December 1, 2014
Making the jump from one label to another (from Dead Oceans to the new California-centric Easy Sound) and touring incessantly since the beginning of the summer has given this SoCal quartet a real career boost. Deservedly, because their latest record is packed with all types of beauty and sadness. The Donkeys have always had tinges of ennui and darkness in their music, but the emotional barometer usually ended up pointing to the happier stuff. Play a Donkeys record all the way through and you'd feel more like drinking Coronas in the sun with sand between your toes than pouting over the storm clouds and choppy seas from the screened-in deck. But this latest long-player sees things leaning to darker themes just enough to finally tip the scale. "Ride the Black Wave" is filled with organs, thin guitars, and clear harmonies, all layered under some dire longing. Nothing gets too literal (or too literary), so mostly you're left with great moody tunes. They know it, just look at the LP cover: four guys on the beach in pants and long sleeves, staring at the surf on an overcast California day. But it's not all June Gloom—the songs are just catchy enough to stick around in for a few weeks. Or if you're lucky, months. One of 2014's best so far.
November 23, 2014
I've made a lot of "best of" compilations of Sun Ra's music for friends over the years. This began with cassettes when I was in college, then CD-Rs and USB sticks. None of the CD-Rs survived, but I still have a few of the cassettes (I always spun up a copy for myself) with their photocopied artwork and handwritten song lists. To build these compilations, I mostly mined the '50s Chicago output, which everybody digs. From there, what else I included depended on the recipient. Some people got more of the '60s experimentation, others got the heavier, headier stuff from the '70s and '80s, like the cuts from the releases on the Horo label, or the well-known live medleys. Still, I was never totally satisfied with my mixtapes. I felt like it was impossible to create a comprehensive and definitive Sun Ra "best of" and still have it actually flow and work as something you can consume in one sitting. After so many attempts, I grew to regard the career-spanning Sun Ra best-of as the uncrackable nut. Well, I'm happier than ever to be proven wrong, and by the one guy in the omniverse most qualified to curate the perfect Sun Ra mixtape: Marshall Allen. Ra's longtime saxophonist and keeper of the flame has assembled this two-disc compilation. Every song has been remastered and sounds fresh. Not only is it engaging and full of life and 100 percent fun to listen to, but it really does have everything. There are chants, vamps, and freakouts. Vocal tunes, scorching free-jazz, big band swing, lonely blues, solo piano passages, weirdo synths, and DRUMS DRUMS DRUMS. Some primo June Tyson, John Gilmore, Ronnie Boykins, and Pat Patrick. All the "hits" are here, right alongside things I've never heard before (things you probably haven't heard either). The challenging stuff is dosed appropriately and edited to keep things moving nicely. It's a fantastic listen, and a big breath of fresh air after a long cycle of horrid-sounding "lost tape" releases and other blatant cashouts. This is the real deal, a clear map of unknown worlds. All up for Jupiter!
This just knocked me out. Mikal Cronin doing one of the best songs from the best record to come out last year: MC II. Mikal's by himself here, just a man and an acoustic guitar in a parking garage. Heartbreaking.
November 18, 2014
This, the most recent album from White Fence, is one that took a while to work its way into my subconcious. But now that it's there, I crave it nightly. I'm always humming the songs, forgetting what I'm humming until I can find the organ or guitar tones or the high harmony part hiding in there, then I remember "Oh, White Fence, this is great!" Maybe the reason this record spent so long on the mental shelf before jumping into my ears is that it came out at right around the same time as Ty Segall's "Manipulator," which was highly anticipated (and not just by me), and also because Ty produces here (they're buddies), linking the two LPs in my brain. But enough Psych 101. This is great rock and roll, very much informed by the 1960s British thing. In fact, it's my favorite bit of '60s British pop psychedlia to come out of California in a long time. There's sunniness, jangle, and plenty of "la la la," but also a dark streak; certainly a hallmark of the best psych rock. Also, the mix is appropriately retro---drums and acoustic guitars are panned hard right and left on many songs, with lead fuzz guitars and vocals down the center, much like the records of that era 45 years ago that were made for mono but reconstructed in a sort of gimmicky fashion for stereo. Collectively, it's both a timeless effort and an effortlessly good time. White Fence is in top form. The songs are all catchy, and while there's enough going on to warrant repeated close listens, the arrangements never feel crowded. Even the busiest songs, like "Arrow Man" and the should-be-a-hit "Like That," have lots of air inside them. My favorite that I keep coming back to is "Sandra (When The Earth Dies)," a song I can't quite decode except to say that it always makes me feel like going outside and taking a walk. Hup, two.
