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Tag: stoner music

New Electric Ride’s Balloon Age: Brilliantly Crazed Retro 60s Psychedelia

British group New Electric Ride are a period-perfect, fantastic mid-60s style psychedelic rock band. As their new album Balloon Age goes on, it becomes a wickedly funny, good-natured parody of mid-60s style psychedelia of all kinds. The Rutles, XTC’s Dukes of Stratosphear albums or Love Camp 7‘s Love Camp VII album are the closest thing to what they’re doing here, a spot-on evocation of tropes from across the acid rock and acid pop spectrum, right down to the vintage guitar, bass and keyboard sounds. The whole delicious thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.

A trippy orchestral intro opens the first number, Here Comes the Bloom, which is sort of the 13th Floor Elevators doing Sergeant Pepper. There’s some twelve-string jangle from 60s guitar polymath Jack Briggs, then an unexpectedly ominous, shuffling bridge that works its way down to Adam Cole’s fuzz bass riff before the fun begins all over again. Marquis de Sade imagines the old philosopher as a stoner, from a funky Cream intro, through a little early Santana and then a galloping proto-metal interlude fueled by Craig Oxberry’s artful drums before some very funny vocals kick in.

From Paul Nelson’s faux-vibraphone keyboard intro through its intensely catchy slide guitar riffage contrasting with offcenter, lushly watery vintage chorus-box guitar – and what might be a murder mystery narrative – Bye Bye Baton Rouge is arguably the album’s strongest track. A Submarine Song is where the satire really gets heavy, in this case a litany of White Album-era Beatles references. The lyrics are just as funny: “Diving deep through the foam and brine I spin, tickling fins and dodging whales,” but this would-be Jules Verne isn’t allowed to tell the tale since it’s classified information!

The slow, slinky I Feel So Invited lampoons an Abbey Road vamp, Briggs’ anachronistic Dick Dale-style tremolo-picking knocking everything else to the side. In Chains, from the band’s previous ep, shoots for a psychedelic organ soul sound a la the Spencer Davis Group or Vanilla Fudge, rising to more of that killer, watery guitar. Lovers, another track that first appeared on the ep, goes back to stealing wryly from the Fab Four.

I Can’t Help but Smile, the poppiest track here, evokes the Moody Blues circa In Search of the Lost Chord trying to bring a little bossa nova into their psych-folk shuffle. The Beyond mingles more epic Moody Blues with early War-style latin soul, the Byrds, a droll quote from the Lemon Pipers and a bizarre Jefferson Airplane outro – in case anybody was wondering if these guys knew their source material or not, this seals the deal. As they did with their ep, the band take their sound a little further into the 70s to close the album with the ominously harmony-driven From Under Me, its darkly swaying, blues-tinged Pretty Things atmospherics spiced with lively brass. Much as there are droll and squirrelly effects here, the overall ambience is more straight-ahead and serious…but then again with this band, you never know how much they’re messing with your mind. That’s what makes this album, a lock for one of the best of 2014, so much fun.

Purist Psychedelic Tunesmithing from the Allah-Las

The Allah-Las play period-perfect 60s-style psychedelic pop, folk-rock and punchy garage rock sounds, but more tunefully than most of the bands who were playing that stuff over forty years ago. Byrds twelve-string guitar jangle? Check. Dark, surreal, hard-hitting Arthur Lee garage stomp? Doublecheck. Nonchalantly sinister Peanut Butter Conspiracy psych-folk? Some of that too. What makes the Allah-Las different from all of those bands, other than the Byrds, is that they jangle and clang their way through their songs rather than playing riffs or recycled blues and R&B licks. Their not-so-secret weapon is lead guitarist Pedrum Siadatian’s twelve-string, although frontman Miles Michaud will sometimes play twelve-string as well for extra chime and clang. Their album – streaming at their Bandcamp page – is one of the best original retro rock efforts of recent years. They’re scheduled to play Rough Trade on March 27, but whether the venue has reopened or not, you won’t get a chance if you don’t already have a ticket because that show is sold out. What a heartwarming story these guys are: a year ago, when they made a stop in New York, they’d be at the Mercury. If there’s any proof that there’s a massive audience for good music in this town, these guys are it.

The album’s opening tune, Catamaran is a classic, catchy midtempo Ventures-style surf tune which they beef up with organ after the first chorus. The kiss-off anthem Don’t You Forget It sets Spencer Dunham’s trebly descending bassline over a gorgeous twelve-string hook, Siadatian’s solo spiced with eerily bluesy bends. Drummer Matthew Correia builds from a rumble to a steady backbeat on the wickedly tuneful, Byrdsy Busman’s Holiday. The surf instrumental Sacred Sands has a lush beauty that rises to a more incisive chorus with the twelve-and six-string guitars in tandem.

