Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Album Review # 34 Allah-Las - Worship the Sun

And to follow that up, another re-post for my review of Worship the Sun from a couple of years back.

'And I know where I belong. Cause I worship the sun.'

'I've never been to California where The Allah-Las hail from. I didn't come of age in the sixties and neither did they. They just make records now that sound like they did. But I do have evocative memories and associations with the time and its music, just as they do. Primarily this. In my first year at university, almost thirty years back,  most Thursday nights, myself and like-minded friends in my block corridor would troop from our halls into Norwich, a trek of a couple of miles if I remember rightly. The object of our pilgrimage was a rundown nightclub in Magdalen Street called Santana's. Thursday night was Sixties Night. It wasn't much to write home about but had some of the inexplicable dark and bleak mystique that holds some kind of spell over your sensibilities when you're turning twenty.

 Invariably when we arrived there were a couple of familiar figures, on the blackened dancefloor. Both were fellow students. One was someone who I came to make into a firm and lifelong friend named Andy who was known, (though he wouldn't and probably won't thank me for broadcasting the fact), as Andy the Hippie due mainly to his shoulder length hair, not a common phenomenon amongst student circles at the time. We later got arrested together in the middle of our first year which only served to cement the bond of friendship, (which has now lasted the best part of thirty years), along with a shared regard for The Velvet Underground and The Doors.

The other was a fat and rather unpleasant fellow named Gavin. Generally unwashed and invariably bedecked in large, loud paisley shirts. The one I remember was fluorescent pink, flaked in black. He would lean vaguely menacingly across the dancefloor at me as I came to greet him, shake his horrid bleached locks, still black at the roots and slur blearily, 'I've just had ten pints and I'm completely pissed.' Later in the year he almost burned his university room down when he left candles burning. Then he dropped out. Oh Gavin. What became of you?

Even this inevitable moment failed to dim Santana's appeal for me. We were there most Thursday evenings for my first two terms. I'd appreciate the chance of one more but the club is long gone. The Sixties was undergoing an unlikely renaissance at this point in the mid-Eighties. Pretty much banished to the margins, apart from Ska, Soul, The Velvets, Stooges and Doors, by the Punk and Post-Punk years, The Smiths and R.E.M. had made it respectable to delve again through these years and admit to its influence.

In R.E.M's wake a group of vaguely similar bands came to the British shores, all of them awash with Sixties reference points: The Dream Syndicate, the Rain Parade, Green On Red, the Long Ryders and True West amongst others who all  tended to be grouped under the Paisley Underground moniker, reasonably enough because they all first came to public attention playing together. None of them really hit critical mass or quite deserved to as R.E.M. did, but they found favour, with Andy and myself amongst others, and for a couple of years they made The Byrds, The Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Buffalo Springfield and Creedence, vaguely respectable names to drop. When, inevitably, the Paisley Underground bands fell from grace, Creation Records, Primal Scream, The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays and others picked up the baton and ran.

 This Tuesday morning I was reminded of all this while searching around for something to listen to while I planned my lesson. I thought of the Stone Roses first record which I haven't listened to for a long time, it being one of a number of prized albums that have gone missing over the years during my travels. It's a great record undeniably but I found after a few songs on Tuesday, its appeal dimmed and I'd had enough. If you've lived in the UK over the past couple of decades, that record more than almost any other has been played to death. On the radio, on pub jukeboxes, on the TV, exploited not least by the band themselves who recently reformed, still largely on the back of it I suspect to top up their pension funds. They've clearly not quite recovered from making it themselves. So I chose to listen to this instead. The second album by The Allah-Las. Just recently released though you wouldn't think it from listening to it.  I got sufficient pleasure from the listening experience that at the end of day I went and bought it.

When I came to buy the album that afternoon I knew already that it wasn't the best option on the stacks in front of me. There was a Mose Allison record there, amongst others, which I was sure outclassed it in objective terms in almost every respect. This didn't lessen my resolve however. This was the one I wanted. I'm long past the point of buying things to impress my peers. I was after something which I knew would set off pleasant, relaxed well being within me when I listened to it and was already sure that this ticked off the required boxes. Mose Allison can wait.

The Allah-Las might as well be a Paisley Underground group. Their outlook is pretty much the same, filtered through thirty more years of music, almost exclusively in their case on white indie bands drawing from the same well of influences. From the beautifully designed sleeve which screams California at you, this is where the band are from, to the opening bars of the album's first track where it seems certain that the band are going to break into Love's Alone Again Or at any moment.

