Sunday, 27 September 2020

The Psychedelic Sounds Of... - The 13th Floor Elevators


Provenance: Along with every other right-minded person, I own a copy of the greatest compilation album ever put together, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-68. On an album freighted with highlights, there are still some tracks that manage to break on thru' to the other side: the dark mood of the Electric Prunes 'I Had Too Much To Dream', 'Lies', a spot-on Beatles pastiche, by the Knickerbockers, and the swirling, propulsive 'Open My Eyes' by the Nazz, a group featuring the young Todd Rundgren, are all primo brainbenders. 

And then there's the bizarre 'You're Gonna Miss Me', almost in a category of its own, coming on like a diesel-propelled jug band piloted by a clutch of lunatics. Who wouldn't want a slice of that action? Anyway, I whacked a 13th Floor Elevators album on my Christmas list, and Santa was obviously feeling pretty hip that year because he brought me an Elevators box-set down the chimney!

Review: The Psychedelic Sounds... opens up with the inimitable 'You're Gonna Miss Me', and even though I've heard it countless times, it still elicits a small dopamine rush as the first four chords crash in, a tug on my cerebral cortex that here be something a bit special. What a tune! What a manifesto! Two and a half minutes of dementia filtered interpreted through the medium of white-knuckle rock 'n' roll. There are so many things to pick up on; the slashing guitars, Roky Erickson's snotty punk vocals, the perfect gem of a harmonica solo - but one other element both shines through and yet sits utterly apart, and that's Tommy Hall and his electric jug. 

This most untraditional of rawk instruments is all over Psychedelic Sounds; furthermore, it's not used to underscore the rhythm, as it is in folk, blues or skiffle setups (or, say, on Mungo Jerry's superb 'In The Summertime'). Instead, it clucks away like an insane chicken, providing at times an almost sawtooth effect, weaving in and out the churning beat of the bass and drums. So startling is this effect, one briefly wonders why jug wasn't more commonplace in rock 'n' roll, until you realise that the way it was deployed was unique to the 13th Floor Elevators' sound. They made this hyperactive jug-boogie entirely their own.

Of course, imitators are also hard to spawn when nobody listened to your the first time around.

Coming at the lysergic dawn of the psychedelic era, it has to be said that Psychedelic Sounds does not bear much resemblance to the stately patchouli 'n' paisley aural washes that would come to dominate the scene (albeit I think the ultimate psych track is the aforementioned 'Open My Eyes', which is drenched in phasing effects and features a cool 'wig out' section). Castin about for comparisons, I consider the first couple of Pretty Things - another band who would make a big psychedelic splash - discs to be kissing cousins to this bad boy. They are all rawer than steak tartare, all feature nasty sub-surf guitar tones that prefigure the Cramps, and in Phil May the PTs had a singer willing to sound every bit as malicious as Erickson. 

But! The Pretty Things didn't have no jug, and for the most part they played their blooz straight, whilst Psychedelic Sounds brings the weirdness. It's instructive that in an age of sampling, digital recording and guitar pedal setups that rival the bridge of the SS Enterprise for complexity, little recorded in recent years sounds quite as uncanny. The spirit of the age was to push the available tools to their limits (I think now, incidentally, of how nothing has ever since come close to the noises Joe Meek magicked into existence from the spare room in his flat). Perhaps, also, the murk of this album's production comes into play. The miasma oozing out of the speakers sounds, frankly, amazing, as every now and again some bass pulse, or shard of guitar, will unexpectedly push through the gloop of distortion, a random visitor from another frequency.

I haven't really named tracks, so if you're the sort who is partial to a spot of Spotify browsing here's a few artyfacts to get you going: 'You're Gonna Miss Me', naturally; the lurching, doomy bad trip nightmares of 'Reverberation' and 'Kingdom of Heaven'; and possibly my favourite track in their catalogue, the gleefully bonkers 'Fire Engine', a journey to the centre of the mind accompanied by the primal whoops and howls of home-made siren noises. Blast it at midnight and the neighbours will complain; keep blasting until sun-up and they will end up worshipping you. This is potent stuff!

Cool music(!) for cool people(?), dat's wot I say. This'll improve your health, wealth, wellbeing and eyesight.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Graham Central Station - Graham Central Station


Provenance: This one came from a discussion I had with my father-in-law about funk; we were chatting about Parliament, the Jimmy Castor Bunch, the Ohio Players (as you do) when almost as an aside he admonished me not to forget Graham Central Station.

