REVIEWS #41 - 50


       RICK SAUCEDO      GREEN   



Note: Some of the reviewed titles have not been reissued, while others are out of print. The availability stated reflects the status at the time of writing.

(Review #41)

RADIOMOBEL: Tramsebox (Chockskivor 1, Sweden 1975) 

Rating: 9 out of 10 (caveat: most lyrics are in Swedish)

Sounds best on: toppslätsskivling (Psilocybe Semilanceata)

More info: this is it

Availability: there may be a CD reissue coming...

This first LP by Swedish psych/prog band Radiomobel is a rare delight indeed. Even among hardcore local collectors only a handful copies are known to exist, although one did sneak its way into Hans Pokora's "Collector Dreams" books. Beyond that attention is scarce, not to say non-existent, despite this being undoubtedly one of the top 5 LPs out of our tiny corner of the drug music world.

Radiomobel was a 5-man outfit from Lund, which is an old university town in southern Sweden. The members went on to other musical adventures after cutting two albums with this band, but did not receive much fame or fortune in any incarnation. The line-up is your  standard rock'n'roll setting, but the music is pretty far from your standard rock'n'roll. It's ambitious, atmospheric, possibly progressive -- if it weren't for the fact that the band began recording (in a basement, no less) when they were still in a discovery mode; before the forms and ideas had ossified into some flawless King Crimson nightmare. No, Radiomobel was a garage band on drugs, which is how a lot of great music has been created. The drummer isn't quite as good as he thinks he is which makes for a truly psychedelic fractional time displacement; the rest of the band sounds like they're getting the songs right for the very first time. The lead guitar explorations are full of curiosity and wonder, as though the guy has no idea where he is going to go next. Behind this a completely undistorted rhythm guitar puts you right into a high school assembly hall gig.

This isn't precisely a "jam" LP, though. The songs are fairly short, and obviously carefully crafted, as if the band had written tunes that they must work hard to live up to. Of the nine songs, six are vocal numbers, although it's usually a case of two verses and then a long guitar freakout. Except for "Three miles", the lyrics are in Swedish and it's a crying shame that non-Scandinavians won't be able to catch them, because these words are totally out there, man, and the smooth Lund accent is perfect for spooky 1970s psychedelia. The rhymes are carefree or non-existent, the lines do not fit the musical rhythm terribly well, and the metaphors are so spaced out I can only surmise that this was the product of a few nights in the company of our local psilocybe shrooms... although several of the lyrics actually were written by the band leader's dad! 

Some of the words is big cosmic stuff, other tracks deal with environmental and social issues, and I'm still trying to figure out what the hell "Three miles" is about; a local streetcar? The suicide trip of "Baksidan i moll" ("Backside in a minor key", roughly) is perhaps the most remarkable track lyrically:

Sewer vultures circle overhead in heavy sweeps
And the symbol of death hangs from the trees
The rumble of death planes and the sulphur oxide
Where everything turns to gray
Where every tiny hollow
Becomes a dusky abyss
Where every mountain top
Is hidden in the mist
Where your love is a punishment
And your life is a threat
Where your death becomes a friend
At whose feet you collapse

[loosely translated by the Lama]

The preceding "Hav" ("Ocean") is my favorite track on the LP. I have to look to the best of Algarnas Tradgard to find something equally stunning out of the Swedish hippie-psych scene. After a deranged voice yells the title a couple of times, crashing cymbals and big fat acid chords fill the universe, while the atmospheric voice sings a cosmic hymn to the ocean. This gives way to a slow, deliberately amateurish musical build-up reminiscent of American band HOOTCH, crescending in a "European Son" frenzy, before a spacey Quicksilver '68 jam takes off, then is abruptly abandoned. What can I say?

Side 2 is slightly weaker than side 1 due to an atypical folk/troubadour number, which is the only spot on the album that is vaguely reminiscent of the political singer/songwriter garbage that was going on in mainstream rock circles in Sweden in the 1970s, while bands like Radiomobel, Algarnas Tradgard and Trad Gras & Stenar created world-class psychedelia. If I were to gaze across the ocean for something reminiscent of Radiomobel the answer would be the KENNELMUS album as performed by BENT WIND, and do not doubt for a minute that this is just as good as the two of them. On a personal note, I can hear echoes of my childhood in the moods and vibes ringing through this LP -- and Sweden in the 1970s was a strange, eerie place to be. For a foreigner it may sound even more unearthly, almost like an Eastern Bloc album perhaps.

Radiomobel followed this extraordinary debut with the "Gudang Garam" LP, which is a more well-known and undeniably weaker trip, bringing in extensive use of moog and a flat-sounding female vocalist, although some of the crude eeriness from "Tramsebox" is retained. 

(Review #42)

PAT KILROY: Light Of Day (Elektra, USA 1966)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Sounds best on: a spiritual journey

More info: 

Availability: no reissue, but though it’s rare for a major label release it’s not too expensive

In the same year that Elektra broke down barriers by releasing Love’s DA CAPO, The Butterfield Blues Band’s EAST/WEST and Tim Buckley’s debut, they, with less ceremony, thrust Pat Kilroy’s one and only album onto an unsuspecting world. Kilroy edges out David Stoughton as most uncommercial “folk” or “rock” act on the label. On the front cover of LIGHT OF DAY, he looks a bit like a cowboy, but a look at the back will inform potential buyers that we’re not in Hank Williams territory. The album begins with a song called “Magic Carpet,” ends with one called “Star Dance” and also includes the titles “The Pipes Of Pan” and “Vibrations.” The liner notes reference Hebrides’ Islanders’ chants, “Moods of Spanish gypsies,” “the magnetic pulsations of African hypnotic drums,” music of India, dances of the Middle East, the writings of Hesse, Huxley, George Gurdjieff, and, most importantly, the Sufi Message. In the year before the summer of love, he ends the notes with the single word “peace.” 

It’s no surprise, then, that the music tests previously uncharted waters, and as with an equally unique 1966 album, THE PSYCHEDELIC MOODS OF THE DEEP, it goes places where no one would go again. The Deep’s album invented psychedelic music without any noticeable influences, but went unnoticed when the genre exploded via well-known artists. Kilroy invented acid folk, though, unlike the Deep, he didn’t do so intentionally. The difference is a significant one because there’s no artifice or sense of exploitation in Kilroy’s music. (This isn’t a knock on the Deep’s album, which I think is even better than this, even if it’s not 100% “genuine”). Regardless, nobody heard this album either, and the wave of psychedelic folk-rock and singer-songwriter types who followed would come from completely different mindsets. 

