28 January 2007

The Zodiac- Cosmic Sounds (1967)

Quality: 3.5 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 4 out of 5

I first came across this album from a buddy of mine living in a concrete warehouse practice space who had procured a vinyl copy of this baby for use in his electronic performances. I was greatly amused by the oddness of The Zodiac and spent the next 5 years searching for my own copy.

The seeds of this particular disc stem from Elektra Records guru, Jac Holzman. At the time primarily a folk label, Holzman was taking some initiative in searching for new, hip sounds. He probably decided that "What's your sign?" was indeed a groovy pick up line in bars, and proceeded to construct a 12 track album based on the signs of the Zodiac. He recruited former folkster Alex Hassilev (of The Limelighters) to produce and far-past-his-youth Mort Garson to arrange the music.

Maybe one of the first rock and/or psychedelic concept albums, Cosmic Sounds is a truly demented journey through pre-fab sound. The Zodiac itself was not really a band, but in fact an Elektra Records project which utilized many members of the Wrecking Crew. These players, who can be heard on most 1965-967 Beach Boys recordings, the "Mr. Tambourine Man" single by The Byrds, and about 8067 other 60's hits are probably among the most renown sessionmen and women ever. They also considered themselves mainly jazz players, and "slummed" to play on rock and pop sessions basically for the money. Still, drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Carol Kaye have admitted their presence on most of the tracks here, and both of them are amazing musicians.

With the talented, but admittedly white collar, musicians in place we'd of course have a highly competent album. To set this one over the edge, however, a few ringers are necessary. Three folks on the record fortunately fit this bill. Emil Richards was recruited as percussionist wildly bashing on anything in hand (including a wide range of ethnic percussion). Electronic experimenter Paul Beaver came about after the initial tracking sessions with his early modular Moog synthesizer in hand, or uh.. trailer (modular Moogs are crazy big). This contributed some properly strange sounds for the time as Cosmic Sounds was likely the first commercial appearance of a Moog synth.

The real lynchpin of this endeavor was narrator Cyrus Faryar. Although the words describing the Zodiac were hacked out by a fellow by the name of Jacques Wilson, Cyrus really brought them to life. Speaking with a seriousness and hubris that would put Jim Morrison to shame, Mr. Faryar somehow managed to intone lines like "Nine times the color red explodes like heated blood" while sounding like he really meant it.

As far as the songs themselves, some of the signs stick out more than others. "Aires-The Fire Fighter" managed to work up a quintessential (if not completely inspired) acid-rock groove, while "Cancer-The Moon Child" creates an atmosphere of 1967-vintage new age bliss. Apparently Cancer wants to be touched by everything. "Libra" takes a musically odd route to being a "Flower Child" which actually manages to not use what are not folky cliches. "Sagittarius-The Versatile Daredevil" gives us a carnival sound which resembles a chopped up and mutilated "Mr. Kite." Unfortunately my sign, represented by "Pisces-The Peace Piper," is a little on the dull side as well as a few other tracks. Fortunately, even on the lesser tracks, Cyrus comes through with his dramatically stated, but incomprehensible ramblings. "To be afraid, and not care that you are afraid, is the courage of which Scorpio is made" indeed.

To be honest, Cosmic Sounds rates a lot higher on the kitsch level than musically. Still, there's a strange naive charm permeating the record. It's a lot of fun to listen to, and as the all-capital purple letters plead on the rear sleeve, Cosmic Sounds MUST BE PLAYED IN THE DARK. If you're looking for something to stack next to Pet Sounds or Forever Changes, Cosmic Sounds will be a massive disappointment. A better mainstream comparison might be The Doors' throwaway track "Horse Lattitudes" found on Strange Days. Cosmic Sounds is a novelty, but one of a high order as far as novelties go.

Buy Me:
The Zodiac - Cosmic Sounds

25 January 2007

The Hollies- Evolution (1967)

Quality: 4 out of 5 (mono)
3.5 out of 5 (stereo)
Trip-O-Meter: 3 out of 5

is the Hollies first profound attempt to dive in the pool of psychedelia. Unlike the later Butterfly, the Hollies brand of Brit-pop doesn't mix particularly well with the psychedelic elements here. Like the weaker tracks on Butterfly, however, the songwriting saves the day and makes for a solid album.

This review focuses on the 2004 Japanese issue of both the mono and stereo Evolution along with the "Carrie Anne"/"Signs That Will Never Change" single.

The old adage that you can't judge a book by its cover applies to Evolution, but unfortunately not in its favor. The cover is an amazing image by The Fool which represents a paisley clad band seemingly reaching through the shrinkwrapping of the album. There is a strange psychedelic overlay consuming the image. The musical contents of the album, however, are basically solid British Invasion pop with some window dressing representing the more cutting egde bands of the period.