November 2, 2014
All the rock and roll I've been digesting has been leaving me mostly (and most regrettably) blind to the gobs of other music coming out. I'm not one to confine everything non-rock to one single pool, but being rather cold of mood lately, I've found I have to be in a certain itchy headspace to wander away from the warm embrace of fuzz guitars and joyously thudding kick drums. Here's a record that makes it easy. Electronic producer Andy Stott is famous (if that's a word I can use here) for taking techno's half-second pulse and slowing everything way down. Snare hits become distorted, watery slaps. Dance beats become painful beatings. More than a gimmick or a trope, Stott uses this super-slow aesthetic to transcend genre and work more like a cinematic sound designer. His songs are sometimes just synthy ambience, sometimes heavy drum machine dirges. But in all of them, there are pictures. The fuzzy chiaroscuro, the grain of underexposed film, the slow walk down a hallway with the framing all tight and paranoid. It's here. I hesitate to say this record is dream-like, because it's such a sickeningly candy-assed term, but it really does sound like the perfect soundtrack to a dream I've had a hundred times: I'm trying to run, but I can't because my feet are stuck in some horrible muck. I can't get my knees to lift at anything more than a snail's pace. Every body part is almost too heavy to move. It's like I'm running underwater, but it's a substance even heavier than that, like some clear goop. Everything's suspended, nothing works at any speed except the absolute slowest. And behind me, I can feel something drawing down. It's almost got me, I can sense it there, trying to grab on and drag me into its maw. I don't know if it's a monster or just some dark force because I can't turn my head to look (though I imagine a horrible monster). Its pull is certain. I can feel the evil. I am running as hard as I can but I'm moving oh so slowly. I'm as helpless and frightened as I've ever been. And this is the song I hear.
October 25, 2014
August 3, 2014
The calendar year may as well just end right here in the middle of the summer, because I don't know if I'm going to hear a better record in 2014 than the debut EP from Once & Future Band. If you know me, you're probably tired of me talking endlessly about the quality of the O&F's live show. And that's OK, I get it. I've been, uh, effervescent about these guys' on-stage musicianship. But if you can't see them live (they don't really tour), now you can just drop this vinyl onto the platter and let the notes do all the talking. This group of middle-aged SF Bay Area vets lays out a particularly ripe brand of '70s-inspired prog rock. It's a little schlocky and a little winking, full of Moog leads and tempo gymnastics. But at its center, the music is dead-serious and heavy as fuck. The playing is tight and deep. The production is rich and lysergic. Best of all, the lyrics display real sentiment and weight. There's grim poetry here; the boredom of stale relationships, existential angst, loneliness. And everything -- the songs, the sounds, the production -- is exquisitely crafted. That's admirable, since most bands working in this genre would be satisfied to just throw some jams onto tape, layer in some echoey vocals about space travel, and leave it at that. But O&F go for the brain. They just take the long way there, passing through the gut and heart along the way.
May 26, 2014
Many an artist, in an attempt to unlock some secret, next-level creative passageway, has sealed himself into a bedroom studio with a bunch of instruments and a multi-track recorder. He turns down the lights, ingests some mythical fruit or vegetable, puts on his hooded druid cape, hits record, and proceeds to get freaky. Usually the outcome is shit. I've heard a ton of these tapes, and almost all of them flirt with "psychedelia" as described by pop culture, not the real deal, the collision between the great beyond and the vastness of the inner void. Too many bedroom psych records sound claustrophobic, like there's no sunshine getting in through the curtains. But there are few artists who can really do wonders with the formula. Doug Tuttle is one. His debut solo album is exquisitely mixed and recorded. The writing is full of life. Well-penned ideas and introspective lyrics that don't go wacky for the sake of being outré. The sounds are deep. Droning organs, bouncing bass lines, fluttering tape effects, bright guitars, polished vocals and percussion that's perfectly lazy. Just before things get too pastoral, along comes an expertly played acid-fried guitar solo. There are hooks (hooks!) and there are grooves. Not to mention gobs of headphone-candy moments. Get it! Side note: Doug's label, Trouble in Mind, has been absolutely killing it lately. On the same day it released this beauty, it also put out Morgan Delt's debut LP, a very like-minded plate of seafood. Other recent releases to check out: The Limiñanas gauzy cafe-rock and Greg Ashley's experimental beat poetry jams, "Another Generation of Slaves."
April 3, 2014
Some artists choose to explore new directions as they grow. Some find a particular sound and stick to it for a few cycles. Welcome back, Mac. We're still here, glad to see you are too.
March 9, 2014
I never would have pegged the west coast of Mexico as being a hot destination on the psych rock trail. But such are these times; great bands pop up everywhere. This Mexican duo — from what I can gather, husband and wife, with her playing bass and guitar and doing most of the singing, and him playing drums and guitar — has a throbbing, motorik sound, heavy on the long, two-chord jams that bounce at dance-friendly tempos. Production is all thick syrup and deliciously lo-fi. Rare does a song kick off without gobs of flange and echo and chorus looped in. Keys and feedback coat everything a fuzzy, Velvets-like drone. Guitar solos amble and ring with acid-fried tones, but they don't soar and slice or show any great heroics. I really like the moodiness and commitment to the grooves on the record, which seems to be their third, though this is the first one that's seeing wide release. There's enough punk energy here to stand up to the best psych from Cali or Austin, but there's also an otherness to it (the fact they're from far-flung Mexico?) that's super refreshing. So gobble up some hongos and Bohemias and kick it.