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The Tea Club Bring Their Psychedelic Art-Rock Epics to Williamsburg

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.

State-of-the-Art Heavy Psychedelic Band Mondo Drag Bring Their Stoner Stomp to St. Vitus

Oakland psychedelic band Mondo Drag’s second album – streaming at Bandcamp – is amazingly retro, yet completely in the here and now. As far as stoner art-rock goes, this stuff is state-of-the-art. It opens with a song titled Zephyr, which fades up with a galloping pulse, vocals back in the mix, John Gamino’s smoky Hammond organ front and center over the careening rhythm section of Zack Anderson’s trebly bass and drummer Cory Berry’s muted stampede. They wind it up with a guitar solo in tandem with the organ that wouldn’t be out of place on an classic Nektar album…or something from early 70s Jethro Tull. Everything about this – the production, the smoky vibe, the nonchalant expertise of the playing, is straight out of 1974 in the best possible way. Their current US tour brings them to St. Vitus in Greenpoint on July 18 on a killer triplebill with swirly post-Sabbath psych-metal band Electric Citizen and heavier, more boogie-driven Fresno stoners Slow Season. Doors are at 8; general admission is $12.

The album’s second song is titled Crystal Visions Open Eyes – guitarists Nolan Girard and Jake Sheley give it a murky, drony intro before the band hits an altered motorik groove, then that smoky organ hits in tandem with Anderson’s soaring bass – it could be the great lost track from Nektar’s Down to Earth. Shivery, aching wah guitar over a funky beat takes it down to an elegant acoustic interlude straight out of the Moody Blues.

The Dawn, with its twin organ-and-guitar riffage, is more straight up – until it goes on a doublespeed rampage, part Allman Brothers, part Nektar. Plumajilla is a swaying Santana-esque vamp, with twin guitars fading into the ozone, snakecharmer flute, a big, long crescendo and then a mysterious interlude like Iron Maiden at their artsiest that goes into gently ornate early Genesis territory. How much art-rock richness can one band possibly mine in a single song?

The most original track here is Shifting Sands, a mashup of Tangerine Dream and maybe early U2 – at least before the guitars get all crunchy. The stately slide guitar and organ intro to the instrumental epic Pillars of the Sky is as good as any Richard Wright/David Gilmour collaboration – Atomheart Mother, for example – and then brings to mind the gorgeously bittersweet spacerock of Nektar’s It’s All Over. The album’s final cut is Snakeskin, taking a hypnotic Brian Jonestown Massacre pulse back in time a few decades.

Anderson and Berry have since moved on to Swedish band Blues Pills, replaced by Andrew O’Neil and Ventura Garcia, who’ll be on this tour. Those are large shoes to fill, but you’d expect a band as brilliant as this to bring in guys who can fill them.

Goddess Releases One of the Year’s Best and Most Hauntingly Psychedelic Albums

Goddess are one of New York’s most phantasmagorical, individualistic bands. There is no other group in town who sound remotely like them. Part creepy 60s psychedelic act, part folk noir, part underground theatre troupe, they create a magically eerie ambience, whether live or on record. It was a treat to be able to catch their most recent performance at a private party in south Brooklyn: the album release show for their fantastic new one, Paradise, streaming at Bandcamp. Maybe it was the low lights over a leafy back courtyard – or maybe it was Ember Schrag‘s dangerous gin punch-  but as it went on, the show built an electrically suspenseful ambience, like being invited to a wiccan ceremony or some kind of sacrifice, a real-life Stonehenge hidden away just up the block from Fourth Avenue.

Andy Newman’s lushly enveloping multi-keys are one of the keys to the band’s sound. The other is Tamalyn Miller’s one-string violin, which she built herself. With no training as a violinist, she created her own otherworldly style, sometimes trancelike, other times savage and menacing. Singer Fran Pado maxes out both the band’s surrealistic, theatrical side and also the creepiness factor. Bassist/keyboardist Bob Maynard and polymath guitar sorcerer Bob Bannister complete the picture.

The album’s opening track, Leave Here builds a gorgeously enveloping web of acoustic guitars, the women adding their eerie vocal harmonies, rising to a hauntingly bracing interlude, the stark overtones of the violin contrasting with the gently suspenseful lattice behind it. Death by Owls, a mini-suite, juxtaposes an uneasy lullaby theme with pulsing, warily echoey vocals and then a psych-folk march that looks back to vintage King Crimson or the Strawbs at their most psychedelic. Begins sets soaring, stately, gorgeous vocal harmonies over what could be a horror-film piano theme. By now, it’s clear there’s a narrative of sorts, if a rather opaque one: “Like a finger in the palm, like the death of remorse,” the women intone.

