'I think Surrealistic Pillow is real good. It had a vibe. That's the one that does it for me.' Neil Young
My current reading matter, (Shakey, the definitive biography of Neil Young), has me thinking of San Francisco, Haight Ashbury and 1967 at the minute. Yesterday I reviewed the wonderful, eponymous Moby Grape album and today I've moved on to Surrealistic Pillow perhaps the definitive West Coast document for that Summer of Love LSD moment.
It still stands up, far and away the best thing these players produced throughout their long careers. Very much of its time, yet still a rewarding, educational and soothing listen over half a century on. By terms calming, touching and inspiring, a reminder of a time when the counter culture very clearly actually existed and it was about much, much more than just the music.
Perhaps all of that idealism was slightly misplaced. With hindsight we can see the pile up of bodies, drugs casualties, stalled revolutions, and explosive violence of the months and years that followed. The comedown. Surrealistic Pillow imagines a quite different succession of events where the garden is sustained and flourishes.
It puts forward a proposition of an alternative lifestyle to the one offered by 'The Man' and Nine to Five, but it's by no means a naive record. Airplane's second album, their first had sold modestly and they'd since replaced their lead singer Signe Anderson and brought in a new drummer. The arrival of Grace Slick and particularly the two songs she bought with her from her previous band, The Great Society, made all the difference.
Those two songs stand apart and in some ways they're not typical of the record, though when they arrive they don't jar either. Really, they're both about full on unrestrained attack and the rest of the record is considerable more quirky and eccentric than that.
On Somebody To Love and White Rabbit, Slick is allowed off the leash to devastating and highly commercial effect, but elsewhere she's mediated by the much gentler tones of Marty Balin and Paul Kantner to produce a three pronged attack that's really fundamental to why this album is still so listenable, even now that many of its sentiments seem as distant as The Flood.
There are eleven songs here, and although their moods and structures are vastly diverse, they all convey a similar assured intent. Slick, Balin and Kanter are augmented by Jorma Kaukonen's acidic, almost oriental guitar psychedelics and a driving ryhthm section, (drummer Spencer Dryden is crucial), that underpins matters throughout.
In many ways this comes across as Coffee House Punk. It certainly calls for a revolution in terms of thinking at least. 'Feed your head' indeed. But if Somebody To Love and White Rabbit take no prisoners, elsewhere proceedings are more concessionary and obscure. There are a number of genuine love songs here and The Airplane come across as willing to compromise and accept constraint. So you get You're My Best Friend, Today and Comin' Back To Me, which have as much in common with Simon & Garfunkel and Mamas & Papas as they do with Jimi Hendrix or The Who.These are altogether quite lovely songs, full of utopian fuelled energy.
But the band are always capable of putting their foot on the pedal too. 3/5 of a Mile in 20 Seconds has plenty of the fervent raga of the time, the same kind of messianic fire that powered So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star and Mr. Soul, a reminder that there was a wicked war raging in Vietnam all along and that it made the Love and Peace contingency righteously angry and rightly so.
Both exotic and approachable, Surrealistic Pillow meanders along its course to beautiful effect. A wonderfully well named record and one that sums up a time, place and attitude as well as any I can think of. A deserved commercial success, it stayed in the US Charts for over a year. Many probably bought it on the back of it and found much else going on besides.This still holds.
Things get dark very quickly. Neil's loneliness. His epileptic fits. His idealism. Feeling apart from the rest of Buffalo Springfield and the experience they were going through. The girls. The drugs. Some of his early songs that reflect this. Burned. Out of my Mind. Most of all Mr Soul.
An appropriately early Seventies looking album sleeve with suitably corny font and an out of focus photo of the author. The record itself? Creamy Laurel Canyon. Honeyed vocals, silky piano and gently strummed acoustic guitar. What a rad idea. Though hardly unprecedented. But in the case of Lia Ices' Family Album it certainly works.
Mainly because the songs are great. That's what this kind of conceit really stands or falls on isn't it. Every track here is rather gorgeous in its own way and the record itself is a dream, locating a sweet spot somewhere between Karen, (Carpenter) and Joni. With a bit of Enya and a bit of Kate thrown in for good measure.
