Never Say Goodbye
When Roky Erickson sings, "Don't drive yourself past living," he knows something we don't and urges us to listen. Erickson, with his fragile psyche, damaged by psychedelic drugs while with the legendary mid-'60s acid-rock innovators the 13th Floor Elevators, sings like he's grappling to manage our world with newfound powers of omniscience. The singer/guitarist spent the years after the Elevators' 1968 demise (having scored only one hit with the jug-driven anthem "You're Gonna Miss Me") in and out of mental hospitals following an arrest for marijuana possession. Today he survives in the care of family and friends while living in a roadside shack outside of Austin, Texas.
Erickson's solo career has been marred by bad business deals, unstable mental health, and frequent bootlegging of his material, driving him, by the mid-'80s, to essentially quit recording and performing. The few recordings to surface since his retirement continue to add to the Roky Erickson mystique of schizophrenic insight and innocence. The dusty and fragmented song sketches heard on Never Say Goodbye were captured on a portable recorder, mostly in 1971 (during his incarceration at Rusk State Hospital) and at home in 1974. Erickson conveys a genuine childlike sensitivity on these previously unreleased, mostly unaccompanied acoustic recordings, which predate the paranoid visions of aliens and demons that would populate his later tunes.
Erickson's rudimentary strums are endearing affirmations--unlike the bristling self-righteous indignation of folk songs from the early '70s. Although the fourteen songs on this CD are of compromised fidelity, their sound is no less charming than early Guided by Voices recordings. Smudged by tape dropouts but clear and evocative in its honesty, "Be and Bring Me Home" sets a warbling acoustic guitar tone beneath Erickson's boisterous wail: "Suddenly I may control/Take little things meaning big so's I'm not alone/Suddenly I'm not sick/Won't you be and bring me home?" Elsewhere, "Birds'd Crash" flutters with repetitive minor-to-major chord shifts and Erickson's nursery rhyme incantation: "We're here, I'm here/And it's gonna last/Thinking they had to, birds'd crash." On "Think of as One," a phantom acoustic guitar prances in the distance as Roky implores us to comprehend his vision of oneness: "Your living is my music/Think of as ours/Think of as all." His earnest and innocent declarations speak like a mind that knows us all.
While Tortoise and singer Sam Prekop's primary creative outlet, the Sea and Cake, continue to incorporate studio technology more and more into their respective sounds, Prekop's self-titled solo album thrives in a more organic environment. Recorded in Chicago, with ex-Gastr Del Sol guitarist Jim O'Rourke behind the board, the album imagines the listener in a smoky room with the group, a cocktail in the hand and a smile on the face.
Instead of calling on the prominent synth-flavored rhythms of the Sea and Cake's last album, Prekop opts here for a straight-up jazz drummer (Chicago Underground Duo's Chad Taylor) and an upright bassist (Josh Abrams) to flesh out his songs. Sea and Cake guitarist Archer Prewitt plays clean, economical counterpoint to Prekop's melodies, while O'Rourke and cornetist Rob Mazurek color the empty spaces with subtle and sundry accompaniments. Sea and Cake/Tortoise percussionist John McEntire even turns up playing triangle and maracas on a few cuts.
The vibe is loose and inviting, especially on more upbeat tracks like the bossa-nova-bopping opener "Showrooms" and the funky "The Company." Prekop sticks with what has become his trademark: breathy, falsetto-tinged vocals and tenderly delivered lyrics. The languid mood and simple, reverberating chords of "On Such Favors" recall the intimacy of the Velvet Underground. The sweet, piano-brushed "Practice Twice" and the Brazilified "The Shadow" are also highlights.
The music's inherent similarity to the Sea and Cake doesn't become a problem, even on the Luna-esque "So Shy," which sports the "ba da ba ba"s that Prekop indulged in more frequently on early Sea and Cake albums. O'Rourke doesn't intrude too much either, although some of his stock production tactics surface on the Gastr-flavored intro of "Don't Bother" or the loopy, jazzed-out instrumental "Faces and People."
Sam Prekop is, plain and simple, a lovely, understated pop album that reveals its many charms on repeated listens.
The Bowling Green
One Pound Note
The Bowling Green's Micko Westmoreland apparently has kept himself occupied over the past few years, creating music for his brother's porno films. It certainly shows on One Pound Note. There is nothing here so completely arresting that you drop everything and listen. A smooth dance beat that stretches from one end of the CD to the other ensures that you don't have to pay attention if you don't want to. Nevertheless, it would be a shame if you didn't.
Over his steady beat, Westmoreland builds dense, constantly changing, cinematic mood music. Shifting, ratchety percussion and random voice samples fade to '70s spy themes, which then fade to ominous bass lines and sound pulses flickering between channels. And that doesn't even begin to describe the range of sonic texture. It may be dance-based, but the music here doesn't sit still for a second. It spins and dodges, feints and dives, as if shadowing every new twist in a twisted plot.