The most likely reason Kilroy hasn’t yet been discovered by a tongue-wagging gaggle of collectors (as have, for instance, Jake Holmes and Chris Lucey), is that, admittedly, LIGHT OF DAY is more experimental than it is “good.” Kilroy’s songwriting is rudimentary here, fragmented there. The rhythms are awkward, his blues excursions unkempt. His singing is not pretty. As original as several of these songs are, the others seem like less inspired rewrites of the better ones. The lasting impression of this record is that it’s headed somewhere really interesting but only makes it about halfway there. Of course, half of “really interesting” still makes a more satisfying and memorable listen than 90% of the stuff that has been reissued. Some of the album’s more inspired moments: Kilroy sings about “the sea of the unknown” (the album is full of water and air/space imagery), the “road of sorrow,” and “the crossroads of tomorrow and yesterday,” and often dispenses with actual words in favor of chants, moans and other seemingly random sounds. His freaked out falsetto on “Roberta’s Blues” mixes with blues harp and tabla (there are no rock drums on this record) to turn a pedestrian blues song into an elsewhere unheard mix of genres. This is the kind of thing that would be an instant “what the hell is that” type of standout on a label sampler. On “The Pipes of Pan,” Kilroy uses a Jew’s Harp as if it’s a true blues instrument. Some of the flutes on the album do, indeed, sound like the pipes of Pan. The acoustic guitar on “Cancereal” explores some of the same ground Perry Leopold would perfect four years later on EXPERIMENTS IN METAPHYSICS, the album that coined the term “acid folk.” Kilroy’s tuneless yodeling and arrhythmic strumming on this song tread a fine line between genuine innovation and just fucking around. 

Every third time I listen to it I think it’s a work of genius. Mood music, you might call it. While it’s easy to look at this and wonder what might have been if he were a better songwriter or a more focused performer, a more realistic assessment is that LIGHT OF DAY is every bit as good, inspired and unique a work as you could possibly expect from a man of limited vocal, instrumental and creative talents. In other words, a treasure. It gets 7 out of 10 from me, but I won’t be surprised if maybe 5% of you will put it on your desert island list.

- review by Aaron Milenski

in case anyone missed it, there's been a big Pat Kilroy revival since the review above was written back in 2003. His entire story -- which is fascinating -- was told in Ugly Things magazine, and RD Records dug up and released Kilroy's last recordings, made shortly before his death in '67. They are even better than his Elektra LP, and available as NEW AGE "All Around".

(Review #43)

BARRY DRANSFIELD: same  (Polydor Folk Mill, UK 1972)

Rating: 9 out of 10

Sounds best on: ale spiked with belladonna

More info: he's famous, try Google

Availability: CD reissue on Spinney (2003), see details below

I should warn you right away that Barry Dransfield's rare solo LP from 1972 is one of a dozen or less albums worldwide that has a "special" significance for me. I can't readily explain the reasons for this except to say that the particular angle that Barry hits you from on these haunting, evocative songs is the exact same angle from which I am open to receive statements about man, nature and the universe. On a purely objective, statistically verified level, something like Nick Drake's debut LP is perhaps a stronger testament from a similar position, but in the hi-fi room where the Lama rules, Barry comes out on top.

This is an odd bird no matter how you approach it. It's much rarer than the other Dransfield albums, due to the fact that just as the "Folk Mill" subsidiary was being launched, some A & R cokehead at Polydor decided that folk music was old hat, and thus the releases -- which also included the incredible "Moyshe McStiff" album by C.O.B -- were allowed to die a swift death in the marketplace. You have to feel for the artists hit by this bonehead "hardball" decision, especially as the folk scene was about to peak rather than disintegrate. In the case of Barry Dransfield he would never again make anything that comes close to the superb control, delivery and emotional commitment on display here. It is his masterpiece, and the only thing in the Dransfield brothers' checkered catalog that comes close to the tag "masterpiece".

Born out of an explicit ambition to further develop the semi-acoustic folk then popular in the Isles, Barry made several smart decisions when putting his solo debut together. One was to listen attentively when friends were pitching songs for him to cover. Hence we are treated to a number of truly marvelous tunes not covered by many others. It also seems that there was an unusually clear understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses as a performer at play, meaning that not only does almost every song fit beautifully into the total puzzle of the LP, but several of them sound like they had been written directly for Barry -- which was not the case. I bet that a good number of the lucky few that bought this LP when it came out figured most or all songs to be Dransfield originals, until they read the liner notes which reveal that just 1 of the 11 songs were written by the man himself.

So while the opening "The werewolf" sounds like a confession from the depths of Barry's own soul, it is in fact a cover of American folkie Michael Hurley, released some 6 years earlier. I would like to explain the remarkable mood this song creates, but I don't think I can. It's a beautiful melody, built on simple minor chord shifts from the fertile ground where trad and contemporary folk meet. The fable-like lyrics seem to me an examination of male sexuality in its purely instinctive, animal-like form, and the way Barry sings it balances perfectly the complex undercurrents at play; remorse, excitement, danger. It's just his voice and acoustic guitar, not even the trademark violin, and it's pure transcendence. He has never been famous for his vocal qualities, but here he delivers a performance that stands for hundreds of repeat plays.

Perhaps the most well known track covered on "Barry Dransfield" is the second one, which is David Ackles' "Be my friend" -- at least I am aware of other versions of it! Barry's superb vocals and heartfelt violin playing add an overtone of C.O.B-like sorrow to a track that may in lesser hands come off like a piece of Cat Stevensish sentimentality. Here it becomes a moving statement about the human condition, gaining strength from its directness, and I doubt you'll ever come across a better recording of this tune. Two brief jigs follow, nicely played and pointing towards another ocean than the melancholy waters of the LP openers. Incidentally, Barry was a real, old-school fiddle player, meaning that he held the instrument out from his chest, rather than between chin and shoulder like a classical musician. Apart from that, jigs & reels aren't my specialty, so I'll move on.

Barry's atmospheric voice is given plenty of room on "She's like the swallow", which is a cappella for the first minute or so, delivering a beautiful lyric reminiscent of a Shakespeare sonnet, before guitar and violin enter to support a repeat of the verse. The interplay between the string instruments is marvelous, and one can only regret that the track is cut short so quickly. That interplay is carried further on "Broken barricades", which explores the theme of war at sea so common to British folk, although it's used mainly as a metaphor here. Again, the song seems almost too short; the lamenting refrain in particular is irresistible.