Grounded in autobiographial specifics, it's a record that flushes with abundant good will. Ices' move to California with her winemaking husband and her impending motherhood. It would be churlish to scoff at such fundamental instincts and emotions and anyway the record is more than good enough to stand its own ground.
These kind of nostalgic pipe dreams are ten a penny these days. In order to succeed they require artistic investment and that's here in spades. Altogether a rather lovely record.
'The Grape were an ornery bunch who paid respect to NO-ONE.'
Reading Jimmy McDonough's terrific chapter about the formation and buzz around Buffalo Springfield in Shakey has got me to thinking about what a great time and place to be alive it must have been in LA in '66. Almost like the world turning technicolor. Made me feel like listening to Moby Grape's marvellous, eponymous first album.
Moby Grape were actually based in San Francisco, but they definitely have something of Buffalo Springfireld's kinetic, freeform energy and intensity about them. This is the glorious Spring of West Coast love and harmony before the inevitable morning after comedown when you realise you just took too may drugs.
'That album was cut at exactly the right time, man. Sometimes you go for years without hitting on one thing and then it suddenly flows.About every 2 years I guess, I get a flash and a flood of material rushes into my head... and I can express it, play it and sing it - and that album was cut when everything seemed perfect. San Francisco was like heaven, everyone was stoned and happy and free.' Peter Lewis, Moby Grape.
Grape and Springfield have further common features. Three guitarists, each member at various points lead singers and songwriters, a sound that has a lot of Soul in its veins, plenty of Blues and Folk and R&B, Country and Pop too. A glorious mixture frankly. All shaken up and ready to explode. Both bands have an ability to switch things up and then calm things down and switch up again at will. Also a sense that somehow, good as they both were, they never really fulfilled the potential they showed early on.
Still, '67's Moby Grape captures that band at their simultaneous dawn and height and is as good a record as any to bottle the energy of the West Coast at the dawn of this age. It's a real taste of freedom. Frazzled but condense guitar duelling, an innate sense that this might not last forever and an urgency to lay things down right now just in case.
Taking their name from the punchline of a gag, 'What's purple and lives in the ocean?' Not perhaps a good gag, but certainly a great name for a bandan. There's a perpetual present tense about the record and it still sounds fresh almost fifty five years on. There are none of the irritating indulgences of the Haight Ashbury scene, interminable solos, inside jokes, drug addled hippy aloofness. Everything is concise, clipped and urgent. Ripe and punchy.
Columbia, the band's record company, sabotaged the album's commercial prospects with a ludicrous stunt of releasing five singles at once to publicise the album. They all stiffed and left an undeserved whiff of hype around the band as a consequence. Nothing does quite sound like a hit single on here but that doesn't make the album any less wonderful. It has a harmony and brevity and sheer fizz that share common DNA with Buffalo, Byrds and actually The Monkees too. The band are all great players. But they don't stand on ceremony.
'(they) could play the classic LSD-soaked celebrated San Francisco sound in the context of three miunte pop songs.'
The Grape played Monterrey, but due to excessive management demands on Friday night when barely anyone had arrived, rather than on Saturday, before Otis Redding's slot. They seemed a band doomed to cripple their own prospects at every turn.
Things began going off the rails in '68. Guitarist Skip Spence began abusing LSD and behaving erratically, to say the least. He was eventually committed to New York's Bellevue Hospital for six months of psychiatric care. He was never quite the same again. Neither was the band.
Grape reunited with hiim again unsuccessfully, then continued without him and reformed on any number of occasions in succeeding decades. They're best heard here though. At the dawn of things. It's a wonderful, at times magical record. A reminder of a never to be repeated moment in time.
Buffalo Springfield get together. Furay and Still see Neil's hearse driving on the opposite side of the road on Sunset Boulevard, do a U-Turn and shout him down. They're an instant sensation, getting a Byrds support slot ten days after forming. They sign to Atlantic Records.It's 1966.
New Jersey's Wrens third album The Meadowlandsis one of those records that has come to occupy a semi-mythical status for its small band of true devotees over time. Their first record for a number of years, following a run in with the owner of their independent record label who demanded that they produce a more radio friendly sound in return for signing a lucrative new contract. They refused, resulting in a number of wilderness years, with band members required to take full time jobs before finally returning to the fray with this in 2003.
