The Upshot: Late songstress gets a welcome reintroduction via deluxe vinyl reissues of her two studio albums plus a new collection of live and rare material.
BY FRED MILLS
As is often the case with artists who have passed on, legacy begets legend. And while 1970s songstress Judee Sill’s impact during her short life was minimal before her death, at 35, of a drug overdose—she was probably better known for being the first signing to David Geffen’s Asylum Records, and for having Graham Nash produce her single ”.Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” than for any measurable commercial inroads—she would go on to inspire subsequent generations of singer-songwriters. A trifecta of new archival releases amply demonstrates why her reputation as an immaculate, gifted songstress has steadily grown over the years.
In 2004, 4 Men With Beards reissued on vinyl both her eponymous debut (1971) and Heart Food (1973), while 2003 and 2005 brought remastered CDs on Rhino Handmade and the Water Music label, respectively. Now comes archival specialist Intervention, which has recently worked wonders with audiophile reissues of Stealers Wheel, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Everclear, and Joe Jackson, with its own vinyl take on the two records. The results are revelatory. Intervention was granted access to the original analog masters so that Grammy-winning mastering engineer Kevin Gray, of Cohearent Audio, could work his all-analog magic. They then pressed each album on two 180-gram, 45rpm discs, and printed the original artwork on Stoughton “tip-on” gatefold sleeves.
The new Judee Sill is richly illustrative of both artist and artifact, if a bit of a period piece. It’s reminiscent in places of early Joni Mitchell, particularly in ”Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” a slice of mid-tempo piano pop subtly lined with chamber strings; the straightforward folk of “Crayon Angels,” with its oboe melody; and another of several evocations of Jesus, the strummy “My Man on Love.” Elsewhere are some more fleshed-out compositions, orchestrations courtesy Don Bagley and Bob Harris; it’s in lush numbers such as “The Archetypal Man” that Gray’s fresh mastering is showcased, revealing a surround-sound depth to the tune’s almost Bach-like arrangement that I don’t hear on the 2005 CD.
For several reasons, Heart Food is the better album. It clearly benefits from Sill’s presumably being more comfortable in the studio two years on, and boasts an impressive roster of 25 “name” musicians, among them keyboardist Spooner Oldham, guitarist Doug Dillard, pedal-steel legend Buddy Emmons, bassist Chris Etheridge, and drummer Jim Gordon. And the complexity of Sill’s compositions has taken a quantum leap. For this album she also wrote the orchestrations, allowing for both a diversity of scope and an internal cohesion that suggested that she was going for more than simply getting a collection of disparate songs down on tape. Heart Food glows from the outset, its highlights including the sweet, country-tinged (fiddle and steel), lyrically evocative “There’s a Rugged Road,” in which Sill indulges her familiar passion for Christian themes; the delightfully lush “The Kiss,” with an arrangement worthy of Brian Wilson; and the nine-minute piano epic ”The Donor,” which is suite-like in structure, breathtaking, like CSN&Y singing gospel.
Gray’s remastering, too, will take your breath away. One example: Listening to ”The Donor” is like sitting in a cathedral, bathing in the enveloping voices of a choir, each piano note’s attack and decay as palpable as if you were seated on the bench beside the pianist. Ultimately, Heart Food is a timeless and deeply nourishing musical feast.
Songs of Rapture and Redemption: Rarities & Live arrives courtesy Run Out Groove, whose specialty is deluxe vinyl reissues (check my review of the Dream Syndicate’ The CompleteLive at Raji’s 2LP set, which was released last year) and, in some cases, unique titles such as this one. Sides A and B are made up of live material recorded in Boston in ’71, and the seven tracks originally surfaced as bonus material on the 2003 Rhino Handmade Judee Sill; sides C and D are demos and outtakes originally included as bonus material from the two Sill CDs on Handmade. So while the material itself is not unreleased, this marks the first time it’s ever appeared on vinyl, and Run Out Groove has gone the extra mile by pressing the two LPs on swirly magenta vinyl (180-gram, natch) and housing them in a glossy-textured Stoughton sleeve—each set is individually numbered.
The live tracks are delightful, a beautifully recorded document of Sill in her to-brief prime, just the songwriter and her guitar plus, on the seven-minute “As Enchanted Sky Machines,” piano. The track “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown” is one obvious standout, the Judee Sill number nearly aglow with passion. Among the demos, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” is a fascinating early glimpse as a song that would go on to be, arguably, the artist’s most famous song. Equally fascinating: reading the liner notes, which are a transcribed conversation between the album’s co-producer, Pat Thomas, and the late Sill’s best friend and collaborator, Tommy Peltier, in which Peltier offers memories of the singer and observations about each track.
All in all, a must-own for any fan of Judee Sill even if they already own the Handmade CDs.
DOWNLOAD: Judee Sill & Heart Food: ”Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” “The Archetypal Man,” “There’s a Rugged Road,” “The Donor”
Songs of Rapture and Redemption: “Lady-O” and “The Lamb Ran Away with the Cross” (both live), “The Desperado” (outtake), “The Pearl” (demo)
The Upshot: A gorgeous slice of Americana, rock, baroque pop, and bearing more hard-to-pin-down charms than pretty much any record released this year so far.
BY FRED MILLS
There’s something magical about the erstwhile Tenderhooks frontman’s solo effort, Scared Away the Song, something that’s hard to put one’s finger upon. Because while all the “right” pieces are in place—hooky chord progressions and leads alongside instantly memorable melodies, compelling rhythmic structures across all tempos, plenty of stylistic variety (from Americana to power pop to garagey rock to folkish ballads), emotionally resonant lyrics, and sterling production—there’s definitely a sum-greater-than-the-parts effect going on. And even after multiple spins I’m not sure if I can isolate exactly what’s so special about the LP.
