any time – a place with clearly defined boundaries, a breathable atmosphere, sparsely populated by eerie objects whose "geometry is all wrong" (to quote H P Lovecraft) – almost like the setting for a surreal stage play. The opening few minutes is this landscape's own song, from a time either before the creation of its inhabitants, or after they have gone... as in after a nuclear war. Over a simple bass line thin clouds of guitar hang, while a moody organ and restrained drumming provide a sombre mood, like a funeral march. In front of this pre-human or post-apocalyptic mural ghostly female voices rise and fade, like dry bushes lamenting their desert existence. On two levels the song seems to speak of life and death at the same time, in the same body even; the enduring of a lifeless status quo. The tempo picks up, signaling change, each musical figure repeated once as if to suggest struggle, and a single trumpet plays a fanfare in the distance... the bass line and female voices recur unchanged, suggesting that they are merely observers, then are faded out as the new creation rears its head.

The 2-minute drum excursion that follows is a bit controversial, and some of the album's detractors use it as a reason to put it down, but it should be pointed out that unlike almost all other drum workouts this is not a show-off piece for an egocentric instrumentalist, but an element in a larger picture. A comparable example may be the experimental percussion segment on the first Group 1850 album. The drumming on "Trip thru hell, pt 1" is hardly impressive in technical terms, and there's even a clearly audible drumstick error left intact, which too indicates that this shouldn't be thought of as a "drum solo" in conventional terms. The sequence uses rapid tom-tom rounds to a large extent, creating a tribal ritual mood, while occasional cymbal hits recall the stage-performance aspect of the opening, and the stereo and phasing effects typical of the psychedelic era add an element of mystery and otherworldliness. Beneath the music there's also an ominous low-frequency rumbling, like distant thunder, audible only on close listening. The passage signals an important evolvement in the set landscape, such as birth-pains, or an initiation rite. The landscape is populated but itself unchanged; a fact observed with another brief recurrence of the musical figure of the opening.

The final third of the 9-minute opening track takes off with another change, possibly indicating the meeting between the landscape's new inhabitant/protagonist and the landscape itself. It is a violent, jarring encounter; the rhythm deliberately clumsy and mechanical, distorted fuzz guitars expressing anger or disgust... after which the female voices return, observing with one eye while immersed in their own ethearal suffering. The track ends on a note of complex emotions – a duality that cuts through to the most basic concepts: change against permanence, life against death, rage against resignation.

Well. That was one possible interpretation of this extraordinary piece of music. Other interpretations are equally possible, maybe hundreds of them. One angle that may be pursued further is the "hell" of the title. C A Quintet mastermind Ken Erwin, the unusual talent to whom we owe thanks for this album, has commented that one idea behind "Trip Thru Hell" was to show that Hell could in fact be right here among us, in our everyday existence. With this simple yet original concept in mind, any number of readings of the LP could be made, from the deeply personal to the globally political - as in the terrifying echoes of atomic war and nuclear winter that seem to ring from deep within the grooves, and perhaps also depicted on the sleeve.

For this is an LP where the artwork supports the music and vice versa. The front cover painting depicts a hell-like scene of suffering humans in a red-lit apocalyptic landscape; two naked, twisted trees representing an equally suffering nature. On the back cover the colors have been reversed into a black/white negative, and this simple effect suggests another hell, freezing and equally inhuman. It is impossible not to bring these stark images into the aural experience of the work, as I have undoubtedly done above.

In the second track, "Colorado Mourning", the symbolic landscape of the opening is applied on now (1968) and America, in line with the hell-on-Earth theme described by Ken Erwin. The effect is interesting, and it may conversely be suggested that a fairly conventional pop song has been moved into "Hell", as represented by the otherworldly soundscape of the title track. The vocals have a strange, apathetic quality – halfburied in the mix, fed through filters that give them an icy edge. The lyrics partly read like pretty much any boy-wants-girl lament from the 1960s, but there are also hints of a more cerebral type of experience. When placed in the album's musical context the song aquires a twilight zone quality, suggesting that hope for temporary comfort through answered love is merely a ripple on a deep sea of personal conflict, referred to as "mourning" and "sorrow". The song has a recurring break wherein the music shifts into another mood, with a single trumpet seeming to carry this deeper lamenting tone. Immediately as the song closes, the signature female voices from the opening track return briefly, watching but never acting.