Recorded over a prolonged period of gestation at the bands home studio, it has all the hallmarks of a proper and deeply felt labour of love. An expression of all that pent up frustration, channeled in just the right direction. The degree of emotional investment from everyone concerned is keenly evident throughout . All this fervoured engagement bears fruit mind. It feels like you're listening to one of the most cathartic albums ever made.
It's a special sounding record. Bruised and aching with thirty something pains, but also blessed with the most gorgeous, ringing guitar crafted melodies you could ever wish to hear. An album that is unmistakenly yearning, full of urgency and passion, it immediately registers as something that you want to tell others about. One quite unlike anything you've heard before though it clearly resides in a recognisable space somewhere between Grunge and Emo.
There's not a pause for respite here. The Meadowlands certainly doesn't sound like a record that's particularly comfortable within its own skin but that makes the transcendent beauty that surfaces in waves again and again from track after track all the more treasurable. The Wrens inhabit these songs to a staggering degree. A small, intense classic.
Take The Cake the debut album from Toronto's PACKS strikes you from the off like the kind of record that the Deal Sisters would thoroughly approve of .
Fronted by Madeline Link, who wrote the songs on here in Toronto and the Ottawa suburbs where she was quarantined with her parents in the Spring of 2020, it's a record for the Lo-Fi set.
Songs that twist and turn in on themselves at will, my first play of the recordmade me think 'I'm going to play this a lot more to get to know these songs properly'.
Definitely a daughter of the Deals. There are consistent stylistic and thematic reminders of the way The Breeders go about things. Link stamps these with her own personal slant and the results are charming. I also get the definite sense that these are growers.
An album that will appeal to those who are prone to subtle, understated, alternative guitar driven melody. I might take a few listens to be entirely sure about how much I like this but would certainly recommend it in the meantime.
Have to say I don't care for the new Black Midi record Cavalcade. I didn't expect to. Strikes me as Emperor New Clothes stuff. Don't care for this either. But I do love Marlene herself. Like few other things.
An album and band that attracted no little ridicule and disdain at the time and since. But I liked it and them, then and now. Well written, sincere pop songs that don't try to be cool and are all the better for the fact that they don't. Perfectly happy to listen to this once in a while.
On a day when the insufferably mannered second Black Midi album was released to an expectant, waiting world, it was a delight to have this delightfully stripped down and honest statement to act as some kind of counterpoint. A collaboration between Ellen Kempener's Palehound and Melina Duterte's Jay Som Bachelor's Doomin' Sun, it's a timely re-aquaintance with the real.
In many ways it was The Moldy Peaches who established this particular mindset and sensibility twenty years back. Who'd have known they would become such an important band. But really it goes back even beyond that. To the songs Mo Tucker sang for the Velvet Underground. To The Fugs and The Beats. To Holden Caulfield.
It's a certain cusp of adulthood ennui that Jonathan Richman understood perfectly too and Bachelor do most awfully well here. A way of thinking that singing in tune really doesn't matter nor does playing correctly or flashily. What is important is to capture the essence and as Holden knew, to reject the phoney.
Nothing on here departs from this basic template. Ten contenders for the OST of Juno 2, for when that particular couple get round to having kids of their own. Doomin' Sun is a restatement of the basic truth that the adolescent mind is onto something, despite its occasional preciousness, perhaps precisely because of it. It's a small joy. Say no to Black Midi's Cavalcade and yes to this instead.
As Rattlesnakes is listed on the Best Ever Albums countdown today I thought I'd give another repost for this. Written a few years back:
This is pretty much a perfect record. There aren't that many in my collection. I've got a great deal of history with it as do a lot of people of my age and background. My own copy is worn and approaching a stage of vague decrepitude as I am myself and jumps irretrievably on occasion like my own slightly irregular heart but I'm reluctant to replace the copy I bought on its release in 1984 just yet, because it's seen me through more than half of my given span and I'll be listening through to it, whether this copy or another, 'til that span expires, whenever that is. Because, perhaps more than any other album it speaks of the emotions and experience I was going through while first listening to it.