Side 1 ends with a Dransfield original, and "Girl of dances" is one of the very best tracks on the album. Another instance of the remarkable consistency in sound and mood previously defined, Barry delivers a platonic love song that seems like a distill of the great numbers that have preceded it; the guitar and violin interplay -- the violin now doubletracked to create a rich, almost Arabian sound; the distinct yet moody minor chord changes; the soaring yet mournful voice; the timeless lyrics being equally valid for 1852 as 1972. Thankfully, this track is allowed to develop its full potential and clocks in at almost 6 minutes. This, along with "The werewolf" were chosen to represent the Polydor album on a Dransfield retrospective sampler, and rightly so. From beginning to end, side 1 of "Barry Dransfield" is absolutely flawless, in fact I think it's unbelievably great, its lingering theme a bittersweet celebration of life and all its ups and downs.

So all the duds are on side 2 then, right? Well, not really, but it can't match the 20 minutes that preceded it. There are a couple of tracks that showcase a more jokey, tongue-in-cheek side of the man, and undeniably make for excellent entertainment -- as in the case of "Lots of little soldiers", a clever satire on the hypocrisy of the arms trade -- but the highlight of the side is the beautiful "Lily's ballade" which is in the spellbinding melancholy style of side 1. The skillfully performed "Robin Hood and the peddlar" is a charming tall tale from the days of yore, reminiscent of the Dransfield brothers usual material, while the closing 4-minute commercial for Worthington beer unfortunately ends the album on the wrong note, lifting you from the elegiac churchyard mood into a public house comedy act. This is the one case where Mr Dransfield's judgment failed him, but apparently the number had a personal significance to him.

As a non-chartered, fantasy A & R guy I like to suggest various changes to the LPs I review even if the last copy shipped some 30 years ago, but I'm gonna forfeit this task for "Barry Dransfield" because any change to the Wordsworthian brilliance of side 1 is likely to be to its detriment, while a restructuring of side 2 would be a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the HMS Indefatigable. I'll take "Barry Dransfield" as it is -- an excellent contemporary folk LP with a first side of such extraordinary beauty that its greatness almost carries the whole of side 2 as well.

Notes on the reissue: The 2003 CD reissue on the Spinney label is a pretty good job. I think it would be hard to bring out more from a vinyl-sourced mastering effort than what they've done. On direct comparison it sounds slightly better in terms of clarity and dynamics than my CD-R copy which is burned directly from a vinyl orig. The Spinney liner notes state outright that the master tapes are LOST ("despite the loss of the master tapes...") and this is where it gets interesting. To begin with, it's NOT TRUE. At least the tapes were around in 1998-99, when a double CD compilation of the Dransfield bros was put together by the Free Reed label in England. Buried in the extensive liner notes to that double CD there was a reference to how such-and-such at Polydor managed to find the masters just as the compilation was being completed. 

Now, the reason I know this is true is because I compared the 2 tracks from the Free Reed double CD with the current Spinney CD, and good as the Spinney sounds, the Free Reed tracks ("Werewolf" and "Girl of dances") sound obviously better -- they have the crystal clear quality you get from masters after a digital transfer. It took all of 10 seconds to tell the difference; you can hear Barry move his hand along the guitar neck after the very first line of "Werewolf", and on the Free Reed this sound is LOUD as day; a similar phenomena can be heard when he breathes in before the 2nd verse. No doubt about it: it's from tapes, these tapes exist, and the Spinney liners are incorrect. Other than that, Spinney distorted the colors of the sleeve a bit, adding a sepia-tone filter to what was a naturalistic photo. In fact on the CD back cover it looks like Barry is wearing lipstick and rouge, and while he was a modern, open-minded guy I don't think it's an accurate representation.

Since an orig may set you back some £400 I'd still encourage each one among ye to get the Spinney re, because as a listening experience it's quite alright, and the liner notes are highly interesting.


(Review #44)

GUITAR ENSEMBLE: You-N-You (private press, US 1971)

Rating: 8 out of 10

Sounds best on: Communion wine with some mild Quaaludes

More info at: check Ken Scott's "Archivist" book, and Jesus Rock websites

Availability: A lot of used copies still show up here and there. Try
Christian music websites or eBay.

This Christian relic is a triumph of unbridled amateurism. From the handwriting on the front cover to the awkward rhythms to the occasionally out of key vocals, this screams out exactly what it is: people making a record just to share their joy, whether they have musical talent or not. Until you’ve actually attended a Christian jam session, you might not fathom just how much passion and, well, rapture, comes to these people as they’re sharing their feelings with others who are on the same wavelength. It’s like having a secret or an in-joke, the kind that brings friends closer together. You either feel it or you don’t, and witnessing it if you’re not “one of them” is an odd thing. You can see how genuine and exciting this passion is even if you don’t understand or relate to it. This creates a sense of alienation, but makes for an intriguing spectator/listening experience. 

The Guitar Ensemble released two albums, this being the second. Their purity of message makes them different from many of the well known Christian folk and rock records, including the John Ylvisaker albums reviewed on this site. There’s no sense here that they’d make music at all if not for their faith, an important distinction, as not all “X-ian” musicians come from the same place. Ylvisaker, for example, certainly used music, which he already loved, as a means of spreading the word; the Guitar Ensemble spread the word and the music naturally follows. 

As to the music itself, the enthusiasm is infectious, and the voices are warm and likeable if not exactly soulful or trained. The masses of acoustic guitars (no less than eight guitarists are credited) and tambourine-led beat create a beautiful wall of sound, which is strongest when many people sing at once. By a pure coincidence (some would say “act of God”), I first listened to this album the same day I first listened to the Langley Schools Project, whose huge chorus of untrained voices are in the same world as the Guitar Ensemble. As those kids love to sing for the sake of singing, these folks love the Lord enough to sing about it, and their natural “inadequacies” are charming and actually enhance the music. Two Bobs, Johnsen and Rivas, write memorable song after memorable song (part of the reason they’re so good is that most of the melodies are stolen.) The backing vocals are, of course, otherworldly. 

Equally as effective is the cheap sounding organ, played by the unbelievably wide-eyed Mary Kay Johnsen (here’s one for the non-believers —- look at the photos of Mary Kay and her husband Bob and imagine them having sex and shouting “thank you Jesus”). The songs also benefit from a few acoustic guitar solos straight from the “Louie Louie” tradition. Side two has several very short songs; the Ensemble say what they have to say and stop when the spirit no longer moves them. Only the spoken word section of “Don’t Say Love” and Mary Kay’s off-key lead vocal on “Close To Me” (not the Carpenters song) are likely to scare away non-believers. 