No Voodoo goes more in a trad garage rock direction, but with more lush sonics. The ominously echoey backing vocals on Sandy reminds of the Yardbirds, while Ela Navega could be Los Destellos playing a Brazilian tune, something the Peruvian psychedelic legends did frequently. “Tell me what’s on your mind, cause I can’t find it,” Michaud suggests on the jangly number afterward.

Catalina is clinic in tasteful, incisive twelve-string playing, followed by Vis a Vis, which sounds like the Church at their poppiest, with the two twelve-strings answering each other as the song hits a high point. Seven Point Five works a brooding psych-folk groove, while Long Journey, with its low, creepy Yardbirds vocal harmonies, slashing fuzztone breaks and murderous lyrics, is the darkest and longest track here. There’s reverb on everything, especially the guitars, and an underlying sense of unease throughout all of these songs despite all the catchy clang. If psychedelia and just plain good retro songwriting is your thing, keep your eyes out for when these guys make another trip through town.

Electric Eye Mashes Up Decades of Classic Psychedelia

Norwegian band Electric Eye play long, psychedelic, cinematic, mostly instrumental anthems that are equal parts spacerock, postrock and art-rock. The obvious influences are Australian art-rock legends the Church and Pink Floyd, although there are interludes on their debut album that very closely evoke paisley underground legends the Rain Parade as well as the Black Angels. The whole thing  is streaming at the group’s Bandcamp page.

The seven-minute opening track, 6 AM sounds more like twelve hours later, a clustering Øyvind Hegg-Lunde drum figure and Njaal Clementsen’s insistent, gravelly bass anchoring an interchange of metalish riffs from guitarists Øystein Braut and Anders Bjelland that contrast with sustained, clanging, lingering chords evoking the Church circa Priest Equals Aura while a series of drones and shimmering sheets of metallic noise shifts uneasily through the background. Lake Geneva doesn’t seem to have much of anything to do with Wisconsin, unless this slide guitar-driven anthem is meant to be a deep-water scenario, bubbling keyboard samples and weird narration interspersed amidst the long, sustained guitar lines, ringing and fading chords. The longest number here, Tangerine, features a guitar sitar and is sort of Within You Without You as the Black Angels might do it, but faster, with tinges of surf music and a series of long, droning crescendos.

Morning Light, another one-chord jam basically, is the closest thing to the Church here, its lingering, burning slide guitar leads set to echoey, dense atmospherics over an insistent beat. The Road hints at a roadhouse theme with a funk-tinged rhythm, an ominous on-the-run scenario akin to Thomas Simon at his most anthemic and rocking, or an especially animated mashup of the Church and the Black Angels. The band nicks The Rain Parade’s This Can’t Be Today for Kruskontroll…and then shift to more slide guitar-fueled, hypnotic vamping. The album’s concluding cut, titled Electric Eye, vividly evokes the Church’s Is This Where You Live, its slow, catchy, spare ambience building to an epic grandeur as the band adds layer after layer of guitar and keys. They pick it up with what sounds like a mellotron in the background, then get quiet with a tiptoeing bass interlude and end with a long wash of feedback that fades down gracefully. Turn on, tune in, you know the rest.

Good Cop and Bad Cop Review LJ Murphy Plus the Byzan-Tones

Good Cop: I think this is our big break. We’ve never been given an assignment this good.

Bad Cop: Back on the Columbus shuttle.

Good Cop: You mean the Scranton shuttle.

Bad Cop: I can’t get used to Scranton being a Yankees farm club. It was part of the Phillies system for as long as I can remember.

Good Cop: Now that’s going back a ways! Anyway, tonight we get to review LJ Murphy, the best rock songwriter in town, and then the Byzan-Tones, an awesome surf band! This is a big deal for us! You notice we’ve been getting better assignments lately?

Bad Cop: If you say so…

Good Cop: Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside, then Red Baraat, and this the best yet! If we don’t screw this one up there’s no telling how far we’ll go! [Good Cop elbows Bad Cop in the ribs]

Bad Cop [winces} Ouch! Don't kid yourself. We haven't had any assignment from this blog, good or bad, since July. We only got to cover that Sallie Ford concert because the blog had reviewed the record a couple of days before. We only got to do Red Baraat because the story wasn't the music, it was that horrible experience in Central Park. So if this blog hadn't reviewed LJ Murphy back in November, we'd still be in Col...I mean, Scranton.

Good Cop: Well, goodbye Scranton. hello Parkside Lounge on a Saturday night! [LJ Murphy,wearing a black suit and porkpie hat and holding a big black acoustic guitar, takes the stage along with his lead guitarist, keyboardist and drummer. With no bass, they launch into a swinging blues]

Bad Cop: I guess this is soundcheck.