A good friend of mine, who follows this blog, said something along the lines that it was amongst the best records ever made by a minor league artist. I'd agree with that. Cole himself has I imagine seldom reached these heights since, (though he still puts out very good stuff and is excellent live by all accounts). I guess he knows the truth of this very well. It was an album and a statement he could never possibly trump because it was so much of its time. It defined forever a moment, an age of life and a perspective on it better than almost any record I know
I bought it at the time when my life was changing, more quite than it has ever done, before or since. I was eighteen, finishing off my A Levels and thinking about university. I knew very little idea about relationships, the opposite sex or pretty much the world. Records coming out at the time like Rattlesnakes, Murmur, High Land, Hard Rain and The Smiths were the stuff I constructed my identity around along with books, films and politics they referenced and drew on. I could make a list but I wouldn't want to bore you. It was stuff to aspire to and identify with, to construct yourself around in terms of the things you wore and I bought into it. I was far from alone.
Cole suffered slightly at the time from being bracketed with R.E.M, The Smiths, Aztec Camera and also Prefab Sprout who were coming at things from a similar angle. He seemed a minor talent by comparison as perhaps in retrospect he has proved. But it was a perfectly formed minor talent. He also meant a lot to quite a lot of people. I imagine many of those who fell for this record, what he was saying and the way he was saying it have never entirely grown out of it. I haven't.
Fast forward a couple of years from the record's purchase to the Summer term of my first year at University. There's a girl there that I'm falling for and something is starting to happen with. It's a university disco. She lives on campus and I'm at residences a few miles away. It's coming to the end of the night and I have to get on the pre-arranged minibus with the others who stay there. Perfect Skin comes on. We close dance to it, an odd song to close dance to, it's more of a giddy jig really. I go get the bus without a kiss but she's taking me over. We start going out together shortly afterwards, do so for the next four years. I fall completely in love with her. There's talk of marriage but with one thing and another it doesn't happen. Lloyd and the Commotions were there at the start of it all. I'll never hear Perfect Skin without being transported back to that brief pocket of time as it all began. She had a teddy bear called Bloomingdale and eyes like sin. She went into journalism. Wrote something for The Face. But not Cosmopolitan.
Back from myself to the record itself. All in all it's a flawlessly constructed album; track-listing, arrangements, lyrics, length. Nothing outstays its welcome. It's tasteful. Refined. It speaks of an ingrained love of all things America. Lloyd half sings half speaks in immaculately assembled American Beat prose hip-speak throughout. He and the band's sound yearns for the open road and also New York in particular in all its Sixties glory. America as dreamed of in youth spent in Buxton, Derbyshire and nailed into achievable reality as a university student, meeting and mixing with the right people, soaking up the sights and sounds of Glasgow, a city forever in thrall to the States. It's no great wonder that Lloyd ended up moving there permanently himself. Rattlesnakes ischoc full of namedrops. Eve Marie-Saint, Greta Garbo, Leonard Cohen, Simone De Beauvoir, Grace Kelly, Norman Mailer, Arthur Lee, Truman Capote. The kind of people and culture that you were gobbling up at this point of life, so desperate to impress, with the youth to get away with it sometimes but without the raw and real experience or knowhow to really back it up. It's a life learned, soaked up through books, films and music.
But there's pain there too. It's marrying these books, films and this music against the intense, brief, rites of passage experience you were actually going through. About wasting precious time as he says himself at one point. It's about first and failed relationships. The ones that hurt the most. It's about trying to understand women that are impossibly attractive, elusive and unobtainable, or even if they are obtained, the moment of possession is sure to be only fleeting. Because you're only twenty one once. It's about being flippant and eager to impress with surface cool and charm whilst all along underneath beats a desperate, yearning heart.
The playing is remarkably tight. I'd pick out Neil Clark the lead guitar but the whole band are hugely adept. Because really they're grounded in Soul. They know their Stax and incredibly they pull off a truly astonishing approximation of its gleam, spark and sheer discipline. And it's in this understanding of the essence of great Sixties American music, not just Dylan and The Velvet Underground but The Temptations, Staple Singers, Aretha and Booker T & the MGs that's the foundation of the record's success. They have the chops. Three of the band were in a Soul group before the Commotions formed. They made a point of playing with vintage equipment and using basic recording techniques rather than letting Eighties sounds and effects leak into the mix. These are some of the reasons the record has lasted.
