REVIEWS #61 - 70





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 #61)

ROBB KUNKEL: Abyss (Tumbleweed TWS 111, US 1973) 

Rating: 8 out of 10

Sounds best on: westcoast weed & fresh mountain air

More info: Some right here, and some over here

Availability: Obscurity

Founded in 1971 by a couple of guys formerly with ABC/Dunhill, Tumbleweed Records went on to see some success with Danny Holien in 1972 and Michael Stanley's debut LP in 1973. Judging by the talent roster the label was geared towards the rural rock solo artist and singer/songwriter style that was popular at the time, a direction accentuated by being based in Colorado which was a popular hippie musician hotspot in the early 1970s. Another of Tumbleweed's artists was transplanted Canadian Arthur Gee, who has received some underground notoriety of late after being linked to a very rare demo LP titled "Arthur" on the Two:Dot label a couple of years earlier.

Tumbleweed's A & R representative in Denver was ROBB KUNKEL, who apart from signing several artists such as Danny Holien, Dewey Terry (of Don & Dewey) and Pete Mccabe to the label also was given the chance to record an album of his own. Titled "Abyss" and housed in an eerie fantasy cover, an obvious amount of dollars and time went into the LP, which was produced by Ed Michel and features a number of classy session musician names. Recorded over a period of six months in 1972 the LP came out in early 1973 in a pressing of circa 500 copies. As Tumbleweed was falling apart at the time, promotion and distribution suffered and the album vanished with almost no trace. Thirty years later it remains an unknown quantity even among specialists within the field.

Picking this up without any previous knowledge, the opening 10 minutes of "Abyss" is likely to have any fan of melodic westcoast psych foaming at the mouth. Introduced with the sound of breaking waves and seagulls, Eastern-flavored guitars and tamboura set the stage for "You Were The Morning", a sublime Thomas Stockwell composition that Kunkel had learned in Chicago many years earlier. Rich guitar tapestries and lush female harmonies support a wave-like melodic structure, with a lyrical electric guitar entering as the tension sharpens. No sooner have you said "Relatively Clean Rivers" than the ocean waves and seagulls return, with some wind chimes added, to send you into the hypnotic "Whispermuse", again with an organic, constantly evolving melodic flow that keeps spiralling upwards round an axis of dreamy California '68 summer days, violins there just to make you happy. The lyrics are apparently inspired by Baudelaire, which makes for an interesting contrast with musical moods that recall Mu at their most relaxed and oceanic. I have to dig deep into my collection to find an album that opens in such a stunning manner.

In an unpredictability typical of the album, Kunkel then decides to break the dreamy psych spell of the two opening tracks with an uptempo Nashville style country number which lasts just long enough for you to wonder what comes next. Answer: "O Light", a moody piano ballad with excellent string and flute arrangements and an overall feel that reminds me a bit of the Pete Fine LP. The soundscape is so exquisite that it more than compensates for the somewhat strained vocals. "O Light" segues almost unnoticably into the title track, which step by step picks up the pace and introduces drums and guitars and suddenly you're inside a great westcoast rocker with hooks and guitar figures that hint of the 1970 Bay Area sound of Bob Smith and Terry Dolan. After a glance back at the moody singer/songwriter spot where the suite began side 1 draws to a close; essentially two great 9-minute suites of 1970s psychedelia separated by a 90-second country & western interlude.

The plot thickens over on side 2 with "Monterrey" (with two "r", meaning Mexico), a breezy countrypop number with melancholy lyrics, remarkable flamenco-jazz guitar and a thoughtful holiday mood not unlike Merkin. Despite its postcard surface it's as complex as everything else on the album, and benefits from repeated plays with close attention. The childhood memories of "Ten Summers" opens with a piano figure close to the Eagles' "Desperado" (which had not been released yet) and a few moody singer/songwriter lines before Kunkel pulls out his bag of tricks again, strings and soaring vocals recalling Tim Hardin, then a full westcoast rock sound, and then a superb jazzy sax solo, and then the whole cycle is repeated again. While hardly my favorite tune on the LP, you can't help but being impressed by all the ideas squeezed into a 3-minute song. "Airhammer Eddie" is the token "roots" number with straight-ahead rock'n'roll chord progressions that seem wasted in the hands of a talent such as Kunkel (they fit Elton John just right, though), and here the limited vocal powers are a drawback. Sensing the need for confusion the sound of a power drill enters loud and upfront towards the end of the song, and if nothing else it had me pretty confused the first few spins.

"Abyss" enters its final lap with the skillful chamber music arrangements of "Playa de Bagdad", wordless vocal harmonies and cocktail piano figures recalling some of Brian Wilson's more exotica-flavored moments. A rather splendid tune, but perhaps not strong enough to put the LP back on track after the preceding roots-rocker. The closing "Turn Of The Century" does a better job of that, delivering yet another complex song that shifts from moody singer/songwriter into energetic westcoast and back, with some impressive piano soloing inbetween. Again Robb Kunkel's vocals sound a lot more at ease with the low-key, introspective passages than the full on rock moments, although it's no major problem. The album ends on an upbeat note with ringing guitar leads and LA-style vocal harmonies slowly fading out.

The few comments I've heard on Robb Kunkel's album all refer to the difficulty in nailing it down in terms of genre, but that's where the old "eclectic early 1970s" tag comes in handy. The album as a whole is complex yet wholly conscious in structure, and this is also true for the individual songs, apart from the brief intermission type tracks at the middle of each side. Side 1 works brilliantly, and if the material on side 2 had been as strong, "Abyss" would have been a Colorado-California masterpiece. As it is one could either approach it as a good LP opening with two psych killers, or a well-written, well-arranged and well-played song cycle typical of the early 1970s. Either way, be sure to check this out if you can find it -- in fact I recommend a certain amount of effort into tracking it down. You will not regret it.

PS  There was a promo sampler from Tumbleweed in 1972, featuring Kunkel and several other of the label's talent. Prior to "Abyss" Kunkel was in a local band called Wizard that have no known recordings.

- review by Patrick the Lama


(Review #62)

BOBB TRIMBLE: Harvest Of Dreams (Bobb no #, US 1982) 

Rating: 10 out of 10

Sounds best on: A psychiatrist's couch

More info: There's quite a bit about Bobb on the net. Two good places are Weirdsville and Psychedelic Music 

Availability: Very expensive, on the rare occasion a copy shows up for sale. Virtually all of it is on the JUPITER TRASMISSION CD, though as the review will detail, listening to the album on its own is a more complete experience. Both of the above-mentioned websites have links to retail sources for JUPITER TRANSMISSION.

There is no album I own that has as much emotional complexity and depth as HARVEST OF DREAMS. Bobb Trimble's previous album, IRON CURTAIN INNOCENCE, is of equal musical value, but HARVEST OF DREAMS is the one that exposes all of his inner demons, all of his hopes and all of his joy. Everything about this album, from the strange album cover to the name of his publishing company, can be interpreted in multiple ways, and every listen to the record reveals new nuances. The JUPITER TRANSMISSION compact disc release contains almost everything from HARVEST OF DREAMS, omitting two songs, one of which is merely silence, the other of which isn't actually by Bobb. The CD also edits out some extraneous talking between songs. Theoretically it should be just as good a listen, if not better, but HARVEST OF DREAMS is so much of a piece, so full of circular and repeated references, that even the omission of two words spoken by one the kids in Bobb's entourage leaves out an essential piece of the puzzle.