Specific highlights include the starkly beautiful “The Answer” and “Man of Mind, Man of Soul” (the latter of which has terrific layered harmonies), the catchy upbeat side-openers, and the “ah-ah” chorus behind “This Is A Man.” These backing vocals aren’t too far from the chorus vocals of, say, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. Some Spanish flavor appears on “Lamb Of God” and “The Call”, unsurprisingly since many of the Guitar Ensemble are Hispanic. Oddly enough, a dark vibe often creeps into the music via the minor keys, eerie organ, heavy use of reverb, and angelic backing voices. This actually makes them sound like some of the finest low-budget garage bands; despite the difference in the artists’ intentions, this music is not far removed from the Bachs, Mystery Meat, or the New Dawn. Whatever the intention may have been, it’s powerful and almost disturbing. Why is it that the pure faithful enthusiasm they put into their performance doesn’t always translate to others as a joyful experience? 

If you aren’t sold on this album yet, note that the back cover photos rival your uncle’s 1962 yearbook for dorkiest collection of people in one place at one time. These pictures are every bit as compelling as the music! Only a few sideburns clue you in that it’s 1971 and not 1944. It’s fitting, because this music has aged well and will sound just as timely in 2044 as it did in 1971 and does in 2003. By the way, they’re from Las Vegas, but read the fine print: it’s Las Vegas, New Mexico, not the city of sin.

- review by Aaron Milenski

(Review #45)

RICK SAUCEDO: Heaven Was Blue  (Reality, US 1978?)

Rating: 9 out of 10

Sounds best on: CD-R with two tracks removed

More info: his website - you won't find much on this LP there except the warning that it "does not contain Elvis type material"

Availability: vinyl reissue on Orange Double Dome just out (June 2003). The CD offered on Saucedo's website is apparently inferior re-recordings of the LP.

In the brightly colored beehive where rare psychedelia drips like honey from the walls there's been buzz on this mysterious LP for several years, partly due to its musical appeal, partly due to the background story, which is a tale worth telling. Rick Saucedo is mainly known as an Illinois-based Elvis impersonator, and a successful one at that, but some time when the King's ghost wasn't looking he sneaked out and cut himself two sides of music that were as far to the other end of the spectrum as you can imagine; dreamy, melodic 60s-style psychedelia. The acidrock sleuths and dead wax bloodhounds tracked him down (of course), but were forced to deal with his manager -- possibly a "connected" guy -- who wasn't likely to see the merit of throwing light on this bizarre sidetrack in Saucedo's career. In fact, when a bunch of psych fans rounded up a healthy bag of coins in the hope of getting a few "Heaven Was Blue":s in return, the manager simply kept the money and made himself scarce!

Thus: a $900 price tag, continuing buzz, and the exact reissue now present before us. But the strangeness doesn't end quite there, because this LP has a skeleton in the closet, one that the psych mafia honchos were reluctant to share except behind locked doors. If you pressed your ear to the wall you could pick up references to a dread "50s medley" that screwed up the LP and, it was said, kept it from being bootlegged. It certainly explained why most tapes of the LP being traded only contained about 28 minutes of music; I know because I had one, and it was one of my most played tapes of an incomplete album ever. The "50s medley" rumor seemed a terrible waste as the rest of the LP was spellbinding, almost like a psych head's fantasy invention rather than an actual vinyl object.

So let's get that brylcreem skeleton out into direct sunlight and see what it's made of. Well, to begin with it's two separate tracks rather than a medley. Secondly, I wouldn't call them "50s" in some heinous Sha-Na-Na retro manner, but rather examples of the roots rock material you can find on albums by thousands of 1970s artists big and small. They're originals (I think) and do sound like a tribute to a bygone era, but I actually was expecting worse. My guess is that the Elvis impersonator angle influenced this urban myth out of proportion. These two tracks do not exactly improve or belong on the LP, and I'll probably skip by 'em -- easy to do as they close side 1 -- most times I play it, but that's about how bad it is. Case closed. Onward to the real meat.

"Heaven Was Blue" opens with "Reality", a dreamy yet concise trip of rich guitar tapestries and nice folky hooks. It sounds rather similar to those two other lost-in-time psych masters, Bobb Trimble and Michael Angelo, and could be seen as the perfect halfway house between them -- flowing and multilayered like Bobb's music (even to the point of having ghostly voices speak in the background), while the wistful vocals and droning melody come straight out of the 1967 Lennon school of Michael A. Rick Saucedo was obviously unaware of these competing acts, yet it's remarkable that three such outstanding psych timewarps exist with so much in common. If anyone finds the explanatory "X" factor be sure to send it my way. It's one hell of an album opener anyway.

Saucedo then spins a few wheels on his kaleidoscope and via a single echoing guitar note we flow into "In my mind", a counterpart and alternative to the "Reality" of almost the exact same duration. It's at least as strong as the opening track, a little heavier with fuzz chords chugging underneath the multilayered guitars and a more cutting vocal style, albeit still totally in a 1967-68 flowerpsych mood, while a reference to Jesus towards the end may recall D R Hooker. Along with the great use of organ and booming bass the track is reminiscent of the best tracks on Rain Parade's classic 1983 debut album, and one could spend a few hours discussing why "Heaven was blue" is one of the last relics of the original acid music era while the Parade's "Emergency" is instead one of the first (and best) retro LPs. We don't have time for such nonsense here, though.

Skipping past the two roots rockers discussed above it's time to flip the LP over and parachute into the marvelously painted landscape that constitutes Saucedo's sidelong title track. If it seems that "In my mind" and "Reality" gave promises of melodic psych nirvana, then "Heaven was blue" is the realization. Clocking in at almost 19 minutes it is something unique in the psych world; a successful transportation of the acid heritage from John Lennon's "Revolver" into the domains of carefully composed suites usually associated with bad 70s rock. It could have been just another J D Blackfoot, except that Saucedo pulls it off like a charm, don't ask me how -- stacking new melodies, guitar figures and arrangements atop the old ones every 3 minutes or so, each more swirling and enchanting than the last, and retaining a sense of progression throughout. The fact that it's less than a perfect performance, with guitars occasionally strolling off-key and the drummer seeming to wing it as he goes along, enforces the human warmth and removes any progrock specter forcefully. 