Side 1 closes with what is perhaps C A Quintet's most notorious track, "Cold Spider". It is the most explicit song on the album, throwing the listener into some deep, nightmarish circle of Hell, filled with an overpowering feeling of evil. The music recalls the tortured, atonal excursions of the protagonist's first encounter with the Hell/Earth landscape but is here carried to its extreme. The strangely detached vocals recount a series of bizarre and unpleasant visions, then unexpectedly shift from listlessness into a long painful scream as an extended dual fuzz guitar/organ "freakout" tells the story in a way the words and vocals may be unable to. The lethargic vocals return, almost to mock the listener, but turn into another scream... as if the joke has now been irrevocably turned on the protagonist. The moods are complex and contradictory, again not just in terms of words or music as separate entities but in the combination of the two, and a further enigma introduced in the strange vocals that connect them. It is quite unlike anything created within rock music.

After the full potential terror of the "Hell" landscape has been revealed for the protagonist and the listener in "Cold Spider", a possible relief is found in "Underground Music". The song does not suggest an escape, or actual change, but a way to make existence more tolerable, through the means of artistic creation. This is imagined as a rain of "golden drops of music" upon the landscape and its inhabitants, a rain of temporary delight and meaning, but hardly one that will water the barren ground. A wordplay similar to the "mourning" of the second track may be found in this concept of "underground" music. The song opens in a fairly conventional manner, describing the concept of the title, then shifts into an actual demonstration with a long atonal guitar excursion similar to the one in the preceding track, meaning that the unbearable visions of "Cold Spider" can be controlled and transformed into a deliberate statement. There are no screams, indicating a regained hold on the flow of painful impressions.

"Sleepy Hollow Lane" carries further the theme of fruitless rain from "Underground Music", transforming a positive metaphor into a negative reality, putting the protagonist and listener at a spot where nothing ever grows despite a constant rain. It may not be a complete negation of the preceding message of relief, but does seem to indicate the ultimate meaninglessness of creativity as an attempted escape from reality. The single trumpet rather than distorted guitars carries the musical lament, recalling the moods of "Colorado Mourning" – this trumpet sound could be interpreted as a voice commenting everyday reality, whereas the guitars deal with dreams and imagination.

In terms of songwriting "Smooth As Silk" is perhaps the most impressive track on the LP. It is only 2 minutes long, but presents ideas enough for 3 or 4 different songs in that short timespan. Selected for 45 release, it holds a middle ground between C A Quintet's earlier top 40-oriented material and the avantgarde approach on "Trip thru hell". The lyrics are again complex despite their brevity, mixing moods of ecstasy and paranoia. I find the lasting impression of the protagonist from these lyrics, and throughout the LP, as that of independence and strength, even rebellion, against the terrifying conditions of "Hell". Opening with a gong chime and an energetic pop melody, the stage-performance mood from earlier songs is carried further with a surprising bullfight trumpet signature, moving us to an open arena in full daylight and an open challenge in the face of Hell. Unlike earlier songs a guitar is allowed to share centre stage with the trumpet, mixing reality with dreams and perhaps inviting us to this ultimate showdown.

The concluding track marks a closing of the cycle. After an almost parodic intro with march-like drumming and atonal trumpets – like a surreal parade before the final battle - the opening "part 1" mood returns in this "Trip Thru Hell, part 2", but the section also reflects everything that has passed between. An eerie melody finds the protagonist sharing vocals with the female voices from "part 1", suggesting for the first time a communication between the landscape and its population. Some beautiful lines comment on their shared fate of longtime suffering:

The angels came and played
A thousand years
But all the glory there
Was washed by tears

After this the music slows down, and the single trumpet fanfare return the female voices to their "part 1" landscape for a few bars. Then another theme is introduced into this collage-like structure, a slightly comical cocktail-jazz interlude certain to throw the listener off balance, projecting a fin-de-siecle party at the brink of disaster... before the onslaught of the apocalypse, with frantic drumming, chaotic organ, distorted guitars and voices screaming in attempts to overpower the music. Finally, a churchbell rings into silence and fades out, leaving many possible paths of interpretation – a funeral, the outbreak of war, or peace.