How far a listener can go with Bobb's music depends in large part on their reaction to his high, fragile voice, and the many effects he uses on it. Within two seconds of my first listen to Bobb's music, I was transfixed and had that rare feeling that this was music that could change my life. This obviously won't happen to everyone, but I find his voice to be as beautiful a male singing voice as there is anywhere in rock and roll. His music is essentially 60s-style pop, with a bit of a folk-rock influence. Bobb is heavy on effects, from echo to delay to phasing to flanging, and the overload of altered sounds give every song a trippy, otherworldly feel, equal parts psychedelic 60s and new wave 80s. Like all transcendent music, his music is *of* his time, but lacks the trendiness that causes much music of the time to age badly. An unknowing purchaser of the JUPITER TRANSMISSION CD, which was released in the mid-90s and does not mention the original dates of recording, could easily assume it actually was recorded in the 90s. It's that timeless, that unique. A number of traditional psychedelic sound tricks (including backwards recording and heavy echo effects) are augmented by more unusual layers of sound: telephone dial tones, incessant talking, noises from the video game "Defender," bouncing ping pong balls, lingering layers of white noise caused by the heavy phasing. The effect is that of being drawn into a world where there's nary a moment's peace, to have a mind that's so full of ideas (often contradictory) that the talking in your head never stops. Even on "If Words Were All I Had," which is just guitar and voice, the heavy echo on the voice creates a bouncing wave of sound. Psychedelic music can be an expression of mania and psychosis, just as hallucination can come from high fevers or mental exhaustion, and the exact source of the sounds in Bobb's head are unknown, maybe even to him. When I met Bobb, more than twenty years after the release of this album, he asked if "the shadow had moved all the way across the album cover yet." He says that there's a shadow on the album jacket that wasn't in the original photograph, and over the years it's been moving. This is a perfect metaphor for the album itself (whether you might think this notion impossible, and whether you and I can see the shadow is immaterial.) The album is full of shadows, personal mysteries that float throughout and are turned into art, feelings and obsessions that can eventually be resolved (i.e. excised) by multiple listens to the album, or by years of personal change and growth. The album ends with "a confrontation between Bobb and the Devil in living stereo." Is this the ultimate attempt to make sense of the barrage of voices in Bobb's head and on the record? Inclusion of a "song" of pure silence is equally significant. For about two and a half minutes the voices stop and the mind is cleared. This is perhaps the *only* way to clear the mind. Nonetheless, the imperfection of privately pressed vinyl creates a few little crackles in all copies of the LP--silence is golden, but complete silence is ultimately impossible.

The front cover of the album is a photo of Bobb, looking at a fake "unicorn" (apparently, a single horn was glued onto a goat's head.) Historically, the unicorn is a symbol of truth, purity and love, all essential elements of Bobb's world. The unicorn is also, however, symbolic of the loss of purity, the single horn taking the virginity from young girls. Thus it represents both innocence and its loss at the same time. The fact that the unicorn on the album cover is a creation rather than a reality (something that Bobb apparently did not know when the photo was taken) creates an additional dichotomy: it is a false symbol of "truth." The lies that Bobb sings about on the album, the difference between fantasy and reality, love lost, gained and imagined, the innocence of children vs. Bobb's own tormented soul, all spring from the unicorn itself. Bobb's ultimate message is one of hope (a note on the back cover explains the album title: "Harvest those dreams that had failed to Grow. Love, Bobb"), and even in its deepest moments of despair, there's an uplifiting feel to the record. Yet at the same time it's hard to tell whether the optimism is realistic or not. "Premonitions" is the most exhilarating musical expression of love I've yet heard. The song is full of joy and peace. Yet it may not just be about the joy and thrill one experiences at the beginning of a new love, but it may be the last happy gasp before something goes horribly wrong. On alternate listens to this album, one feeling or the other can dominate. The album isn't just the artist sorting out personal contradictions, but also a mirror (or a shadow) of the listener's own mood and feeling.

It was quite a leap from IRON CURTAIN INNOCENCE to HARVEST OF DREAMS. Though the first album had moments of powerful intensity, it did not have this same kind of thematic unity, or the deep personal nature, of HARVEST OF DREAMS. On the back cover of IRON CURTAIN INNOCENCE, Bobb asks "if I'm a good boy and work real hard, may I please be the 5th Beatle someday." This time around John Lennon is dead, and Bobb's focus has changed from his own youthful daydreams to the future of the contemporary youth. Bobb firmly believed in the youth and their future, and thought that music (including his own) was a way to rise up from a world of lies. The only clue to this mindset on IRON CURTAIN INNOCENCE is that it is "dedicated to a children of a dynasty destined to ruins who build their dreams on the darkness they buy…and steal." This time around he's often just as cryptic, but much more effusive. Children are everywhere. His publishing company is "Boysongs Unlimited," a song is entitled "Premonitions Boy" and most importantly, the "Kidds" are omnipresent. Bobb had formed a band with young (pre-teen) kids, and they're let loose throughout the record. They can be heard speaking and laughing between (and during songs), the silent "song" is credited to "The Kidds and Bobb," the Kidds are credited on one song with "inspirational sounds of life and love," and their only recorded song, "Oh Baby," is on the album, despite the fact that it sounds nothing like Bobb's music. The Kidds song and the silent "song" were not included on the JUPITER TRANSMISSION CD, which also excised some of the between-song banter and changed the name of "Premonitions Boy" to "You're In My Dreams." This is the most glaring way that hearing the HARVEST OF DREAMS songs in the context of the CD leaves out an essential part of HARVEST's emotional and thematic base.

Side one of the album is titled "Dimension One - Truth." It opens with "Premonitions - The Fantasy." Marc Johnson is credited with "drums of the heartbeat," and the song definitely is the ultimate expression of the heart. A bouncy melody, the most upbeat on either of Bobb's albums, is augmented with cheery harmonica and, on the backing track, equally pretty flute. The song is pure joy, as Bobb finds everything he'd ever want "with every twinkle of your eyes." Bobb's delight is expressed with glory on a brief "whoo" and an occasional "yeah yeah" at the end of verses. It's hard to imagine the exuberance of this song not winning over a listener, drawing them into the darker and more musically unusual moments that will follow. A stop-start section near the end of the song adds one last moment of excitement. "If Words Were All I Had" is a sparse guitar and voice ballad, an ode to unrequited love, ending with Bobb basically giving up. Just two songs into the album, both sides of love and obsession have been fully presented. "The World I Left Behind," two and a half minutes of silence, follows, giving the listener time to mentally prepare him or herself for "Armour of the Shroud," Bobb's most psychedelic and frightening song. "Armour" is a howl of anguish full of backwards sections, heavy flanging, phone lines that can not be answered, the sound of Jesus being crucified, Bobb's mournful lead vocal, otherworldly harmonies and, on the song's coda, inhuman howling. Many of Bobb's songs, even upbeat songs like "Premonitions," end verses with chord changes that take the melody into slightly dissonant and/or unexpected places. With "Armour," the *entire* song feels out of place, out of sync. At one point Bobb sings "God save you dreamers," and goes on to mention "the cross that still crucifies in A.D." A few years after this album, Bobb would record some Christian-themed songs. At this point in his life, though, he was certainly struggling with the Christian concepts of good and evil. That struggle would be played out further in "Another Lonely Angel," but here Christian history is sinister and confusing. In the notes to this song, the "Voice of America" is credited with "Double Talk," "Judas" with "Crucifixion of Christ," and "Whales" with "Mourning Cries" (the howling, or part of the howling, mentioned above.) Without giving the listener a second to catch his or her breath, side one ends with a repeat of "Premonitions," this time subtitled "The Reality." The reality isn't really much different that the fantasy, and in fact is the very same recording, just with the removal of a few backing instruments, and the addition of some studio chatter (Bobb counts the song off with A-B-C-D rather than the traditional 1-2-3-4.) This time Marc Johnson is credited with "heart of the drumbeat." The song ends with a quick Donald Duck noise that is missing from the first version. As fantastic as this song may be, and as much as it does to change the pace from "Armour's" bleakness, twelve minutes of it (both versions are about six minutes) is admittedly a lot. Bobb has explained that he recorded two versions (actually two different mixes; it's the same recording) because he intended to release the song as a single and he thought the general public would prefer the less densely arranged version. The second version ended up on the album because when it was time for release Bobb wanted to include absolutely every recording he had. Looking at it now, accidental as the duplication may be, it adds a lot to the feel of the album. The fantasy/reality dichotomy of the two titles reflect the heart and soul of the album. Since the two versions of the song are essentially the same, are the contents of Bobb's mind his actual reality? If he's the only one who can see the shadow, doesn't that still mean it's there? Is fantasy a "safe" version of a forbidden or impossible reality? The lyrics to "Premonitions" find Bobb as the fanasty-fulfiller to his love object. As much as Bobb may be creating his own fantasy, he equally wants to give back the same. As Bob Dylan once said, "I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours."