Good Cop: I don’t think so. They did the song all the way through. I know this one: it’s Another Lesson I Never Learned.

Bad Cop: Guess they lost their bass player.

Good Cop: Not as far as I know. Nils Sorensen’s also in Brothers Moving, you know, that great Danish Americana band so maybe he had a conflict. And check out Patrick McLellan, he’s playing basslines with his left hand on the piano! At this point they don’t need a bass player…

Bad Cop [emphatically] Oh yes they do. But this guy’s good. Real good. Picked up on what was missing right away and took care of business.

Good Cop: I can’t believe somebody this good is playing the Parkside.

Bad Cop: Classic case of a guy stuck in the New York scene. In this town, you play to your friends. There’s no central scene with any significant following that you can leverage anymore. Here’s a guy who’s as good a songwriter as Richard Thompson, or Steve Earle, or Aimee Mann – and he’s younger than all of them – but he never got to take the band on the road. And he’s a band guy, not a singer-songwriter.

Good Cop: And he’s got a sizeable European following too. Funny how these things happen, isn’t it?

Bad Cop: Sound is not good tonight.

Good Cop: You know the Parkside, it can be good one night and not so good the next.

Bad Cop: It’s the piano. The low mids are feeding. And you can’t hear the electric guitar.

Good Cop: That’s Tommy Hoscheid. Great player. I see he brought his Gibson SG.

Bad Cop: He’s gonna need it.

Good Cop: Oh, I love this song. This is Happy Hour. Anybody who’s suffered through having to hang out with work “friends” in the financial district needs to hear this, it’ll validate you. And I love how LJ has rearranged it as an oldschool Stax/Volt shuffle.

Bad Cop: I liked it better when it was straight up janglerock. At least that’s one thing you can count on with this guy: you never know what you’re gonna get. Always rearranging things. The Faulkner of the three minute rock song. And you notice, he changed the lyric: it used to be “brotherhood of useless warts” instead of “brotherhood of sold and bought.”

Good Cop: That doesn’t rhyme with “one eye on the secretary and the other on the quarterly report.”

Bad Cop: It does if you’re from Queens.

Good Cop: True. “Their daytime dramas wait at home on videocassette,” that’s a really twisted line.

Bad Cop: It wasn’t back when he wrote it. These days you think of a spycam, or a webcam, right? Back then it was like something you Tivoed – except in analog, in real time, and everybody did it, and it actually wasn’t twisted at all. Ha, necessarily, at least. I remember this one time rushing home to record an episode of Survivor for this chick…

Good Cop: I can imagine where you’re going with that. Anyway – check out that creepy cascade from Patrick! This is Mad Within Reason, title track from LJ’s most recent album. “The music was sampled from Bach to James Brown, they saddled the mistress and lowered her down.” Nobody’s writing lyrics like that these days!

Bad Cop: Oh yeah they are. Four words for you: Hannah Versus the Many. But this guy’s good, always has been. “While everybody tried to become what they hate” – and another creepy piano cascade. This is sweet.

Good Cop: This next one’s even sweeter. Pretty for the Parlor – Long Island sniper gone on a spree. What a great tune this is – it’s anthemic, but not derivative or Beatlesque, it’s just good. And full of surprises. “The machinegun mama’s boy has called in sick today,” yum!

Bad Cop: OK, he’s gonna bring it down now. Waiting by the Lamppost for You: a period-perfect blend of sixties soul and blues. “Moonlight delays me, daylight betrays me, I’m hungover and showing my years.” Do you hear Nightclubbing, you know, the Iggy song?

Good Cop: Not unless it’s blasting through the wall from next door. Is that place still a disco?

Bad Cop: We’re at the Parkside, not the Mercury. Nobody next door. Deli across the street.

Good Cop: Oh yeah! Now this drummer’s good. A jazz guy maybe. They’re really rocking out Lonely Avenue – you know, the old Elvis song.

Bad Cop: Doc Pomus wrote it. Orthodox Jewish guy from Brooklyn. Now this is where you lose me, white guys playing the blues.

Good Cop: Aw, c’mon, the audience loves it.

Bad Cop: Once you’ve heard T-Bone Walker do Stormy Monday, all other versions are useless.

Good Cop: T-Bone Walker died before you were born.

Bad Cop: T-Bone Walker actually died when I was in the third grade I think. But I have the album.

Good Cop: This next song is Damaged Goods. What did LJ say, this is the first song he ever wrote in Brooklyn after moving from Queens?