"Meanwhile Gardens" opens with a furious bongo and bass line--chase music that Tarantino would kill to use. "Astrakhan" sounds as if composed for the missing disco scene in Blade Runner. This isn't linear music; Westmoreland doesn't seem especially keen on development. Rather, he places his emphasis on mood--a music of the moment, at each separate moment--and lets the beat propel the music forward. And forward you go with it, never exactly sure where you've been or where Westmoreland's taking you. Not to say the music jars like the without-warning genre shifts of a Naked City or Ruins album. Westmoreland's transitions may be frequent and haunting, but always smooth. One Pound Note is very stylish space noir. Not to be missed.
Any Time At All
And what does happen to aging L.A. alt-rock types? You see, I'm older and wiser now. I must prove how much my brain has actually grown ever since the silly rock days of my youth. I even know about, like, Eastern tunings and, um, transcendentalism-type stuff. Stephen Perkins (Jane's Addiction) and Rob Wasserman (Rat Dog, Bob Weir's band, etc.) and a plethora of male L.A. rock stalwarts (Mike Watt, Nels Cline, and, where would this sentence be without Flea?) make up the loose ensemble known as Banyan, whose second full-length, Any Time at All, is a tedious excursion into rock/fusion/funk/new age claptrap. The target audience for bilge this abhorrent? Tarot card readers who used to sing in '80s hotel-lounge funk bands, percussion store salesmen, and aromatherapy instructors. Really, I'm sure they would appreciate the subtle and playful nuances contained within while attaining that higher plane of consciousness. For the unenlightened rest of us, Banyan so quickly achieves a state of unlistenable, masturbatory wank, the mostly instrumental Any Time at All becomes an hour-plus endurance test.
Soulless, infomercial-ready funk is the grounding for a majority of Any Time at All's fourteen tracks. Perkins and Wasserman strive for a King Crimson-like state of mind-expansion through noodling ("The Apple and the Seed"), or a Miles-inspired, futuro-jazz concoction ("New Old Hat"). Yet Crimson and Miles could achieve their interstellar states without provoking cringes and outright laughter (there was a methodology and not just chops operating). With Banyan, you just get the idea that it's a bunch of rich rock guys who own Ornette Coleman records jamming in a studio in L.A.
A record like Any Time at All is a vestige of a bygone era--where technical proficiency ran neck and neck with emotional resonance and competent songwriting. When the number of notes played per second, the chord with the hardest configuration, the brand of guitar and amplifier were what consumed all the young rock dudes. Music isn't about emotion, man, it's about checking out what gear the band is playing. Bands like Banyan let us see how far we've come.
(Tooth & Nail)
The band that best captured the turn of the millennium broke up in 1992. Only the Pixies could have imagined phenomena like Y2K, Heaven's Gate, and blockbuster movies about dinosaurs, radioactive lizards, and hurtling asteroids. They looked like the cast of Seinfeld (dumpy guy, witty brunette ...) and thought like X-Files special agents. "Velouria" rhymes with Monica. Sort of.
Alas, the Pixies won't be the house band at Times Square this New Year's. A suitable proxy might be Pep Squad, a similar-looking and -sounding band from Portland, Oregon. Pep Squad may lack the Pixies' oddly seamless fusion of Brian Wilson and Omni magazine, but the band's fuzz guitars, pop melodies, and nerdish smirk cheerfully recall the glory of Charles Thompson and friends.
Portland isn't far from the grunge breadbasket, but Yreka Bakery (spell it backward and see what you get) tries to forget such a movement even existed. Pep Squad is much more in tune with '80s alternative pop. Just how in tune? The third song is a cover of Adam Ant's "Friend or Foe"; the literal reading suggests the band isn't poking fun at the lover/pirate as much as celebrating Marco Pirroni's hot licks.
Pep Squad is at its best when it quiets down. The band can rock, sure, but pretty tracks like "On That Day," "Erik's (Got a) Girlfriend," and "Birds and Fleas" are vulnerable without sounding wimpy. On "Black & Blue," singer/guitarist Brad Everett takes on the voice of a creepy boyfriend: "I'll call you in the thick of night/Make you pick up the phone/Then when you pick up the phone, hang up on you/It's what I do/I love you."
When Pep Squad picks up the pace, it starts to lose its identity, trading in riffs that often sound ten years old (or five when they veer toward Weezer). Tracks like "It's a No" and "A Beat" are just a little too reminiscent of the Pixies to stand on their own. Guitarist Kim Hutton, whose backup vocals are one of the album's many charms, squanders her one lead performance with the new-wave-cheesy "The Floor."
Still, the good easily outweighs the bad. Nice to see an alternative band with respect for its elders and ambitions greater than commingling metal and rap.