Side two is titled "Dimension Two - Harmony." The concept of harmony has already appeared in "Premonitions," ("I'll sing your every harmony") and musically takes form in another utterly lovely melody, "Take Me Home Vienna." The Kidds are all over this song, counting to four at the beginning, raising a background cheer in the middle, screaming "we love you Vienna" at the end, and after the song is over, arguing about the lyrics. Their excitement at being part of this musical project is only matched by the glorious beauty of the song, which Bobb has dedicated to John Lennon. Vienna is as likely to be a person as it is a place (or simply an image: "I was talking to a figment of my imagination's oasis/my God I was feeling so damn foolish/ I was just a victim of self-hypnosis"), but whatever it may be it symbolizes happiness, and obsession: ("you're on my mind every second, every minute of every hour of every day/every week, every month, every year gone by.") A cheery violin solo in the middle perfectly expresses the happy-go-lucky nature of this song (or at least helps mask the mania), just as the harmonica did in "Premonitions." "Selling Me Short While Stringing Me Long" follows. It has another lovely melody, but with a darker tone, as with "If Words Were All I Had," breaking the happy spell. The lyrics again speak to love lost, or at least not satisfied: "when I hold you in my arms, you're a million miles away." Some synthesizer effects on the bass are used to great effect. 

The Kidds then have their shining moment, a brief (minute and a half) punk rock song called "Oh Baby," which was once described as "sounding much like what The Shaggs might have if they'd been boys weaned on Kiss' LOVE GUN." It's silly, and musically unlike Bobb's songs, yet somehow it fits right in to Bobb's world. The depth of pain and emotion on his own love songs can be contrasted with the naïve innocence of the Kidds' lyrics (they ask "Mr. Bill" of Saturday Night Live for help getting their girl back.) The mood shifts back to melancholy and emotional wreckage for "Paralyzed." If it wasn't for the sound effects, fuzz guitar, backwards instruments, and random background comments from the Kidds, this song could have passed for MOR radio fare. The melody, jazzy chord progression and bass/guitar arrangement is that smooth, that likely to stick in your brain. The contrast between the Kidds' silly comments and Bobb's tortured lyrics and singing only serve to deepen the emotion of the music. He is pouring his heart out to an audience that isn't mature enough to understand his vision(s). The various communication barriers throughout the album become even more massive when seen in this light. The album closes with "Another Lonely Angel," the aforementioned confrontation between Bobb and the devil. Bobb takes on two vocal styles, presumably one for each character, and begins in an uncharacteristically low range. The song soon slows down, and Bobb's voice shoots up to hit his usual high notes. The heavy vocal effects make this song every bit as mind-bending as "Armour of the Shroud." The struggle itself is cryptic, with references to Bobb's music (selling his music/soul?), searching for your soul inside yourself, the ever-present "lies," and the plight of "another lonely angel headed for the borderline." The devil is credited with "background vocals and temptation." The song, and album, ends as a verse dies off in the middle. Has the lonely angel fallen off of the borderline? Or has the angel stopped before reaching it? While this particular song is hard to sort out, clues to the source of the struggle are all over the rest of the album. Many interpretations of those clues are possible (and, indeed, the analysis presented here is just one of them, and in many ways just the tip of the iceberg.)

The liner notes go on to state "all moments experienced and recorded at MCM Recording Studio," which is an accurate depiction of this music-it's definitely an "experience" and is certainly a collection of "moments." Bobb can't resist also assigning a recording studio to the silent "World I Left Behind." The title to the silence opens up yet more possibilities. What has he left behind? If he's left behind an imposed silence, will he begin living his life the way he chooses? Or does it mean that in his new world the voices in his head can never stop? That everything expressed on this album is "truth," whether a listener can figure out what it means or not? Has he left behind anything he really believes is of value?

Bobb's final statement is "as people of world peace, we must join together and confront the Opposition of Indifference with the Spirit of Totality in the Loving Memory and Tradition of Mr. John Lennon." It's partially an afterthought, as a good portion of the album was written and recorded before Lennon's murder, but there's no doubting the effect Lennon's death must have had on Bobb, and much of Bobb's sorrow can be felt in the music.

Despite the emotional depth and darkness throughout, Bobb never loses a sense of playfulness. In the midst of "Armour of the Shroud" he references the local band (and Bobb's friends) the Prefab Messiahs, and even had two of them play on the track. The liner notes also credit the song's tambourine player (Seth "Xerox" Feinberg from the Prefabs) with "good vibes." Even Bobb's darkest songs have rays of hope and positive spirit. The previous album's ode to insanity "Night At The Asylum" includes the lyric "come up and see me sometime." Nothing in Bobb's world is without some sort of joy or hope; his music is intended to be enjoyed. The liner notes are full of in-jokes (most listed above); "Premonitions" and "Take Me Home Vienna" are filled with musical and lyrical joy. This album is not by any means a downer; it's as uplifting as it is complex. Most of all, it's proof that rock and roll music is as valid an art form as any other, that it can open up new worlds as well as help explain ours.

Thanks to Kris Thompson for clarifying some details about this record.

- review by Aaron Milenski

(Review #63)

COMPLEX: same  (Deroy UK 1970)

Rating: 10 out of 10

Sounds best on: any day of the week

More info: Marmalade Skies

Availability: The old exact Swank label reissue is long gone, and the remastered vinyl version on 10th Planet is too. The CD version on Wooden Hill may be findable. Originals are so rare I won't even bother mentioning it.

There is, I think, a small yet significant crack in the floor that separates the mainstream psych fans who swear by the Airplane and Pink Floyd from the "private press" aficionados who may pick up on the most unassuming and primitive record and declare it a "monster". As one who begun in the former camp and now have at least one foot firmly placed in the latter, I find this issue intriguing, and LPs that drive a wedge down that crack even more so. In spite of its humble origins and the warm, friendly nature of its contents, the self-titled album by British band COMPLEX shines as a main beacon in the ragged waters of the controversy. Some people hate its guts, others love it to death, and to some extent I believe the response can be traced back to the prejudices and expectations of the listener.

As one of the "Holy Trinity" items of rare British psychedelia -- the other two being Dark and Forever Amber -- the album and the band are somewhat notorious today, and their story needn't be rehashed. The LP was recorded off-hours in a Blackpool pub and pressed by a budget operation in Scotland. Much has been made of the primitive, hissy, noisy nature of the 99 copies the group received for their troubles, but the original recording wasn't exactly a 24-track aural masterpiece either. What it sounds like, as the album's fans tend to agree, is remarkably similar to what was coming out of American garages in 1966-1968. Not just in terms of the compressed two-track recording and its accompanying live-in-the-basement feel, but also the songwriting, the vocal style, the delightful teen organ sound and the upbeat, innocent lyrics which seem so "wrong" for November 1970. In fact, upon hearing the fabulous 1968 garage/folkrock LP by Mystery Meat from Illinois one of the first things that struck me was how much it sounded like Complex, of all damn bands.