Bad Cop: Guess he must have had the Wall Street job back then. Dungeoness and her crabs, more or less. This guy was on to what Eliot Spitzer and that crew were up to before anybody else was.

Good Cop: Now they’re going back from new wave to noir. This is Fearful Town. Did you hear Patrick quote Riders on the Storm?

Bad Cop [derisively]: Everybody does that. But this is a good song. This is why I came out tonight. Now this speaks to me. This is why I’m here and not someplace else. This guy speaks for anybody who used to live in this neighborhood. “Raided my old hangouts, put away my friends, now I’m sitting on a bonfire on a night that never ends.” LES, 2014, we are with you LJ Murphy!

Good Cop: You’re breaking character. You’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to hate everything.

Bad Cop: And you’re breaking the fourth wall. You’re not supposed to do that. What am I supposed to do? I complained about the sound. The blues medley left me cold. But I like this guy. Despite myself. Even this one. This next song is Nowhere Now. Sort of a twisted Chuck Berry kind of thing. I can’t figure it out for the life of me. Maybe it’s about America, all that “200 years of hoping, you’re not hoping anymore” stuff. What do you think?

Good Cop: That’s what I love about LJ’s songs, they draw you in and make you figure out what’s going on. Now this one’s easy, Blue Silence – they’re going to rock the hell out of this.

Bad Cop: And they do. And then they close with Barbed Wire Playpen, another Wall Street dungeoness crab scenario.

Good Cop: Ha ha funny.

Bad Cop: Couldn’t resist. And now we’re off to Otto’s.

Good Cop [about ten minutes later, at Otto's Shrunken Head]: Holy shit, this place is packed. I haven’t seen Otto’s like this, maybe, ever.

Bad Cop: And we didn’t even get carded walking in.

Good Cop [laughs]: Nobody would ever card you.

Bad Cop: The doofus at the door, the skinhead, once chased me to the back and screamed at me until I showed him my I.D. This is recent, like, last year.

Good Cop: You can’t be serious.

Bad Cop: I’m completely serious. A guy at the bar saw the whole exchange, he came up to me afterward and said he couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed.

Good Cop: I can’t either. But we’re here. And this band is great! What a cool doublebill it’s been, two venues, two great bands. That’s George Sempepos on lead guitar, I can’t see who’s playing bass or drums, and that’s Steve Antonakos on guitar too.

Bad Cop: They used to have an electric oud. Now that was wild. Psychedelic Greek surf music. I remember coming back from seeing them at the Blu Lounge in Williamsburg, this must have been around 2003 or so, completely shitfaced, this is at about four in the morning and I’m waiting forever at 14th Street for the F and I’d recorded the show so I pulled out my recorder and started blasting the Byzan-tones right there on the platform. And everybody was down with it.

Good Cop: You’re lucky you didn’t get arrested.

Bad Cop: Nobody arrests me!

Good Cop: OK. Now I can’t keep track of whether these songs are originals, or they’re psychedelic rock hits from Greece in the 1960s.

Bad Cop: My understanding is that they’re originals. But they sound like old Mediterranean stoner music. Except with more of a surf beat. Now this version of the band is a little brighter and a lot tighter than I remember them being.

Good Cop: And look, the crowd is really into this! This is music from a culture that doesn’t even use our alphabet and peeps are loving this! And the place is so packed that we can’t even get into the back room!

Bad Cop: Hold your fire. We would be able to if this was Lakeside. Oh yeah, Lakeside is gone now. But you get my point. And besides, it’s surf night, half the crowd came from Connecticut, they’re not going to leave for awhile. Captive audience. What every band needs in this century in this town.

Good Cop: Lots of Arabic sounds in this band. And minor keys, and tricky tempos. I can’t figure out what this one is in.

Bad Cop: Me neither. I’ve been drinking since before I left for the Parkside. Sorry.

Good Cop: Now this song is called Pontic Pipeline. Doesn’t sound like Pipeline, though.

Bad Cop: I think the reference is a little…um…what’s the word I want? Oblique? How does that sound ?

Good Cop: Sounds like Arabic rock to me. I love this band, and how the two guitars sometimes harmonize…and how Steve fakes how he’s playing with a slide even though he’s just bending the strings…and now George is singing. In a low, cool baritone, in Greek! What’s the likelihood of seeing something like this outside of Astoria?

Bad Cop: Or outside of Athens.

Good Cop: Point taken. OK, time to go. What a cool night this was! I can’t wait to do this again!

Bad Cop [pulls a flask from inside his trenchcoat and drains it]: OK, see you in July. Or in Col…I mean Scranton.