There are five songs on either side of the album and they all fit as snug as can be. There's not a note too many, a line that doesn't work or a hook too laboured. They can speed it up and slow it down. It's funny and smart and touching by turns. It's a record of ten potential 45s. Lloyd is centre stage of course. The band took his name and it's his artfully constructed self that defines the record. Observant, wry, cynical, but really you suspect beneath the veneer, bruised and hurting.
The band had their brief moment in the sun. The record was feted and they had chart and critical success. They made follow up records, some of which recaptured the glory, most of which in retrospect didn't. Because they'd already made their statement. I played second record Easy Pieces a lot when it came out as it was part of the soundtrack to the great romance I talked of earlier which I was busy experiencing. I'd recommend a few songs from it that would fit right in on Rattlesnakes, Why I Love Country Music, Pretty Gone, Grace. Some of it doesn't work though. It tries too hard. Or else not enough. I didn't bother with the third. The band seemed to care less themselves by this point and split shortly thereafter. They'd run their course. They split shortly before the relationship of mine which they'd played their small part in did.
This is over thirty years ago. Lloyd is back. His latest album got his best reviews in years and his songwriting has aged gracefully. He has a silver flock of hair, barely receded from where it sat in its prime. He's not trying to be twenty, hasn't lost his looks and the man could certainly always write a lyric. He still can. He's always asked about Rattlesnakes of course and answers patiently and honestly. He seems like a good bloke though he still seems to find it hard to suffer fools. But he knows his place in the scheme of things.
So listen to his and his band's first record if you don't know it already. It's forever somewhere amongst my Top Thirty. It always makes me slightly lovelorn and nostalgic, for obvious reasons. I haven't gone into the songs individually here because they speak for themselves and are of a piece. I'd be here forever if I did but it would be all description and not enough feeling. Like I said it speaks for itself. A perfectly assembled row of books on a bookshelf. It's a record which within the dimensions and parameters it constructs for itself, frankly could not be bettered.
There it is. Always sitting there silently in the assembled ranks of albums stacked in boxes on my living room floor demanding to be played again. And again. From the first song, 'When she smiles my way. My eyes go out in vain,' to the last, 'Are you ready to be heartbroken.' I decided at the end of my first Lloyd Cole & the Commotions phase and the end of that relationship that I wasn't ready. I've learned since that the heart always finds a way to miraculously mend itself, work once more and need to love again. Meanwhile, Rattlesnakes plays on in the background. Never changing because it doesn't need to. It will outlast Lloyd. And me.
I started listening to Present Tense, the latest record by Chicago band FACS, with slight trepidation. At my advancing age I don't particularly care to be scared if I can help it and that seems to be FAC's primary intention. Present Tense is full of jarring abrasive noise that is predicated on the intention of frightening the listener witless from what I can make out.
Fans of Swans, Band of Susans and The Birthday Party might find things to interest and involve them here. I'm not particularly a devotee of these, or this approach but can see that FACS do what they do very well indeed.
Probably not a record I'll return to. My days of flirting with the deeply Gothic are probably well behind me. Not an album that makes me regret not ever having got a tattoo or having my tongue pierced. But those who are prone to these kind of life decisions might find more to enjoy here than I did. I'll confess, I didn't actually get to the end of the record. But FACS had laid down the way they wanted to do things pretty clearly in the first few tracks.
Neil's parents split in painful and drawn out circumstances. He goes to school then High School and discovers his most important first musical loves. Including this one by The Monotones. Also namechecked by Led Zep in Rock and Roll.
The Tunnel & The Clearing, the latest album from Cecile Schott, who has been putting music out as Colleen for almost twenty years is another record that does the Broadcast thing. In some ways one of the most influential bands of recent decades. their twilight hours eeriness can be heard everywhere.
This is a perfect servicable example of the genre though it doesn't reach greatness as it pretty much sticks to the rules which are pretty firmly established by now. A Dinner Party soundtrack for the outre set. There have been stronger examples of this kind of thing from Jane Weaver and Aoife Nessa Frances recently, this is slightly prosaic by comparison but this will more than do anyhow.