You can apply all those foregoing descriptions and adjectives to pretty much any of the 10 songs here, from the jaunty, anthemic title track and the luminous, McCartneyesque “Lightning Rod,” to the country-rocking “Unglued” and the cello-powered pop of “Big Black Dog” (who is no doubt the one pictured on the sleeve—Winstrom calls his pooch a “big black pollywog” and “a mattress hog” that is, ultimately, “everybody to me,” and the love in those lines was so palpable the first time I heard them I immediately got up and went over to give my own mutt a huge hug). Pair the music with Winstrom’s expressive, sweetly androgynous vocals and you’ve got one charmer of a platter. (A gorgeous red vinyl platter, at that, fellow wax fans.) Winstrom recorded parts of the album in Nashville with Ray Kennedy and the rest in his original home base of Knoxville, where the Tenderhooks had been based. He lives in Brooklyn nowadays, but clearly, the homecoming energized him in the studio.
So perhaps it’s the album’s elusiveness that, ultimately, is the proverbial icing on the cake. A lot of the greatest records are like that, and it’s only in subsequent retrospect that their unique qualities become fully evident. What that translates to, then, is my suggestion that you take a leap of faith and just grab it. My gut feeling is that you won’t have any regrets.
DOWNLOAD: “Big Black Dog,” “Caroline, Ugh,” “Lightning Rod”
The Upshot: What would you say to a near-perfect amalgam of Elephant 6, Flying Nun, and classic Velvets/Feelies?
BY FRED MILLS
How the hell did I miss out on—overlook—this smokin’ Athens, Georgia, duo? Just consulting their artist page at the esteemed HHBTM label’s site yields a slew of releases, with at least two prior LP/CD releases from the label to their credit. (Their official website indicates that this new one makes a total of four albums and “a lost CD” to date. Oh, and they also used to be a 5-piece.) On the basis of this wonderfully noisy, delightfully indie-garage-poppy album—which, for all you fellow vinyl fans, can be scored (for the time being, at least), on sweet orange wax—one would have to say that there’s still something in that Athens water. Good to know the municipal powers that be haven’t removed the lysergic-o-nogens that the B-52’s, Pylon, and R.E.M. dumped in the reservoir all those years ago.
Add the Elephant 6 musical mafiosos to that list of usual suspects, because Roadrunners does have that telltale E6 lo-fi-goes-psychedelic ambiance to it. Whomping lead track “MKUltra” (now there’s a “telltale” kind of song title) careens hither and yonder via the band’s patented guitar/drums setup, a brash mashup of vintage c80 shambling pop and blazing Amerindie rock; while the thrumming “Time After Time After Time After Time”—no, it’s not a Cyndi Lauper trib—injects a distinctive Feelies/Velvets vibe to cement the Eureka California alliance with the E6 collective. And the drop-dead masterful “How Long Has This Been Going On?”—no, it’s not that played out classic rock hit—has, what with its brisk, part-jangly/part-grungy riffing, akimbo rhythms, and yearning vox, is quite possibly the best Flying Nun Records song never recorded by a Flying Nun Records combo.
This group stands a good chance of being my favorite discovery of 2018. If Check back with me in late December, but meanwhile, here’s your opportunity to make a similar discovery. If there’s any justice in the world, the talented young lady and young man here will eventually be winking slyly all the way to the bank.
DOWNLOAD: “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” “Mexican Coke,” “Time After Time After Time After Time”
The above photo displays the handsome new Swamp Dogg album, Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune, which drops Sept. 7 via Joyful Noise. (The photo also shows the limited edition SD flexidisc that is offered to folks in the Joyful Noise VIP program. And yes, before you ask, it will also be available on CD and digital download.) The funk/soul/swamp-rockin’ legend clearly has no intentions of burning out or fading away, to paraphrase Neil Young. According to the label:
Nearly fifty years after his debut release, Swamp Dogg stands on the precipice of another radical reinvention. His latest creation is titled Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune a nine song collection featuring production by Poliça’s Ryan Olson. Love, Loss, and AutoTune finds Swamp Dogg’s bluesy southern soul colliding head-on with 21st Century electronic music production techniques.
You can get more details at the above link. Meanwhile, check out the new video for album track “I’ll Pretend”:
With a reunion tour under their belt and a career-spanning vinyl box set in stores, the British outfit’s is feeling righteously recharged. Let’s cast back to one memorable evening in 1990 when the BLURT editor crossed paths with them and lived to write about it. (Photos of Thee Hypnotics in Charlotte by Kerry McCaskill.)
BY FRED MILLS
About three years ago, this magazine published an exclusive interview with Ray Hanson, erstwhile guitarist for Thee Hypnotics, who blazed a memorable 1985-99 hard rock trail across their native UK as well as the US and Europe, releasing three studio albums and a live one, plus several singles and Eps, before burning out and splitting up. The occasion of our Hanson interview, which was conducted by my fellow Thee Hypnotics devotee Jonathan Levitt, was to examine the making and aftermath of what most fans still consider to be their classic LP, 1991’s Soul Glitter & Sin. At the time Hanson had plenty of work on his hands with his band the Whores of Babylon, and of course vocalist Jim Jones was working on his own projects, including the Jim Jones Revue and, later, Jim Jones & the Righteous Mind. But when asked the inevitable reunion question, Hanson certainly didn’t rule out the possibility, saying, “You never know!”