There is a particular segment that begins around the 5:30-minute mark and lasts about 120 seconds which I am inclined to take as a glimpse of a place BEYOND psychedelia, beyond Lennon and Trimble and Michael Angelo and all the other acid geniuses, great or small, and everyone must hear this because it's the place where we should be. Exactly how a moonlighting Elvis impersonator found it is one for our children's children to ponder; in any event the whole "Heaven was blue" track is an amazing display of creativity and control, and when it's over it's like having been subjected to a dazzling Ludovico-method technicolor montage of everything you hallucinated on the walls when discovering the greatness of psychedelia long ago: "Sunshine superman"; "Porpoise song"; "Renaissance fair"; "Matilda mother"; they're all in there, along with thunder and rain sound FX, meandering acid guitars, and howling dogs.

You will notice I haven't said much about Rick Saucedo's lyrics and I have to admit it took a while for me to even notice them, considering the spellbinding nature of the music. But they're rather interesting I must say, and just like Trimble and to some extent Michael Angelo there's a darkness lurking beneath the hippie vibe. The lyrics for Saucedo's title track are thankfully printed on the back cover and at first I took them as some kind of agnostic love & brotherhood statement, but if you really get down to it they look a bit, um... sacrilegious, like maybe it isn't a coincidence that his dog is named Satan. The three psych tracks all deal with Death, its consequences and meaning; a theme reinforced by the back cover drawing of a graveyard with tombstones for the various people involved in making the LP. I've heard say that the whole LP came about after the shock Saucedo got from the King's death in 1977, and if so that provides an interesting subtext for the ambiguous message he delivers.  

The "Heaven was blue" album as a whole is a challenge for a reviewer, and for once I'm going to abandon my principles and comment directly on the numerical rating. The three psychedelic tracks are as perfect "10"s as I've come across, while the two rockers get slapped with a "4" each. Taking the playtime of the tracks into account, this yields the formula (9*10 + 7*4 + 19*10) / 35 = 8.8. Quod Erat Demonstrandum. I could take another point off for Saucedo being such a schmuck to screw with what could have been one of the greatest psych LPs of all time, but truth is that about 5 minutes into side 2 those two rockers seem a distant memory, like a bad dream about to be forgotten. Oh yeah, the current reissue is a bootleg but looks and sounds real nice, certainly better than my old CD-R, so get it quick before it sells out.


(Review #46)

GREEN: Green (Atco, USA 1969) 

Rating: 8 out of 10

Sounds best on: not yet established

More info: this is probably the first review in 34 years

Availability: The word is only starting to get out, so there are still quite a few out there! A recent CD reissue is also around.

It had to happen sooner or later. All of the 60s psych albums that were completely dismissed and ignored for about thirty years are finally being re-evaluated. Most sucked then and suck now, but for a variety of reasons a few lost albums, most of which are much more interesting than the old standbys, are beginning to get their due. It wasn’t until the early 90s that all of the psych albums on the Mainstream label became hot commodities. Psych fans always scoffed at pop albums (at least the ones with no Curt Boettcher involvement), but finally a bunch of straightforward but good pop-psych albums are becoming desirable. And while it may seem that there’s an unlimited supply of obscure private press albums out there, sometimes it’s easier to take a look at a few major label albums that you passed by because they were too “easy.” 

The self-titled album by Green is a perfect example of a recent rediscovery. One can only guess why nobody noticed such a terrific record. Was it because it was so difficult to categorize? Was it because their more well-known second album was so bad that nobody bothered to go back and listen to the first? Was it because so many dealers and collectors are indiscriminate horn-haters and didn’t dare listen to it after seeing the credits on the back cover? While I’m asking, why is it that every album with a cover shot of the artist in and around a big tree (i.e. Karen Beth’s JOYS OF LIFE) is destined to be underrated?

Let’s start with the horns. There’s no Tower of Power/Cold Blood-style bombast here, no jazzy showing off, no soulful flourishes. There isn’t even anything resembling the effective use of horns on classic psych albums like Love’s FOREVER CHANGES or The Common People’s OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE. Instead, Green uses french horns, phased trumpets and sliding trombones to create a wall of sound. They don’t dominate; they color and shape the songs. They’re used more like keyboards than as lead instruments. If you don’t read the liner notes (which credit four band members with horns and two with reeds) or pay close attention, you might not even notice that there are horns at all. The band has a hard rock type of energy, but the flowing horns and soft, reassuring lead vocals (dead ringer for Kensington Market, another horribly underrated band) give the album a consistency and gentleness of tone that lulls the listener into a false state of security. Aha! Maybe nobody listened enough times for this album to reveal itself, and that’s why it just floated by them! The melodies are there; the hooks are there, but they’re subtle, and these songs don’t attract our attention through guitar solos, brash sound effects, or bluesy vocal intensity. They do, however, use creative and clever arrangements that sneak up on you. 

The album’s defining moment is the chorus of “At The Time.” The instruments stop, a line is sung unaccompanied, then the instruments return, flanged beyond recognition, and with no low end. At first you’ll wonder if your woofer went out, then you’ll marvel at the genius of the arrangement. Other subtle moments of sonic bliss occur throughout the album. On “To Be,” the french horn shifts from speaker to speaker, then is double tracked behind the guitar solo, creating a beautiful, haunting cacophony of sound. “Where Have I Been” starts with some Eastern-flavored fuzz guitar, develops several excellent hooks, and alternates guitar-based breaks with horn-led accompaniment. Each verse is arranged differently, and until you’ve listened several times you won’t notice the brilliant shift from horns, to guitars, to flute. The songGreen (obviously they used their imagination for the arrangements, not the song titles) starts with an unexpected blast of feedback, then moves to a complex mix of spastic percussion, heavy metal guitar and marching-band horns. The horns and guitars both play melodies that you swear you remember from your youth but can’t exactly place. Until they hit a few trills, the horns sound uncannily like a synthesizer, and the song ends with a fuzz bass/maraca war. Yes, these songs are jam-packed with ideas. Just listen to the great percussion arrangements to see how much is going on here! 

Green are equally adept at ballads, such as the mildly jazzy “Sunrise #7,” which has some nifty, subtle time signature changes, and “Footprints In The Snow,” which features harpsichord and flamenco guitar. If you haven’t already guessed, these guys are multi-talented musicians, yet they never show off or lose focus. GREEN is a short album, with eleven songs barely cracking half an hour, and the songs are so concise that you’ll wish they were longer. What a refreshing concept from an era of self-indulgence!

After a while there’s a bit of melodic similarity, and both album sides peter out a little bit as they go along. Still, even the lesser songs have something to offer, such as the great melodic bass playing on “Just Try”. This album stands up as a noble experiment gone right. It’s inventive, moody, confident and distinctive. Green are from Texas, but, trust me, don’t sound like any other Texas band you’ve heard. They were as out of place among their musical contemporaries as they were their non-musical peers. Now, can anyone tell me what “RCMPB” stands for??

