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A New Vinyl Box Set For Lovers of 70s Psychedelia, Mystical Indian and Middle Eastern Sounds

It may seem strange that an Indian-influenced German jamband would name themselves after a Mayan creation myth. But Popol Vuh’s influences, and the scope of their music, were vast. Bandleader and keyboardist Florian Fricke came out of the minimalist side of the German avant garde, but by the time the band were through, they’d taken successful plunges into ornate, High Romantic orchestral rock, psychedelia, ambient music and movie scores. Much of it is unselfconsciously beautiful.

Werner Herzog asserts that without Popul Vuh’s soundtracks, several of his best films never would have existed: endorsements don’t get better than that. This year saw the reissue of four of the band’s best-loved albums – 1973’s Seligpreisung, 1979’s Coeur de Verre, 1983’s Agape-Agape Love-Love and the 1987 score to Herzog’s film Cobra Verde – as a lavish vinyl box set complete with original artwork, posters and expanded liner notes. Considering that Popul Vuh’s albums were European imports, expensive to begin with and now command daunting prices on the collector market, this is a goldmine for 70s art-rock fans. Each of the records is streaming at Spotify (click the links in the titles below).

There’s a verdant Moody Blues Romanticism to much of Seligpreisung, fueled by Robert Eliscu’s soaring, expressive oboe over Fricke’s bright but often hypnotic, mantra-like piano and synth work. With the addition of guitarists Conny Veit and Amon Düül II’s Daniel Fichelscher, this was the group’s first real rock record, veering suddenly from moody Pink Floyd interludes to the careening Grateful Dead-influenced jams that would pervade much of the rest of their rock material. Selig sind die, die da hungem (Blessed Are Those Who Are Hungry), with a long, bluesy, Gilmouresque guitar solo from Fichelscher, perfectly encapsulates all that. As with all these records, there’s a bonus track, in this case the rare single Be in Love, a sunny chamber pop ballad.

Fricke and Fichelscher switch out the second guitar for Al Gromer’s sitar, adding both lush texture and curlicuing mystery to the Coeur de Verre soundtrack, incorporating more of the incantatory instrumental raga-rock sound of the band’s 1973 Hosianna Mantra album. Blatter aus dem Buch der Kuhnheit (Pages From the Book of Fearlessness) sounds like the Dead taking on a Scottish air with Indian tinges, while Der Ruf (The Call) comes across as a soaring, loopy three-man Dead jam. Rising from anxious minimalism to a crescendoing, clanging triumph, the big epic here is Engel de Gegenwart (Today’s Angel). There’s also a deliciously dark, chromatic interlude, Huter der Schwelle (Guardian of the Threshold). The bonus track is Earth View, a spare, sober 1977 Fricke solo piano piece.

Veit’s guitar returns on the harder-rocking Agape-Agape Love-Love, which foreshadows King Gizzard’s uneasy, chromatic Turkish trance-rock by almost forty years. Singer Renate Knaup’s crystalline, sepulchral vocalese sails over a similarly haunting Middle Eastern-inflected backdrop in the Rumi-inspired Behold, the Drover Summons. Circledance, the bonus track, fades up and eventually out like a second-set interlude by the Dead, who were arguably at their peak as a live band at the time Popul Vuh recorded this. Interestingly, the only piano-driven track is the starry closing nocturne Why Do I Sleep.

The Cobra Verde soundtrack is even more Indian-inflected and lushly symphonic, the Bavarian State Opera Chorus serving as kirtan choir in a theme and variations that hark back to Fricke’s beginnings. He reaches for the orchestra’s ominously drifting ambience in the marketplace scene with a couple of subsequent solo synthscapes. It’s a well-chosen way to bring the box set full circle.

Daniel Romano Channels a Vintage Stones Vibe

Daniel Romano’s Outfit’s latest album Cobra Poems – streaming at Bandcamp – has a lot of psychedelic flavors. In Romano’s more imaginative moments, this is one of the catchiest, most entertaining psychedelic rock records of the year. Other times it’s derivative practically to the point of parody. To his credit, Romano really, really knows his Rolling Stones, down to the horn breaks and most minute percussion effects.