As it turns out, the reunion not only became a possibility, but also a reality. Earlier this year the band commenced doing live gigs, and an official press release trumpeted the news in wonderfully florid fashion:
“Taking their cues from the Detroit militancy of The MC5, the corrupting output of The Stooges and the gospel according to The Cramps, Thee Hypnotics’ devastating brand of rock’n’roll was propelled by near punishing decibel levels and a fervour bordering on the evangelical. Blazing a devastating trail of high-octane thrills and annihilation, Thee Hypnotics occupied a bizarre hinterland that sat somewhere between the British neo-psychedelic scene of the late 80s and the detonation of garage-influenced rock from the Pacific northwest of the early 90s. Little wonder that a band that shone so bright would burn out before the end of the century.
“And now they’re back…
“For the first time in 20 years, the classic line-up of co-founders Jim Jones (vocals) and Ray Hanson (guitar), with Phil Smith (drums) and Jeremy Cottingham (bass), is set to hit the road with all the power of a Viking raiding party. Still harbouring an intense belief in assaultive rock’n’roll as liberation, and delivering their sonic payload with a savage intensity, this influential and legendary group is back to testify one more time.”
Also announced was that the members were additionally overseeing a career-spanning vinyl box set featuring all three studio albums—1990’s Come Down Heavy, the aforementioned SG&S and 1993’s Chris Robinson-produced The Very Crystal Speed Machine—plus a bonus rarities album, In A Trance (Thee Early Daze 86-89). Immaculately designed, the 4LP box, Righteously Re-Charged, released by Beggars Arkive, ably provides snapshots of the group’s every stage, from humble indie beginnings as a Motor City-fixated outfit with a fetish for leather jackets, aviator shades, and tight pants, to widescreen rockers on a cinematic, noirish trip, to full-bore, druggy Seventies worshipers. Nary a dull moment, either, for while charting a steady (and impressive) musical evolution, the box also vividly displays songwriting chops and attitudinal swagger that, for its time, was well outside the British norm. No happy Mondays for these lads; every night’s a 2AM Saturday.
The 12-page booklet is the perfect listening companion, too, stuffed to the gills with rare photos, a new interview and a pair of impressionistic essays—and, I’m not so humble as to not mention, Mr. Levitt’s BLURT interview with Hanson (yours truly is also given thanks from the band, but all I did was edit and publish, it’s all Jonathan and Ray, so thanks to both of you, gents). Oh, and the LPs are all on different colors of vinyl: purple, red, white, and clear. Nice touch, that.
Below, watch the trailer for the documentary film about the band that drummer Phil Smith has assembled.
Therefore, now seems as good a time as any to resurrect an article from deep in my archives, a 1990 profile/interview of the band originally published in the late fall of that year in The Bob magazine and titled half men, half boys (all beasts) in a (somewhat) clever nod to a Thee Hypnotics songtitle. I was living in Charlotte, NC, in 1990 and that spring the band came through town with then-labelmates Tad; their LP debut actually was prior to Come Down Heavy, the part-live album Live’r Than God, which in the US was released by Sub Pop. I was already a fan, having been gifted a copy of their first single by a female friend (Cindy, if you’re out there, I still owe you a big thank-you) who’d traveled to England recently and knew the band’s manager, Steve Langdon. I had also been gifted a demo tape of the band and subsequently reviewed the single in The Bob, making sure Langdon got a copy, and when I had learned they would in fact be coming to Charlotte, I quickly set up an interview through the manager.
Indeed, upon meeting me at soundcheck the afternoon of the show, I was greeted like an old friend—I’m pretty sure I was one of the first American journalists to write about Thee Hypnotics—and the first question after the handshakes was, “Where can we get some liquor?” I promptly got in the van with Langdon and we headed off to the store to round up plenty of refreshments. During the ride London played me a tape of some rough studio mixes to get me revved up for the show.
Later that evening, following a hilarious dinner with the Tad guys and incendiary sets from both groups, I settled down in their dressing room to, ahem, help them go through a few bottles of Jack Daniels and ostensibly conduct an interview. Jones, though, decided instead to run off with a mysterious young lady, so Hanson and bassist Will Pepper opted to head out with me to a nearby all-night diner for some grub and convo.
As I was somewhat worse for the wear in the wake of the booze, the interview went about as well as might be expected, something I learned the next morning when I played back portions of the interview cassette. Clearly the two musicians had been more than generous with their time and tolerant of their de facto host; put another way, it was definitely not the most insightful (or lucid) interview I’d done. But I was determined to make lemons out of lemonade, not to mention live up to my promise of getting the band some U.S. ink, so I went ahead filed the following text and even admitted to my general lack of professionalism in the story. Read on—but consider yourself duly warned.
Thee Hypnotics—The Bob Interview (1990)
Or, how to salvage an interview in several E-Z steps.
Back in March, Sub Pop sent Thee Hypnotics around on tour with Tad, in support of their Live’r Than God! album. The English band had already signed to Beggars Banquet Records for their next album, so this initial American jaunt was merely to lay some groundwork for subsequent headlining tours.
The March 29 show in Charlotte left me, as the saying goes, completely blown away by the sheer hard rock power the band evinced and the total energy transfer that took place between band and audience. Seemingly not caring that there were only around 50 people at the show (despite having among their fanbase the likes of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, they were not in any way well-known yet in the States), Thee Hypnotics throttled the stage for nearly an hour, the rhythm section setting in motion a nonstop, malevolent, grunting rumble, while the guitarist peeled off screams of wah-wah, distortion, and feedback amid fat power-chord chunkage.
Three of the guys, I might add, were decked out in vintage rock star garb: boots, purple flares, crushed velvet jackets—a direct lineage to Your Satanic Majesty or Mr. Hendrix. The singer opted for a different but no less striking form of cool: a polka-dot shirt later discarded to reveal his John Lee Hooker teeshirt underneath.