Revisiting the Frank Flight Band’s Darkly Brilliant Psychedelia

This is not a place to look for old music: the focus here is typically on the here and now. Even so, the rock n roll highway is littered with the skeleton frames of burnt-out bands that deserve to be remembered far better than they are. The Frank Flight Band, from Southport in the UK, are still going strong – and they’re one of the world’s most underrated psychedelic bands, sort of a British counterpart to Blue Oyster Cult. That they’ve released the grand total of three albums in over fifteen years might have something to do with their cult status. However, they’re far from unknown: they’ve spent time on the road, including a tour with Wishbone Ash. Their 2013 album Remains (streaming at Soundcloud) was one of the most darkly exhilarating releases in any style of music last year and is so far the high point of their career. But their previous two albums – Outrunning the Sun and The Sun Will Shine on You – are also worth owning. Fans in Southport can catch the band on February 21 at 9 PM at Victoria Pub, 42-43 Stanley Terrace Promenade.

Flight, with his relentlessly bleak, surreal vision and immersion in decades of psychedelic rock, is the main songwriter and rhythm guitarist but not the frontman. That role is held by Andy Wrigley, whose ageless, weatherbeaten voice is an apt vehicle for Flight’s brooding, often doomed tunesemithing, which like Blue Oyster Cult owes a significant debt to the Doors. Bassist Danny Taylor and drummer Dave Veres have been in and out of the band but are currently in, and are on all the recordings, testament to the pair’s lysergic chemistry and skintight groove. That each of the three albums has a different lead guitarist, yet the sound remains the same, testifies to Flight’s persisently uneasy vision. Although current lead player Alex Kenny is the strongest and bluesiest of the bunch, Dave Thornley and Colins Rens also distinguish themselves as purist, tasteful, incisive, blues-infused players. Likewise, while current keyboardist Michael Woodward stands out for his ornate, Richard Wright-class orchestration, Mark Wainwright, who’s on the first two albums, is also a strong, purposeful organist and pianist.

Thornley’s lone contribution, songwise, to The Sun Will Shine on You (released in 2011) is the catchy, distantly flamenco-tinged Hard Liquor and Grass, which Wrigley delivers more earnestly and seriousmindedly than possibly any other song ever written about getting stoned. The rest of the album is even more serious, existentially and musically speaking. Unsurprisingly, it opens with an antiwar anthem, Went the Day Well, a martial shuffle that juxtaposes battlefield horror with smarmy generals sipping wine out of range of the slaughter while “the leaders of each nation just shrug and walk away.” The band follows that with The Drover’s Wife and the Drifter, a dusky, swaying, folk-tinged anthem, sort of Pink Floyd doing Sympathy for the Devil. Thornley’s echoey, multitracked guitar solos are straight out of 1975, an era this band evokes over and over.

Bird of Prey takes a similarly Doorsy groove and adds ornate gothic tinges in the same vein as Ninth House, with a Light My Fire organ quote exactly where it ought to be and a counterintuitive emotional shift as the song goes on (most of this band’s songs are long, often clocking in at over ten minutes). The blue-sky instrumental Make Believe Highway sounds like Bill Frisell with a rock rhythm section – it’s one of the strongest tunes on the album.

Not in Vain mixes blues, country, soul and a little Tex-Mex behind Flight’s bitter returning soldier’s narrative: “The only hero that doesn’t cause offense is the one that comes back dead,” Wrigley intones. The title track, an eleven-minute epic, foreshadows the direction Flight would take on the next album with its Santana-esque sway, surreal spoken-word vocals and wailing Molly Hatchet/Outlaws guitar outro. Samples of birdsong open and close the album, a device the band turns to for an unexpectedly creepy effect.

Outrunning the Sun finds Flight exploring the latin side of rock, Colin Rens handling the lead guitar. This album is considerably longer, twelve tracks interrupted by the occasional, fleeting instrumental. Recorded in 1999, Flight shelved it and then finally released it ten years later – and the world of psychedelia is better for it. The sixteen-minute title epic slowly coalesces into an uneasy Shine on You Crazy Diamond vamp and then slowly picks up like Santana doing the Doors’ LA Woman, with a long acid blues solo from Rens and some genuinely poetic, metaphorically-charged spoken-word vocals by Wrigley and Taylor.

Tourniquet, a bitter kiss-off anthem, vamps along with a richly jangly ominousness up to another long, pensive Rens guitar solo. Beach House begins as a balmy seaside tableau until the rhythm section kicks in and the darkness makes its way in, hitting a long peak with an unselfconsciously gorgeous guitar solo over Veres’ tumbling drums. Season of Promise is sort of an artsier take on Black Magic Woman, growing more and more intoxicatingly lush as the band adds layer after layer of guitar to the mix: Flight’s chords and voicings are vastly more interesting and varied than merely simple strumming, and once again Rens throws in a nonchalantly biting solo, this time on acoustic.