Of course, Complex isn't one of my favorite LPs because it sounds American, but because it shares some important traits with the local, privately released records common to the US but rare to Britain. According to the "private press" gospel, a band releasing an item on their own reaps certain benefits, even though they may not realize it: no smart A & R guy or greedy manager is there to tell them what to do, the lack of funds makes for a time-critical recording with a live gig spontaneity; and, usually, the band is on its way up which means youthful enthusiasm and innocence. All of this can be found on the Complex LP, spades of it, the irony being that it was done with the hope of getting a "major" recording contract, where much of it ran the risk of being lost.

But those factors are true for 100s of albums, and hardly any of those are as stunning as Complex, so what gives? Well, ultimately and beyond all the unconscious advantages of DIY, you have to have the songs and the vocals and the arrangements and the playing, and unfortunately a lot of the local American "garage" type LPs are lacking in this department, whereas Complex are not. The opening "Funny Feeling" sets the stage just right with its energetic roller coaster melody and rousing tempo; somewhat akin to the Zombies, or more precisely a teen garage band influenced by the Zombies, such as All Of Thus. Already in this tune Tony Shakespeare's vocals may create a division among listeners, although I really can't see how anyone can NOT like them -- it's such a perfect capture of the starry-eyed ecstasy of a 17-year old kid walking on clouds at the beginning of a new love affair. It's the stuff Merseybeat bands were singing in 1963, and hearing someone credibly delivering these words in 1970 to a musical backdrop from 1966 makes you realize the unique nature of the Complex experience. Cynicism, "hip" blaséness and burnt-out worldweariness all melt into a tiny pool of battery acid on the floor before Shakespeare's bared heart. "Message from the year 2000" is a very fitting title for the band and LP, and although we're five years past that now it sounds fresher than anything you'll pick up on classic rock radio. A mid-tempo tune with ballad aspirations and a delightfully feeble guitar picking away, its main achievement is to demonstrate the quality of the songwriting and arrangements, with a brief tempo-shift that turns the second half of the song into a sharper mirror image of the first half.

Things then get all-out garagey with "Green-eyed Lucy" where only the delightfully English teen vocals sets it apart from a typical Pebbles comp three-chorder, with a surprisingly freaky fuzz break in the middle and great throbbing bass and amateur backing vocals from Lance Fogg. The subsequent "Josie" may well be the most controversial tune on the LP as it is nothing less than a SKA style number. Thanks to the influx of Jamaican immigrants various forms of Caribbean pop were popular in Britain long before the 70s reggae boom, although I'm still curious as how this credible piece of Kingston club jive could emanate from some geeky white teens in Blackpool. In any event, if you dislike Complex you may intend to use "Josie" to put it down, but I find it surprisingly effective and disarming.

Still, the reason I'm raving about Complex here and now is more due to things such as the mindblowing "Witches Spell" with its pumping Vox organ riffs from Steve Coe and howling lysergic guitar leads from Brian Lee, opening with a superb psychedelic verse melody that erupts into a frantic garage chorus, which in turn gives way to what is probably my fave musical passage on the whole album, an instrumental mid-section of intense guitar/organ interplay that is just too damn good for me to ever try and explain. If you want to get a feel for Complex, or impress a date with the LP, "Witches Spell" is the tune I would recommend dropping the needle on. The folkrock-influenced "Norwegian Butterfly" that concludes side 1 is another favorite, with a soaring melody that is exploited to the max by the superb, yearning vocals.

Side 2 opens with the band's magnum opus, the spellbinding "Self Declaration" which for six minutes examines previously uncharted regions of British small-town teenage spleen. For all its musical prowess it's based on a very simple two-chord melody, upon which Tony Shakespeare recounts the uncertain nature of a reality that keeps escaping his grasp:

I went to a dance on Saturday
The walls were breathing out
A girl asked me if I would show her the way
I answered by breathing out
Sunday, the boys come round for me
'Come for a drive', sorry I'm broke
It was a lie, but by then you see
I was the standing joke

A long acidrock excursion follows with organist Steve Coe delivering a superb solo that could serve as an instrumental backdrop for the main character's stroll around the empty, depressing streets of his neighborhood. He returns:

Monday was too bad to be true
Tuesday died, I shed no tears
Wednesday I really thought I flew
Woke up Thursday, I was still here

Until, unexpectedly, the circle is broken before it closes round the protagonist:

Friday, I declared myself
The year was Spring
The day was Dawn
The hour was Now
I was in good health...

A bold resolution to "join the human race" is accentuated by guitarist Brian Lee's cutting fuzz lead before the music gradually dismounts itself until it fades out with the simple organ chords where it began. Throughout the song there seems to be an almost telepathic communication between vocalist Shakespeare and main songwriter Steve Coe, as though the melodies and lyrics could only have been written with this particular voice in mind. As far as I'm concerned, music doesn't get much better than this.

"Images Blue" revisits the folkrock aspirations of "Norwegian Butterfly", but after the catharsis of "Self Declaration" the overall mood of the album becomes more reflective and less starry-eyed. It's almost as if a year or two has passed, and the realities of adulthood are creeping in. Perhaps nowhere else on the LP is the sound closer to the aforementioned US basement classics of Mystery Meat or the Dovers. Similarly, "Storm On The Way" mirrors the energetic garage sounds of "Green-Eyed Lucy" but with an ominous tone to the meteorological metaphores: "...and when it comes, there will be no streets to walk on, and there'll be no world for us...". While nuclear apocalypse fantasies were frequent in 1970, few of them still looked to "Eve Of Destruction" for inspiration. The end result is an unexpected tribute to the young lovers, for whom the impending doom is yet another a reason to elope on their own.

"Madamoiselle Jackie" is the side 2 counterpiece to "Josie", and what was on side 1 a joyful tribute to a dancefloor beauty here becomes a bittersweet serenade to an (ageing?) stripper. A Parisian mood is created via chanson touches to the arrangements and instrumentation, but it is admittedly the one song on the album where Complex sound a little too much like all the other late 1960s British peddlers of musical short-stories in the Ray Davies school, making up phony stories about other people's lives instead of examining their own reality. Fortunately it is placed at a spot where it does little to diminish the impact of the LP. "Live For The Minute" with its lyrical Strawberry Alarmclock-style guitar licks completes the mirror act as it reaches back to the upbeat moods of the opening "Funny Feeling", yet there is something almost desperate about the songs' urging to hang on to the ideals of adolescence. The song, and side 2 as a whole, raises the question of how much was actually won in the liberation at the end of "Self Declaration". A ticking clock adds an ironic touch as the LP closes.

For an album recorded ostensibly for demo purposes it is surprisingly well-structured and elaborate. The strength of the individual songs is such that the underlying theme may become fully visible only after many plays, if at all. At the same time this theme permeates the musical mood from the first minute to the last, so that even on a brief encounter one will catch a glimpse of it. This is a great achievement and the band was fortunate, in a backwards way, to have the thematic unity further enhanced by a primitive recording and pressing.

To me "Complex" is one of the best LPs ever made about being young, capturing the mood of a naive yet hopeful teenager in an almost painfully honest way. It also shows a progression, a confrontation with the dubious games of youth that need to be dismissed, and even starts looking back on itself, a 20 year-old being nostalgic for his days as a 17 year-old. Like the classic American garage 45s it resembles -- "I Never Loved Her" by the Starfires, "People Ask Me Why" by the Dovers, etc -- there isn't a phony moment on it, yet it's full of inadvertent subtexts and insecurities, like some kid's diary made available for the public. There aren't many albums of this kind anywhere, and finding it buried under the mountain of inhuman, condescending, pseudo-artistic rock music produced in England in 1970-1971 is a little miracle.

- review by Patrick the Lama


(Review #64)

RELATIVELY CLEAN RIVERS: same  (Pacific Is US 1976)

Rating: 9 out of 10

Sounds best on: cactus

More info: 

Availability: Recently reissued on CD and LP by Radioactive Records in England.

Among fans of rare and great psychedelia this obscure 1976 California desert LP has been one of the most requested reissue subjects for years. The mystery surrounding the album and its creator, the legendary Phil Pearlman, may have contributed to the long wait but here it is, with a terrific look and sound courtesy of a British label specialized in rare psych recycling. 