"Then The Heartaches Begin" is a solidly constructed opener with a touch of somewhat misplaced fuzz guitar. The first real winner here is in the slightly skewed ballad "Stop Right There." It has a perfect balance of melancholy and hesitant cheeriness that make it a prime candidate for the soundtrack of a future Wes Anderson film. The strange gypsy-like violin part weaving through the later part of the song helps to distinguish the ballad further.

The best parts of the album stay away from psychedelia and reaffirm the Hollies mastery of 1965 styled pop. "You Need Love," "When You're Light's Turned On," and "The Games We Play" would have been plumb singles two years earlier, but probably served to alienate their contemporary audience. "Have You Ever Loved Someone" makes the mistake of using fuzz guitar on what should be a poppier track. The result comes out like The Beach Boys' similarly misguided "Bluebirds Over The Mountain." "Rain On The Windows" add a bit of reverberating orchestation to color its sound to better effect, and the helium voices in "Water On The Brain" anticipates some of the later sound experiments on Butterfly.

Evolution remains strong despite a few questionable decisions, and only grinds to a standstill on two tracks. "Lulluby To Tim" utilized a truely grating warbling vocal effect, while "Ye Olde Toffee Shop" is dated in the most flagrantly twee manner. It's like Willy Wonka, sans any irony, and tends to make me cringe a little bit.

This disc's value is upgraded by the wonderful "Carrie Anne"/"Signs That Will Never Change" single. "Carrie Anne" has some of the best vocal harmonies recorded in the 60's and spices things up a bit with some bongo action. The B-side doesn't overshadow the main attraction, but it's a very pleasant album quality track with a groovy bassline and manages to point towards the future a little more than the past.

Evolution is very much superior in its mono incarnation, with the stereo tracks sporting poorly considered stereo separation and a lack of balance or impact.

Although a little spotty, Evolution provides an interesting bridge between the Hollies beat-based sound of their early albums and the full-on psychedelia of their Butterfly period. The pop aspects are still the main attributes here and the sometimes indiscreet and missplaced psychedelic aspects don't completely ruin the sound.

Buy Me:
The Hollies - Evolution

The Hollies- Butterfly (1967)

Quality: 5 out of 5 (mono)
4 out of 5 (stereo)
Trip-O-Meter: 4 out of 5

Although the Hollies were one of Britain's biggest pop bands in the 60's, they would remain relatively obscure in the States until the 70's, by which time Graham Nash had left the band and the remaining members had converted to a rather schmaltzy soft rock band. Butterfly is a prime piece of British psyche pop which has never really been noticed in the US. In fact, I'm not sure if it has had a proper American release to this date. I'll be reviewing the 2004 Japanese reissue which includes the mono and stereo British release plus the "King Midas In Reverse"/"Everything Is Sunshine" single.

One of the unfortunate conceits of British psych is that band's ideas and intentions often surpassed their recording capacity. Butterfly escapes this fate as the Hollies had recent hits such as "Carrie Ann" and "On A Carousel" and benefitted from a A-list recording budget. Thus, Butterfly features plenty of exotic instrumentation and full, live orchestration. Much of their experimentation on the album reflected other prominent releases of the past year (Sgt. Peppers, The Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday, etc.) but these ideas had not yet passed their freshness date and the phenomenal songwriting of Clarke-Hicks-Nash more than compensated for any redundancies.

Apparently, the band as a whole was not too excited about the dive into psychedelia that they had begun with Evolution and continued here. But it was the prevailing style of 1967 and Graham Nash was gung-ho about taking that direction. This caused creative strain and Graham Nash would depart for America shortly after this album, but on Butterfly the tension provides a perfect balance between pop and psychedelia.

Butterfly starts with "Dear Eloise," a lurching number that provides sort of a manifesto for the rest of the album with it's tripped out mellotron passage shifting into a full blast pop-rock section rivaling even some of the better Lennon/McCartney singles. Nash would also specifically reference The Beatles on the sitar-laden "Maker," which is not as complex as George Harrison's sitar excursions, but has more of an immediate pop edge.

The band scores a couple of should-have-been singles with the soaring "Would You Believe," which is my personal favorite on the album, and the poppy "Step Inside," which recalls prime 1965 Brit-invasion pop. On the other side of the spectrum, the band tries to search for the astral sounds of the day on the one-two punch of "Try It" and "Elevated Observations?" In full disclosure, their "experimentation" here is rather tepid when compared with Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd, The Soft Machine, or a host of the edgier psych bands, but their pop instincts save the day and make the songs enjoyable, if a bit dated. The one major misstep is the silly lyrics and goofy orchestration on "Pegasus." This song has missed most US Hollies compilations, and it's not really worth searching out if you don't already have it. The closing title track is a much better bit of orchestration, and sound of a piece with contemporary Moody Blues efforts.