The band follows Flight’s baroque-tinged miniature Preparations for the May Day Ball with the haunting anthem Better Not Shout , the first of two songs influenced by iconic blues guitarist Otis Rush, Rens’ solo on the way out using the same kind of ominously offcenter passing tones that Rush would typically employ when he played it live. Bad Time for the Future is not an apocalyptic anthem, but another angry breakup song, again setting sunbaked guitar leads to a slinky, clanging clave beat.

Crumbling at my Feet is more or less a funky, latin-flavored take on Otis Rush’s All Your Love. Taylor contributes an enigmatic instrumental that evokes U2 at their darkest and most focused, followed by the practically eighteen-minute Evening Star, a towering global warming-era parable that shifts from echoes of surf rock, to latin art-rock and hypnotically enveloping spacerock fueled by Rens’ pulsing dying-quasar leads. The band speeds it up and then pulls back again, Wrigley calmly narrating a sinister scenario:

The hands of darkness lead the hands of fate
To come push your heavy stone across your gate
Here comes a day of solar breeze
This storm will bake the earth and reap the seas
Our world is changed, it’s final call
Something’s for nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all

Ultimately, we’re all outrunning the sun, and this band knows that. That’s one of the reasons they’re important.

The White Kites Aren’t Missing Anything, Psychedelically Speaking

Imagine if Ian Anderson had a thing for psychedelic pop music instead of heavy blues. That’s what Warsaw-based band the White Kites evoke. Pawel Betley’s pretty much omnipresent flute in tandem with Jakub Lenarczyk’s keyboards gives their album Missing a period-perfect 1968 feel. If the idea of a mashup of the Pretty Things and early Jethro Tull doesn’t scare you off, you’ll love this band. Their sound is retro in every possible way: they absolutely nail their vintage melodic tropes, keyboard and amp settings. Much as this album is all about catchy hooks, there’s a trippy undercurrent that sometimes takes everything in its tow, then eventually lets some familiar, comforting structure bubble to the surface once again. There’s also a meandering lyrical theme on the subject of absence, which may or may not carry some symbolic weight: it’s hard to tell. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.

The centerpiece of the album’s carnivalesque opening track, predictably titled Arrival, is a menacingly swirling funeral organ solo. There are also echoes of Brazilian-tinged American pop from the 60s as well as British glamrock from five years later, or Jacco Gardner in particularly amped-up mode. Track two, The Foreigner morphs from jazzy chamber pop to slithery, jangly art-rock in a Nektar vein. Stowaway Sylvie, a twisted, metaphorically-loaded seafaring tale, brings back that awesome funeral organ: “Reading the stars won’t help me know where we are,” frontman Sean Palmer laments.

Percival Buck has a sarcastic, satirical Ray Davies vaudeville pop flavor; then the song picks up with an anthemic Abbey Road vibe. Much as it may be derivative to the extreme, Beyond the Furthest Star is irresistibly fun. Mellotrons! Circus imagery! Oscillating synths, twinkling neoromantic piano, you name a stoner art-rock device, they manage to cram it in here. By contrast, Should You Wait is more sprightly and pop-oriented, with guy/girl vocals: “Though dawn is anew, my dose shall be complete,” the guy asserts.

Turtle’s Back seems to capture the moment when that dose is complete beyond any doubt: an atmospherically crescendoing keyboard-versus-keyboard interlude and watery Leslie speaker guitar help complete the picture where “we’ll be leaving soon, but not from the room.” When Will May Return is where the trip gets dicey, pensive folk-rock giving way to glam and then a soaring, orchestrated grandeur underscoring what seems like a variation on the Persephone myth – or maybe an eco-disaster parable. Clown King is where the Tull comparisons really come in, a sarcastic anthem told from the point of view of a selfish tyrant, lit up with twin flutes, baroque keys and then an unexpectedly balmy interlude. The title track is an apprehensive piano waltz: “Paper saviors get burned, and your ship is no ark,” Palmer warns bitterly. The album ends up with Farewell, tremoloing organ and bluesy lead guitar evoking a period-perfect early 70s backdrop for a brooding contemplation of the ravages of time. Snobs may turn up their noses at this, saying that it’s all been done before – and it has, but never quite this way. And for real fans of classic 60s psychedelia, this is a feast.