And he howled like the delta bluesman himself, possessed of low-down tremblin’ shakes and knowing that his deal with the devil was soon to come to term. He stamped the mic stand in fury, dropped to his knees out of sheer desperation, rolled around near the edge, then leaped back up in time for the final chorus. Consummate professionals, they were; and if you hear someone making those Stooges comparisons, don’t necessary ignore or deplore, because the Detroit Rock City sound has been reborn but its reputation has in no way been sullied.
Now, before the gig, manager Steve Langdon requested directions to the local liquor store, so I hopped in the tour van and duly directed. While he was in the store I remained in the van listening to some mighty potent rough mixes of some forthcoming music. This was the beginning of my downfall, and it wouldn’t help that the gig itself would be so overwhelming; already primed beforehand with this secret sonic knowledge, indulgence mode kicked in and I would indeed indulge over the course of the evening. Cue up decibels, several cups of wine during the show, and numerous swigs from the band’s Jack Daniels bottle afterward.
Memo to fellow writers: ALWAYS DO YOUR INTERVIEWS BEFORE THE GIGS. Just before Lester Bangs could pull off drinking like a fish prior to the interview does not mean you can do likewise and conduct your interview following the show. You may, of course, wind up with a few good quotes. But it’s definitely a crapshoot—as we shall soon learn. But first, an introduction.
Thee Hypnotics formed around ’87 in High Wycombe, north of London. The initial lineup of Jim Jones (vocals), Ray “Sonic” Hanson (guitars), Chris Dennis (bass), and mark Thompson (drums) recorded a demo which led to going into the studio with producer Dave Goodman, of Sex Pistols infamy, for their first single, “Love in a Different Vein” b/w “Al Night Long” (Hipsville Records). By ’88 they’d toured the UK with Spacemen 3, Zodiac Mindwarp, the Damned, and others, and slowly began getting noticed for their singular brand of ooogah.
Signing with Situation Two Records, Thee Hypnotics picked up a new bassist, Will Pepper, then in ’89 released a 12-inch single (“Justice in Freedom,” “Preachin’ & Ramblin’,” “Choose My Own Way”) as well as the mini-album Live’r Than God! The US Sub Pop version, a compilation of studio tracks plus four-fifths of the British Live’r, came out several months later.
This year, 1990, saw the recording of new Thee Hypnotics material, and a new drummer, Phil Smith (ex-Bambi Slam), signed up as well. The tape I heard in the tour van had undergone severe remixing, and interestingly enough, some months later when I heard the resulting CD, I noticed that it was produced by the band and Dave Garland but omitted the sleeve info on the LP version regarding Seattle’s Jack Endino’s hand in the mixing. Regardless, word has it that Come Down Heavy is getting the proverbial “big push” from Beggars Banquet/RCA in the United States.
Now, let’s find out how badly yours truly can conduct an interview at 1:30 in the morning.
Along with a couple of friends, one of them my photographer, escort Pepper and Hanson to an all-night eatery. The singer has long since disappeared with a lady in black, while the drummer and manager have retired to the hotel to rest up for the early-AM drive that looms in just a few hours. We sit down in a booth and glance around at various cops, prostitutes, and winos. We feel completely at home (at least I do; Will and Ray haven’t rendered judgment just yet).
The conversation begins with a discussion of grilled cheese sandwiches, alcohol consumption, and fellow Brit Nikki Sudden, who had also appeared in Charlotte recently and who’d also shared a bottle or two with this writer. (Before you ask: Yes, I did the interview at soundcheck, not after the show.)
Will: He just wants to live his life like Nick Cave. Ray: And Johnny Thunders… Will: I know he worships Nick Cave. I’ve heard his records and I know what he’s getting at, but he’s not quite good enough yet.
A waitress comes up and eyes our group suspiciously. Your journalist is obviously the worst for the wear after scamming so much of the band’s bottles. Only after the coffee arrives does any semblance of non-mushmouthed interview technique emerge from me, and the musicians may actually still be wondering when the interview is going to begin and the blather is going to end.
Me (pointing at Live’r Than God!): So what’s all this psychedelic shit, is it English or American, this record sleeve?
Will: That’s Sub Pop that did it. The English one’s okay. That’s out of date anyway.
Me: Here’s an early tape of the band, what about these songs? You’ve got one called “Resurrection Joe” but The Cult have that already…
Will (scrutinizing the track listing): “Astral Rising,” we haven’t played that for years! What the fuck is “The Blues”? “Snake Charmer Girl”… “Soul Trader”… “Resurrection Joe”… Ours is so much better than The Cult’s. Theirs is sort of like a hip-hop thing. These songs weren’t produced or engineered, they were just taped straight for demos.
Ray: “The Blues,” I don’t know what that is either, must be from a lie gig. How the fuck did this get to you?
Me (brandishing the 45 and the tape): This record actually made me come in my pants. If nothing else, anybody that puts [a photo of] the Black Panthers on the back of the record sleeve, since I was actually around in those days, is definitely a band kicking butt and it makes major points with me.
Will: Huey Newton got shot awhile back, didn’t he?
Me: See, back then, I was getting my first dose of cultural consciousness [outside my white Southern boy upbringing], and I was reading Newton’s book too. What was going on? Later, though, something went wrong, and including the music—it took a wrong turn. So are you guys trying to correct that? Because as far as tonight was concerned, I saw “it” happening all over again in the music.
Will: The music or the politics? The music, definitely, yeah. The political thing, well, it’s a different scene these days, isn’t it?
Ray: Very realistically, all we can offer from that time is the music. We can’t offer anything else. It would be contrived. You can’t be political. A lot of bands would like to think they are political, but they haven’t got any control, they haven’t got any power, they’ve got nothing, and it’s pointless. Unless their music is good and powerful. Because there’s too many of those bands. You can only take rock music so far. It can’t change the world and all that shit. It can maybe provoke a few people.