The opening tune, Tragic Head comes across as the Grateful Dead doing a catchy soul song with more Stonesy guitars: the tumbling drums are a tasty touch. Even in the Loom of a Caress shifts between Allah-Las clang, Stones growl and mellotron-waft 60s sunshine psych-pop.

Nocturne Child is a Honkytonk Women-style Glimmer Twins ripoff, right down to the sax solo on the outro. Romano tunes his guitar to open G again for Lonely Trumpeteer: he can copy Keith Richards like few others. Likewise, The Motions is awfully close to Wild Horses with a woman out front.

With its noir soul tinges and biting minor-key guitar riffage, Animals Above Our Town is the album’s strongest track. Tears Through a Sunrise is also ridiculously catchy…and with its jangly, bittersweet changes, is far less melancholy than you would expect.

Baby If We Stick It Out is Romano’s Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, more or less. Still Dreaming is the missing link between Loving Cup and Torn and Frayed (Stones fans will get that reference). It segues into the bizarrely loopy closing number, Camera Varda.

On one hand, much of this is as original as a Chinatown Rolex. On the other hand, if Romano gets some of the post-millennials listening to the source material – or even better, taking as much creative inspiration from it as he does – that’s validation.

Play For Today 9/7/21

Been awhile since there’s been a playlist on this page, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of entertaining singles floating around. Here’s a fun and informative self-guided mix: the links in the song titles will take you to each one.

The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout are best known for their latin soul jams, but they’re a lot more eclectic than their name implies. The most electrifying song on their live album is Sheba, an Ethiopiques-tinged surf song

Louisiana rocker Rod Gator‘s Wanna Go for a Ride is the Clash’s version of Brand New Cadillac, as the Legendary Shack Shakers might have done it, darker and grittier with a guitar solo to match

Acoustic Syndicate‘s cover of the Grateful Dead classic Bertha has a tightness and a snarl that the original band sometimes let slip away. “Test me test me test me test me, why don’t you arrest me?” What a theme the lockdown era!

It makes a good segue with one you probably know, RC the Rapper‘s Just Say No, one of the big boombox hits from this summer’s protests here in the US. “It isn’t a theory if it keeps coming true.”

The smooth reggae grooves of Micah Lee’s No Lockdowns keep the inspiration flowing (thanks to the fearless folks at Texans For Vaccine Choice for this one).

The breathing metaphors and carefree sounds of children laughing on the playground in Alma’s Sips of Oxygen are a much subtler kind of commentary: “Someone in the doorway, hope they’re not afraid of them.”

Marianne Dissard and Raphael Mann’s delicate chamber pop duet reinvention of Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You is the great lost track from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album….with a woman who can hit the notes on the mic.

Let’s end this with something equally artful and poignant: Danny Wilkerson‘s Endless Haze, the best and least Beatlesque song on the new reissue of his very Fab Four-influenced 2018 solo debut album. The stark haggardness of the Boston Symphony Strings back his playfully lyrical but wounded chronicle of losing a battle with the bottle.

Fiver Puts Out a Smartly Lyrical New Psychedelic Americana Record

Songwriter/guitarist Simone Schmidt a.k.a. Fiver writes catchy, thoughtful, expansive, distantly Americana-tinged rock songs that draw on peak-era, early zeros-era Neko Case and Cat Power along with the Grateful Dead. Schmidt likes a biting turn of phrase and sings her allusive, historically informed narratives in a breathy, modulated mezzo-soprano. Her latest album with Scottish trio the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition is streaming at Bandcamp

Yeah But Uhh Hey, a steady, vamping, syncopated backbeat number sets the stage, a cynical gig-economy era workingperson’s lament. What goes round seems to come around here; it all falls apart gracefully at the end.

Leaning Hard (On My Peripheral Vision) is a clanging country tune, Jeremy Costello’s bass snapping and Nick Dourado’s lapsteel wafting behind the twang while drummer Bianca Palmer provides a low-key swing.. “Hope you don’t take it as sign,” Schmidt muses, referring to the song title. She winds it up with a Jerry Garcia-tinged wah guitar solo.