"King Midas In Reverse," which may be The Hollies' best psychedelic number, includes amazing vocal harmonies and what starts as deceptively simple production morphing into a huge orchestral wall of sound. "Everything Is Sunshine" is an enjoyable but run-of-the-mill B-side.

My release includes the mono and stereo versions of all of the tracks. As is common with British 60's pop, the mono mix was intended as the definitive mix while the stereo was almost an afterthought. This is especially true here as the mono mixes are finely textured and provides a punch in all the right places. Unfortunately the stereo mix suffers from pointless separation anda poor balance that weakens the sound and immediacy of many songs. I only listen to the stereo version as an occasional curiosity and in fact rate it a full point lower than the mono.

Butterfly is a somewhat neglected release that I believe is one of the definitive psychedelic pop albums. You may recognize "Dear Eloise" and "King Midas In Reverse" from airplay (or not, they don't get played that often) but there are plenty of other tracks here to match the majesty of those songs.

Buy Me:
The Hollies - Butterfly

24 January 2007

The Trip (1967)

Quality: 3 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 4.5 out of 5

The Trip is a summer of love vintage exploitation film with an impressive pedigree. B-movie guru Roger Corman directed this time capsule in his search for a "new thing" as his well of Edgar Allen Poe films was running dry. None other than Jack Nicholson wrote the twisted screenplay. He wouldn't firmly commit himself to acting until after Easy Rider. His Easy Rider screenmates Peter Fonda (in the lead role) and Dennis Hopper (in a smaller but impactfully insane role) appear on screen. Bruce Dern also shows up with a full beard as Peter Fonda's "trip" guide.

As a sometimes subjective writer, I must admit that this film has a special place in my heart. I first saw it at a screening at Georgia State in downtown Atlanta back in the winter of 1997. This was before the Nuggets sets made it to CD, so in many ways seeing The Trip ignited my pointless, but impassioned, search for off center psychedelia.

The somewhat disposable plot involves Peter Fonda as a commercial director named Paul in the ending stages of a messy divorce. He approaches his friend (played by Bruce Dern) to guide and babysit him during his inward search enhanced by the controversial (but still legal!) drug LSD. After visiting the dealer (Dennis Hopper), Paul begins the titular trip at Dern's swank pad, where the interior design would make Austin Powers (ok, and me too) weep with joy.

Although not lacking in star power, the real selling points of this film are the production design and goofy camera effects. Cormans' films were always filmed on a shoestring budget, but we really do see every dollar on the screen. Unlike many cult films, this is a nice looking and professional film. I feel like Corman managed to set many summer of love cliches in stone with this production. During his trip, Paul finds himself in a primordial forest coming across horse bound sentinals and fair maidens. Later he experiences a whole series of wacky camera effects while trippin' down Sunset Blvd. I doubt what we see on the screen is a particularly accurate description of an LSD trip, but it sure is a lot of fun to watch. While in a groovy basement club, we spot Gram Parsons' (of The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers) with his International Submarine Band. Unfortunately for Parsons' fans, his music is overdubbed with what I believe is The Electric Flag.

Everything comes together during a scene (that takes place in Paul's mind) where Paul finds himself on trial for being a selfish bastard. The sets resemble a circus in hell as the camera aimlessly twirls around. And to really set the mood, Dennis Hopper puts in double duty in a second role as the judge/inquisitor.

The dialog in this films is also of note as we find ourselves listening to endless logic loops as Paul tries to answer the inquisitor's questions, make conversation at a laundromat, and almost fail to order a drink at a club. Nicholson really out did himself, or just a lot of drugs, while penning these lines.

Film lore says that the over-30-at-the-time Roger Corman went a little overboard preparing for this film. Apparently, he sampled LSD and spent an evening trying to become a tree or something. He still regarded this as a good trip and had to grill Nicholson and the rest of the cast over what a "bad trip" was like. Strangely enough, the younger and hipper counter culture icon Bruce Dern had never experimented with the drug.

As LSD was well on its way to becoming illegal, Corman was compelled to moralize the ending a bit. This was obviously done in post production. Storywise Paul seems to have found insight and gotten the girl of his dreams, but a cracked mirror effect on the final frame is supposed to suggest that he has in fact gone insane. Fortunately this is followed by the kaleidoscopic credits so I guess insanity much be kind of groovy after all (at least for Paul).

The Trip is far from a masterpiece. To the modern viewer it is cliche-ridden and a little slow moving. Still, it serves as a great time capsule with some visual tips to the avant-garde and give a "before they were famous" glimps of several future stars. The Trip serves especially well as a party movie for some background weirdness.

