30 October 2010

The 13th Floor Elevators - 1966 - Easter Everywhere (mono)

Quality: 4.5 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 4 out of 5

The mono mix of Easter Everywhere isn't quite as essential as the mono mix of the 13th FLoor Elevator's first album, but it's still worth a good listen. The production muddiness of the first album is not present on this one, and the stereo mix has a nice crystaline sound. That sound is replaced with the characteristic 'in your face' assault of a mono mix, so it's definitely better for a party and the rockers shine in mono. Still, highlights like the opening "Step Inside This House" and "Baby Blue" suffer a little from the loss of texture. I've also tacked on a mono mix of "May the Circle Be Unbroken," the only track from their third album with Roky Erickson in full flight and by far the most essential track from that LP. Here's my review from a few years ago:

On Easter Everywhere, the 13th Floor Elevators managed to refine their sound without sacrificing the things that made their first album so great. Roky Erickson still sounds like a madman, but here he also comes across as much more intelligent and focused. Additionally, while still a little on the low-fi side, the production of Easter Everywhere is much clearer and helps to accent the band's interplay (although the rhythm section on this album is different from the first).

Although they still qualify as garage rockers, the 13th Floor Elevators have a much more noticable folk rock sheen on Easter Everywhere. They even go as far as to include a damn good Dylan cover with "Baby Blue." On "Slide Machine," "Nobody To Love," "Dust," and "I Had To Tell You," the Elevators find a happy middle ground somewhere between the Byrds crystaline sound and Forever Changes-era Love. Fortunately for the garage rock afficianado, the Elevators pull out on the stops on "She Lives (In A Time Of Her Own),"Earthquake," and "Levitation." These helps to give Easter Everywhere a lot of diversity and make it an interesting listen from beginning to end.

Easter Everywhere provides plenty of improvements over the first LP. Tommy Hall's jug can no longer coast as a strange novelty. It appears less often on Easter Everywhere, but when it is present serves more to create an distinct atmosphere. For me it's like quantum jitters in the typical tapestry of rock music. Stacy Sutherland leaps over his already strong playing on The Psychedelic Sounds Of... His solo on "Step Inside This House" manages to inspire awe and his accompaniment on many of the tracks, especially on "Baby Blue," is graceful and impressive. He is not a flashy guitarist at all, but extremely tasteful and Sutherland always seems to choose just the right notes.

The lyrics are also much better on Easter Everywhere. Hall takes on the lion's shares of the lyrics, and while his worldview is certainly demented, he successfully sidesteps most psychedelic cliches and gives the listener something unique. It doesn't hurt that Erickson's all-for-broke singing usually complements Hall's vision perfectly. This synergy is best sampled on the opening track "Step Inside This House." It rarely makes logical sense, but it's never less than riveting.

The only misstep on Easter Everywhere is the closing track "Postures (Leave Your Body Behind)." While not a terrible mistake by any means, it does overstay its welcome at six-and-a-half minutes. I guess the Elevators had already spent their long-form song capital on "Step Inside This House," which may even be too short at eight minutes.

Easter Everywhere and The Psychedelic Sounds Of... basically comprise the 13th Floor Elevator's essential catalog. The "live" album is not as advertised and not recommended. There is also a metaphoric pantload of studio alternate takes and other live tracks on a string of compilations only recommended for those completely obsessed with the 13th Floor Elevators. The final studio album, Bull Of The Woods, is missing Hall's electric jug, and his presence as lyricist is much less. Even worse, Erickson's drug use landed him in several kinds of institutions and he is mostly absent from the album. That said, he is fully present for a mysterious and great take on "May The Circle Be Unbroken." This means the band is mostly dependent on Sutherland. He took on the challenge respectably with increased songwriting and great guitar playing, but it's still just not the same as the magical first two albums.