Will: Have a go at it, though. I guess they can raise a bit of cash here and there, like for Live Aid. In England, when Live Aid was done, I always wondered why Bob Geldof was walking around in a bad mood all the time. Apparently they did the show—I don’t know how much money they made, but as an example, say ten million—and the government says, “You’ve made ten million there. We’ve given some already.” So they taxed them on that ten million, kept seven million for the government. A lot of that money never reached where it was meant to reach. It’s a crooked world.
I guess in the ‘60s it seemed really crooked, racism and all that. But it’s still crooked these days, isn’t it, with different… Maybe that’s not a main issue. There’s other things that have taken over the issues, but there are still very crooked things. I don’t know if the money [from benefits] reaches the places. We did one Miners gig once, and we did a Communist festival thing in Italy.
Ray: For the Italian thing, it didn’t raise any consciousness. It was a gig in the name of the Communist Party. But nobody noticed that. They would have come to see us whether we were aligned with that cause or not. Those people that believe music can change the world—it can move people, but it can’t change people’s ways of thinking. People have tried it and failed.
Will: People are separated from each other. They can’t come together and fight against it. They think, “The neighbor’s not doing it, so I’m not gonna bother.” And the neighbor next door’s thinking, “He’s not gonna do it so I’m not gonna bother.”
Ray: It’s exactly what’s going on in England at this very moment. They’ve introduced a Poll Tax. It’s a very different form of taxation for British people. They’ve been going for 50 years with this normal tax, and suddenly this has been introduced. What it basically does is make the rich better off and the poor poorer.
Will: People are in an uproar about it! They are demonstrating in the thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. But they’ll never get anything done, because when they get home from the demonstration they’ll wonder what the neighbors are doing. And the neighbors are so uptight, just like them, and they’re gonna pay this Poll Tax whether it affects them or not. Ran and I, all of us in the band, we were on the dole when we were in Wickham. We were getting like 800 pounds a year from the dole people. And now most of that has to be paid in Poll Tax. It’s a flat rate thing. England used to be quite socialist, you know, you’d pay to your means. This is different, like 400 pounds a year.
Ray: The rich pay their 400 pounds, and their wage is so much higher that the percentage of the tax on that would have been quite a lot compared to the flat rate that they’ve been paying now. So they’re thinking, “Ah! We’re only paying 400 a year, that’s better than 1,000 a year or more.” And the poor, they have to pay 400 as well, the same rate, and they have to take it out of their dole checks, their welfare. A flat rate at the end of the year.
Me (apparently not completely grasping the issue): So how hard is it going to hit you? You’re going from being on an independent [label] to being on a major, Beggars Banquet/RCA.
Will: We’re still broke. RCA, it’s not like we’re signing a piece of paper that says, “Bring us some money.”
Me: Let me ask you at least one proper journalistic question for the evening. The whole Loop/Walkingseeds/Spacemen 3/Crazyhead etc.—current British stuff—and you guys came out at about the same time. Are there connections? Or is it just the English press hype lumping bands together into this post-psychedelic bandwagon?
Ray: I think it all happened at the same time. It is press hype. Everyone’s from different parts of the country anyway.
Will: Let’s just say that the only time I heard of the Walkingseeds was once, when they supported us; and twice, when they were mentioned in one of our reviews.
Me: In a review I read that you once did “Rollercoaster” like Spacemen 3. What did you think of that band, the drug thing? Sonic Boom is legendary for his heroin and methadone exploits.
Will: That review was a mistake. Edwin Pouncey’s review, yeah. That was our first national press review. At Riverside. When Jim should’ve got his cock out. Our first review, with Spacemen 3, and it was a total slag-off. Edwin loves us now. We sent him a copy of “Justice In Freedom” and he liked it, decided he was gonna patronize us. And he did! Apparently he’s quite cool; he does the artwork for Sonic Youth, album covers and everything [as Savage Pencil].
Pete—you know, Sonic Boom—he’s the typical classical only-child sort of public-education kid. You can’t do anything legendary with someone who’s not a legend! He couldn’t be a legend in a million years! He’s just so lifeless, so fucking flat.
Me (laughing): Hey, I paid 20 bucks for his Spectrum album when it came out, just so I could look at the little pinwheel. And I paid 18 bucks for the CD version of Live’r Than God! just to get that one extra live track not on the American LP. (lapsing into a digression) Most of the stuff I get sent for free goes straight to the Record Exchange so I can buy the stuff I really want—you get all these folks calling you up to write about a bunch of bands when, really, you just want to be left alone to listen to and write about the bands you’re willing to pay money for, like Thee Hypnotics.
So, do you guys listen to much recent music?
Will: Tad! Sonic Youth, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and the Birthday Party.
Me: Flaming Lips?
Will: Oh yeah! They did a cover tune on that Neil Young [tribute album], The Bridge. That was cool.
Me: First time the Lips played here in Charlotte, at the very last minute, the very final chord played, the power went off in the club. It was like the hand of God reached down and cut them off.
Will: It wasn’t the hand of God, it was just bad fucking electricians. Bad connectors. I mean, really…
Me: Hey, I’m from the Bible Belt. I believe in this stuff!
(At this point the conversation turns to the quality of the meal just finished and the out-of-order cigarette machine that is causing much consternation among the musicians. The writer, sensing that the time is right to get his records autographed while the musicians’ senses are “heightened,” produces his Thee Hypnotics collection.)
Me: I just happen to have one of those rock star silver ink pens you see at record signing parties and in-stores…
Ray: I just happen to be able to write in English. Where can we get some cigarettes?
Me: Probably back at the hotel.