Still slightly under the radar. North Street Air, the third album from Holiday Ghosts came out last Friday but escaped my notice until now. I loved their previous records. They chimed completely with my own tastes. Down at heel late Velvet Underground, Modern Lovers and Kinks played at you with warmth, humour, sincerity and beatnik charm in a small room above a cool pub.
Since their last album the band have moved base from Falmouth to Brighton but the switch doesn't seem to have impacted on their basic modus vivandi. North Street Air doesn't really change the line of attack, but refines it somewhat, they're definitely getting better at what they do.
Essentially a core duo, Katja Rackin and Sam Stacpoole, who pick up new members to flesh them out as a quartet from time to time. This never leads them to miss their stride stylistically. They have a clear vision and this new record is as clear a realisation of it as they've come up with thus far.
North Street Air, has an assurance and flow that reminds me of a lot of bands that I love. Early Clean and Go Betweens. The bunch of pioneers of this sensibility that I mentioned above. Holiday Ghosts embody a certain independent guitar driven insouciance, a beat spirit that's been detectable since the Fifties or probably before, a conviction that much of what's really interesting in society lies beyond the mainstream.
I'm very taken by this on first listen and so pleased to hear the band are still chipping away at their particular seam of Rock and Roll. While higher profile young English bands ransack the corpses of The Fall and The Gang of Four with ever diminshing returns, this strikes me as a much more honest approach to our shared musical and cultural heritage, and certainly a much more listenable one.
This band may not ever fully get their due but I'm so pleased that they exist and look forward to them visiting a venue near me one day. They're a night at the funfair, rich with small, affordable and pleasurable joys. North Street Air, should more than do me over the coming summer months and beyond.
Pages 26-50. Neil's childhood in Omemee, Ontario. His incredibly charismatic parents Rassy and Scott. A bout of Polio that almost killed him. The song that encapsulates most of all that experience. Played here with The Band on The Last Waltz. With Joni on backing vocals.
Magnificent, sweeping, poetic ambition. This is something of a mission statement. The Waterboys doing what Mike Scott really wanted them to do. The production values led me to turn it down slightly when I listened to it this morning but it still stands tall.
MORE Post Punk. As ubiquitous it seems on the Modern Pop Supermarket shelves now as Campbell's Soup tins were on real sipermarket shelves back in the Sixties. This time Raleigh, North Carolina's Night Battles come to the oche with their latest album Year of No Days.
It's hardly laugh out loud stuff. Opening track Sunyata comes on immediately like Joy Division, if they'd been brought up on Black Sabbath rather than Iggy & The Stooges. Feet mired in the Lockdown experience, it's immediately evident that Night Battles may not have had the greatest experience all told.
Things proceed in a similarly gloomy manner. This is a good record but certainly not a great one. Not to be mentioned in the same breath as Protomartyr for example, who take a similar road but show much greater nuance and have a far greater element of surprise and genuine attack.
Sonically Year of No Days is pretty impressive. It has a piledriver intensity that barely lets up. Thematically it's less satisfying. Lyrically it's rather heavy handed, ham-fisted sometimes, in the way that Soundgarden often used to be, laying on the gloom on occasion with a trowel. Still, a diverting and involving listen so long as you don't take its sentiments at face too seriously.
Bob's Birthday and time to get going on another book. This is a great 'unread' on my shelf. The definitive biography of Neil Young, an absolutely fascinating character. Twenty five pages a day which should take me well into June and the first installment has already got me hooked. The author Jimmy McDonough puts forward his rationale, other musicians explain what makes Neil so special and we are introduced to his remarkable mother Rassy. We also hear about Young's obsession with cars which explains my first musical choice.
Sounds utterly of its time and actually rather difficult to listen to all the waythrough all these years later. Very good at what they do of course and they put out a pretty decent new album last year.
Congo's Kasai Allstars latest. Wait for it Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No Sound, might be a record that'll make you move around a bit. Together for over fifteen years now, a collective made up of members from five ethnic groups from all over the Kasai region, they give the principle of unity a good name.
An album bedded on the goals of collaboration and cooperation Black Ants is permanent motion. The determination of the Allstars is clear and their joyousness infectious. A record you don't necessarily need to understand the lyrics of in order to appreciate and get behind its message.