The 13th Floor Elevators - 1966 - The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (mono)

Quality: 4.5 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 4 out of 5

Here's a mono mix of the 13th Floor Elevators debut LP. While not a perfect set, it is one of the best insane garage rocking discs you'll hear from the 60's. I find myself appreciating the insane wail of lead singer Roky Erickson more and more with each passing year. It truly is a singularity. The mono mix is in my opinion superior, with the freakish pummel of the band at full display and the strange electric jug of Tom Hall better integrated into the mix. As I mentioned in my original review, the production on this album is a little muddy, but it's more of an asset here, contributing to the otherworldly atmosphere of the proceedings. Here's my scribblings from a few years ago:

Although the San Francisco, Los Angeles and Carnaby Street psychedelic scenes of the 60's are well documented and revered, some of the also-enviable microscenes are left out in the cold. Chief among these is the Austin, Texas scene from which sprouted a just-starting-out Janis Joplin, the Red Crayola, and the infamous 13th Floor Elevators.

Although a proper band, the most notorious member of these garage-psyche rockers is Roky Erickson, sometimes regarded as America's own analog to Syd Barrett. Like Barrett, Erickson shined with the band for a few albums before embarking on a fractured solo career. Fortunately for Erickson, despite his questionable grasp on sanity, he continues to occasionally pop up to make music to this day. Even better, Erickson possesses perhaps the finest voice ever heard in garage-psyche, a wildman yelp that whcih always sounds obssessed, and manages to make even more half-baked sounds worthy. On the album in question, Erickson is at his finest.

But the 13th Floor Elevators were not a one trick pony. Lyricist Tommy Hall wanted to double as a true member of the band and brought in something called the electric jug. It produces a truly odd, bubbly sound that permeates most of the band's songs. In full disclosure, you'll either love it or hate it, and if you hate it, it will be difficult to get into this band. The real secret weapon here, however, is lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland. His winding and often stately leads compare favorably with even such notables as Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane.

The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators is often cited as the first psychedelic album. Although that's more than up for debate, I do believe it was the first album to actively use the word "psychedelic." The still eye-catching sleeve was definately among the first of its kind.

The Elevators seeked to expand their music making into a strange, acid-drenched form of philosophy. Judging by the rantings on the back cover of the record jacket, they didn't really think out this philosophy, but it does seem to bring a certain level of conviction to the music. It also makes the lyrics a notch above the norm of most of the band's contemporaries. Even when they don't make sense, they seem to being saying more than just the typical boy-meets(or loses)-girl love songs.

Leading off the album is what I consider one of the best rock songs ever, "You're Gonna Miss Me." At heart the tune is a typical mid 60's stomper, but with the electric jug wildly perculating and Erickson sounding truly possessed, the whole track turns to gold. Soon the Elevators start to bring out the truly psychedelic riffs. "Roller Coaster" provides a trance-like guitar part that eventually erupts into a rave-up that rivals those of The Yardbirds. Later we hear a speaker-busting bassline that can consume your mind on "Reverberation (Doubt)." Although arguably at their best on the full-blast psych-rockers on this album, the Elevators churn out some more-than-respectable folk-psych ballads on "Splash 1," "Don't Fall Down," and "You Don't Know." These tracks hint at the path that the band would follow on their next album Easter Everywhere.

The chief problem on The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators is the often-muddy production. I'd imagine that the culprit for this is the recording budget rather than the band or producer Leland Rogers (Kenny's brother!). Still, it makes obtaining a copy of this album worth a little research.

21 October 2010

Ravi Shankar and George Harrison - 2010 - Collaborations

I happened to get a chance to review the Amazon exclusive release of this set, and couldn't pass up the opportunity. Chants of India is one of my top 10 albums of all time, and the other collaborations of Ravi Shankar and George Harrison definitely do not disappoint. That said, those of you looking for a quasi-Beatles fix may find themselves disappointed - this is very much a product of Harrison serving a student to the master musician that is Shankar, but have no doubt that this is music of the top order. Harrison provides a firm western insight, but he was still on the right spiritual plain to perfectly complement Shankar's vision of Indian music. It's certainly a better fit than the often awkward East Meets West and West Eats Meat collaborations Shankar had with western orchestras. Here's some observations on the set:

Disc One - Chants of India - 1996
Quality: 5 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 5 out of 5
Despite the marquee names, you won't hear Ravi Shankar's sitar or George Harrison's voice or lead guitar. Still, this is one of the best things that either recorded in their careers. Shankar took it upon himself to arrange a number of ancient Indian chants, while Harrison took on the role of producer and contributes some acoustic guitar parts as well as some instrumental textures such as the vibraphone. This is truly transcendent music - all this album needs to take you on a trip is a ray of sunlight piercing through your window.