Will: So we should go on and do the interview, then?
Me: That was it.
And at this point Ray and Will sort of rolled their eyes, then went outside to pose for photos next to a police cruiser, and we bade them farewell, Upon waking the next morning, the writer played back portions of the “interview” and decided that it would be prudent, in the future, to avoid consuming quite so much of a band’s liquor-of-choice—at least prior to conducting an interview. You never know if you’ll get another chance at it, especially if (a) the band breaks up; (b) someone in the band dies; (c) you die; or (d) most likely option, that the band figures you’re a complete drunken idiot and steers clear of you in the future.
But rest assured that this publication remains a supporter of Thee Hypnotics, regardless of any of its writers’ personal shortcomings.
Below: A pair of Thee Hypnotics, plus the writer and unnamed friend. Yes, I know what he’s laughing about.
The Upshot: Heavy-ass distorto blooze and sensual distaff trance-rock from a staggeringly powerful guitar/drums gal/guy L.A. duo. Check out their GoFundMe campaign as well if this review piques your interest!
BY FRED MILLS
Although Cathy Cooper and Stephen McNeely stake a claim, on their debut longplayer, for single-word nouns, adjectives, and adverbs (much like they did on their 2015 official unveiling, an eponymous 5-song 12” EP) as a songwriting M.O., the view from above definitely suggests a multi-hyphenate approach to music-making for the L.A. blooze-skronk power duo. The album, Weep, is populated by minimalist, cipher-like numbers, ranging from the Gun Club thud-boogie distorto-blooze of “Blind” and its more straightforward trance-rock counterpart “Tonight” (in which Cooper’s slide guitar steadily rises, in tandem with her haunted vocal, from a drone to a squall; think Nirvana covering Junior Kimbrough); to the yipping, yowlping, flanging, crashing “Never” (here, McNeely’s kit pounding eggs Cooper on to the point of mania), and the appropriately horrific, protracted sonic blood-letting that is “Suicide.”
It’s a breathtaking performance, no lie, equal parts deep-roots, slide-guit, electrified folk-blues, and latterday dissonance-mongering as perfected early on by the Birthday Party and the Lydia Lunch-powered Sonic Youth. Cooper is positively possessed throughout 150% of these 10 songs, somehow managing to find space to wield her guitar and lap steel amid quavering/quivering/howling extemporaneous flights at the mic, while compatriot McNeely thumps ‘n’ thuds with the dystopian, brontosaurian aplomb of a young John Bonham. The only contemporary outfit that I can reliably compare The Great Sadness to is Australia’s legendary, nigh-unapproachable feedtime. (By way of relevant contextual background: Cooper previously performed in Beaver Trap, Touchcandy, and The Shotgun Of Khando, prior to making some solo records and working as a sculptor; McNeely had cut his teeth in hip-hop and dance music, and after moving to L.A. from Colorado in 2011, he met Cooper through his sister, who heard Cooper was seeking a simpatico drummer.)
For all you record collectors in need of some kind of psychological respite from this mammoth wall o’sound: Weep arrives as a gorgeous milky/cloudy splotched white vinyl edition, housed in a gatefold sleeve with a staggering inner mural reminiscent of legendary underground artist S. Clay Wilson. Don’t blame me, however, when you drop the needle onto the platter and your visual reverie is gets shattered to pieces. (Preview and order at the band’s Bandcamp page.) Need you any additional urging?
Oneida, the great psychedelic kraut-groove outfit from Brooklyn, has returned to ecstatic, rhythm-driven form with Romance after a prolonged exploration of longer, more abstract compositions. Here again, for the first time since Rated O are the staticky, blurted keyboard riffs, held in tight formation by an endlessly repeated beat. Here are the explosive bursts of non-linear drumming, intervals of joyful chaos in a disciplined architecture. Here are the mournful, mystical vocals drifting up and away off of gleaming mechanical structures, a wondering, uncertain mind in the grip of a pulsing, pummeling body, a ghost in the machine. And those these explorations can go long (“Lay of the Land” judders on like a steam engine for more than ten minutes, “Shepherd’s Axe” bends light and sound into rainbows for well over 18), they are more like songs than Oneida’s recent work.
Consider, for instance, “All in Due Time” with its burp and fidget of conflicting keyboards, its expansive, horizon-extending drum build, its lucid dream-like narrative of candidates and their daughters, of love and poison. The voices splinter into pieces, so that a chorus in unison turns into a hall of mirrors doubled experience. You can get lost in this song, though it zooms inexorably forward; there are space-time bends in its relentless propulsion.
There’s a tension between tightly leashed iteration and euphoric release. Short patterns of sound execute over and over, in exactly the same way, but lead in their hemmed in hammering to wide-open escape hatches for the mind. Entropy is always lurking in the system, as in “Bad Habit” where the pummeling guitar riff moves in and out of sync with straight-fingered keyboard banging. They are almost together. They drift apart. They move in closer to alignment. It’s like watching a hand and its shadow, listening to a voice and its echo.
Oneida is a funny band, by which I mean that its members have always had a strange and infectious sense of humor, and you hear this in “Cockfight,” the “Captain Bo”-style banger that upends the album’s second side. More guitar, faster drums, rock-styled vocals (there’s a yelped “all right” and a few slurred and swaggering “baby”s) make this cut hark back to the old days, Secret Wars or even Anthem of the Moon, and it’s good to hear.
The disc is predominantly songs, with duration mostly under six minutes and recognizable melodic lines, even lyrics that enfold in a sort of verse/chorus structure, but it wouldn’t be Oneida if they didn’t take you on a trip. “Shepherd’s Axe” is a gorgeous, slow-motion closer, more like a Barn Owl track or Kandodo or even the Oneida of more recent years — of Absolute II, or A List of the Burning Mountains. They do this well, too, this gradual unfolding of gradiated tone, and “Shepherd’s Axe”, is a lovely track.
