30 March 2007

Rainbow Ffolly- Sallies Fforth (1968)

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

No, the double "f's" above are not a typo. This fleeting psych pop band from 1968 chose these strange looking words in honor of a British cartoonist named Wally Ffolks. Fortunately, and unlike many wacked out obscuro bands, these guys had the songwriting chops and atmospherics to shore up their nomenclature.

Sallies Fforth is the sole full length release from this band out of High Wycombe (can't say I know where that is, other than somewhere in England). The album is at heart a collection of demo recordings, and was put out as such by an impressed Parlophone. The only other existant track, included on the Rev-Ola CD, is a great non-LP single called "Go Girl."

The Rainbow Ffolly's musical style does stand out from the rest of the British psych-pop pack. Most bands of the era seemed to use Revolver-era Beatles, Syd Barrett, or the Yardbirds as their basic template to build a psychedelic sound. These guys seem to build their psychedelia more off of the folk-rock sound of Rubber Soul. The ballads in particular are in a distinctly McCartney-esque vein. In fact, there's a song present here called "Drive My Car," although strangely enough it's a completely different song than the Rubber Soul track of the same name.

On top of this template, the Ffolly throw on some well-done music hall touches and echo effects and then stitch the whole album together with some strange British humor and sound effect interludes. In fact the opening of the disc makes me think of the intro tracks often found on Hip-Hop albums, although markedly less funky and more British here.

Also pushing the Ffolly ahead is some great songwriting. There's not a bad song present on the album and most of it is first rate. "Drive My Car," "Hey You," "Sun Song," and "No" are phenomenal rockers. "No" benefits from a strange rubbery beat and fuzz bass, while "Drive My Car" is propulsed by a skiffle like rhythm. Even better are the ballads "Montgolfier" and "Goodbye." These have a bit of a Brazillian touch to my ear and feature perfect arrangements. The band manages some English music hall arrangements that don't come across as dorky-sounding on "I'm So Happy" and "They'm."

As mentioned earlier, Sallies Fforth is basically demo recordings. Parlophone rushed this album out much to the band's dismay. Although the recording is quite good, and much better than typical 60's demo quality, the folks in Rainbow Ffolly wanted to add some more overdubs to flesh the album out. I have to say that I'm glad Parlophone ran off with the unfinished album. I can see where the band might have added soome more stuff, but I think doing so would make Sallies Fforth far less distinctive. Many songs have a truly psychedelic, yet-sparse sound that I don't recall hearing many other places. At times it seems like a more together version of Syd Barrett's The Madcap Laughs.

Also of note is the tripped-out cover art. It was produced by the band and sort of makes me think of something a relatively talented high schooler would come up with. It's nicely representative of both the music insine and has a basic signifier of British psychedelia.

Those of us plunging through the depths of obscure psychedelia often have to sift through lots of dull or simply "ok" stuff to get to the real gems. Sallies Forth is the kind of disc that makes the searching worth it.

Buy Me:
Rainbow Ffolly- Sallies Fforth

25 March 2007

The Mystery Trend- So Glad I Found You (1966-1967; compilation released 1999)

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

The Mystery Trend's place in music history exists in a strange twilight. I suppose that they're best known for having a place on the Nuggets box set (with their lone single "Johnny Was A Good Boy") and for naming their band off of misinterpreted lyrics out of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" (they should more accurately be The Mystery Tramps). Otherwise, they are now basically a footnote to the San Francisco scene, but still they were there at the start of the scene, playing along with the early Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. The band unfortunately never really found an opportunity to put out any more than a Verve Records single, and this compilation consists of their entire recorded output, the vast majority of which was unreleased until the 1990's. As this is basically everything, it's a little spotty. But the high points are truly spectaular, however, and I feel like if The Mystery Trend had found the opportunity to put together a proper album, it may have been a true classic.

The Mystery Trend does share some similarities with their San Francisco bretheren. The vocal sound is extremely strong and layered, often resembling the Jefferson Airplane at their best. The winding guitar leads also recalls many of the bands from that era. There's a freak-folky sound right in line with the Dead and the Airplane's debut albums. If you're open to the San Francisco scene, there is definitely something here to grab your attention.

The true charm, however, rests in the little differences. The Mystery Trend was a bit older than the rest of the crowd and skipped over some West Coast psychedelic pitfalls. First off, jamming was completely ignored by The Mystery Trend. They were truly fascinated by the art of the pop song, and their strong writing (usually in the hands of keyboardist.vocalist Ron Nagle and guitarist/vocalist Bob Cuff) often recalls that of Burt Bacharach or the Brill Building. Only one track here passes the three minute mark, and that one only makes it to four.

Standing out even more is The Mystery Trend's atypical sound. Psychedelia in general relies on quite a bit of reverb and echo to create a strange vibe. The guitars here are very dry and brittle sounding. Still, they manage to cut right through the powerful rhythm section to make a strong impression. This sound is mixed with Ron Nagle's also bone-dry clavinet. The band may be playing the same notes as their more-poular peers, but the sound ends up being very different. If nothing else, this makes their recordings worth a listen or two. For a fun comparison pair their cover of the Who's "Substitute" along with the original.