Her layers of guitar textures mingle with Dourado’s rippling piano for even more of a Deadly vibe in June Like a Bug, winding out with a long, nocturnal jam. Jr. Wreck, a spare, gospel-infused breakup ballad, has a tantalizingly brief, late-Beatlesque guitar solo from Schmidt at the center.

The album’s funniest song is Sick Gladiola, a torrentially lyrical Tex-Mex-flavored waltz about starstruck fortune-seekers following the downward spiral of traffic and alienation in a gentrification-era El Lay hell. “Don’t bang your head on that bar, it’s too low,” Schmidt warns.

Death Is Only a Dream comes across as a blend of 70s Kath Bloom hippie chamber folk and more recent Carla Bley minimalism, drifting into an enigmatically catchy, early 80s Dead style outro.

Schmidt details a soul-depleting marriage from the trophy wife’s point of view over a steady disco groove in Paid in Pride. She closes the record with For Your Sake This, her echoey vocalese over Dourado’s starry piano slowly coalescing around her acoustic guitar. This has been a slow year for rock music, both in the studio and onstage, and this is one of the best of the class of 2021 so far.

One of Brooklyn’s Best Jazz Acts Returns to Playing Live with a Vengeance

One of the first bands at the very front of the pack getting busy on the live circuit again is fronted by the guy who might be the best guitarist in Brooklyn. From the mid to late teens, Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized played a careening, highly improvisational but also wickedly tuneful blend of pastoral jazz and psychedelia, with frequent detours into the noir. Their distinctively drifting live album of Twin Peaks themes is an obscure treasure from the peak era of the Barbes scene. The group survived their bandleader’s brush with death (this was long before any so-called pandemic) and have emerged seemingly more energized than ever. Csatari didn’t let all the downtime during the past fifteen months’ lockdown go to waste: he wrote three albums worth of songs. He calls it the Placebo Trilogy, and it’s streaming at Bandcamp.

Their next show is June 26 at 8 PM at the new San Pedro Inn, 320 Van Brunt St. (corner of Pioneer) in Red Hook. You could take the B61 bus but if you’re up for getting some exercise, take the F to Carroll, get off at the front of the Brooklyn-bound train and walk it. Nobody at this blog has been to the venue yet but it gets high marks from those who have.

All three records are Csatari solo acoustic, often played through a tremolo effect. The first one, Placedo-Niche has a couple of numbers with a distantly Elliott Smith-tinged, hazily bucolic feel, the first steadier, the second more spare and starry. Csatari packs more jaunty flash and enigmatic strum into D’art in less than a minute thirty than most artists can in twice as much time: one suspects that this miniature, like everything else here, was conceived as a stepping-off point for soloing.

Morton Swing is an increasingly modernized take on a charmingly oldtimey melody. And Extra could be a great lost Grateful Dead theme – who cares if this singalong doesn’t have lyrics.

The second record, Placebo-ish begins with Fresh Scrabble, Csatari’s gritty, nebulous chords around a long, catchy, descending blues riff. As it unwinds, he mingles the same kind of finger-crunching chords into a southern soul-tinged pattern, explores a moody Synchronicity-era Police-style anthem, then sends a similarly brooding variation through a funhouse mirror. The most John Fahey-influenced number here is titled Sad-Joy, both emotions on the muted side.

The last album is Placebo-Transcendence. The gentle, summery ambience of the opening track, Valentino, suddenly grows frenetic. Sugar Baby vamps along, warm and hypnotic. The wryly titled Civilized is…well…exactly that: it sounds like Wilco. The funniest song title (Csatari is full of them) is Silicone Transcendence (Tryin’ to Transcend), the closest thing to Twin Peaks here.

There isn’t a jazz guitarist alive who gets as much mileage out of a chord-based approach than Csatari, and there aren’t many people writing tunes as hummable as these in any style of music. Yet they tease the ears at the same time. If you want to learn how to write using implied melody, there isn’t a better place to start than these records.