A few people may be surprised to hear me praise this LP as I used to be reluctant to join the worshipping, but I must admit that my resistance is withering away under the album's undeniable "grower" pressure. Unlike many hallowed private pressings RELATIVELY CLEAN RIVERS is an easily accessible trip open to anyone with an ear for the melodic sides of early Neil Young or 1970-71 Grateful Dead. Young's influence in particular is easy to spot, with an overall organic mood that reaches back to the "Everybody Knows" era, as well as a direct echo of "Don't let it bring you down" on the closing "A thousand years". Fans of westcoast rural rock are likely to nod or even bow in approval of the intricate guitar tapestries, the understated vocals, the flowing melodies and occasional flourishes of flute, wind chimes and caz. 

But what sets this LP apart from a 1000 similar journeys along the Marin County-Topanga Canyon axis, and what I long failed to recognize, is that it isn't quite there either, but seems to observe the post-acid lifestyle from a third cardinal point, high up in the California desert. As you start hearing this contemplative desert mood the album reveals a deeper and rarer level, which could be be taken as a harmonious summing up of the whole psychedelic era, from the urban freakouts of 1967 through the "up the country" trend of the Woodstock years and into the quiet retreats of the mid-1970s communes, as told by one of the surviving believers. The LP is about not selling out, it projects a successful fulfilment of the original vision of the psychedelic 1960s. This isn't nostalgia, but the sense of looking back at an unchanged core from which a bigger world has grown. Psychedelia is still alive inside the music, subtly making its presence known via the recurring use of backwards tape effects, as well as the verse melody from the 1967 anthem "For what it's worth" being revisited on "They knew what to say".

This rare achievement makes Relatively Clean Rivers one of the ultimate California albums, even while a couple of the tracks still sound somewhat unfinished to me. And even among those who can't dig the old westcoast trip, I challenge you to find one single person who dislikes "Journey Through the Valley of O", which is 4 minutes of spellbinding musical perfection. To complete the cycle Radioactive Records have also reissued Pearlman's rare 1967 LP "Beat Of The Earth". Keep an eye out for that tremendous droning acid-garage excursion which shows how the journey once began.

PS On a technical note, it seems the RCR reissue displays a slight off-centre effect derived from the original LP on the instrumental "Last Flight To Eden" that closes side 1. I didn't notice this until it was pointed out to me.

- review by Patrick the Lama. A shorter version of this review was published in UGLY THINGS magazine, issue #22.

(Review #65)

BHAGAVAN DAS & AMAZING GRACE: Swaha (no label US 1974, 2 LPs)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Sounds best on: bhang

More info: plenty on the Net, including official site

Availability: a CD reissue exists on the spiritual path circuit. Originals are somewhat scarce.

As the world turns, the notion of what is "psychedelic" music seems to expand and bend according to some unknown gravitational force. Although there is a core meaning that remains unaffected and clearcut (i e: music related to the hallucinogenic drug experience), a lot of dubious activity occurs along the outer perimeter, typically for reasons of "hip" branding, or to sell second-hand records. For a long period "psychedelic" was used to describe standard late 1960s pop, especially of the British variety. More recently I've noticed the label being applied to spiritual, communal 1970s records, probably due to a rise of interest in this era and alternate lifestyles. Those approaching these meditative-devotional albums with the hope of finding "psychedelic mindblowers" will be disappointed, and a backlash is no doubt in store. This is doubly unfortunate as some of the old yoga music trips may still have qualities, even as they're only rarely psychedelic.

Known today as "the Jimi Hendrix of kirtan", Bhagavan Das first rose to prominence in the early 1970s, when Harvard professor-turned-Eastern guru Baba Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert) memorably described Bhagavan in his spiritual autobiography, "Be Here Now":

"I was in the Blue Tibetan with my friend and these other people, and in walked this very extraordinary guy, at least extraordinary with regard to his height. He was 6'7" and he had long blonde hair and a long blonde beard. He was a Westerner, an American, and was wearing holy clothes--a dhoti and so on, and when he entered, he came directly over to our table and sat down. [---] It was just like meeting a rock. It was just solid, all the way through. Everywhere I pressed, there he was! [We sat in our hotel suite] for five days high on Peach Melbas and hashish and mescaline, and we had a seminar with Alexandra David Neehl's books and Sir John Woodroffe's Serpent Power, and so on. At the end of five days, I was still absolutely staggered by this guy..."  

Born in California 1945 as Michael Riggs, Bhagavan Das jumped on the Eastern trail as early as 1963, several years before it became trendy. While I've seen no testimony to that effect it's interesting to note that Riggs/Das came from Laguna Beach, an early hotspot for non-academic LSD use, and breeding ground for the legendary acid smugglers Brotherhood Of Eternal Love. When Alpert ran into him in India in 1967, Bhagavan was already completely immersed in the local spiritual tradition:

"And what started to blow my mind was that everywhere we went, he was at home. If we went to a Theravaden Buddhist monastery, he would be welcomed and suddenly he would be called Dharma Sara, a Southern Buddhist name, and some piece of clothing he wore, I suddenly saw was also worn by all the other monks and I realized that he was an initiate in that scene [---] We'd come across some Shavites, followers of Shiva, or some of the Swamis, and I suddenly realized he was one of them. On his forehead would be the appropriate tilik, or mark, and he would be doing their chanting [---] he was so high that everybody just welcomed him, feeling 'he's obviousy one of us'"

Shortly after this first meeting Bhagavan facilitated Alpert's life-altering encounter with his guru Neem Karoli Baba, a k a Maharaj-ji. The two Westerners -- one a troubled, gay, Jewish Eastcoast academic in his late 30s, the other a young ex-surfer from CA -- formed a dynamic pair that in the early 1970s would settle in the US with a mission to spread Maharaj-jis teachings via lectures, performances, books and records. Ram Dass/Alpert was the verbal, intellectual spokesperson, while Bhagavan was the instinctive-emotional performer. Although adherents to the same school of thought, their yoga paths were different -- Riggs/Bhagavan's discipline seems to have been bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotional love, often expressed through singing and dancing, while Alpert/Ram Dass' path was karma yoga, which is that of mindful action and unselfish helpfulness.

Before looking at "Swaha", a few words about the other LPs from this scene. In 1972 Bhagavan Das released "Ah", a 2LP set which is entirely oriented towards kirtan, the traditional devotional song of India. It has a tremendous color photo of the man, and entertaining liner notes from Ram Dass, but is not Western-oriented in any sense. Ram Dass himself released three massive box-sets during the 1969-1973 timeframe, mixing lectures, meditations, radio broadcast Q & A:s, kirtan, and even some English sung spiritual folk music. Release details can be found at the Acid Archives of Underground Sounds.

The album before us is "Swaha", a double LP privately released in 1974 by the same commune/foundation that was involved with "Ah"  and the Ram Dass "Love Serve Remember" box set. The packaging is typical for spiritual commune records, with beautiful mandala & hindu type designs. There is an insert which explains and details the tracks, and there are lots of photos. 

About a third of it is devoted to kirtan and traditional Indian music, some of which is quite appealing, but I think it fair to say that these recordings can only be enjoyed in full if approached as religious music. These tracks -- several recorded live at Winterland in S F -- are evenly spread out across the four sides.

The rest of "Swaha" is more rewarding to a non-devotee. There are a few improvisational tracks rooted in an Eastern meditative mood, with sanskrit or (often) English phrases forming the basis for inner musical journeys. Some of these do not feature Bhagavan Das at all, but makes room for Jai Gopal and Krishna Das of the supporting commune band Amazing Grace. Both (presumably Americans) have excellent voices that soar appropriately with the subject matter, and an instrument called "electric glide sitar" adds an interesting touch. Bhagavan Das performs a few similar numbers, singing and playing his ektara, which is a 1-stringed Indian instrument that he favored. 