The songs, while often strong, remain a mixed bag. This is understandable as this disc is the band's complete recordings and they were never trying to produce an entire album. Both sides of their only single, which included "Johnny Was A Good Boy" and "House On The Hill," are standouts. Even better still are the should-have-been single "Carl Street" (presented in two versions), the lyrically biting "Mercy Killing," and the Bacharach influenced "There It Happened Again." These high points make up for some of the lesser tracks like the dull instrumental "Mambo For Marion," and the annoying "Carrots On A String" (which also shows up twice for some reason). The otherwise average "Shame, Shame, Shame" is notable for including what must be one of the earliest uses of a wah pedal on guitar.

If you can track this one down, So Glad I Found You is a worthwhile and important release that clears up some of the smoke surrounding this formerly enigmatic band from the initial burst of San Francisco psychedelia.

Buy Me:
The Mystery Trend- So Glad I Found You

21 March 2007

Sagittarius- The Blue Marble (1969)

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

Although Sagittarius' first album Present Tense has gained somewhat of a reputation over the years, The Blue Marble remains largely unknown. The album debuted on the fledgeling Together Records, which unfortunately folded shortly after the release of this record and forced the music into a nose dive into obscurity. This is quite a shame as The Blue Marble features some great sunshine pop and is a worthy follow up to Present Tense.

Present Tense is more of a peaks and valleys record. While some songs there make me cringe, the high points are among the best that 60's music has to offer. The Blue Marble is a lot more consistant. There's nothing here with the punch of "My World Fell Down," but we are spared another "Musty Dusty."

The Blue Marble seems to have Gary Usher firmly in the driver's seat. Whereas Present Tense ended up having Curt Boettcher working practically as a collaborator, he appears here with only one songwriting credit, three production credits, and a smattering of vocals. Usher wrote a good 80% percent of The Blue Marble, five of them alone.

Usher really was one of the best producers in the late 60's, and that is apparent here with awesome multi-track layering and some tasteful use of the Moog synthesizer. The pitfall on The Blue Marble is that the songwriting tends not to stand out very much. Still, nothing here is embarrassing, and the lyrics aren't too bad.

The lead off track here is a "cover" of the Beach Boys' "In My Room." Since Usher co-wrote the song with Brian Wilson, I'd say he has full rights to play with it, and does so here recasting it in an almost Smile-like baroque-pop arrangement. On "From You To Us," we hear a ripping Moog bass-line, and I'd say if The Blue Marble has one major improvement over Present Tense, it would be in Usher's use of this synth. In fact, I don't recall the Moog being used in a better manner on any other 60's pop album. On the title track the Moog provides an really cool atmospheric atmosphere, while it makes for a nice retro-futuristic lead on "Lend Me A Smile."

It's really hard to choose highlights here as there's an extremely consistant, although far from dull sound. The closing track, "Cloud Track," could speak for the entire album as it's a pretty dreamy affair. The bonus section on my disc provides a few singles and alternate versions, but it does serve up a should-have-been-standout track with "Navajo Girl." There's a nice wall of sound present and the track almost rocks (as much as sunshine pop is going to). It recalls something like the Beach Boys' "Darlin'." The lyrics do seem a touch un-PC in the modern world however.

My 2001 CD reissue mostly does justice to Usher's production and crystaline arrangements. The album does seem to have a touch of vinyl noise here and there, so I'm pretty sure the master tapes were not available for remastering. The bonus tracks are in a too-compressed mono, but they're still quite listenable. It is a shame this album remains unknown as it is a sparkling example of sunshine pop.

Buy Me:
The Blue Marble

14 March 2007

Sagittarius- Present Tense (1967)

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

Sagittarius was the brainchild of producer Gary Usher. Although having worked with legends such as Brian Wilson and the Byrds, Usher felt that he wanted to record under his own steam. Pressures from the record company wouldn't allow him the time or money to persue this on his own, hence Usher created the faux-band Sagittarius.

The project in it's initial form resulted in the classic "My World Fell Down"/"Hotel Indiscreet" single. The A-side is a masterpiece and one of the absolute best psychedelic singles of the 60's. Featuring Glen Campbell and Bruce Johnston on vocals (both of whom had subbed for Brian Wilson in the touring version of the Beach Boys), plus various members of the LA session pros known as the Wrecking Crew, we basically get the best Beach Boys tracks that none of the band members actually had a hand in. It has a very SMiLe like cut-and-paste sound, with the added avant-garde bonus of a found sound midsection. The B-side of the single sounds like the theme song for some strange sex sitcom with a short interlude from a screaming hippie-fascist courtesy of the Firesign Theatre.

After the initial single, the history of Present Tense becomes a bit more convoluted. Faced with the prospect of creating an entire album, Usher brought in Curt Boettcher, who had worked with The Association, The Ballroom, Eternity's Children, and later, The Millennium. With Boettcher's presence, the final album has a very different feel from the single.