A Richly Lyrical, Understatedly Haunting New Album From the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris

With his usual modesty, Gary Louris would probably call himself the co-leader of the Jayhawks. But the reality is that they didn’t become one of the best bands in the world until he took over as their main songwriter. And that’s not meant as disrespect to Karen Grotberg, Marc Perlman and Tim O’Reagan, whose harmonies became so crucial to Louris’ eclectic lyrical brilliance, which blends influences from Big Star, to Bowie, to all sorts of Americana and psychedelia.

Beyond the Jayhawks, Louris has released plenty of material, notably with Golden Smog. His latest solo record, Jump for Joy is streaming at Spotify. The title could be taken at face value, or as total sarcasm. It’s definitely an album for our time: the spectre of death and impending doom hangs over many of the songs here, although there’s some upbeat material as well.

He opens with Almost Home, a cheerfully shuffling, Tex-Mex flavored, band-on-the-road saga livened by his usual colorful narrative detail. Living in Between could be the Jayhawks: gorgeously Beatlesque vocal harmonies, bittersweet changes, some George Harrison-ish slide guitar and an allusively troubled look at the bewildering state of the world. “All the books that I have read didn’t get me through,” Louris concedes. Ain’t that the truth.

Set to a hypnotic web of open-tuned acoustic guitars, White Squirrel is another typically imagistic number, a hopeful anthem for anyone who feels alienated and atomized by encroaching New Abnormal fascism. It’s Louris’ Rock N Roll Suicide.

Driven by a sunshiney keyboard riff that wouldn’t be out of place on the Jayhawks’ Smile album, the fourth track is titled New Normal. It’s surreal to the extreme, although Louris finally drops the facade as his guitar solo goes sputtering over the edge, the world outside “gathering like slow death, nipping at your heels.”

He salutes John Updike in the glamrock anthem after that: it brings to mind Ward White‘s most literary work. The guitars chime and shimmer throughout the Merseybeat-flavored next cut, Follow. The rest of the record alternates gloomy numbers with contrasting optimism, beginning with the richly textured, wintry guitars of Too Late the Key, a somber contemplation of missed exits with potentially catastrophic results.

One Way Conversation is an enigmatic, pensive, possibly elegaic number with tinges of Kraftwerk, Indian music and the Grateful Dead. The album’s chiming, lush title track is very guardedly exuberant: “Hip hip hooray for the longue dureé, bearing this parade of souls.” He closes with the eight-minute, late-Beatlesque apocalyptic epic Dead Man’s Burden. It asks more questions than it answers. Do we have it in us to transcend the residue of unsustainable evil left over from the Cold War, from centuries of ravaging the environment and anything else that got in our way? We’re going to have to figure that out this fall and winter when the toll from the needle of death starts to skyrocket.

Energetic, Cinematic Grooves From the Reliably Uncategorizable Manteca

Manteca play a deliciously uncategorizable blend of cinematic instrumental jamband rock, with tinges of Balkan and Middle Eastern music. They’ve been around in one incarnation or another since the late 70s and are legends in their native Canada. Beyond a single clave soul song, there isn’t much of a latin influence on their latest album The Twelfth of Never, streaming at Spotify. It’s one of the most intriguingly unique records to come over the transom here in the last six months.

Nick Tateishi’s twangy guitar and Will Jarvis’ bass introduce an undulating peak-era Grateful Dead tune to kick off the album’s first track, Meanwhile Tomorrow. Multi-reedwoman Colleen Allen, trombonist Mark Ferguson and trumpeter Jason Logue sail in, Doug Wilde adding both spare piano and a Wurlitzer accordion patch. The three-man percussion section – co-founder Art Avalos, Charlie Cooley and Matt Zimbel – provide a cheerily hypnotic clip-clop groove. The Dead with horns, you say. Is that all there is to this?

