28 February 2010

Mark Fry - 1972 - Dreaming With Alice

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

Mark Fry seems to have been a man slightly unstuck in time. He cooked up one of the better acid folk, Donovan-influenced LPs of 1968. Unfortunately. this album came out in 1972. I'm sure that at the time in seemed like Fry was guilty of a anachronistic sin to the general home listener who had Tarkus blasting on the hi-fi. But with all of these decades now in the distant path, we can focus simply on the fact that this is a very groovy album. The Donovan comparison is certainly apt - one version of this album boasted a straight rip of the Barabajagal as cover art. Nevertheless, Mark Fry stakes his own ground with a darker, more tranced-out folk sound. There are actually plenty of moments where Fry matches or even surpasses the sounds of the Scottish bard.

"The Witch" comes out of the gate, instantly pegging this as an album to pay attention to. It does a fine job of evoking a creepy, misty forest at dusk, with the sound of pagan drums primitively pounding away somewhere in the background. "Song For Wilde" is a nice, compact bit of acid folk, while "Roses for Columbus" comes across almost like a Pink Floyd demo for More. "Mandolin Man" actually manages to work itself into a full-fledged psychedelic rave-up before settling into a groove for the coda. The title track is pretty fine, but it is annoyingly chopped up into pieces and used as segues between the longer tracks. I also imagine that Fry must have been hard up for one more track as the closer is just an earlier track backwards.

This is one album where the production, or lack of, really works well to create an atmosphere. Many of the songs here don't seem very far past demo-quality, but they are still slathered with warm, fuzzy reverb to give things a hazy sound.

Hey, a lot of the indie kids are going for this sound here in 2010, an Mark Fry nails the freak folk aesthetic pretty much on the head. Feel free to cross-reference these sounds with those of Donovan and/or the Incredible String Band - they hold up pretty well. The only shame here is that Mark Fry didn't manage to continue on and record more music.

23 February 2010

The Music Asylum - 1970 - Commit Thyself

Quality: 3.5 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 3.75 out of 5

What we have here is an album that nicely straddles the crossroads between psychedelic rock, jazz and prog rock. Many of the longtime readers here may know that I'm pretty skeptical of the general 'prog' vibe, and the wankier side of that genre does rear its head here. If you are a prog head, you will likely enjoy this more than I do. Still, there are several stand-out tracks hanging out on this album, and it's a reasonable diverse sounding affair.

You'll basically find three kinds of tracks here: the lengthy, prog-influenced epics; some shorter single-ready tracks; and several oddball, brief instrumental throw-aways. I'm most attracted the the poppier stuff on this one. "Star Dreams (Nebulous)" is a fine piece of sunshine pop, of course featuring harmony vocals along with some nice West Coast style guitar and bass parts that occasionally veer into Frank Zappa territory. Near the end of the album we find "Million Dollar Bash," which channels in a touch of freakish garage rock into the fold. The long form tracks don't completely hold my attention, but those with an affinity for the jazzier side of prog will dig them. I would tag "In My World" as the best of that bunch as it sort of resembles a sunshine pop prog epic, if that makes any sense.

I don't think I'm quite in the key target group for the Music Asylum. There is a good amount of quality music present here (the short and annoying "Tube Along With Me" excepting), with crisp and clean production helping out considerably. I would have liked for them to explore the sunshine pop vibe a little more, but I'm sure plenty of you out there will find much to appreciate with the proggier approach. As much as I hate to say it, there are more than a few moments here that make me think of the "Jazz Oddysey" from the Spinal Tap movie when they're playing at the zoo in the wake of their lead guitarist quitting.

13 February 2010

Condello - 1968 - Phase One

Quality: 3.75 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 3.75 out of 5

Ah, Condello (be you the vocalist/guitarist Mike Condello or the Arizona band in general). Why start your album with an out-of-tune clunker of a track when there are plenty of fine sounds to hear? Oh, well. There's a healthy dose of contemporaneous San Francisco rock lurking about here, especially with Grateful Dead-like harmonies (or go with the Band if you can't deal with Deadheads). These psychedelic popsters were definitely cranking the White Album repeatedly as well, as a few of the better tracks come across like something George Harrison would have plopped down on tape during that period. As my opening comment implies, the album sequencing here is a mess, but a bit of trawling will bring out a few gems.

Condello isn't a particularly groundbreaking band, but they manage some pretty groovy facsimilies and change up their influences just enough to keep it from being a rip off. Still, I think I've got their number for what they were reaching for. Of the better tracks, "Oh, No" and "Dr. Tarr Professor Feather" tend to resemble the aforementioned Harrison tracks, complete with warbling guitars and vocals phased into eternity. "Charming Sitter" and "See What Tomorrow Brings" straddles the fence between the psychedelic Byrds and the country-rock Byrds nicely. "Keep It Inside" and "He'll Keep Waiting" feature Workingman's Dead sort of harmonies, although this is two years before that Dead album, so score one for Condello. "It Don't Matter" makes me think of something the Small Faces would have done for Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, while "Guess I Better Go" could have passed off pretty easily as something Curt Boettcher would have produced.

I feel like I'm being a little lazy when my reviews include this many direct comparisons to other artsts, but Phase One is truthfully a somewhat derivative affair. Fortunately, the band made up for a lack of originality with a few really great songs. You may not need this entire album, but you will likely find three or four songs that you can't live without.

Michael Stearns - 1980 - Planetary Unfolding

Quality: 3.75 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 4.25 out of 5

Michael Stearns earned his stripes as an electronic pioneer, although I've always associated his name with the soundtrack to the film "Chronos." This album was made entirely with the Serge synthesizer, a modular beast of a machine whose interface consists of a series of metal pads rather than a keyboard. Stearns uses the washes and bleeps of the synth to try and create the most cosmic sounds possible, although he sometimes teeters a little closer to new age music than I'm comfortable with. Regardless, you're sure to find sounds here to invoke the call of interstellar space.

Typically, I like to give a bit of a track rundown, but there really is not much variation with this album. Every track consists of huge synth pads with little modular flourishes here and there. Your job as the listener is to appreciate the way that the different patterns and tone interact. The only variation of note is that "Something's Moving" start with some percolating sounds similar to fellow synth user Morton Subotnick. I suppose that "Wherever Two or More Are Gathered" picks up a little steam in the early 80's Tangerine Dream sense of the word, too. On a side note, I'm sure that more than one planetarium uses this disc to fill up aural space before the show.

There's plenty to appreciate on Planetary Unfolding, but I wouldn't quite rate it as top shelf material. If you're a synthesizer geek, this is a must hear simply for the not-often-heard Serge. But for those that really want to reprogram their brains through ambient sound, I will first direct to the recordings of Gas or Coil.