The Devil Makes Three’s New Album: Darker and Funnier Than Ever

High-energy Santa Cruz, California Americana trio the Devil Makes Three‘s incendiary live shows have won them a rabid following on the road, coast to coast. Their latest album, I’m a Stranger Here picks right up where their 2009 release Do Wrong Right left off, but with a darker and more surreal, somewhat harder-rocking edge. This time around, guitarist Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino and guitarist/tenor banjo player Cooper McBean add jazz and bluegrass overtones by including violin and a horn section on a handful of tracks. Americana guitar legend Buddy Miller’s production artfully blends in the new textures without losing the band’s distinctively feral sound.

The title track opens the album. It’s a briskly bouncing minor-key country blues tune with a bit of a woozy stoner hip-hop tinge. It’s also a party anthem: “We’ve come to wake the dead…we get along like an alcohol fire.” Amen to that. Worse or Better puts a 21st century update on oldtime hellfire blues – it’s a shambling out-of-captivity story with a tasty guitar/violin break midway through. Likewise, Forty Days adds a wryly bluesy, dixieland-spiced, grimly humorous spin to the Noah/Ark myth.

The slow, rustic banjo waltz A Moment’s Rest contemplates the kind of moments when the pressure gets to the point where you “gotta swim to the bottom to keep from bursting into flames.” Dead Body Moving, unlike what the title might imply, picks up the pace, a morbidly bluegrass-flavored drifter’s tale: this guy’s already seen the afterlife, he claims, and it’s not pretty. Hallelu works a cynically funny faux-gospel vein: “They say Jesus is coming, he must be walking, he sure ain’t running, who can blame him, look how we done him.”

Hand Back Down takes an unexpected detour into surrealist stoner swamp rock:

Headlights burn like torches on the way to a war
Tell me what it was that we were fighting for
Who is this god to which we sacrifice
I say whatever he wants we better give it to him twice

Spinning Like a Top celebrates a lifetime of chewing shrooms, smoking weed and selling it, with a typically amusing, clever barrage of mixed metaphors from across the decades. Mr. Midnight shuffles along with a considerably more cynical view of the reality of life on the fringes. The album winds up with the slow, creepy Nashville gothic murder ballad Goodbye Old Friends. Much as these guys have a reputation as a party band, this music is awfully smart. Not bad for a bunch of stoner country guys, huh? They’re currently on west coast tour; the next stop is at the Mateel Community Center, 59 Rusk Lane in Redway, California on Feb 4; advance tix are $20.

Lushly Eclectic Oldtimey Stoner Swing from the Jitterbug Vipers

A big draw in their native Texas, the Jitterbug Vipers play songs that sound like classics from the 1930s…except that they’re originals. True to their name, the band’s songs are great for dancing, and as oldtime stoner music goes, few other groups compare: the Moonlighters, or the late, great Asylum Street Spankers come to mind. These vipers have a new album out, Phoebe’s Dream, which sets Sarah Sharp’s sultry, period-perfect vocals floating over the slinky groove of bassist Francie Meaux Jeaux and nimble drummer Masumi Jones, guitar monster Slim Richey channeling a century’s worth of classic jazz and swing tradition with a deviously eclectic, bristling attack that’s all his own.

The briskly shuffling title track recounts the story of Big Phoebe, who “tried to smoke her way into heaven, but they turned her back around” – and then she takes matters (i.e. more ganja) into her own hands. A Viper Just the Same tells a familiar tale in an oldtime vernacular: a stoner can spot another stoner from a long ways away. What’s especially cool about this song is how they switch the rhythm from a bolero to straight-up swing, and then back, fueled by Richey’s unexpectedly skronky guitar solo.

Stuff It, a co-write with Elizabeth McQueen from Asleep at the Wheel, has the sardonic wit of a classic, dismissive Mae West insult song. When You’re High is an unselfconsciously pretty, aptly balmy number that could be interpreted as a love ballad…but you know better. Dangerous stakes out some Romany jazz territory, a tribute to an irrepressible guy with fast fingers and “a bag of tricks, from mushroom soup to tortoiseshell picks.”

Richey kicks off Viper Moon as a lullaby that recalls Les Paul, then they take it in a bossa nova direction – it’s another stoner love song. Sharp saves her most pillowy vocal for the ethereally bluesy ballad Trouble; they follow that with the instrumental Django’s Birthday, a showcase for Richey’s agile Romany-style fretwork.

Along with all the weed-smoking numbers, the band also includes one for the drinkers, the tongue-in-cheek stroll That Was Just the Sauce Talking. There are also a couple of covers. They reinvent the 1939 Ella Fitzgerald hit Undecided as western swing – with what sounds like a quote from the Simpsons theme? And they give Billie’s Blues an expansive Stormy Monday treatment, with some wickedly cool, boomy brushwork from Jones. The Vipers’ next hometown gig is on Jan 29 at Lambert’s, 401 W 2nd St. in Austin.