Hardly. Tateishi’s noir reverberations kick off the darkly bluesy Illusionist over a cantering, boomy rhythm, the horns and keys joining the brooding atmosphere. Allen’s plaintive alto sax solo gives way to

Lowdown begins with a trickily pulsing Greek rhythm evocative of that famous Smiths hit, but with a Lynchian undercurrent. Logue’s rustic, muted trumpet contrasts with Ferguson’s smoky trombone, Tateishi peaking out with a long, flaring solo,

Ferguson switches to lingering vibraphone, paired with Allen’s uneasy alto flute over an altered qawwali rhythm for the similarly moody Smoke and Mirrors. There’s exploratory trombone against terse, resonant bass, then a return to a spare suspense theme.

Purple Theory comes across as a Greek-flavored midtempo Grateful Dead anthem, tightly circling horns behind an enigmatic guitar solo. Never Twelve, a lowrider latin soul tune, has balmy horns and spare, resonant guitar assembled around echoey Wurlitzer.

The band take a detour into syncopated funk with Five Alive and close the album with T’was Brillig, w which sounds like Jethro Tull taking a stab at an Acadian folk tune – que je puisse te porter des chansons du bois!

A Sharply Amusing New Record From One of New York’s Best Psychedelic Bands

For the better part of ten years, the Academy Blues Project were one of New York’s most consistently entertaining psychedelic bands. They got as far as the Rockwood, where they held down a long series of big-room residencies. Their annual Big Lebowski tribute was as much a giveaway to their sensibility as their sly, surreal live show. And unlike most rock acts in town before the lockdown, carefully scheduling gigs to maximize turnout and ensure future bookings at a handful of coveted, profit-strapped spots, these guys would take random dates at some pretty out-of-the-way venues just to keep the vibe fresh. It was always fun to catch them at an intimate space like Shrine, or Long Island City Bar, on an off night.

Although they’ve released a  handful of eps, their new album The Neon Grotto – streaming at Bandcamp – is their first full-length record. It’s like discovering your cool stoner uncle’s stash of artsy psychedelic records from the 70s. The obvious influences here are the Grateful Dead and Steely Dan, but there are also echoes of acts as diverse as Supertramp, P-Funk and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The band recorded the basic tracks right before the lockdown. After their members were scattered to the winds by the summer of last year, they finished it over the web. The seductive surrealism and archetypes in Meera Dugal’s album cover art make a perfect visual companion.

The opening number, Athens to Corfu, could be the good-natured Hollywood Hills boudoir soul tune that never made it onto Steely Dan’s Aja record. Frontman/guitarist Mark Levy tremolo-picks feathery washes and sunbaked, echoey blues, keyboardist Ben Easton starting out with starry Rhodes piano and drifting into an oscillating swirl, bassist Trevor Brown and drummer Jim Bloom kicking up the waves at the end. There is nothing remotely Mediterranean about this song other than the lyrics’ clever wordplay.

Turbulence, the second cut, could pass for a late 70s track by the Who: the metaphors reach cruising altitude and the brief, celestial bass-and-guitar interlude midway through seems devised for much more extended jamming. The album’s instrumental title track opens with a sideways Grateful Dead reference and then hits a steady backbeat pulse, Levy spinning his catchy riffage through an icy vintage analog delay pedal.

The album’s big epic is Rock Song (Don’t Step in the Gooey Parts), an aptly dramatic, tongue-in-cheek musical history of geological formations, from lava to ossification. The big sunburst intro brings to mind early Santana; from there the band truck like the Dead to an uneasily jangly Nektar bridge and then rising and falling echoes of Pink Floyd.

Make Believe, a big concert favorite, is part Blackberry Smoke newschool southern rock, part White Album Beatles. Prevailing Winds has Genesis written all over it, from Easton’s elegant piano intro to Levy’s big vocal peak.

All Will Be Revealed begins as a deviously detailed account of what could be a stolen election, or some other massive fraud:

And the innocents forget who’s master and who’s slave
Packing peanuts in their trunks, they join in the fray, they join the parade

Then Easton’s gospel piano leads the band skyward to Levy’s savage guitar outro. Who knows, this song could be more prophetic than anyone ever could have imagined.

They close with the instrumental Little Island, Big Volcano, Levy adding amusingly balmy Hawaiian flavor with his slide. It’s still early in a year where there haven’t been many rock records released, but at this point this is top-ten-of-2021 material. What’s even better is that the band have two other albums planned for release this year.