A track-by-track review doesn't really seem appropriate when dealing with deeply religious music, so I won't bother. I will say that the chanting is top notch to my ear, while Harrison's instrumental contributions adds a little incentive for the modern rockers among us. Shankar's arrangements do include much of the East with the chanting and drones, but a fair amount of western sounds show up as well with acoustic guitars and some string embellishments wafting over the music. One session of this was recorded in London, while the other two took place in Mumbai. As such, it's not an entirely authentic Indian experience, but it is as near a perfect musical and spiritual experience as you're likely to find on a physical slab of media.

Disc Two - Music Festival From India - 1976
Quality: 5 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 4.5 out of 5
These tracks are recordings taken from a European tour produced by George Harrison. Shankar arrived with a chamber orchestra of 17 musicians and serves as conductor rather than sitar player for much of the music. This is definitely the most traditional Indian music of the box set (along with the accompanying DVD) in terms of both song selection and arrangements. Harrison does not play any of the instruments here and there is absolutely no attempt to mix in western influences. The sound here is extremely good even by modern standards - while the press release seems to suggest that these were concert recordings, they sound extremely crisp, clear and well defined.

While Chants of India focused exclusively on Vedic hymns, this set works in a few different styles of Indian sounds and provides space for more traditional instruments than that later collaboration. Most of the tracks do feature often chanting vocals, although there are a few instrumental passages in the middle of the album. As much as I enjoy Indian music, I'm not a scholar of it or even particularly qualified to intelligently comment on specific songs - I'll just leave it at the fact that everything on this disc is superior music. If you're used to hearing Shankar backed by only a small ensemble, you may find yourself surprised by the opulent sound of this larger group. It definitely evokes images of a lush, royal court in the mountains of northern India.

Disc Three - Shankar Family and Friends - 1974
Quality: 4.25 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 4.5 out of 5
This was one of the first releases on Harrison's Dark Horse imprint, and he's serving here as producer as well as picking up a few of the instruments. Luminaries such as Ringo Starr and Billy Preston also make appearances on he along with the cadre of Indian pros. The first side of the album is a collection of mildly to majorly pop-infected songs. "I Am Missing You" isn't a bad track, but I feel that it's All Things Must Past filtered through Mumbai sound sort of misses the spiritual bulls-eye that so much of this set hits. I prefer the three other lower key tracks presented one the first side.

Side two is significantly more ambitious, and is a (still unperformed) ballet. The structure of the suite is a little more western in nature and some of the percussion is also from the West (timpani and drum kits), but the sound remains distinctly grounded in Indian sounds. Still, "Lust (Raga Chandrakauns)" drifts into some kind of strange fusion groove, while "Disillusionment & Frustration" finds an interesting way to fit a Moog synthesizer into the Indian aesthetic.

While this is probably my least favorite CD in the set, it's also the most fascinating with plenty of experiments in fusing western and eastern sounds. It's actually probably the best place to start for those getting this set because of Harrison's name on the set. While Shankar is definitely still the main signifier for this music, some of the sounds do reflect what Harrison recorded on his own and with the Beatles and may be more comfortable for the uninitiated western listener.

Disc 4 - Music Festival From India DVD
Quality: 4 out of 5 (3 for video/5 for sound)
Trip-O-Meter: 4.5 out of 5

This is the first release of this recording from the Royal Albert Hall in 1974, which features the same ensemble as disc two of this set. Unfortunately, some of the footage has been damaged and/or lost over the years, so we're not looking at a pristine visual presentation. The 4:3 aspect ratio does look a little mushy and it's clear that we're missing footage. Musicians often appear playing something completely different than what you're hearing on the soundtrack, and they sometimes go for the 'slo-mo' shot, which is a little silly in a live context. Still, I haven't come across much video of classical Indian performances, and it's fascinating to see what the musicians are doing physically.