Over on side 3 things get really interesting. In the liner notes Bhagavan Das comments on the life of blues legend Blind Willie Johnson, who in Bhagavan's view was simply a great performer of spiritual music. To prove this point we are treated to two very impressive Johnson interpretations, "Jesus gonna make my dying bed" and "Just can't keep from crying sometimes". Gone are the hippie commune singalongs; instead we get dark, menacing raga-folk-blues excursions, using a rock setting. The sound is raw and gritty, like Pat Kilroy or Captain Beefheart, and one can only lament that both tracks are faded out after a few minutes. A whole LPs worth of this would have made for a 70s "downer folk-blues" classic. Some traditional sounds round out the side.

Side 4 opens yet another non-traditional path that could have been explored more fully, Krishna Das' "Mother Song" which is a terrific, introspective singer/songwriter tune given a moving power thanks to its spiritual purity. This is followed by the improvisational "Born on the wings of a dove", which mixes Orient & Occident to fine effect. Interestingly, an almost identical tune with the same lyrics was recorded by England's SHEILA CHANDRA & MONSOON in the early 1980s, and I can see no other explanation than that Chandra in fact had the "Swaha" album on hand. As a synchronistic sidenote, Monsoon was the brainchild of Steve Coe from COMPLEX (see review #63 above). The LP closes with some more traditional spiritual sounds.

While recognizing that "Swaha" was recorded for quite different purposes than a "rock" LP, it nevertheless has enough to offer in terms of atmospheres and performances to be worth checking out by a curious purveyor of obscure 1970s music. The non-traditional material makes you wish they would have done a whole album's worth of it, especially as there are a few more such tracks by Amazing Grace on the Ram Dass "Love Serve Remember" box-set. Is it "psychedelic"? Well, perhaps, and considering the lysergic background of many of these young sadhaks, under the right circumstances, some of it just might be.

Much like the teachings of Ram Dass, there is today a growing interest in the music of Bhagavan Das. He performs his near-legendary kirtan in spiritual and secular circles around the USA, and recently recorded an album with a member of the Beastie Boys, which also led to an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.

to avoid any risk of confusion, the "Bhagavan Das" implicated in the downfall of the Hare Krishna movement during the 1980s-90s is NOT Michael Riggs, but a completely different person going by the same sanskrit name.

- review by Patrick the Lama

(Review #66)

MYSTERY MEAT: Profiles (Director US 1968)

Rating: 9 out of 10

Sounds best on: class reunion

More info: Garagebands; My First Band

Availability: recently reissued on LP and CD by Shadoks in Germany.

If there is a Great Lost Garage Album out there, this 1968 artefact by Illinois band MYSTERY MEAT could be it. Like most garage LPs it is a primitive recording, featuring an inexperienced, enthusiastic band. Unlike most garage LPs, however, it has no cover versions but a string of originals ranging from good to unbelievable, and the decision to bring in a skilled, versatile vocalist adds a depth unusual for these teenbeat concoctions. Before moving onto the "meat", here's some background on the band and the LP courtesy of Dick Leighninger:

"...We were all students at Blackburn College, located in Carlinville, Illinois. I was a Senior and the other members were Juniors. I had been singing with a local barbershop quartet, the college choir, and a trio that did original folk songs. Wayne Joplin and Ron O'Dell had been writing songs, and were looking for a singer to help them, and they recruited me. (Blackburn is a small school... we only had about 500 students at the time, so everyone knew everyone). We recorded the album in the basement of our college's administration building... a building that the students had just finished building, but the basement had not yet been divided into offices. So, it was a big space, where we would not disturb anyone at night, when we practiced and recorded. I don't remember exactly how many albums we made; my memory is that we went around the room, and said... "well, how many do YOU want, how many do YOU want?" We then added them up, and made that many. We also may have had a minimum order to fill, but it couldn't have been more than about 25, I think. The record was made in St. Louis, Missouri with a custom label company for RCA Records. We only performed once, and that was at the college. We did not have typical posters for the event, nor do I know of any pictures that were taken. We were pretty much hermits in the basement..."

Of course it's only typical that this needle-in-the-haystack among disappointing garage LPs is also one of the rarest 1960s albums in existence, with at most 100 copies manufactured. For decades it remained a wellkept secret within a circle of rare LP collectors that govern certain events on this planet, any inquiries from the outside fielded by fatsos who declared from their Moms' basements that "Mystery Meat doesn't exist". Several years ago a partial tape dupe of it was smuggled out and fell into my hands, so I knew it obviously existed and sounded like a teen-beat killer too, a basement merger between the Dovers and early New Colony Six. An $4000 price tag was expected if a copy ever should surface in the real world, unlikely as that seemed. Yet this is precisely what happened in 2002 when a local record dealer, fearless of the forces he was about to set loose, put up a copy for auction on eBay; especially as he listed the full names of the band members. The intercontinental frenzy that followed can only be hinted at, but I would imagine the Illinois switchboards lit up like a Christmas tree as rabid collectors calling from as far away as Belgium and Japan tried to track down copies. 

This they did, with maybe a dozen or so Mystery Meats being excavated to the tune of $1000 and upwards. One of these copies landed with Thomas Hartlage of Shadoks, a German record label specialized in upscale reissues of super-rarities from the 1960s-1970s. A deal was reached with the (probably stunned) band members and just a couple of months after the initial mania an exact replica of "Profiles", as the title is, hit the stalls. This happened more than two years ago, but I'm noticing that word on this tremendous album is still confined to rare LP collectors who file it away between Music Emporium and Mystic Siva, while the garage guys - who are the ones that really should care - remain at a distance. 

"Profiles", then, is an album that consists of twelve 1966-sounding beat/folkrock originals and no covers, just like the Bachs LP, the payoff being that the Meat songbook may be even stronger than that of their Illinois colleagues. Although recorded in 1968 the songs had been written from 1965 and onwards, which explains the slight "lost in time" nature of the album. Tunes such as "Put Me Down" and "Girl Named Sue" are teen-drama masterpieces worthy of the Dovers, and that's saying something! There are also rawer numbers like "Rung by rung" with a three-chord progression typical for Midwest garage bands, and a hint of psychedelic influences on the great "Sunshine makes it". Dick Leighninger's lead vocals are awesome, hitting that yearning Tim Granada/Sid Herring teen innocence we all worship, and making even the lesser tracks shine. Those vocals and the evocative, heartfelt Farfisa organ may recall the All Of Thus album from upstate New York, another obscure garage behemoth, but again I would rate the Mystery guys higher. I'm inclined to credit Chicagoans New Colony Six with a certain influence on the overall style, but oddly the end result reminds me even more of English band Complex (see review #63), whose marvy first LP is one of the few true garage-sounding Brit albums. Apart from the vocal/organ similarities there's a freshfaced teen enthusiasm and brooding sophomore melancholy that connect these two little-known wonders. 

So, in short, if you are a fan of great American teen-beat sounds, you have no excuse not to check out the Mystery Meat LP. I would have loved to give the Shadoks reissue a Strong Buy rating, but in light of a $50 price tag and some less than perfect sound-processing I would recommend a test drive before the first down payment.

PS thanks to Luc Wouters for the previously unpublished Dick Leighninger quote.

- review by Patrick the Lama. A shorter version of this review was published in UGLY THINGS magazine, issue #22.

(Review #67)

AGGREGATION: Mind Odyssey (LHI US 1969)

Rating: 9 out of 10

Sounds best on: LSD-25 dissolved in a nightclub cocktail

More info: Lama interview & this fun trip

Availability: bootlegged on the European Thorns label in the 1990s, but a planned official reissue on Sundazed fell through. Originals are hard to find.