Ponies, a slow folk-rock piano theme, switches from a Brothers Grimm-style tale of mass drowning to a balmy, nocturnal Peter Zummo trombone solo. The band builds contrastingly ethereal vocals and droll electronic keys throughout the anthemic, late Beatlesque Belladonna Honey. Grey Skull works a disquieting dichotomy between ethereal, mellotron-like art-rock orchestration and stark, spare strings, Prado’s mysterious vocals soaring calmly overhead.

Married opens with the mantra “this is not a dream,” those richly soaring vocals over spare, baroque-tinged classical guitar, Miller providing a menacing, multitracked outro. The album winds up with the majestically elegaic title track, an escape anthem fueled by organ and violin, Pado’s gently alluring vocals joined by a choir of voices: a shot of hope breaking through the gloom that’s been gathering all the way to this point. What is this all about? It’s not clear. What is clear is that this is an album you have to spend some time with, and get lost in. Its closest relative is Judy Henske and Jerry Yester”s 1969 cult classic Farewell Aldebaran; someday this too may be just as prized by collectors of magical esoterica.

The outdoor show featured another, similarly phantasmagorical suite, this one a sinister, tragicomic tale of a witch who hypnotizes and then moves in with a hapless New Jersey family, who must then use what little strength they have left to break free of the spell. No spoilers here! And for the icing on the cake, Schrag played a set afterward with her full band, Bannister doing double duty on lead guitar, with Debby Schwartz playing lusciously slippery slides and chords on bass and Gary Foster behind the drum kit, matching Bannister’s edgy nuance. Highlights of the set were not one but two Macbeth-themed new ones. What’s become more and more intriguing, watching Schrag’s repertoire grow over the past several months, is how she takes fire-and-brimstone biblical imagery and turns it back on itself, a savagely articulate critique set to similarly biting, incisive psychedelic rock. Speaking of which, she’s playing Hifi Bar (the old Brownies) at 8 PM on July 2. Watch this space for upcoming Goddess gigs – with their theatrical, multimedia bent, they like to make their events special and for that reason haven’t been playing live a lot lately.

2014’s Best Reinvention of a Classic Album: Wounded Buffalo Theory and Others Play Genesis at Rock Shop

It’s been a good past few weeks for intriguing cover band projects. Austin psych-funk rockers Brownout reinvented Black Sabbath, when they weren’t channeling that band at their mid-70s peak, at Brooklyn Bowl last month. William Maselli‘s clever orchestral mashup of Sabbath themes got a workout at Merkin Concert Hall about a week after that. Then there was Grey McMurray and band recasting Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells as lush, string-driven art-rock, a performance that will air on Q2 shortly. But the best of all of these shows was masterminded by Sometimes Boys and Wounded Buffalo Theory drummer Jay Cowit, who brought members of those two bands plus Afroskull, 29 Hour Music People, and the Trouble Dolls together to perform Genesis’ classic 1974 double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Other bands have done it over the years, and there’s a Genesis cover band, the Musical Box, who regularly perform it along with an elaborate set and projections for astronomical prices . But it’s hard to imagine anybody other than the original band doing it as energetically yet surrealistically hauntingly as this one-off pickup band. Best of all, the entire concert was recorded and has been immortalized on youtube, disc one streaming here and disc two here.

Keyboardist Eric Lipper did a spectacular approximation of Tony Banks at the top of his Terry Reid-like, rippling game while Vince Fairchild added more ambient textures, using a studio’s worth of vintage and near-vintage synth and organ patches. As the set went on, the keyboardists moved around and exchanged roles, notably when Matt Iselin joined the festivities as both third keyboardist and singer. Considering how long ago the album was recorded, with instruments – especially keys – that are now museum pieces, it was amazing how closely the timbres and overall sonics matched up with Genesis’ original. What was even more astonishing was how closely Cowit channeled the young Peter Gabriel’s antagonized bark. But the inclusion of other singers – Iselin doing Anyway with a nonchalant menace, the Trouble Dolls’ Cheri Leone delivering The Lamia with a wounded Marianne Faithfull restraint, and the Sometime Boys’ Sarah Mucho holding Counting Out Time together as the guitars roared and squeaked – added all kinds of unexpected dynamics.