Forget? I'd never heard of them. But I had heard of Larry Graham, the bassist for Sly and the Family Stone - so here it is, the band he formed after quitting the hugely influential psych-soul pioneers. Graham's lived a life - Sly, GCS, introduced Prince to the Jehovah's Witness faith, and it turns out he's the uncle of Drake. According to Wikipedia, Graham was also a pioneer of the slap bass technique, so we've got this dude to thank for Victor Wooten and Mark King.

A quick Google and it became apparent I could buy one of those bargain collections of five studio albums for about eight quid. It virtually purchased itself, right?

Incidentally - the name Graham Central Station is a pun. In American English, it sounds like 'Grand Central Station' as 'Graham' is often elided into one syllable. Despite being married to an American for eight and a half years (and counting), I still experience some discomfort with this fact. I have sincerely spent a whole vacation looking for 'Gram crackers', only to find consolation in what I took to be a knock-off brand called 'Graham crackers' (just like Dr Pepper had a rival, Mr Pibb, who was presumably a consultant surgeon). 

To my non-American friends, I'll leave you with this warning; however you imagine 'Louisville' to be pronounced, prepare to be surprised.

Review: What a charming way to begin the album! 'We've Been Waiting' is a group acapella number, where they basically say how much they're looking forward to entertaining you, the listener. I'm not opposed to this kind of gimmick, one that Graham Central Station (spoiler alert) repeat on their second album Release Yourself, a track that introduces each member of the band with their own little slogan. It also features the chewiest synth tone ever produced, so give it a whirl right now because I won't be reviewing that bad boy for a while.

Is this a 'thing' in funk music? There's a little bit of this carry-on at the beginning of Parliament's incredible Mothership Connection, and the aforementioned Jimmy Castor Bunch do a funny turn in the same vein on their quirky jam 'Potential'. 

So what's the deal with Graham Central Station? My first reaction is that it's good, solid funk. It doesn't contain the hyperactivity of James Brown, the sci-fi weirdness of Parliament or the lasciviousness of the Ohio Players, but it does encapsulate something I often say about Nils Lofgren, which is that good singin' and good playin' can get you a long way down the path. Also, at the beginning on 'judge not, that ye be not judged' sizzler 'Hair', there's a cool slap bass intro, so that box has been ticked with a big fat permanent marker. 

For the most part, Graham Central Station is mid-paced soul-funk buoyed by quavering string arrangements, fun horn parts and gang vocals. The slower moments can sound a little like Johnny 'Guitar' Watson's Funk Beyond the Call of Duty (my favourite instalment in the Call of Duty franchise) without the humour (GCS are an earnest bunch), which is no bad thing. Singer Patrice 'Choc'Let' Banks gets featured solo spots on 'Why?' and 'We Be's Getting Down'; on the latter Banks does an especially scintillating job, her elastic vocals pushing against a grinding rhythm to fine effect.

What Graham Central Station lacks is a proper knockout punch. There is not a bad bit of music on the album, but neither is there anything that makes me immediately want to skip back and listen to something again. This needs a 'Summer Breeze' or 'That Lady' to properly elevate it into the top ranks; hell, even less successful acts like the Cate Brothers (identical twins, love it, love it) always had one ace up their sleeve per album, like the driving 'In One Eye and Out the Other'. GCS come close - 'Hair' is probably the best realised song - and indeed, it was a minor hit - but 'Can You Handle It' has a strident, imposing chorus that just needed to be wed to a more inventive verse, and 'People' has a guitar solo that's so fucking sick you wanna weep. Is that Freddie Stone playing?

As I said at the top, I got this alongside four other GCS albums for about the cost of a drinkable pint in London, so I can't complain. For me, this isn't heavy rotation material, and in truth it has dated somewhat. It suffers in comparison to more distinctive and high-energy contemporaries, and its serious-minded messaging of uplift and positivity is suffused with the spirit of an age that has passed by. Nonetheless, it's not bad - hell, it's good stuff - and Graham Central Station's albums would get better. It pays to tread carefully with recommendations from a guy who likes Bob Dylan's 1980s output, but here I have to hand it to my father-in-law for a very decent heads-up. 

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Good Bye - Flied Egg


Provenance: The ol' noggin ain't what it used to be, so no amount of staring into the black depths of this slightly forbidding album cover will lead to an eureka moment, I fear. However, it's certainly a pre-Spotify purchase, which leads me to two hypotheses:

1. Some random shit I heard on YouTube

2. (The most likely) I read about a band called Flied Egg and thought "I'd better get a piece of this".

