How smoky is the Tea Club‘s latest album, Grappling? It sure is mighty, and psychedelic – and streaming at their merch page. The obvious influence is early, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis: theatrical, dancing vocal lines, an endless succession of tricky tempo shifts, odd meters, spiraling keys and guitars and an epic sweep. The unenlightened might hear bits and pieces of this and think, “Ugh, Yes,” but the music is infinitely more purposeful and entertaining. Among this era’s bands, one good comparison is Brooklynites Wounded Buffalo Theory. Speaking of Brooklyn, the Tea Club – Patrick and Dan McGowan on vocals, guitars and keys, with Jamie Wolff on bass, cello and violin, Reinhardt McGeddon on keys and Tony Davis on drums – have a rare gig coming up there on Dec 17 at 7:30 PM at the Knitting Factory; advance tix are $15.
The album’s opening track, The Magnet sets the stage. It’s not clear whether its pilgrim narrator is alive or dead – at one point, a centipede crawls up the poor guy’s arm as the guitars and layers of organ and synth intertwine, rise and fall, hit an interlude that’s more atmospheric and then rise with a big Peter Gabriel-inspired chorus.
Remember Where You Were, an uneasy, midtempo wartime epic, opens with lush string orchestration, chiming Steve Hackett-style guitar overhead, pulsing along over a river of organ that grows smokier as the grim band of revolutionaries make their way across the battleground to confront the enemy ruler’s army. The song winds up at just under eight minutes with an ominously allusive guitar solo.
The sinister, futuristic nuthouse narrative Dr. Abraham opens with cumulo-nimbus guitar riffage over macabrely bubbling organ. The mad doctor gets to trade grand guignol verses with his hapless victim, ramping up the gothic drama over eerie piano tinkles, mighty stadium rock guitars and a vast, oceanic sweep.
Acerbic strings and precise folk-rock guitar mingle as the apocalyptic anthem Fox in a Hole gets underway, slinking through a trippy Bach-like web of counterpoint between guitars, piano, electric harpsichord and organ. The album’s catchiest track, Wasp in a Wig is also its darkest, a lavishly doomed minor-key waltz with a tasty, icy guitar solo amidst the chilly rivulets of keys. It segues into the album’s coda, The White Book, which seems to offer guarded hope for something other than a grim ending to this tale. A choir of synthesized monks sings a fugue against warpy keys and blippy organ as the vocals reach operatic proportions, the song shifting from vast deep-space twinkle to pounding, earthy anthemics and then a hauntingly allusive, Middle Eastern-tinged guitar interlude to wind it up. Very cool that even though it’s been a long time since the dinosaurs of the 70s ruled the earth, bands like the Tea Club still make music that’s every bit as formidable.