Of course, you can’t hold any band, much less a band like Oneida, to the early stuff. No matter how much you like what they used to do, going on from there, doing other stuff, is as much a part of Oneida’s DNA as hammered keyboards or head-banging repetition. Still, they’ve been in the long-form, drone-and-drift mode for a while now. It’s nice to hear them rock out a little, too. (Pictured below: a little clue for all you vinyl hunters out there.)
DOWNLOAD: “All in Due Time,” “Bad Habit” “Cockfight”
The Upshot: The monstrous Bill Laswell-approved NYC outfit embarks upon a tantalizing colored-vinyl reissue program, including 1989’s Undertow and 2015’s comeback album Before Ever After. The former now comes in a deluxe gatefold sleeve and is pressed on brilliant tan/copper wax, while the latter goes even further with a trifold sleeve and luminescent green vinyl.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND & FRED MILLS
As Dr. Toland pointed out in his “Throwing Horns” metal roundup recently, ”the New York trio’s second LP found its patented blend of thrashing doom and jazzy dub in almost bifurcated form, with neither side of the band’s coin rubbing up against the other. Undertow has the deep-dub hallmarks of a Bill Laswell production, and it also features a couple of the extended Laswell family intimates, Henry Rollins (vocals on two tracks) and John Zorn (sax on one of them). Yet guitarist Andy Hawkins, bassist Gabe Katz, and drummer Ted Epstein never surrender their stage in terms of their blistering jazz/skronk/hardcore approach to music making. Whether serving up a Bad Brains-worthy thrash epistle (“Atomic Whip”), a luminous meditation in the key of the aforementioned dub (“Watch Yer Step”), an improv-powered wall of noise (“Wailing Wall,” which justifies its title), or even a quick jazz-sax freakout (Zorn’s 2-minute appearance, “Purged Specimen,” may be brief, but it’s brutal), Blind Idiot God makes the most of its four vinyl sides.
And if you’re looking for some good old fashioned late-period Black Flag-meets-Rollins-Band, uh, boogie (term used loosely), there’s a long and a short version of the appropriately titled “Freaked,” from the Alex Winter film. Hank, we love the spoken word, but seriously, your rock audience needs you, and Blind Idiot God would be the guys to help you deliver the goods once again.
Sigh. 1989 was such a different time. At any rate, this 2017 remaster for double vinyl is essential uneasy listening. Grab it on sight. (—Fred Mills)
A baker’s dozen years since its last platter Cyclotron, Blind Idiot God came stomping back in 2015 with Before Ever After, a double LP that displayed the NYC instrumental trio at its BIGgest.
On the album, although joined by a new rhythm section, guitarist Andy Hawkins stays the course of the past three decades of his singular career, keeping one foot in amp-melting doom and the other in airplane-hangar dub.
As Hawkins terrifies his amp and bass/drums bash and crash, “Earthmover,” “Strung” and the appropriately-titled “Under the Weight” rumble like a Brontosaurus across the rubble of a fallen city, crushing debris underfoot as its stomach growls. On the other side of the bent coin, “Ramshackle,” “Shutdown” and “High and Mighty” skank through the dust as it settles, letting a little sunlight echo through the destructive aftermath. Not everything is quite so direct, however. “Voice of the Structure” alternates between spacy swirl and heavy pound, while “Barrage” fractures its rhythm in a manner not dissimilar to postpunk. “Fub” takes the band to the next level of development, its light-on-its-feet feel full of jazzy lightning and improv thunder.
Brandishing its weaponry with power and grace, Before Ever After both reclaims the legacy of Blind Idiot God and paves the way for its next epoch. (—Michael Toland)
The Upshot: Essential alt-rock postcards from the past that fans of Jeremy Pinnell’s current work will cherish.
BY FRED MILLS
Late last year Rolling Stone proclaimed Kentucky singer-songwriter Jeremy Pinnell one of their “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know,” and with good cause; his sophomore album Ties of Blood and Affection had been notching Sturgill Simpson comparisons along the lines of “no frills honky-rock with plenty of pedal steel, Western swing and vocals as smooth as the highest dollar whiskey” (as RS put it). And I didn’t need any convincing, not after having been already knocked out by Pinnell, so much so that BLURT premiered one of his tracks from the album.
Yet a decade or so before going solo, Pinnell was heading up The Light Wires, a pop/Americana-tilting indie-rock quartet whose lone self-titled album, in retrospect, clearly gave notice that this young man was a major talent. Now his label, Sofaburn, has reissued The Light Wires alongside the essentially unreleased (it was originally a 2008 private issue of 50 copies) second album, The Invisible Hand, as a double-LP pressed up as—vinyl freaks, alert!—a one-black wax/one-red wax, gatefold sleeved gem. (See below.) Far from sounding like an artifact from the mid-aughts, this collection of Pinnell tunes is imbued with a certain timelessness that, another decade hence, fans will be eagerly out-nerding one another as they claim belated allegiance to this or that song. Backed by drummer Rick McCarty, guitarist Andy Hittle, and bassist/producer Mike Montgomery (also of Ampline and R. Ring), Pinnell sounds like a kid who grew up thumbing through an older sibling’s ‘60s and ‘70s albums and coming of musical age during the alt-rock and Americana explosions of the mid ‘90s, ultimately forging his own unique hybrid vision and forming a band.