It's a strange name for a band, right? Flied Egg. It turns out they were a Japanese outfit from the early 1970s, so it's either with a degree of irony or defiance that they took their language's difficulty with distinguishing between 'l' and 'r' and flipped it into a quirky handle. One feels that in our more enlightened (I say, the day after hordes of people marched in London against a make-believe Satanic cannibal paedophile (or should that be paedophile cannibal?) cabal) age such a name might be consigned to the 'bad idea' pile fairly swiftly, but who knows? If anybody has the right to lampoon Japanese speech patterns it's Japanese people themselves, and to me it feels like a nice mixture of absurdity, self-deprecation and spikiness. Is that reflected in the music, eh?

Review: Here's one of those curios that seem to have gone extinct, alongside 'hidden tracks' and CDs that you could turn over to the watch a music video - the half live, half studio effort. Good Bye starts with a bit of a bummer, as an MC announces that 'this show is going to be recorded, and will appear on the final LP this band will be released'. Yeah mate, not quite 'you wanted the best?! You got the best!' or 'on your feet - or on your knees!', but I should mark it up for being factually correct (this was Flied Egg's second - and final - album) and creating a sense of occasion.

Unfortunately, the first couple of tracks aren't anything special - aside from some peculiar wailing in the backing vocals department, it's fairly pedestrian 'eavy blooz rock in the same vein as Bachman-Turner Overdrive or Grand Funk Railroad. A fairly pointless cover of B.B. King's 'Rock Me Baby' follows - I already have superior versions by King, Robin Trower and myself playing into a dictaphone to fall back on. The soloing is energetic enough but quite generic; it has none of the identifiable quirkiness of King's restrained, vibrato-rich style or the artistry of Trower's mind-bending, feedback-soaked real-time deconstruction of the blues.

Another fairly muddy track closes out side A, but this time we're treated to a boring drum solo and some meandering nonsense on guitar. It's all very 1972 - an era where bands seemed to confuse lengthy jamming with fun, interesting music. Nothing to me sounds more brain-achingly langweilig than watching Jimmy Page stumble over his fretboard for half an hour in some godforsaken concert arena in the Midwest, but apparently people went nuts for this kind of bullshit. At least on studio albums, bands like Zep and the Allmans were largely constrained by the format, but you check out something like Deep Purple's Made In Japan and see twelve and a half minutes of 'Child In Time' or, heaven forbid, twenty minutes of 'Space Truckin'' and your fucking spider senses are tingling so hard that the structural integrity of your body is compromised and you become a puddle of goo. Which, I should add, is preferable to listening to Made In Japan.

Side B is the studio stuff! On Alive II, possibly the best album KISS ever put out, you've got a very solid studio side - 'All American Man' (despite being unintentionally funny, it's a corker), 'Rockin' in the USA' and the splendid Space Ace fronted number 'Rocket Ride'. Good Bye doesn't quite scrape the firmament in the same way, alas. More production line hard rock with 'Before You Descend', which then gives way to a genuinely nice moment called 'Out To The Sea', sporting a fairly grand arrangement underscored by swelling Hammond organ surges.

The next track is the one that set me off, though - Flied Egg totally bin off all the rawk for a bizarre interlude called 'Goodbye My Friends', which feels like nothing more than a prank. Played on what might be a clavinet or electric harpsichord, it's like someone decided that what Good Bye really needed was a tribute to Engelbert Humperdinck or Tony Orlando and Dawn. Chintzy, schmaltzy, out of tune, it comes across like a Sacha Baron Cohen bit being played out for some hicktown unsuspecting rubes, but I think it's entirely done in earnest. It's altogether quite charming as a consequence.

Of course, Good Bye doesn't actually sign off with the 'so long, adieu!' ditty, because this ain't the summer of love, pal, so instead we're left with the '521 Seconds Schizophrenic Symphony' to remember Flied Egg by. It's divided into four movements, just like the most tedious Kansas tracks (or entire Gryphon albums), which each have their own flavour, I suppose. There's a quiet bit (nice acoustic guitar work, I concede), the bit with some cod-Bach organ work and a predictably pompous, bathetic conclusion, fizzy with the crash of cymbals and, called the 'Finale'. If you've ever seen the likes of Mountain work themselves up into a froth, you know exactly what this sounds like.

What else can I say? Flied Egg sound like they're going to be fun, but they're not. There's one good track on Good Bye ('Out To The Sea') and one very, very bad track influenced equally by Eurovision and your local supermarket's cheese aisle ('Goodbye My Friends'), and that's it. Don't buy this album, I won't enrich your life in any way. There's nothing more that needs saying, really. Good bye.