- review by Aaron Milenski

(Review #47)

PERTH COUNTY CONSPIRACY: Does Not Exist (Columbia ELS 375, Canada 1970) 

Rating: 9 out of 10

Sounds best on: good hashish

More info: hopefully to come

Availability: Can you believe this has never been reissued?

While the disadvantages of major labels, their questionable output and oft-myopic philosophy has been lamented in these pages over and over, the advantages of these maligned oligarchies should not be denied. If the cogs are allowed to interlock as desired it's obviously preferrable for all people involved to have a record created with a big, powerful corporation backing it, rather than just what available money could afford. OK, so these cases are rare, but they do exist.

Such generous thoughts cross my mind while listening to the debut LP by Canada's PERTH COUNTY CONSPIRACY. This is because the album is a triumph of realization, more than anything else. I don't know what the PCC guys think of it now -- maybe they hate it, a lot of musicians hate their old records -- but it seems to me that whatever their ambitions were back in 1970, they couldn't have been far removed from the sounds rising from the finished grooves. This is an expensive production, with one of the most attractive soundscapes I have ever come across within the genre, which could be described as Progessive Hippie Folkpsych. Whatever studio time the PCC requested they had it, and other resources at Toronto Sound were obviously provided as needed. Even the artwork, a greatlooking gatefold with booklet insert, shows a good-natured record company at work. Of course, this isn't just any major label we're talking about, but Columbia Canada, whose batting average in the early 1970s is rivaled only by that of the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays; It's All Meat, Jarvis St Revue, Ptarmigan are just a few examples of the label's remarkable output at the time (see Fraser & Debolt review below for yet another).

However, "Does Not Exist" differs from these LPs in not being a 3-figure rarity, and looking around it appears that Perth County Conspiracy were a near-household name in Canada back in the daze. Maybe this is also the reason why they haven't quite entered the psychedelic pantheon yet, especially outside their homeland. I haven't heard anything from their subsequent and rather confused discography, but this first outing alone should warrant a chair at a table within shouting distance from the musical gods.

Tuning up for the recording session

The Perth County Conspiracy band was formed in Stratford, Ontario as a typical hippie-era art/folk music commune; plenty of people involved, wives, brothers, kids and maybe a couple of shaggy dogs too. Other than contemporary folk their inclination was towards poetry and the theatre, and indeed one of the key guys ended up as a famous actor later on. Doesn't take an oracle to see that coming as literary references and ambitions are all over this LP, including recitations of Dylan Thomas and Shakespeare, the latter being a particular obsession of the band and the area they came from (as the name Stratford implies). Now if this sounds just a wee bit scary, I'm prepared to deliver the first of a handful testimonies where my opinion may differ from that of the typical 1960s/70s psych admirer. This is it: the PCC recitations are daring and pretentious, but I think they work. Yep. Two reasons why: the readings are done in a skillful manner by guys who obviously understand the difficulties involved. They don't play it safe like the sherry-sipping gentleman heard on the Moody Blues albums, but dive head first into the alliterations, rhythms and turns of classic poetry. The opening Dylan Thomas incantation is especially successful, establishing a self-assured, literary tone for the album that thousands of progressive bands could only dream of. The other reason it works is just this; that the band is able to carry that tone into the actual music, which is neither classical nor pretentious, but highly appealing folkpsych and singer/songwriter with a definite 1970 stamp.

So initially we're thrown between the exhilarating poetry of Thomas and an equally exhilarating tune right out of the CSNY/Incredible String Band intersection where Perth County resides. As with many Canadian bands there is an explicit (and physical -- ex-Spikedrivers member Richard Keelan was originally from Michigan) connection to the USA, linking the perceived wrongs of their own country (war, violence, pollution, etc) with those of the yankees. This makes for a rather complex trip that perhaps could only be understood then and there; in any event we are told that it is the "Americanadian way". But again like many of their maple leaf peers, there is also a strong presence of the British music scene, messieurs Heron & Williamson in particular. While I think the PCC are a bit more successful than the ISB in their cross-cultural ambitions, mainly because they don't automatically assume themselves to be geniuses, one can't deny that the avant-literary folk path that the String Band carved out from 1966 onwards was followed by thousands of bands around the world. I've also seen "Does Not Exist" compared to Pearls Before Swine, and it's a useful reference that captures the delicate and atmospheric nature of its best tracks.

The opening mix of half-sung poetry and hippie anthem is followed by a Brit-sounding piano-led downer trip, recalling Nick Drake and Isolation but given a nice edge by Cedric Smith, whose acidic vocals is one of the album's many strengths. We are then transported halfway across the world, out into the Californian desert where a deftly understated tribute to "Easy Rider" -- the movie -- rises from the ground like an evening campfire. Richard Keelan's vocals are more of a Steven Stills type introspection, and the difference in style between the two main guys is cleverly juxtaposed throughout the LP. The redneck gunshot at the end of "Easy Rider" is used as a bridge into a highly theatrical spoken bit, full of convoluted anti-war propaganda; graphic and unpleasant but also ironic and multilayered. This in turn works as an introduction to "Truth And Fantasy", a suite of superb folkpsych mixed with short theatrical interludes. Labyrinthine? Confusing? Well, that's what the LP is like -- trips opening within trips, yet constantly moving forward. This is also why I consider this a more genuinely psychedelic album than most of the artifacts of its genre. Hey, there's nothing wrong with being pretentious as long as you pull it off. Of course, almost none of the prog-folkers do, but on this LP the Perth County Conspiracy do with flying colors, God bless 'em.

I won't detail the other tracks that round out the whopping 26 minutes of side 1, except to say that they're marvels of production value, vocal harmonies and elaborate arrangements. Over on side 2 we are first treated to the beautiful folkpsych of "Keeper Of The Keys" which is a good pick to play for a friend you want to convince of the album's greatness; in fact you have to be dead from the neck up not to worship this tune. This is followed by the album's one spot of weakness, the well-intended, charming, and ultimately hopeless "Listen To The Kids". A merger of children's poems and a nice little CSN:ish tune, it's not the sugary Graham Nash nightmare you might envision but it's not terribly successful either; the contrast with the very grownup recitation that follows is just too sharp. As the LP as a whole clocks in at no less than 53 minutes this track could have been removed, leaving you still with an unusually generous playtime. Ah, what the hell. Flaws are part of the psychedelic world too. The Orwellian uptempo excursion of "Trouble On The Farm" provides a welcome change of mood, before the Conspiracy gears up for the grand finale. First there's a bit of Shakespeare with an unexpected loungey backing, then we are treated to the "The Dancer" which parallels the introspective Albion mood of the second track on side 1, creating a neat arch-like structure for the album as a whole.