There are certainly enough positives to give this disc your attention despite it. Harrison is not serving as a musician here, but he does appear giving a noticeably nervous and highly entertaining introduction for Shankar and the group (and admits as much). Shankar is once again serving mostly as conductor for the group, although he does join the sitar section of a bit. The real star of this disc, however, is the soundtrack, which sounds great (especially in 5.1) and features much more music that the album does as this runs at an hour and a quarter.

Final Thoughts
This set is an Amazon exclusive and supposedly limited, so jump on it fast. It's too bad this hasn't seen a wider release and promotion as it really is one of the best music releases of the year. As a musical experience, it's impeccable and the spiritual strain of much of this music is strong and inspiring.

Buy Me:
Ravi Shankar and George Harrison - 2010 - Collaborations

20 October 2010

Guitar - 2006 - Saltykisses

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

Unfortunately, Guitar's "saltykisses'" aren't really as awesome as their "sunkisses." It's a little hard to get a grip on Guitar's discography, but I believe that this qualifies as their 'sophomore slump.' Group mastermind Michael Luckner was clearly trying to expand his palette or sounds, but seems to have abandoned a bit of his muse in doing so. This album takes aim at including more acoustic sounds and touches of indie rock without quite hitting the mark, but tends to sideline the immaculate walls of tripped-out sounds found on Sunkissed. Still, there are a few definite winners on this disc.

"At the Seaside" features male vocals, which the previous album did not, and actually manages to best the tracks found on Sunkissed. The songwriting is sharper, and the production is a little more gritty, which serves to make this come across as sounding like a great, lost Loveless outtake. "If I Didn't Meet You" is the best of the more stripped down/downbeat flavored tracks and is one of several tracks to feature vocalist Ayako Akashiba. "Saltyme & Saltykisses" serves up the best psychedelic, shoegazer sound trip on the album, while the instrumental "I Dream the Sand" is a fun backward looping ambient track, although it's not as great as "Hot Sun Trail" from the previous album. The other tracks tend to be a little bland, but the only one that I absolutely need to skip is the folk misfire "Jodelei," which actually features yodeling.

Definitely begin your exploration of Guitar with Sunkissed. I bought this album four years ago due to its entertainingly Loveless-aping cover, but it took me four years to give another album of theirs a shot (and that one turned out to be fantastic). Still, you'll find a few songs here that nicely supplement their first.

Buy Me:
Guitar - 2006 - Saltykisses

19 October 2010

Guitar - 2002 - Sunkissed

Quality: 4.5 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 4.75 out of 5

While it's not really a match for the prolific quality of krautrock, folks like Ulrich Schnauss, Thomas Fehlmann, and Michael Luckner (responsible for Guitar) have certainly been bringing on a surge of awesome shoegazing-ambient-electronica sort of stuff. The album is pure aural honey, sort of like crossing My Bloody Valentine with some of the better downbeat albums. No, "Sunkissed" doesn't get any major points in originality, but the execution is so well done and the sound so tripped-out that it really doesn't matter.

Most of the tracks feature the vocals of Donna Regina and Ayako Akashiba. Both fit the shoegaze dynamic quite well, although I slightly prefer the strangely pronounced, almost cutsey vocals of Akashiba (although I live in Japan with a Japanese wife - so I admit there may be a touch of bias). Usually I'm not a fan of 'cute' vocals, but they do extremely well against walls of psychedelic distortion and backwards loops. Regina definitely manages to shine, however, on "House Full of Time," which pits her against squalls of amazing guitar distortion. Akashiba's best spots are on the gently floating "See Sea, Bee, and Bee," and the almost club-ready "How So Bright of Universe." There's one instrumental in the presence in the form of "Hot Sun Trail," which ends up being a highlight due to its production showcase of what Luckner can do with thick slabs of backwards sound.

Although I've only recent come across this album, I it's made a quick line to my top ten albums of the past 10 years. It's certainly not a perfect disc, but it's easily found itself in constant rotation on my stereo and there is much to explore within its dense grooves.