"Trip Thru Hell" seems to me to deal with the theme of human survival under horrible conditions, which may be a world thrown into disaster, or just the everyday life of a single individual. It is stark, terrifying, yet the lingering impression is one of strength and uprising – a refusal to be crushed under the weight of this reality, and an attempt to create an acceptable existence within this reality. It is up to each listener to find an exact understanding and application of the album's message, but I think it is difficult to deny the remarkable talent and originality on display throughout the 29 minutes it lasts.

As far as I am concerned "Trip Thru Hell" is one of the few rock LPs that can bear scrutiny using criteria usually reserved for works of high art, and the fact that this is achieved with tools that belong entirely to rock music – it never pretends to be, or imitates, classical art music – makes it the more impressive. I find similar qualitites in great albums such as 50 Foot Hose and Mandrake Memorial's "Puzzle", but they do not in my opinion achieve the same extraordinary combination of depth and integrity that characterizes the C A Quintet album.

 


 

(Review #29)

GANDALF: same    (Capitol US 1969)

Rating: 8 out of 10

Sounds best on: Opium

Info at: http://www.petersando.com/gandhome.html

Availability: Sundazed CD reissue is easily available

I don't have much to add to the rather sizable amount that's been said about Gandalf's self-titled 1969 Capitol LP over the past 5-6 years. The LP has "retro favorite" written all over it, and consequently people from all walks of life have fallen over themselves in praising it. If Mojo magazine hasn't already "discovered" it as a "lost 60s classic" they undoubtedly will any day now.

In fact, reading through the new Ugly Things I came upon a Gandalf review with a capsule description that is better than anything I could come up with, which compares it to "the colorful nighttime mirage of an amusement park on the Jersey shoreline" (copyright Doug Sheppard). You know an LP has truly arrived when the reviewers are figuring it out as smartly as any underground psych collector. So there it is. End of story?

Well, I guess I could add a few more Gandalf meditations, since I've begun. I have earlier recounted the story of how I once found an unplayed original copy of it for $10. What happened then was that after enjoying the ecstasy of the score, and marvelling at the superb front cover for a couple of days, I phoned a NYC record dealer and offered it to him in trade, which he gladly accepted. Despite all the lip service it did not attain "keeper" status in the Lama collection, and I don't really regret the transaction either.

Gandalf is what you might call a "peacock" LP – it presents all its greatness right away, and leaves little for the imagination, or patience. The uniqueness of the trip is obvious from the first few spins, and you can't help being impressed – the determination of the vision, the lack of ego, the strength of the two originals, the cunning in the covers selection. It immediately climbs past a whole bunch of late 1960s dumbass psych artefacts; you may start referring to it in an awed tone of voice.

The problem then, if there is any, is that after the peacock mindblower experience, there's nothing left to discover. The band leave themselves very few back doors into the listener's mind, a phenomena enhanced by working with so few originals. And the originals ARE the best tracks, mind you, especially the stunning "Can you travel in the dark alone", which begs the question of what brilliant ideas Peter Sando left unrecorded as he dived into his parents' easy listening collection. As for the cover versions, and the LP as a whole, what you've heard is essentially true – it is a marvellous idea, humming with originality, well executed and delivered by a record label that deserves kudos for understanding whole or at least part of their artists' trip. It's all there in the opening Bing Crosby cover; a finalized vision, with very little left to add from the listener, or the band themselves. It's no surprise Gandalf fizzled out after this album, because where can they go next?

In summary, Gandalf seems to me similar to the Millennium/Sagittarius type of studio-intense albums, where concept and surface is everything... and it's interesting to note that these three LPs have gained a widespread fame and popularity in our current age. I don't mind at all, but must admit I haven't given Gandalf much hi-fi time in recent years. Playing it now, it sounds exactly like I remember it.