The Kolotov Mocktails Play Dynamic, Interesting, Subtly Amusing Cross-Genre Instrumentals

As you would imagine, instrumental jamband the Kolotov Mocktails have a sense of humor. The mocktail part of the band might be a characteristically wry admission of how many styles and ideas they appropriate; and yet, they are absolutely unique. Their songs tend to be upbeat, the solos are purposeful and the tunes are catchy. Their latest album Ivy Hall is streaming at Spotify.

They open with Between the Ranges, a lively Grateful Dead-style instrumental by drummer Rob McKendrick. Violinist George Mason’s wildly spiraling solo is a highlight; the southern rock quotes at the end are predictably amusing.

Mason and pedal steel player Dave Easley take centerstage in Dancing on the Wall, McKendrick and bassist John Lang giving it a tight jazz waltz beat. Lang contributes Mr. Pants Pants, which could be the Alan Parsons Project with a more organic groove, guest Allan Walters’ Scottish smallpipes mingling with the layers of keys.

Easley contributes A Visit to the Zoo: with his percussive hammer-ons and ambiguously lingering lines, along with Mason’s long, moody solo, this seems to reflect the inhabitants’ unease rather than a joyous family outing. The shift toward a marching raga, with Mason on guitar sitar, makes for an unexpected coda.

The group shift back toward newgrass rock with Acoustic Alchemy, a brisk number in an Old Crow Medicine Show vein. Fueled by Lang’s strutting, circling bassline, Coming to an Alley Near You is a bizarrely entertaining mashup of Jean-Luc Ponty, Kraftwerk and maybe Dave Tronzo in a particularly terse moment. Likewise, imagine Ponty trying his hand at Meters funk in, say, 1974 – with a pedal steel – and you get The Fuzz.

Mason and Easley trade punchy riffs in Raw Eel Sheets, a similarly mind-warping blend of Django Reinhardt and New Orleans funk. The Crack of Noon features Walters on the pipes again: it could be a Greer Coppins tune, or the Dead taking a stab at a highlands air. The band segue from there to close the record with Time Ebbing: the guitar/violin duel is pure Terrapin Station. If you smell something skunky and smoky coming from under your neighbor’s door, it might be this album.

A Trippy, Labyrinthine New Album From Popular Psychedelic Rockers Theusaisamonster

Theusaisamonster are well established in the world of newschool psychedelic rock. Until we can manage to get our world back to normal and enjoy them live, we have their latest album Amikwag – streaming at Bandcamp – to trip out with.

Lyrics and vocals are not their thing, but their upbeat, crazyquilt songs and long trails of catchy melody over strange time signatures will keep you entranced. The labyrinthine opening track, Permaculture’s Promise has tricky tempos and more than a hint of bracing Middle Eastern chromatics over math-y tempos, like a mashup of Love Camp 7, peak-era 70s King Crimson and the Grateful Dead. Sounds incongruous, but it works.

With its skittishly syncopated changes and alternately burning and jangly layers of guitar, the second track, Rapido Amigo, is much the same minus the King Crimson and the chromatics. Loopy Terry Riley-ish organ swirls and leaps over weird, similarly leaping rhythms in 8 Years Old, a dead ringer for Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The band keep that vibe going throughout Verbs, an encouragement to use an economy of words. There’s considerable irony voicing that opinion in a song more than eight minutes long, the group jamming it out with layers of keys, tumbling drums, fuzzy bass and a stomping guitar-fueled peak at the end.

The only slightly shorter Side of the Road begins noisily, then the band channel Genesis and the Dead with uneasy hints of King Gizzard. We Are Not Alone, a goofy conversation between aliens, has the closest thing to a straight-up guitar drive here.

The band wind up the album with its trippiest number, Nothing and Everything, a wryly suspenseful, distantly classically-tinged intro morphing into a hypnotic Obscured by Clouds-era Pink Floyd march, then more Genesis. These guys’ record collections must be amazing. And as much fun as these songs are, what would be even better would be to see the band kick them around onstage.