Ever since Hermann Hesse suggested back in 1927 that the cost for one admission is your mind, metaphors of magic theatres, carnivals and fun fairs have been popular among those wanting to illustrate altered states of mind. During the psychedelic 1960s the use of such symbols was so frequent and often so ignorant that the serious concept degenerated into a meaningless prop, much like what happened with incense or prayer beads. But as Hesse showed in "Steppenwolf" it is a powerful image with plenty of artistic possibilities.

One of the more remarkable uses of the "funhouse" as a metaphor for exploration of cerebral frontiers can be found on the 1969 "Mind Odyssey" LP by Los Angeles band the AGGREGATION. The LP is a somewhat obscure cult item today, and not many listeners are likely to realize how immediate, and ironic, the band's use of the concept is. A 5-piece of college graduates, several of which had degrees in music, the Aggregation were one of a small number of rock bands who played regularly at Disneyland. Hit covers of the day were delivered as a diversion for visiting teenagers, but the band also composed original music to work in conjunction with the rides and expositions on offer at Disneyland's "Tomorrowland".

The details behind the Aggregation signing with LHI and the work on the album can be found in the accompanying website interview, leaving us to concentrate on the resulting music. "Mind Odyssey" is a completely realized concept LP that uses a visit to an amusement park as a metaphor for an inner, ostensibly psychedelicized, journey. Interestingly, the lyrics weren't written by the band themselves but a lady friend (the "O'Hara" of the songwriting credits), whose lyrics hit the exact right balance between symbol and description, without being overly pretentious about it:

All's quiet in the make-believe of business and success
And you've decided you've got time to take a ride
But exactly where you're going can be anybody's guess
Because the only place you're going is your mind

Thus begins the ride, with a half-spoken encounter with the "lady at the gate", recalling the spoken segments on the Moody Blues' "Days Of Future Passed", an LP which undoubtedly influenced the Aggregation. Yet there is a significant difference between the two, which I believe also holds the key to "Mind Odyssey":s special nature. Much like the Moody Blues LP the music is sophisticated and controlled, replacing the "teenage" mantra that had charged rock'n'roll with a wider palette drawing on cool jazz, movie soundtracks, light classical music and -- most importantly -- easy listening. This pre-Beatle lounge crooner element creeps in from various corners, some of it undoubtedly second hand via the Doors, who displayed a similar easy listening influence and who I would rate the other important inspiration to the Aggregation, along with the Moody Blues. One of the tracks clearly echoes the opening of "When The Music's Over", and the sharp, eclectic keyboard arrangements throughout would have made Ray Manzarek proud.

So far into the trip it may seem that "Mind Odyssey" is just another late 1960s artrock LP, likely to deliver appealing sounds with some brains and afterthought, as demonstrated by hundreds of bands ranging from Canada's successful Collectors to more obscure acts like Jasper Wrath and Westfauster. A number of listeners probably never heard anything more in the album, as its' unique qualities need time to manifest themselves. There's nothing terribly rare about these elements by themselves, but due to an unusually fortunate convergence of concept, lyrics, musical styles, vocals and atmosphere, "Mind Odyssey" becomes as remarkable a metaphor for a psychedelic experience as you're likely to find. 

The band knew precisely how to construct music for a "ride", because they had been playing such music at the most famous amusement park in the world, and they had the musical pedigree to make it original and interesting, and they found a lyricist who knew how to draw the lines between Disneyland and the LSD trip, and -- perhaps best of all -- the adult, non-rock nature of the music and the melodramatic vocals projects exactly the right Los Angeles entertainment subtext. Instead of becoming cheesy orchestrated pop, it becomes genuinely psychedelic, in the same way that crooner-inspired underground classics such as Damon and D R Hooker become genuinely psychedelic. Perhaps the best analog I can come up with to describe this unusual experience is Dean Stockwell's surreal performance of Roy Orbison's "In dreams" in "Blue Velvet".

Eerie keyboard sounds and effects recur throughout the Aggregation LP, recalling the classic 1950s soundtrack to "Forbidden Planet", and reminding us that not only are we on acid at Disneyland, but inside the "Tomorrowland" section -- the future. Much like what dreams of the future were back in the mid-20th century, the atmosphere is cerebral and refined, yet an eerie sorrow hangs from above. Lemoyne Taylor's 6-minute instrumental "The long windy tunnel" is the key composition in this respect, with the sound of a beating heart leading way into a complex passage of contradictory moods; like a bittersweet variation on the title track from C A Quintet's "Trip thru hell". The more conventional "Flying Free" that follows leaves little doubt about the psychedelic nature of this ride:

Flowing and feeling, Incredibly free
One knowing, One being
The whole world was me
And when I looked around my body was gone
My mind had flown and I was alone with myself
And with God who was me all along and the
Voiceless song of the universe filled my ears...
And as I stood in the sun I was life and life was one.
The endless sky, the open sea, each was some
Distant part of me

Flutes are brought in, much like the Moody Blues would, but there is also a saxophone-led brass section which comes straight from the L A nightclub heritage. The ride then climbs Peak Experience mountain, appropriately enough with liturgical sounds as the coherent lyrical language dissolves in the presence of the "White Light":

white light
my mind

white light
in me
white light
life light
in everything

The introspective peace that follows is illustrated by the title "In the garden", a relaxed folkrock number with superb renaissance horn arrangements that match the pastoral theme of the song.

But ultimately nothing lasts, whether an amusement park ride or an LSD trip. The return journey begins on "Reflections", which is a somewhat melancholic pop number that is perhaps the most straightforward -- as in a 45 pick -- track on the LP. While acknowledging the powerful nature of his "ride" experience, the protagonist prepares for his return to the non-fantastic world outside, urging his partner to join him. There is also a recognition that the world inside the experience is simply too much to linger in indefinitely.

But the encounter with the "old" world is not a joyful one. Wrapped in a highly ironic 1920s Charleston/schlager sound with kazoos and mock-upbeat woodwinds, "The city of joys and games" expresses the same disgust as anyone might feel upon exiting a terrific funhouse ride, or a spellbinding cinematic experience:

Stop and sit outside your window
Tell me what you breathe
Do you share a scented perfume garden with the trees?
If instead it's oils and gasses, dust and ashes...
Then you know that you're just living in
The City of Toys and Games

The message is driven home by the sound of a flushing toilet, "played" by drummer Bayard Gregory. "Change", a clearly Doors-influenced instrumental follows, with some of the best guitar-work on the LP on top of a Manzarek-style keyboard groove. Finding himself in the spot that any acidhead will recognize, back in reality after an overwhelming experience in another world, the protagonist on "Life and light" resolves to make use of his newly-found knowledge, even if he's stuck in a world of exhaust fumes and noises:

Let my mind be as a gentle sea
In the perfect state of tranquility
Not a closed door, may it open wide
A flash of crimson hue I see
The light of life breaks through to me
My mind at peace and I walk free

Appropriately enough, the music is now heavier and more contemporary than anywhere else on the LP, recalling the Iron Butterfly-inspired sounds of the Music Emporium in particular. Musical figures from earlier parts of the trip recur, as does the wailing nightclub saxophone, before "Life and Light" fades out and the album ends.

The most remarkable aspect of "Mind Odyssey" is that its' surface is deceptively similar to any number of cheesy concept LPs that appeared in the wake of "Sgt Pepper", yet if you stick around it will open up to reveal layers of elaborate composition and internal logic that surpass all those Beatles imitations, and indeed Sgt Pepper himself. The Charleston/vaudeville track is a telling example -- on the typical post-Pepper album this is a throwaway number made for no other reason than to echo "When I'm 64". When Aggregation does one it makes perfect sense, and even convinces of its need to be there, although it's unlikely to be anyone's favorite track. 

Formally trained and mature enough to understand the use of irony and intermusical references, Aggregation uncover a terrific analogy for a psychedelic experience in Disney's "Tomorrowland", and the way they proceed to deliver it makes "Mind Odyssey" one of my favorite albums from 1969. I bet old Herman Hesse would have liked it too.