(Review #30)

EUPHORIA: A Gift From Euphoria (Capitol US 1969) 

Rating: 8 out of 10 

Sounds best on: Hemlock

More info: Check out these paranoid rantings from their former band-mate

Availability: In print on CD on See For Miles (UK)

Is this the rarest actually released major label psych album? Well, maybe it never *was* legitimately released (has anyone ever seen a non-promo copy?), which means that yet again Capitol squandered a ridiculous production budget to create a masterpiece that no one would ever hear. If they’d only known enough to save a thousand copies for themselves, maybe they could have made back their investment thirty years later by selling them for a few hundred dollars a pop. Admittedly, it’s easy to see how they would have had trouble marketing the thing. Who would expect the public to latch on to an album that alternates heavily orchestrated dream-state music with country rock with fuzz-guitar freakouts, not to mention lyrics that are equal parts spirituality and suicide? Once again, we have to thank the crazy man at Capitol who OKed this project, because there’s nothing else like this. The orchestration is as heavy as on the Food and Common People albums, but sounds completely different. The country songs sound “authentic,” but also don’t really sound like any other country or country-rock artist. The fuzz-guitar blowouts manage not to sound “heavy.” The piano playing is equal parts Paul McCartney and honkytonk.

There’s hardly a more jarring shift of tone anywhere than from this album’s first song, the dark, lushly orchestrated “Lisa,” to its second, the goodtimey country knee-slapper “Stone River Hill Song,” to its third, “Did You Get The Letter,” which interrupts about twenty seconds of further country noodling with the words “change it,” then some screeching fuzz-guitar. But eventually the method to these guys’ madness appears. “Did You Get The Letter” is an utterly remarkable song, with a middle section combining backwards guitar, explosions, crying children, goofy spoken sections (not all of which are in English), cuckoo clocks, and more weirdness, none of which seem out of place sandwiched between the killer fuzz guitar riffs and lovely melody. And if you think that a piano/acoustic guitar rhythm track would sound out of place here, you’d be proven wrong. This is one instance where two madmen threw everything they had against the wall, and it all stuck. It’s when I hear an album like this one for the first time that I remember why I’m so into psychedelic music in the first place—there’s so much originality, so much willingness to experiment, and so many ideas here that whether it all works or not it’s bound to be a completely fascinating listen.

This is one disturbing record. The lyrics hint at double meanings, and the song that mentions suicide in its title has a muffled vocal line that sings no dechipherable words, yet a sense of dread permeates. “Lady Bedford” has a straightforward acoustic backing, and a relatively upbeat chord progression, but the vocals quiver with something—excitement? fear? It’s hard to tell. The cryptic, quasi-religious liner notes (including thanks to the Bee Gees!) don’t answer any questions. The album starts with “take my hand/take my life” and ends with the singer saying good bye to the “World,” as backwards guitar gives way to chirping birds. The upbeat country tunes only add to the unsettling nature of everything because they seem so heartfelt. “Did You Get The Letter” is not without its share of bitterness, and the comedy in the middle of it (including a doofus-like impersonation of a Mountie) instantaneously disappears in favor of sounds of death and destruction. This album could either signal the apocalypse or treat suicide as a joke, and either way it’s riveting. (By the way, most reviews of this album mention lyrics about drugs, but unless I’m totally misinterpreting something, I don’t see them.)

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by this listening experience, and overrate it. The vocals get a bit samey after a while—a harmony or two wouldn’t have hurt, and the good stuff is good enough to make me kind of forget that only about half of the album is up to that standard. But, still, after many listens I notice that “Sunshine Woman” could have been a hit if the vocals started sooner than 46 seconds into it, and that the French vocals on the opening “Lisa” have a bizarre, unexplainable power to them. And repeated listens have me absolutely savoring the sound of the guitar on “Did You Get The Letter” and beyond. I also think that if it had been recorded by an established popular artist critics would have barfed all over themselves to be the first to proclaim it a masterpiece of epic proportions. I don’t think they would have been 100% right, but I’ll take it over SGT. PEPPER or TOMMY right now. I bet most of you would, too.

- review by Aaron Milenski


 

 

 

Patrick The Lama 2002-2003

The Lama Reviews