I am currently nursing an annually re-emergent infatuation with Love's 1967 masterpiece Forever Changes, only made worse this time by reading Andrew Hultkrans (short) book-length interpretation of the dodgy happenings in the record and how and why they freak us out. Forever Changes (listen on lala) is an exemplary psychedelic record - Hultkrans describes it a "peerlessly psychedelic" - because everything it says must be inferred, nothing is direct or clear. The trappings of flower power are squeezed for their nectar and the limp petals are carefully pressed and preserved in this Victorian scrapbook of a record. I caught myself thinking this record should be covered by a crack early music group brandishing period instruments, with Julian Cope's snotty recitation standing in for the departed Arthur Lee. Forty years, and this record is changing people. Maybe that's what he meant.
None of the three records illuminated below, waiting to be reviewed on my desk, have quite the synergy of form, facade and fear that make Forever Changes so intoxicating, and its an unfair thing to expect they would, but they all contain parts of the equation and bear some vague resemblance.
When Devendra Banhart emerged, I was among the many to accuse him of trying to be/grant him the mantle of being the New Marc Bolan, delicate sylvan noodling of his Tyrannosaurus becoming a sleazier, drug-addled T. But perhaps he is our Arthur Lee without the paranoia that makes such an out cat as Lee so affable. Banhart has Lee's pampered, scene-king dandy shtick down to a carefully perused script, but mirrors the reversal of the times between then and now. Lee was apocalyptic and frightened, aware of the world collapseing around him. Banhart instead embraces fully the vapidity of the never-happen-to-me set in his later albums and his new joint Megapuss, and, to borrow a phrase from Tim Gunn perusing frenzied fashion designers trying to appear sincere on television, makes it work. Surfing vacillates between spot-on to stupid, often in the bounds of the same song. The opener "Crop Circle Jerk '94" is an infectious nostalgia romp of tambourine and handclaps, like if the Daptones were inflating a minor song form Hair with their secret post-Stax genius. "Theme from Hollywood" is even more insipid than the name suggests, but the Sunset Strip swagger it inhabits is catchy as hell. You wish you were having too much fun too. Elsewhere in the album, though, conceptual brainfarts stink up the room: The foolish, simplistic race commentary "Duck People Duck Man" leaves you wondering if the objects of the song or the singer are the foolish ethno-tourists, metaphorically and personally buying their hummus from Trader Joe's. I'm not opposed to Trader Joe's, I wish one would open up down here in the dirty South, but it is a week substitute for the real culture.
Banhart and cohorts manage to occasionally make hipster gibberish sound momentarily genius with their confident delivery. Take "Hamman", his chants bear weight that their words could never convey. The difference though is at the center of Arthur Lee's tangled language is the Abyss; in Banhart's, it might just be a Trader Joe's, and truthfully, I would probably spend more clock time at the Trader Joe's than the Abyss if they had one here.
Listen on lala
MV&EE with the Golden Road
Matt Valentine and Erika Elder possess little if no swagger on Drone Trailer, in fact one wonders if they can pull themselves off the floor. On the six lugubrious acid workouts on this record, they go into various dark terrains of the psychedelic mindset. "Anyway" is sun-bleached power riffs blasted out of the busted speakers of cars abandoned in the desert. "The Hungry Stones" is harrowing in the solo Neil Young variety, but both speak to a comfort with the formlessness that Lee approached during the abstract portions of his songs. The epic length "Weatherhead Hollow" can be seen as an extended variant of the we're all normal and we want our freedom section of Love's "The Red Telephone", humanity hanging on the threads of gossamer acoustic guitars in the background.
Or, they could be seen as jams of the most egregious looseness. Either way, I'm OK with it. Like Lee and his Baroque dandyism, Valentine and Elder make you believe they fully live in the spirit world they conjure. "Twitchin'" can then been seen as the exposition on this record. It is like a John Martyn tapestry pulled apart to get at the threads. Their loose application of harmoniousness between the vocals and the music takes some getting used to, but here in the desert of the psychedelic soul, the location sketched out in the gossamer closing track "Huma Cosm", we have plenty of time.
Fire on Fire
Fire on Fire are psychedelic formalists of the highest water. Their approach is that of the crack, cracked string bands of yore like Incredible String Band and Holy Modal Rounders and the lush chamber dwellers like Love. The group lives and makes stirring acoustic music communally, howling in unison like Sacred Harp Singers terrified to find themselves in Purgatory. "Sirocco" sets the tenor of this splendid record, accordions offering counterpart to a precision cycle of banjos and hand percussion. The chorus offers if we tear this kingdom down, let be with a deserving and joyous sound. Amen, and the kingdom is all around you.
Fire on Fire are dead serious in mission, but do it with a rapturous and confident manner that you want to sign up with their cult recruiter. "Heavy D" is a perfectly wrought chantey not about the rapper - at least I don't think so - but a meditation on heaviness itself. "Assanine Race" is serpentine in meaning like much of their material, and that of great psychedelic music, and it points to what is so potent about this music. They utilize and exploit the most accessible of folk plainsong melody, using them as a raised bed out of which grows frightening vines that eventually choke everything else out. You enter their garden to smell the roses but find yourself quickly tangled in thorns.
If I were to have any complaints about this record, it would be that it is too much. I fell head over heels for their self-titled EP because in its five tracks formed the four walls and roof of a house in which you could spend some time. The Orchard is like a real orchard: endless with row after precision row of ripe luscious fruit for the tasting. After a while I find myself no longer listening specifically but contextually and ultimately when the hypnotic "Haystack" comes around the bend, I have had too much fruit, lost in their plantings, delirious to the point of collapse. I think this is what all psychedelic music really goes for, that kind of completion where attention becomes irrelevant because one is in union with the waves crashing around you.
Top: Photo from a production of Marat/Sade (where Arthur Lee got the line we're all normal and we want our freedom) staged by the Directorate of Morale, Welfare, and Recreation at Fort Gordon, GA
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com