That’s where it’s at—especially on one national release from a local band, and a pair of homemade discs
Last Sunday, I spent the afternoon in a Holiday Inn ballroom in Foothill Farms, watching 18 bands play very short sets.
It was the culmination of a program called Stairway to Stardom, which local musical-instrument retailer Skip’s Music puts on every summer. Stairway is kind of a garage-band summer camp: Organizers take a bunch of kids who’ve never played in bands before and put them in a band with a coach. Then, the bands have to write three original songs, rehearse them and play them in front of an audience and a panel of judges.
I was a judge.
Now, aside from the possibility that at least one of the bands might contain some extraordinary young musician no one has ever heard, the other value in watching is to get some idea of what kind of music the kids who’ve picked up instruments are into these days. From the evidence last Sunday, the current genre of choice is metal.
Mall punk and math rock were also on display, and one trio showed more than a passing interest in New York-style rock, of the post-Velvet Underground division. Nevertheless, the next Jack White was not to be found.
One band called itself “Ecto Plasmic Brain Electro Waves,” a name that promised a full-blown psychedelic experience. Unfortunately, the closest it got was a snarky punk-rock jab at Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Though psychedelic rock may have been AWOL from Stairway to Stardom, its standard has been carried by three local bands, each of them associated with a local independent named The Americans Are Coming Recordings (AAC). Call Me Ishmael and the Proles, the latter of which is more of a pop band actually, are still with the label. Low Flying Owls, however, whose EP Incoming Flights, Outgoing Strangers was AAC’s first release, has moved on to a larger indie, Stinky Records.
Low Flying Owls’ Stinky debut, Elixir Vitae, released last Tuesday, is quite good. Whether it qualifies as legitimately psychedelic is open to debate.
The trouble with using a term as nebulous as the p-word is that it means different things to different people. One person may cite the sonic traffic jam in the middle of the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” (from its 1968 album Live/Dead) or the serpentine slither of Miles Davis’ jazz-fusion landmark Bitches Brew from the following year. Another may opt for Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets or Ummagumma, or even the breakthrough The Dark Side of the Moon. Another may prefer the patchouli-flavored bubblegum of Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense and Peppermints,” and another, the plumbing of weirdness that occurs on the Doors’ Strange Days, or in Texas’ great 13th Floor Elevators, a band fronted by the visionary Roky Erickson.
And that’s just the early stuff. Later in the 1970s came plenty of trippy Euro bands (Gong, Wigwam, Amon Duul II and Can), a 1980s American paisley revival (the Three O’Clock and the Long Ryders) and its English analogue (the Teardrop Explodes). In the 1990s, such wide-eyed bands as Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev carried the torch. One of the best neo-psychedelic bands of the whole bunch came from Davis: the seriously underrated Thin White Rope, whose singer, Guy Kyser, snarled twisted lyrics in a mutant aggie drawl over a bleached skeleton of sinister guitars that evoked Quicksilver Messenger Service’s finer moments.
What’s cool about Low Flying Owls is that they draw from a number of psychedelic rock traditions—the martial guitar beats of Jefferson Airplane (think “White Rabbit”) or the drawn-out musings of Pink Floyd acid casualty Syd Barrett. Even 1970s acts most people don’t think of as psychedelic, such as David Bowie and the New York band Television, find their way into the mix, along with the spacy, spaghetti-western textures of Hugo Montenegro’s soundtracks for Sergio Leone films. Low Flying Owls guitarist and keyboardist Andy Wagner, bassist Michael Bruce and drummer Sam Coe form a solid instrumental nucleus, but it’s the brittle creepiness of singer Jared Southard, who projects just the right kind of trippy Edward Gorey persona that makes this band come off as well as it does.
By CD-era standards, the 10-song Elixir Vitae is a short album, clocking in at a little less than 44 minutes. But anyone who grew up in the LP era will tell you that’s just about right. Some of the album’s fine moments come early: “Glad to Be Alive” makes a rousing statement out of the gate. “Swingin’ Sam,” which follows, is one of the band’s trademark stomps—somewhere between the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” and Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing.” “Looks of a Killer” surfs innocuously on a curious ascending four-note keyboard riff and then explodes into a fractured trumpet solo. Not a bad one-two-three opening.