Highlights are too many to list here, that’s for sure. “Talk To You Tonight,” from the first album, is a Whiskeytown-esque strummer with guitars and organ humming along behind Pinnell as he works through the regret of heartbreak in his yearning, Ryan Adams-meets-Eddie Vedder voice. Twangy midtempo country-rocker “Belly of the Beast,” also off the debut, with its irresistible titular chorus, is the proverbial coulda-shoulda been a radio hit. The Invisible Hand, likewise, is crammed with moments that, in a perfect world, might have been the stuff of arenas and thousands of hands thrust skyward. From Springsteenian opening track “Go On By” and the jangly majesty of “The Sinking Ship” (with a guest trumpeter, of all things), to luminous ballad “You Can Light” which gradually turns anthemic and, in turn, drop-dead-cathartic, and (speaking of anthemic) the Gin Blossoms-like “The Hum of Black Machines,” with its haunting lyrics about the abject loneliness of being cast aside and no longer loved, these are mature, full-formed compositions that have stood the test of time.
They’re also a fascinating glimpse behind the Pinnell curtain, essential postcards from the past that fans of his current work will cherish.
DOWNLOAD: “The Hum of Black machines,” “Go On By,” “Talk To You Tonight”
A kosmiche, psychedelic, improvisational slab of genius, spread across four beautiful clear vinyl sides, announces the arrival of a visionary new outfit from the Old Pueblo.
BY FRED MILLS
Trees Speak, hailing from Tucson, Arizona, is visual artist Daniel Martin Diaz’s musical persona, formerly of Blind Divine and Crystal Radio, and here joined by Michael Glidewell (Black Sun Ensemble), Gabriel Sullivan (XIXA, Giant Sand), Connor Gallaher (Myrrors, Cobra Family Picnic), Damian Diaz (Human Error), and Julius Schlosburg (Jeron White Acoustic Trio). They consider themselves more of a “sound laboratory” along the lines of early Can—crafting long, live-in-studio improvisations, then editing them in the studio, adding effects, and more—than a straight-up rock band.*
Although that’s not to even remotely suggest that these cats won’t rock the fuck out, because like the Krautrock greats of yore, Trees Speak can shift instantly from a luminous, ambient electronic shimmer to a pounding, pulsing, powering wall of sound. Trees Speak, released this past December on the Cinedelic label, home to numerous electronic and experimental Italian artists (including several film soundtrackers—Ennio Morricone’s Eat It is among the label’s catalog), and distributed in the U.S. by Forced Exposure, is the group’s debut, and to these ears, at least, it is utterly unlike anything that the Old Pueblo had produced to date.
Side A is highly instructive. The ominous “Soul Machine” kicks things off on a heady Neu!-esque motorik note before yielding to a percussion segue leading the listener directly into throbbing, electronics-splattered drone territory, “Black Butterfly” and “Atomic Heart.” This in turn gradually turns into a series of restful, melodic passages via harmonium and nylon string guitar—although “restful” may be a misnomer, or at least misleading, since there are also some abrupt glitchy effects as well as some strange background vocal samples. The side concludes with the track “Trees Speak,” which synthesizes all of the foregoing into another moment of motorik magnificence—the key here being the use of repetition for both texture and dynamics, whether within the context of a minimalist or a full-arrangement composition.
One could similarly describe the other three sides, but it wouldn’t really do the music here justice. If the core elements of Krautrock appeal to you, along with the notion that genuinely transcendent psychedelia always is rooted in the improvisational aesthetic, then you won’t be able to resist this remarkable debut. I found myself playing certain tracks over and over—the aforementioned “Atomic Heart,” side B’s lengthy, aptly-titled “Spirit Oscillator” (which sounds uncannily like Can’s classic “Mother Sky” in places), the sizzling/searing uneasy listening of “Unconscious Through Control.” A single synapse-snapping composition, “Shadow Circuit,” takes up the entirety of sides C and D, split into Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, recalling at times fellow Tucson bands The Myrrors and Black Sun Ensemble in all their mystic, lunar-worshiping, Lower Sonoran glory; during the song, heady bursts of kosmiche guitar dart hither and yonder as if they were desert creatures engaged in their nocturnal hunts, only to be frightened back into their burrows by predatory rapid-fire percussion and zooming electronics—and then the cycle begins all over.
There’s a palpable sense of time standing still while Trees Speak performs, like standing on the floor of a rock venue, the lights turned off with only red LED lights on amplifiers for illumination, and simply letting the music wash over you. I realize that these tunes are the product of post-performance editing and tinkering, but they were also originally created live over a five-day period (at Sacred Machine Studio and Dust & Stone Studio in Tucson), and to their credit, the musicians retained that live feel for the finished product.
For you vinyl fans out there, the photo below should be all the motivation you need to scoop this up while it’s available: 2LP, 180-gm. clear vinyl in a gatefold sleeve, plus a 12” double-sided print, five 5” postcards, and two stickers. An artistic beauty, courtesy Diaz. And only 250 copies were pressed, so don’t sit ‘cos if you do, you won’t be able to spin.
* I usually refrain from quoting a band’s press info at length, but in this case I think it’s wholly appropriate to let them state their musical manifesto directly. It’s spoken like true Tucsonans: “Our intention is to create music with an unrehearsed minimalist approach performing simple beats, riffs, and sequences that take one inward. We attempt create a sonic environment to set one’s mind free and to become aware of the nuances of tone, melody, and structure. We organize our recording equipment with the same approach, in a transparent manner. Our recorded performances are never rehearsed. Our belief is that a brilliant rehearsal is a lost opportunity to capture a magical moment. We are chasing the mystery of music and tone. We let the musical performance sculpt its own destiny and create imperfect perfection. Our tool of creation is the anxiety one feels when they are unrehearsed or prepared for a performance. We believe this approach brings us closer to the authentic self. The result is genuine music without an agenda that captures the unfiltered spirit.”