Present Tense is certaintly a sugary-sweet album, perhaps the sunniest of sunshine pop. While "My World Fell Down" has a strong tinge of melancholy, the later tracks don't. Boettcher's voice, prominent on the finished album, is also quite different.

As long as the listener doesn't expect more creations like "My World Fell Down" and can stand a little syrup, Present Tense is a very worthwhile album. "Another Time," "The Keeper Of The Games," "Would You Like To Go," and "The Truth Is Not Real" are all immaculately writted sunshine pop songs with spectacular vocal arrangement. Even questionably titled songs such as "Song To The Magic Frog" make for pleasant listening.

I imagine scheduling was a problem and a few tracks from Boettcher's previous project The Ballroom are ported over to Present Tense. Unfortunately, one of those tracks is "Musty Dusty," which was embarassing on the Ballroom's album and remains so here. Usher's presense is best felt on the awesome and etherial "The Truth Is Not Real." "My World Fell Down" and "Hotel Indiscreet" are present here in inferior versions with the avant garde sections excised. That said, the modified versions do fit the flow of the album better, and the original single is present in the bonus section.

The bonus tracks are quite strong many of them could have been a strong asset to the album proper- certaintly they coud have replaced "Musty Dusty." Usher has another opportunity to shine on the harmony laden "Mass #586" while "Get The Message" could have been a great single in 1967.

Present Tense is one of the stronger sunshine pop albums, with a production touch somewhere between SMiLe and The Notorious Byrd Brothers. It's a perfect wall to follow up The Millennium's Begin, although I would probably recommend that 1968 project first.

Buy Me:
Sagittarius- Present Tense

07 March 2007

Gandalf- Gandalf (1969)

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

Gandalf is one of the more sought after pieces of late-60's vinyl. This album itself is prime 1967 psychedelia, but as you may note from the date above, a almost-two year delay (by which time the band had long since dissolved!) relagated Gandalf to obscurity. It probably didn't help that the band's name was somewhat of a misnomer anyway as the group spent 98 percent of their existence as the somewhat unfortunately named Rahgoos.

Still, the name Gandalf easily conjures up images of wizardry and songs about elves and gnomes. Strangely enough, we find none of that here. Instead, the band resembles an American version of the Zombies trapped in an acoustically superior well with a predilection towards showtunes about women's accessories ("Golden Earrings," "Scarlet Ribbons," "Tiffany Rings"). Much of the psychedelia on these cover songs involve an amazing amount of echoey reverb on the vocals. Another lynchpin of Gandalf's sound is some extensive use of the Hammond B3 organ. How much you like that particular instrument will likely influence your opinion of Gandalf.

The strange thing about Gandalf, especially for late-1967 (the recording date), is their lack of original tunes. The two present here, "Can You Travel In The Dark Alone" and "I Watch The Moon," are by no means lacking in songwriting chops. In fact they are some of the best songs here, sporting a great west coast-style (even though they were from Jersey) psych-pop structure as opposed to relying on production tricks alone for an altered sound. Apparently, the band simply didn't have enough original material. It's too bad they couldn't have spent 1968 writing and recording more instead of just waiting for the existing album to be released.

Still, Gandalf's cover selections are outstanding, and even the choices that look questionable on paper end up sounding great. Peggy Lee's hit "Golden Earrings" and "Nature Boy" from the interminably strange Eden Ahbez are transformed from what could easily be novelty numbers into dreamy, floating meditations. "Golden Earrings" in particular ended up being Gandalf's single and is probably their signature number. The band also seems to have outsourced three songs from a fellow named Tim Hardin. In fact, the lurching rhythm of "Hang On To A Dream" is an early highlight of the album. "Tiffany Rings" is the only track her which really doesn't do it for me. On this one the group seems to cross the line from mysterious into twee, which for me disturbs the flow of the album.

The album ends with a pair of deeply psychedelic rock songs. Gandalf was not really a showcase for instrumental prowess, but they were able to lock into a great groove which they take time to draw out a little more on "Me About You," and "I Watch The Moon." "I Watch The Moon" in particular is a goldmine for lovers of the Hammond B3 organ, which on the track is matched with some blazing fuzz guitar.

Also of note is the flamboyantly insane cover art. It seems to depict some kind of tripped-out butterfly god or something. The cover alone catapulted Gandalf to the top of my shopping list. The emotionless expression and yellow eyes actually scare me a little bit. The music isn't really wacked out enough to match this prime display of pop art, but it certainly catches one's attention.

Gandalf is far from the top of the 60's rock pile, but it deserves to be heard. The band managed to carve out a sound similar to the Zombies, but with enough of their own touches to keep from sounding like a knockoff.

As a side note, Gandalf 2 saw release from Sundazed early this year. Apparently, it's a collection of demos, live tracks and such, but it interestingly contains far more original songs. I'd be curious to know how the sound quality holds up on the new disc.

Buy Me:
Gandalf- Gandalf (1968)