- review by Patrick the Lama


(Review #68)

MOBY GRAPE: Legendary Grape (Del-Val US 2003)

Rating: 8 out of 10

Sounds best on: good ol' Bay Area grass

More info: 

Availability: in print

Apart from things like the swell Fallen Angels-2nd LP repro, one of the most intriguing titles in the Scorpio label catalog is something listed only as "Legendary Grape". Upon scrutiny this turns out to be (surprise, surprise) MOBY GRAPE, the original 5 guys, rounded up & equipped for a 1990 recording session. And yep, Skip Spence was there too, credited with "Presence + Atmosphere", and in fact supplying a tune for the session.

The Grape story is one of the most amazing and not necessarily happy ones, and this album is yet another remarkable twist to the story. To begin with, it's very good. It's impossible to separate what it is from the background, and why bother to? Here we have a live-in-the-studio recording with 10 songs, all Grape member originals, with 4 from Jerry Miller, 5 from Bob Mosley, and the aforementioned "All my life" by the Skipster, which is basically just a chorus and a riff, although a good chorus and a good riff, and one of the closest in sound to the 60s Grape sound. Generally, Miller's songs are upbeat and dynamic, while Mosley's are more introspective and reflective, with a definite countryrock influence. The track sequencing is very good, and brings the max from the material.

Anyone fearing burnout vibes will be amazed by Miller's opening "Give it hell", an appropriate title for a tune that actually packs more energy than the average 60s Grape track, sounding almost like garage punk. Good, realistic lyrics too. Side 1 continues in the same way, with a more sombre mood in Mosley's "Bitter wind in Tanganyika", which has a Gram Parsons feel. Terrific music throughout -- obviously with some rough edges on the vocal harmonies and the mixing, but the energy and songwriting is there in spades.

Side 2 opens with Mosley's great "Nighttime rider", which is a bit like the moody tracks on the first Grape LP, where a dark folkrock mood creeps over into psychedelia via modal chords and a noctural mystique. This is followed by "Talk about love", which is better known as "Talkin' bout you", but credited to Mosley here. Skip's tune and one strong track by Miller and Mosley each close the album.

I've played this LP six times now, and still feel like playing it again. The Grape mystique merges with the fine music, and there's nothing sad or exploitative about it. You could instead say that its high quality spotlights the sad and exploitative nature of the Grape's rapid downfall in the 1960s, and thus provides us with a belated and very cool "what if" scenario, recorded more than two decades later.

The cover deserves special mention. It's a contemporary 1990 photo of the 5 guys, posing in a way not unlike the first LP cover, except noone's flipping the bird this time (I think). Each member's face tells a different story, just as the music does. Some nice lysergic color art embellishes the black & white photo, making sure you don't miss this album in the record stall.

This isn't a reunion LP but something else, I'm not sure what to call it. People involved have referred to it as "the real 2nd Moby Grape album", which in a way it is. There isn't a Grape fan out there who doesn't need to hear it, anyway.

- review by Patrick the Lama


(Review #69)

MIGHTY BABY: A Jug Of Love (Blue Horizon UK 1972 / various reissues)

Rating: 9 out of 10

Sounds best on: hashish

More info: they have a website

Availability: the Sunbeam reissue is in print and recommended

Despite its upbeat, friendly nature, it took many years for “A Jug Of Love” to attract attention among fans of vintage sounds. When it finally began to receive praise it wasn’t from the mods-on-acid who loved the Babe’s 1969 debut, but from fans of American 70s psychedelia and westcoast. It seems that the band’s transition into the music they loved – such as the country-rock Byrds and the “American Beauty”-era Grateful Dead – had been so complete that the umbilical cord that connected them with their earlier Brit-psych fans simply snapped. Having it released on a “collectable” but inappropriate prog-rock label enhanced the alienation. So, “Jug Of Love” floated around for decades, disowned by many and heard by few.

Listening to it in 2008, this all seems pretty weird. “A Jug Of Love” is a terrific album; warm, versatile and engaging, drawing the best elements of vintage westcoast music while charging it with a strong personality. There is a spiritual, thoughtful undercurrent that may derive from the band’s religious orientation, and serves the music and above-average lyrics well. While there’s no point in denying the influence from the “born-again” early 70s Dead, Mighty Baby wisely choose to retain the extended acidrock guitar interplay that the Dead abandoned on their studio albums. With all six tunes crossing the 5-minute mark, the British band proved that you can both have the cake (well-written, melodic songs) and eat it (long terrific jams).

People who know more about music theory than me have pointed to the unorthodox structure of the music on “A Jug Of Love”, despite its inviting and playful nature. Maybe this explains, along with the rare warmth projected across the board, why it sounds so damn good and why I keep returning to it. Much as I love the first Mighty Baby album, this is their masterpiece to me, an opinion that was unthinkable 20 years ago, but seems more common these days.  It's also a very good recording, with a full, well-rounded sound and lots of presence.

The Sunbeam CD is the first ever legit reissue of the album, and an impressive effort as usual from the label. In addition to the album we get a rare and excellent 45-only track, and some enjoyable unreleased recordings from the same timeframe.

- review by Patrick the Lama. Previously published in UGLY THINGS magazine, issue #25.

(Review #70)

BEAUREGARD AJAX: Deaf Priscilla (no label LP Germany 2005 / CD Shadoks Germany 2006)

Rating: 9 out of 10

Sounds best on: your first acid trip

More info: can you believe they have a Wikipedia entry?

Availability: the vinyl release is long gone, the legit CD may be findable

Despite a few reservations voiced below, Beauregard Ajax is nothing less than an instant classic, a 24 carat showcase for everything that is good about 1960s music. I’m inclined to file it in the tiny pantheon of truly great unreleased psych albums, right next to Cold Sun, the Stalk-Forrest Group and Axe/Crystalline from England. The vinyl-only release contains no info whatsoever, but from what I’ve gathered, the band was a 5-piece from Oxnard who attracted the attention of Bob Keene’s Del-Fi label in Los Angeles. Keene had a falling out with his business partner and the recordings (from the Spring '68) were shelved, and after some fruitless attempts to extract the material for a legit release, an unauthorized imprint arrived in 2005 from an anonymous German operator.

The most obvious comparison for the Beauregard Ajax sound is Revolver —obviously an outrageous claim since music doesn’t get much better than Revolver—but I am not alone in making this connection. It’s a vintage McCartney sound, the acid McCartney, who wrote brilliant pop songs with quirky lyrics and bridges, edges and chord progressions like the world had never seen. The Beauregard Ajax songwriting duo of Ferguson-Hendricks stared at the orchestral scores streaming out of Paul’s head from “Paperback Writer” to “Penny Lane” for so long that they began to understand them, and went about writing and arranging songs according to that scripture. The Revolver sound also comes out via strongly accented rhythm patterns, rich, flawless arrangements, and fine dual vocal harmonies. There are Eastern guitar figures, treated vocals, backwards masking, all done as minor embellishments, not ends unto themselves. 

This isn’t a Beatles tribute album however, but more a case of guys having the brains to find inspiration in the best of breed, knowing that their own time and place would by necessity create something different. So what are the reservations? Well, since Del-Fi wouldn’t lease the material, this $40 limited edition LP has been sourced from a cassette copy, and depending on how much of a hi fi enthusiast you are, this may annoy you. Although entirely listenable, it’s not a perfect sound, and for such a classy, upscale studio album you really want a master tape job. The band themselves caught wind of the interest and contacted Shadoks, who released an authorized CD version (with liner notes) from a tape supplied by a band member. The sonic quality is slightly better than the vinyl, but it seems to be a different mix, and in any event it's no massive improvement over the vinyl.

- review by Patrick the Lama. Previously published in UGLY THINGS magazine, issue #24.

© Patrick The Lama 2004-2007

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