They don't. But they've already set down their marker. Some of the Paisley Underground bands owed something to Punk as do similarly minded contemporary American bands like The Black Lips and The Grumblers. The Allah-Las owe nothing to Punk. Their debt is to Sixties guitar driven pop, twangy instrumental music and light rock,(the album never gets too heavy, it's far too laid back for that). And in addition bands like Felt, early Primal Scream and yes The Stone Roses two records. Bands that had similar influences, goals and outlooks to The Allah-Las themselves.

Felt are a particular valid reference point. I've been listening to them quite a bit recently. They're a band who never got their due in their day but whose fingerprints can be heard all over all kinds of records made by introspective, independent guitar bands in the decades since. Felt's love of pop music and melody was clear for all to see as were the inbuilt limitations of their horizons and their potential commercial appeal. Both bands' music seems to emerge from an introspective bubble of their own making. Felt were destined never to trouble the charts and the same holds true for The Allah-Las though they seem happier to dwell within the margins of cult obscurity. Lawrence of Felt seemed sure that he was going to be a big star. The influence of Felt here is clear and heartfelt. The album itself surely take its name from the band's early classic I Worship The Sun. This was dreamed up in English Midland's gloom but it's particularly apt to hear it transposed to California's eternal sunshine.

All four band members write and sing lead across the record. It's a noble, democratic principle but it all leads to a variability in quality across the album. Occasionally it's a slightly frustrating listen as you cry out at sloppy laid back playing or wilfully out of tune vocals that you feel could easily have been tweaked and fine tuned to take the band onto a higher plain. To allow them to compete. This however, is slightly denying the record's ambition and the band's driving ethos. It seems they care most about not seeming to care. And I can't really find fault in that.

So Worship The Sun is an undemanding, relaxed and it has to be said, a pleasant listen. I'm glad I bought it, though there's a nagging itch under my skin telling me that the Mose Allison record still nestled on the rack at HMV is superior in every respect objectively speaking. It's a slightly confused incoherent listen at times. It speaks more clearly of Spotify, ipod culture than the vinyl culture of the Sixties. It's quite telling that all four band members used previously to work in record shops and they seem just the types who would interrupt a track midway through and reach for something else saying, 'Hey listen to this.'

Halfway through the record's second side comes the album's title song and it's a very odd experience listening to it. It seems that the Bobby Gillespie of 1986 has been transported forward in time  and stepped up to the mic in his Chelsea boots, leather troosers, polka dot shirt and Byrds fringe to intone once more for the indie faithful. I have to say I enjoyed  the moment thoroughly. It's a faultless recreation of indie underachievement. I think it's the albums most evocative song.

Never having been to California, only having experienced it through the refracted lens of books and records I realise I'm at something of a loss to do Worship The Sun complete justice so I'm grateful for this perspective from someone who probably has and is more aware of the cultural and geographical reference points it's grounded in.

'Allah-Las’ second album, Worship The Sun, expands on the sound established by their maiden effort, honing their fusion of West Coast garage rock and roll, Latin percussion and electric folk. As richly textured and timeless as a Southern California beach break, the songs are evocative of Los Angeles’ storied past. Beatniks, artists, surfers, nomads. Remnants of a bygone Sunset Strip.  Golden tans and cosmic sunsets. One can feel the warmth of the sun, but the band deftly avoids the kitsch so often indulged by lovers of these things. Hints of Byrds, Love, Felt, and those who follow are threaded into the tapestry.

LA’s seminal Ferus Gallery – the home of Wallace Berman, Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston – is paid homage in an eponymous instrumental, broadening the scope beyond mere sea, surf, and sand. The lyrics reveal a new maturity; reflections of a band that has grown together through experiences on the road and in the studio. Worship The Sun is at once the perfect soundtrack for the greatest surf film never made and for a golden hour drive through Topanga Canyon. Yet, while grounded in the Southern California experience, the appeal of the album is not limited by locale. It is a teenage symphony to the sun, for all those who know its grace.'

So Worship The Sun evokes a condition where the waves are always lapping at the shores of golden Californian beaches. Where open topped sports cars are always winding round its hills. Where pop songs are always accompanied by twanging, echoey guitars and 'ba ba' backing vocals. Where the point of the exercise is in not being seen to try too hard. A place peopled by girls called Julie Anne and Susie Lou, the best girls on the block, who you're going to make yours. Sounds and words that take you to other places in your record collection, other memories.  And for me where it's always Sixties Night at Santana's. The band's third album will be out in a couple of years and I doubt very much whether it will stray far from this formula. It clearly works for them. I'm not sure I'll buy it. I have the Allah-Las album I need to achieve the particular kind of relaxed, reflective state they cater for. It's the sixties refracted, skilfully and knowingly through the eighties and I have little doubt that bands will emerge in twenty years time who list the Allah-Las as formative influences alongside Felt and Love. This stuff will never go away, any more than those waves lapping against Californian shores will.'

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