On DVD the trip is paired with Psych Out, also featuring Bruce Dern and including Jack Nicholson on screen. Many people consider this the better film (I wouldn't agree) but there is some controversy as Psych Out features some unfortunate edits. I'll review Psych Out in more detail at a later date.

Buy Me:

The Millennium/The Ballroom- Magic Time (1966-1968)

Quality: 4 out of 5 (5 for Begin)
Trip-O-Meter: 3.5 out of 5 (4 for Begin)

The Millennium was a short lived project headed by the master sunshine pop producer, Curt Boettcher. This 2001 Sundazed collection includes the Millennium's sole album, Begin (1968), along with the previously unreleased album from one of Boettcher's previous acts, The Ballroom (1966), and some odds and sods from these acts and Sagittarius, a project headed by producer Gary Usher and involving Boettcher's input.

We'll work through this set backwards, as the strongest material here is the Begin album on disc three.

Although the Begin album is Boettcher's baby, it is also very much the work of a functioning band. In fact, the members make up a sort of an obscuro 60's supergroup. Ron Edgar and Doug Rhodes joined in from the Music Machine ("Talk Talk"), and Sandy Salisbury was a holdover from the Ballroom project.

is truly a lost classic that has not yet received it's due. The basic sound of the disc harkens back to Beach Boy Brian Wilson's 1966-1968 productions. In fact, many moments of Begin stand up well to Pet Sounds and surpass the sunshine pop of later Beach Boys albums. Like Wilson's productions, Boettcher, along with co-producer Keith Olsen, created difficult to pick out instrumental combination, and use potential dissonance to create a wall of sound. The band also uses many other sounds, such as raga singing, steel drums, and sound effects, to create amazing atmospherics.

The opening medley of "Prelude" and "To Claudia On Thursday" (the latter of which makes me think of 90's psych poppers The Olivia Tremor Control) reveal production that was state-of-the-art for its time, including compressed drums and full use of stereo range. The tripped out folk sound is similar to The Byrds The Notorious Byrd Brothers (produced by Usher), but to my ears surpass even that enviable achievement. "I Just Want To Be Your Friend," "5 A.M.," and "It's You" all stand out as should-have-been singles, but the full impact of The Millenium can be found in the tracks "The Island" and "Karmic Dream Sequence #1." Both of these songs have stellar hooks, but are far too weird even for singles. "The Island" creates a tropical lysergic sound. The songs seems as much a threat as an invitation. The band pulls out all of the stops for "Karmic Dream Sequence #1." Starting off as a hazy ballad similar to Crosby's songs for The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane, things start to collapse into a wild sound collage, even sampling "Prelude" from the start of the album.

Unlike most sunshine pop concoctions, the lyrical content of Begin holds up to scrutiny. Many tracks, especially "The Island," "It's You," and "There Is Nothing More To Say" have almost a strange cult-like ambiance. As "There Is Nothing More To Say" admits, "There is something that you hear in so many of our songs, but it's something that we want you to know." The album slowly reveals it's spiritual convictions, but the details of their philosophy is never quite ironed out. It's an interesting precursor to the modern psychedelic cult pop of The Polyphonic Spree.

Although this set is worth it for a well remastered Begin, disc two is interesting only as a curiosity. Most of the tracks are demos, instrumentals, or alternate takes of Boettcher's various projects. Of note are the tracks "Milk and Honey" and "Too Young To Marry," which was a more straight forward sunshine pop single produced by Boettcher for the act Summer's Children. There are also a few inferior but interesting versions of Millennium songs recorded by The Ballroom two years before Begin, and a brief sampling of the great Sagittarius.

Disc one serves as the home for The Ballroom's rejected LP. It's a not-bad collection of sunshine pop with a few slight hints of psychedelia. Think of it as a second rate Mamas and Papas. The first two tracks, "Spinning, Spinning, Spinning" and "Love's Fatal Way" are worthwhile am radio style pop, and there is an interesting version of "Would You Like To Go," which Sagittarius later re-recorded. Another Sagittarius track present here is "Musty Dusty" (in fact Sagittarius just used the Ballroom's recording), but this ultra-syrupy ode to childhood was by far my least favorite track on Sgaittarius' Present Tense, and it remains so here.

Just as a fun fact, the cover of this set (which is a slight variation of the Begin cover art) was designed by Arni Geller. Geller's other album art was for the similarly styled, but more colorful Friends by The Beach Boys.

If you haven't already heard it, I can give The Millennium's Begin my highest recommendation. The version here sports much better sound than the Columbia Records CD from the early 90's, but the first two discs here are far from essential. The LP is still occassionally in print (I bought a new copy on vinyl last month) and would be worth seeking out. Still, if you're willing to spend a few more bucks, there are some interesting tracks from the earlier project, and the set serves as a valuable musical history lesson.

Buy me:
The Millennium/The Ballroom- Magic Time