Retro Trippiness from Nova Heart

On one hand, you might hear Chinese group Nova Heart’s retro 80s psychedelic pop and say to yourself, “I’ve heard this before.” And if 80s music is your thing, you assuredly have. Others might think dubstep, although Nova Heart’s music is slower and a lot closer to trip-hop. And it’s hard to imagine anyone doing either this artfully. Frontwoman Helen Feng writes catchy, anthemic hooks and sings them low, nonchalant and cool. But it’s Rome-based disco producer Rodion who’s shaped her themes into some of the trippiest hypnotic music to come over the transom here lately. Their Beautiful Boys ep is streaming all the way through at their Bandcamp page.

This music is all about textures: Nova Heart employ seemingly every weird, offcenter synth patch ever invented. For example, the third track, Good Ideas, which could easily have been a hit for ABC (the glossy British new wave pop band, not the tv network) thirty years ago: the way they take the hooks and move them around from the lows to the highs, or vice versa, and then back again, is as clever is as it is trippy. The first track, My Song, is sort of a trip-hop spy theme, with echoey Arp electric piano, layers of woozy upper-register synth, and a simple, catchy guitar line that they suddenly warp into doublespeed for a vintage new wave feel. And the title cut – an ode to tranny hookers – sways along with not one but two synth basslines, lowdown P-Funk style slyness balanced with eerily echoing, trebly, multitracked nocturnal electric piano. There’s also a song titled Ethereal which actually isn’t ethereal at all. Is this 80s nostalgia? Sort of. But it’s its own animal, too.

Cigdem Aslan Revisits the 1920s Aegean Underground with a Riveting Intensity

Istanbul-born singer Cigdem Aslan’s album Mortissa is a shout-out to the strong women and freedom fighters in Turkey and Greece in the 1920s and 30s, when the music of the underground, rembetiko, was banned on both sides for being too Arabic. If that doesn’t grab you, nothing will. It’s haunting, plaintive, rivetingly emotional stuff, with echoes of both klezmer and Egyptian melodies along with its obvious Greek and Turkish roots. This so-called “Anatolian blues,” with its bitter ironies and double meanings, was the stoner soundtrack to the revolutionary underworld that rose up in Smyrna, and Istanbul, and port cities on the Aegean almost a century ago. Aslan is an aptly cosmopolitan choice to revisit these songs, a woman of Kurdish descent who’s made a name for herself in the UK singing klezmer music from across the Jewish diaspora. To paraphrase Edward Said: orientalism, the ultimate source of all good musical things.

Aslan sings in both Greek and Turkish, although you don’t have to speak either to enjoy this music, and Aslan’s delivery often transcends any linguistic limitations: it’s not hard to figure out where the songs are coming from. Is the haunting, dirgelike Ferece (Veil) about a funeral, or a wedding? Actually, neither. It’s sung from the point of view of a Muslim woman who wants to tear off her oppressive burqa, Nikos Angousis-Doitsidis‘ searing clarinet lines mirroring the vocals‘ simmering rage. Likewise, Bir Allah (One God), Aslan’s imploring melismatics mingling with Pavlos Carvalho’s biting bouzouki. Aslan shifts in a split second from jaunty to pensive, especially on the shapeshifting To Dervisaki (Little Dervish), with its fiery succession of solos from the bouzouki to Makis Baklatzis’s violin to the clarinet. Aslan does the same on the album’s towering, angst-ridden final cut, S’agapo (I Love You), Nikolaos Baimpas’ kanun rippling over the gusty swells of the orchestra.

Aslan sings with a nonchalantly crystalline tone over a bouncy minor-key pulse on Aman Katerina Mou (Oh My Katerina), then she veers between coy and inquisitive on the rhythmically tricky, chromatically edgy Vale Me Stin Agalia Sou (Take Me In Your Arms). Pane Gia To Praso (Going Out For Leeks – 1920s Greek slang for hashish) spirals downward on the wings of some of the album’s most gorgeous bouzouki riffage beneath Aslan’s eerily glimmering microtones. The catchy Trava Vre Manga Kai Alani (Go Away, Manga) has echoes of klezmer,while the stark bouzouki and vocal lines added a surreal, crepuscular creepinesss to Nenni (Lullaby). There’s also a slinky levantine ensemble piece, a lush pastorale, a bitterly anthemic barroom scenario where Aslan tells her suitors to take a hike, and the enigmatic Girl from Usak, sort of a Turkish circus rock shuffle with a kanun solo that might be the album’s most exhilarating moment.  Where can you hear this masterpiece online? It’s not at Grooveshark or Bandcamp but it is on Spotify, and there are a couple of tracks up at Asphalt Tango Records’ Soundcloud page.

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