Things As They Are, the debut album by Tucson supergroup Saint Maybe, sounds like the great lost sequel to the Dream Syndicate’s 1983 classic Medicine Show. That’s not to say that Saint Maybe are a ripoff: in their most anthemic moments, they evoke Willie Nile; at their jangliest, they remind of the Wallflowers, or Neil Young, or even Dylan, which makes sense since this project features Bob Dylan drummer Winston Watson. What they play is retro 80s psychedelia with some great tunes and deliciously unhinged, off-kilter lead guitar from the Patti Smith Group’s Oliver Ray. Guitarist Chris Sauer – who a few years back put out the intriguingly dark Desert Whale Ghosts – is also part of this project, as is southwestern gothic guru Craig Schumacher. If this album had come out in 1985, it would have a cult following today; without question, it’s one of 2012′s best.
These songs are long, typically unfolding slowly over seven or eight minutes, intricately arranged with layers of guitars and keyboards. The opening track, Everything At Once (And More) is a psychedelic tour de force. Ray’s surreal lyrics can be deliberately off-the-cuff and inscrutable, but he can really nail a phrase when he wants: this one’s a study in paradoxes. “We wanna live forever before we die,” he intones over a catchy, simple blues riff that eventually decays to a fluorescently hypnotic Brian Jonestown Massacre-style interlude layering ethereal mellotron against crashing fuzztone guitar.
With its bristling layers of acoustic and electric guitars, Houses for Ghosts reminds of paisley underground legends True West as the band mingles aphoristic, apocalyptic Steve Wynn-style imagery over a backbeat with pulsing keys: “Is that a dust storm approaching, the highway’s disappeared, they’re building houses for ghosts.” With its oscillating Rhodes piano, fuzz bass and staccato reverb guitar, the funky Delicate Prey owes a debt to Wynn’s desert rock classic Here Come the Miracles. By contrast, She’s Alright works a brisk but casually nocturnal country groove, a launching pad for another series of surrreal lyrics and smartly terse Americana guitar solos. It’s Dylanesque in the best possible way.
The Dream Syndicate influence really starts to show itself on the broodingly swaying Way with Words: the way they work a slow, steady crescendo, riding a sunbaked slide guitar lead (is that Schumacher? Sounds like him) is artful to the extreme. The centerpiece here is the epic Everything That Rises, driven by a venomously twisting Ray guitar riff. Rising from the ashes slowly with a wry Grateful Dead reference, it coalesces into a roaring, jangling, hallucinatory swirl, a wickedly catchy chorus and then a long bridge that builds to a devastating crescendo over wild layers of chord-chopping:
What’s that coming down the line
The question? Fires answered in your eyes
Are we to be reduced to ash
Or will we choose to be free at last?
They keep the Medicine Show menace going full throttle with the even longer Take It Easy (But Take It), a jaggedly catchy 6/8 anthem echoing with reverb guitar, pulsing drones and more of that offhandedly vicious slide guitar, the organ finally taking over to drive the hauntingly surreal narrative home. If that song is the album’s John Coltrane Stereo Blues, the title track is its Merrittville, a low-key but murderous Americana rock dirge with some deliciously terse, bluesy wailing by Ray. As much crazed improvisation as there is here, the orchestration is meticulous: an enormous amount of creativity went into this album. Let’s hope this isn’t the last we hear from Saint Maybe.