These are just preparations for the awesome acid folk epic that closes the LP in a way better than anyone could hope for. "Crucifixation Cartoon" is simply stunning, a trip deep into the cranium that reminds me of that long monster track on the Search Party LP, and proof that guilt trip loner anthems are not exclusively the domain of local mid-70s private press albums; at least not if your record label is Columbia Canada. This is where it's at, daddy-o:

There's a cross on every tree
When you're learning to be free

which may recall the Poet's immortal:

The trees in our gaze
Will show us the love that we bring them

A C.O.B-like mood emerges with the inventive use of a "ukelin" to provide the lead as this masterpiece of melancholy draws to its inevitable close. The album's end signals the end of an almost physical experience, and I must admit that there really aren't that many LPs around that leave me in such a state of involvement as "Does Not Exist"; not just once, but pretty much every time I hear it. Helped in no small part by the Toronto money behind them it seems the Perth County Conspiracy, on their first album no less, managed to provide us with a glimpse of an absolute music beyond the veil, something not many groups have done. I realize that to an avid fan of "crude garage fuzz" or "screaming basement psych" this LP may come off as pretentious and foppish, but to anyone with at least half an ear for transcendental folkpsych it is certain to delight, and maybe surprise too, given its non-rare nature.

I was tempted to take a point off for these high-fallooting Canucks referring to their lyric booklet as a "libretto" but hell, I'll give them some leeway on that one too. Best folk-psych LP outta Canada so far! As mentioned before their discography is a bit confusing, and there is in fact another LP by them also titled "Does Not Exist", due to the band's strange idea to make these words part of their moniker -- as if it wasn't unwieldy enough already. So be sure to check that the label is Columbia before adding "Does Not Exist" to your collection. The band followed this with a live LP, also on Columbia, before moving on to private labels where they made a handful more LPs during the 1970s. I hear they recently reformed for local gigs.

(Review #48)

FRASER & DEBOLT: Fraser & Debolt with Ian Guenther (Columbia 30381, USA 1970)

Rating: 9 out of 10 

Sounds best on: pure spring water

More info: you tell me

Availability: Surprisingly hard to find, but not expensive.

Do an internet search on this album, it's uncanny: you'll find absolutely nothing but raves. Most of the people who recommend it lament the fact that their vinyl copies are worn out from so many listens and that it has yet to be re-released on CD. It's hard to find another record that is so unanimously treasured by the rare people who have heard it, and has had such a huge influence on so many while being heard by so few. In their native Canada, Allan Fraser and Daisy Debolt are revered in the folk world by those lucky enough to have seen them perform. They influenced other musicians mostly from their live performances, not their recordings, and if it's true that they were even better live than on this LP, I'll gladly trade the entire "F" section of my collection for a video. 

The reason for all of this passion is the same reason the record sold squat: it's full of gorgeous ragged edges and inspired imperfections. It's human and heartfelt with no pretense or gloss. We're not talking idiot savant (I won't name examples here, as I don't want to offend anyone); it's as insulting to Fraser & Debolt to lump them with "real people" or "incredibly strange" music as it would be to Bobb Trimble. Every out of out-of-tune violin lick (courtesy of Ian Guenther, who gets credit in the album title), every backing vocal that starts too early or comes in too late, and every dissonant guitar chord is intentional (or at least a brilliant performance accident retained after much thought.) This may be raw; it may be loose, and it sure is fun, but this album is arranged with as much foresight as any 70s prog record. On all but one song (which adds sax and piano) the musical backing is merely two acoustic guitars and violin, often arranged with a punk-like simplicity. Yet every song sounds full and rich, each is different from the others, and the unique approach to dual vocals fills the songs with left turns, sublime beauty, and moments that will make the most jaded listener smile. It's been called "art-folk," which is as good a description as any. It's also rock and roll without electricity or drums, and acid folk without any of the daze or confusion. 

Unimaginative rock critics compare the vocals to Jefferson Airplane, whom I suppose are in the same universe, assuming you catch the Airplane during a moment of clarity. Both bands monkey with the concept that the lead and harmony singers should sing at the exact same time (as did the Velvet Underground, on that very year's LOADED), but Fraser & Debolt do it better, and with more clear intent. There are some shocking high notes hit here (as many by him as by her), but not one cringeworthy moment. If you want "perfect" harmonies, I direct you to the Beach Boys, or the Belmonts, or Capability Brown. If you prefer a real jolt of adrenaline, I recommend this. 

Without giving away too many of the record's surprises, some of the moments that give me goose pimples: The opening "All This Heaven" (what a perfect title to begin this album!) takes so long to fade in you'll think you forgot to turn on the volume, then it ends so quickly that you'll wonder if it's a dream. It's immediately followed by the choppy, dissonant chord progression and deadpan vocals of "Gypsy Solitaire." This is the one that sounds like punk rock, at least until the insane yodeling on the chorus. There are lovely ballads with no hint of weirdness (try to resist "Them Dance Hall Girls"), a gorgeous muted-vocal dirge called "Stoney Day," mysterious lyrics like "Constance/what a name/you should have been Felicity" and "the mushrooms keep growing in every new bootprint," a songlet purposely misspelled "Armstrong Tourest Rest Home" where moaning voices duel a squeaky violin, and a song called "Pure Spring Water," which is just as fresh and soothing as its subject. Hell, they even do justice to a Beatles song (see the Terry Manning review for reasons not to attempt this), closing the album with an impassioned version of "Don't Let Me Down." It's one of the Fab Four's most hard-rocking songs, but this version is more powerful that you ever knew the song could be. Fraser & Debolt add stops and starts that will make your heart skip a beat. 

A 100% hippie promo shot to compensate for the DJ strip above

The album is structured so that side two's songs are a little longer and a little less peculiar, but no less compelling, than the short quirky songs on side one. It's as if they're saying "not only can we sing far out, we can sing pretty." Even so, for every "David's Tune" or "Stoney Day," which finish as quasi-singalongs (and it doesn't get any catchier than Daisy's vocal freakout at the end of "David's Tune"), there's a "Pure Spring Water," which drifts into unexpected dissonance. This album always keeps the listener guessing. Most unlikely of all, there's not one moment here where it will cross your mind that it would sound better if the other one was singing, or if the backup vocalist would shut up. Try to name any other dual-vocal album you can say that about! When you listen to as many different records as I do, it's easy to forget what it's like to hear one in which every song is a true work of art, where the entire approach reminds me why I listen to so much music in the first place. Discover this and it'll all come back to you. By the way, another Canadian folk masterpiece of the era, THE PERTH COUNTY CONSPIRACY DOES NOT EXIST, is also on Columbia. The label hired somebody north of the border who knew what they were doing! 