Another playful deviation from the script was the inclusion of John Hockenberry of WNYC’s The Takeaway reading Gabriel’s drolly surreal album liner notes in between several of the songs. But otherwise, the attention to detail was meticulous: with its endlessly shapeshifting, kaleidoscopic, trippy pastiche of themes, this album is awfully hard to play. Bassist Rob Christiansen cycled through Mike Rutherford’s dizzying lines with a Bach-like precision and a biting, trebly attack amid the bluster, in tandem with nimble drummer Jason Isaac.

Just as the keyboard lines were divided up among a trio of players, Sometime Boys lead guitarist Kurt Leege and his fellow axemen Joe Scatassa and Alan Black shared duties and exchanged roles. Leege played with his signature, instantly recognizable, icily resonant blend of delay and reverb, handling the more resonant parts while Scatassa and Black took turns and occasionally traded off when Steve Hackett’s original lines would hit a snarling, bluesy peak. Meanwhile, Cowit’s vocals were amped well up in the mix so that his take of Gabriel’s frequent lyrical jabs and slashes could resonate. And ultimately, this band literally brought the album to life, revealing it not only as a trip through the underworld and finally out, but one with a vital, rather snide antiwar and antiauthoritarian message. They careened to a close through the incessant flood and drowning metaphors of side four, then kept the triumphant vibe going with a coy encore of I Know What It’s Like (In Your Wardrobe), from the Selling England by the Pound album.

The other bands don’t seem to have any upcoming NYC shows at the moment, but the Sometime Boys are at the Way Station this Friday, Oct 24 at 10, playing two sets. It’s not likely that they’ll cover any of this stuff, but they’re a killer jamband in their own right.

The Tea Club Bring Sweeping, Epic Grandeur to a Chill Little Williamsburg Room

The psychedelic art-rock epics on the Tea Club‘s third album, Quickly Quickly Quickly are closer to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Nektar or Boston neo-art-rockers the Brew than, say, the Mars Volta.  They’re playing the back room at the Gutter bowling alley at Kent Ave. and North 12th St. in Williamsburg on August 2 at around 9: if trippy, majestic, symphonic grandeur is your thing, see this band.

The opening track, Firebears, is eighteen minutes long. Yup, pushing Pink Floyd Echoes territory. Not for people with ADD, but for those with a long attention span and an appreciation for catchy hooks, there are thousands in this one. Patrick and Dan McGowans’ guitars roar and clang and jangle and mingle nebulously over Jamie Wolff’s growly, melodic bass and Joe Rizzolo’s flurrying, clustering drums, keyboardist Renee Pestritto adding neoromantic flair on synth and elegantly pensive piano. The Nektar influence is everywhere, from the dreamy, opiated interlude that reminds of that band’s Dream Nebula, and later the long symphonic crescendo that wouldn’t be out of place on the Recycled album. And while the arrangements are ornate, and majestic, and often sweepingly beautiful, they keep the tunes simple. It’s easier to picture someone in the band saying to another, “Wouldn’t this sound great as an audience singalong at the Garden?” as the closing vamp gets underway, than it is to visualize the band actually playing the entire epic  all the way through in a rehearsal room (although they must – and it might cost a fortune!).

The second track, The Eternal German Infant is about half as long and kicks in immediately without the two-minute intro. A litany of surreal images – “She hid the meteorite keys?” A “peaceful pepper witch?”- gives way to a triplet theme that winds down gently and rises again. The guitar and synth textures are tasteful and purposeful: distortion, jangles and washes mingle and interweave without wasted notes, a rarity in this kind of music. The same is true of the rhythm section: Rizzolo doesn’t go overboard, and Wolff often serves as a third guitar lead. As with the first track, a peaceful interlude rises to a big orchestrated swell. And the dream sequence takes on a disquieting tone: “When I looked back the house turned to flame, and everything turned black.”

The album’s shortest song, Mister Freeze opens ominously with wah bass, pensive acoustic guitar and a dark wash of string synth. It’s got more of a dark, folk-rock atmosphere: think the Strawbs circa Hero and Heroine but with vastly better, more down-to-earth production. The brooding instrumental break midway through evokes the doomy interlude midway through Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It segues into the album’s final cut, I Shall Consume Everything, shifting from a moody Pestritto flute solo, up and down through alternatingly sinister and soft passages with harplike keys, once again evoking Nektar as the guitars go more and more unhinged.

On one hand, there are plenty of ponytailed old stoners out there who would trade in their extra copies of Yes records if they knew this band existed. On the other, the element that every year discovers Pink Floyd and has their lives changed forever by that experience will also love the Tea Club. Bet on them being around thirty years from now and making a good living places like B.B. King’s.