Low Flying Owls are, at heart, a guitar band, even if they can do wistful musings over gauzy mellotron clouds (“Strange Connection”) quite well or build a five-minute, two-chord synth vamp around what sounds like a taped phone call from a Japanese girl (“Babies Made”). But, ultimately, the unified variety here puts this album across, from the “Dear Prudence”-like “Georgie Shot Johnny” to the closing anthem, “The Last Day on the Planet.”
Yeah, a few disjointed moments don’t work as well as they might. But Elixir Vitae, overall, fulfills the promise of this band’s earlier recordings. And with its better distribution (through the large indie Rykodisc), this CD might put Low Flying Owls—and this town—on the map.
Another act moving up to better distribution is Shortie, whose new album Worthless Smiles just got released by GoBig!, a Southern California “extreme” marketing company that recently launched a record label. The 10-song CD kicks off with a roaring start; “5 Seconds” is a great single, with its fat, Sabbath-like riff and call-and-response vocals. Unfortunately, after that, the album turns into a hit-and-miss affair—with the best of it being not-quite-stellar iterations of the opening track, and the worst of it falling into the radio-ready alternative-rock formula of tension release perfected by Nirvana and Butch Vig when they cooked up the Pixies-meet-Boston Frankenstein’s monster called Nevermind. Worthless Smiles ends with a truly atrocious cover of Portishead’s “Sour Times”—kind of a latter-day psychedelic standard—that must be heard to be believed.
Of course, not every local musician is as far along the career-development path as Low Flying Owls or Shortie. And part of the joy of writing about local music is when someone shows up with a burned copy of a home-recorded disc, which he or she packaged with homemade graphics.
Often, the music will be the kind of stuff you’d expect from someone with a nice home studio: mainstream, with perhaps a hint of weirdness thrown in but not enough to bring you back for repeat plays. But, if you’re like me, what you hope for is that spark of outsider genius that you hear on records by Daniel Johnston, Skip Spence, the Shaggs or Gary Young. This is not to insult the outsider musician; it’s precisely that lack of self-consciousness that makes the home-recording outsider’s music preferable to any music from some guy whose ambition is to become the next Don Henley.
Anyway, a local songwriter named James Cundiff started calling me and asking me to check out this CD he’d dropped off. It was called Summer Chaos, he said. I put it off for as long as I could. One day, Cundiff showed up and requested to see me; he had another disc, titled Autumn Ghosts. “There’s a lot more where these came from,” he promised—typically a good sign that the music inside is going to exist outside the laws of gravity.
And it does. Both of Cundiff’s albums clock in at around 80 minutes. And they’re packed to the gills with oddball electric guitar freakouts over primitive drum tracks, which morph into strange, old, Americana gospel-tinged numbers about death—I’d swear one of them explains to a 12-year-old how to plan a funeral for Grandpappy, but I might have been hallucinating at that point—that soon devolve into tinny songs with wobbly vocals that come off sounding like some unholy cross between Devo, Richard Thompson and Black Oak Arkansas tripping together in a Citrus Heights garage. Some of the songs even have the kind of deliciously sinister vibe that, if I heard one coming out of the tape deck of a van with a pentagram sticker in the back window that was parked anywhere near the woods or an open field, I’d high-tail it out of there—pronto.
Now, I’m not saying that Cundiff is a genius; some of the stuff on his CDs will make the casual rock fan run for the relative safety of his Coldplay albums. But Cundiff is making uncompromisingly left-of-center records that will delight any serious fan of outsider music. I’m not even sure where you can buy them—The Beat? Tone Vendor? They’re certainly worth hunting down.
Between Cundiff’s homegrown attempts to blow minds and Low Flying Owls’ rather polished desire to do the same thing, it’s safe to say that psychedelia is alive and well in Sacramento. Even if Ecto Plasmic Brain Electro Waves can’t quite figure it out yet.