Wire’s New Album: Change Becomes Them

If Wire’s new album Change Becomes Us sounds like the great lost follow-up to Chairs Missing, that’s because it sort of is. Many of its tracks are finished versions of sketches of songs from the band’s late 70s period, dating from their brilliant initial trio of albums: Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154. Much as these songs share a scruffy surrealism, bracingly dark tunefulness and Wire’s signature wry humor, the original postpunk band is not trying to recapture the past: they keep evolving, and the songs are in the here and now. Ironically, in an age where anybody can record an album with their phone, the kings of late 70s DIY have expanded their sonic palette further here than ever, giving the songs an often hypnotic lushness that sometimes evokes Australian art-rockers the Church.

Doubles & Trebles, a menacing spy story, immediately sets the tone, building from an eerie whole-tone guitar riff to a stalker insistence. With its offkilter vocal harmonies and watery dreampop clang, Keep Exhaling is primo vintage Wire with early 90s production values – and is that an I Am the Walrus quote? Likewise, Adore Your Island snidely references the Who’s Baba O’Reilly.

Re-Invent Your Second Wheel works a tricky tempo with more than a hint of theatrical Peter Gabriel-era Genesis amthemics. Stealth of a Stork builds layer upon layer over a straight-ahead punk stomp, while B W Silence works a suspenseful, watery dreampop vibe. Trippy flanged vocals and enveloping sonics give Time Lock Fog a feel like the Church circa 1993 or so. Magic Bullet, with its unexpected hints of reggae, would have been a standout track on Chairs Missing. Eels Sang reminds of early Gang of Four but with wetter guitars, while Love Bends is a more organic take on the dancefloor rock Wire was doing in the mid-80s: think Ultravox with heavy drums.

The album gets stronger as it goes along. As We Go has a catchy Outdoor Miner hookiness, but more ominously…until a droll singalong chorus that they run over and over again. & Much Besides segues out of it, a lush, balmy futuristic scenario that sounds suspiciously saracastic. The album winds up with Attractive Space, which grows from a Zarathustra-ish riff into a big spacerock anthem. In the time between when many of these songs were conceived and finally realized, Colin Newman and Graham Lewis’s voices have mellowed, Robert Grey’s beats have taken on an unexpected subtlety, with the band’s most recent member Matthew Simms adding textural lushness and diversity. Not a substandard track on the album, pretty impressive for a band that’s been around, more or less, since 1976. Also available: the latest in Wire’s series of “legal bootlegs,” a grab bag of live material culled from a 2000 Nottingham Social gig as well as radio sessions at WFMU and KEXP in 2011. Wire are at Bowery Ballroom in June and likely to sell out the venue; watch this space for onsale dates for tix.

Artful Psychedelic Tunesmithing from Jeff Beam

Jeff Beam hails from Maine. He plays bass in the Milkman’s Union. He also does his own psychedelic pop with an expanse of ideas that literally covers the entire psychedelic genre. He’s playing Pete’s Candy Store on April 14 at 10 PM. And he has an album, Be Your Own Mirror, streaming at his Bandcamp site. As you would imagine, it’s trippy and sometimes pretty dark. The coolest thing about it is how he takes all these old ideas from the 60s and mashes them up: there’s Kinks, and Floyd, and Procol Harum, and the Strawbs side by side and it all makes sense. The only thing missing is the big-room studio production, although to his credit, Beam’s endless layers of overdubs are a good facsimile. What’s most impressive is that like Elliott Smith – an artist who bears some resemblance – Beam plays almost everything here himself except for some drums, horns and strings (yup – the album’s got ’em).

The first track, Whispering Poison in His Ear evokes the folkie side of Roger Waters circa Obscured by Clouds, with a nice, stinging, tremoloing guitar solo wavering over and under a central note. Hospital Patience is a darkly tiptoeing minor-key late 60s Britfolk tune that builds to an epic majesty with a tasty, fat Robin Trower-ish solo. A two-part instrumental follows that, with mellotron, fuzztone guitar, tempo shifts, an eerie pregnant pause, and then takes on a funky edge.

The strongest cut here is Now. How Beam builds it from a slinky, brooding minor-key blues into an ornate Beatlesque anthem is a clinic in good songwriting. Lyrics don’t seem to be a major part of all this; this one’s the least opaque of all the songs. “I’m going underground…give me a quiet town, all these people chasing me around,” Beam muses.

The rest of the album includes riffy T-Rex style glamrock, an instrumental that looks back to early Genesis, a catchy Kinks-ish pop tune and a warped take on a Penny Lane riff that wouldn’t be out of place in Elliott Smith’s last work. Best thing about this is that’s free – or you can throw some bucks at his bandcamp site if you want. Download it here.