Postscript: Three years later they finally got around to a second album. Unsurprisingly it is much more produced, with not only bass and drums, but saxophones and steel guitars. It's natural for them to "progress" in this way, but the fullness of the sound feels like a coverup for the disappearance of songwriting magic and decline in vocal creativity. As if they knew the album was a disappointment, they took the only song that lived up to the quality of the first album and subtitled it "Pure Spring Water #2," a brief reminder of the glory of their masterpiece.

- review by Aaron Milenski

(Review #49)

SKY SUNLIGHT SAXON: Lovers Cosmic Voyage (Golden Flash 571231, US 1976) 

Rating: 7 out of 10

Sounds best on: dog biscuits

More info: Sky's site

Availability: I'm sure there's 100+ unsold copies in storage somewhere

While the existence of Sky Saxon's obscure 1976 LP "Lovers Cosmic Voyage" has been recognized for decades, finding out anything about its contents has been difficult. After listening to it I can only conclude that this is because people would rather forget about it. It's obviously not the type of album that would appeal to a fan of "Evil hoodoo" or such, but it surprises me that word on it hasn't got around more among people of the Incredibly Strange/Real People persuasion. Because this is one far out piece of vinyl, let me tell you. Known as "the meditation album" among Sky's cosmic brotherhood pals it is obviously intended as a backdrop for a spiritual journey undertaken by the listener -- hallucinogenic drugs optional.

Now, I know this may offend some people, but I can't help feeling that this LP is so off-the-wall, so unbelievably goofy that it works as an express shuttle that zooms you past several stations of disbelief and amusement and deep into a Twilight Zone of musical appreciation. It's unreal; it's beyond whatever you may imagine Sky might pull off with a "meditation album". The music is piano (mostly Sky running his fingers up and down the keyboard) and what sounds like a classical harp, played by someone who has been instructed to provide a "harmonious" background. It may in fact be sounds derived from dragging one's nails across the strings inside a grand piano, rather than a real harp. In any event it's not psychedelia, or even rock music -- if Virgin Megastore ever carried it, it would be filed under "New Age". 

On top of this soothing soundscape Sky intones in his inimitable voice whatever cosmic stuff was passing through his head at the moment, and it should be no surprise that this dealt mainly with the holiness of dogs and the universe. You must bear in mind that the great man had cut off any ties with "straight" music biz people long ago and hung around with LA/Hawaii hippie robes for several years, which means that he had no idea when to quit, and none of his buddies were in a position to define that either. See what I'm getting at? No? Well, maybe a few direct quotes from tracks such as "Follow Your Dream With Your Dog" will help you attain insight:

Follow your dream and play with your dog... woof! woof! [Sky barks]... Oh, Lassie, Lassie, noble... and when I look in your eyes sweetheart, it reminds me of my dog... it's your soft brown eyes... come away, just you and I and our dog, and we will... sail the universe... climb the mountains and play in the valleys... running and skipping through the flowers... 

This goes on for about 14 minutes, which is the playtime of the entire LP (this was before mini-LPs). It may look from the label shot like there's a whole bunch of tracks on there, but in actuality it's an unbroken piece of music on each side. There is no sense of development or structure, more like a distinct mood introduced and allowed to remain unchanged, while Sky waxes poetically. If you were in on the dog-worshipping trip I guess it could work as a decent soundtrack for 15 minutes of contemplation, but unfortunately that particular cult never gathered many members outside the streets of 1970s Los Angeles. Today "Lovers Cosmic Voyage" stands as a relic from an era and spirit that seems very distant, not for its beliefs and ambitions, but for its total lack of reality checks and common sense.

The LP was released as by "Sunlight" only, with no references to Sky Saxon or the Seeds, which is rare for his 1970s outings. Released in 1976 it was sold via ads in music papers such as BOMP magazine, where it was picked up mainly by record collectors. Sky also took copies to health food stores and spiritual book stores around town. The label is usually listed as Golden Flash but there's a reference to Emerald Light publishing, which is also the imprint used for one of Sky's mid-1970s 45s. The press size is unknown, but the LP is hard to find today. It was pressed on red vinyl, and came without any cover.

(Review #50)

ZEPHYR: Sunset Ride (Warner Brothers, USA 1972) 

Sounds best on: a boat lost at sea, destination nowhere

Rating: 10 out of 10 

More information: Lots of it. Try the All Music Guide and

Availability: Reissued on CD by budget label One Way

Zephyr the band will always be overshadowed by their original guitarist, Tommy Bolin. He found fame in the James Gang and Deep Purple, and Zephyr’s place in the canon, to most rock fans, is as the springboard for his talents. Their first album sold 100,000 copies and still stands as a unique piece of heavy metal history. The combination of Bolin’s robust but tasteful guitar playing (on songs almost all in the 6/8 time signature) and Candy Givens’ histrionic, even more overpowering singing makes ZEPHYR unlike any other metal album of the 60s. The record is spotty, mostly because Candy is uncontrolled and often unhinged. Half the time her voice is stunning, as in the opening “Sail On,” but the other half of the time it’s strident. Her obvious talent is not balanced by “taste.” 

The second album, GOING BACK TO COLORADO, an attempt to add some complexity to Zephyr’s sound, softens the heavy metal edge, and it sold poorly. It’s even spottier than the debut, but includes some interesting experimentation that foreshadows their future. Bolin left after this album, and many don’t even know that Zephyr continued on as a band. Theoretically, the 1972 release SUNSET RIDE would be nothing but a footnote in the history of a well-known guitarist, an album to be filed with the Doors’ OTHER VOICES and the Velvet Underground’s SQUEEZE. Indeed, SUNSET RIDE’s continued obscurity shows that critics and public alike dismissed it without listening to it. (It is housed in one of the ugliest sleeves ever, possibly another reason the album fell under the radar.) What a surprise, then, to discover the brilliant album it is.

Obviously the departure of Bolin liberated the band, and with SUNSET RIDE, the husband/wife team of Candy and David Givens truly came into their own as songwriters. Since the songs no longer needed to be structured to accommodate long guitar solos, the songwriting became impeccably tight. The experimentation on this album is entirely structured and intentional, the exact opposite of the kind of improvisation that passes for heavy metal “innovation.” The more refined and intricate song structure also works miracles with Candy’s singing. Gone is the wailing and screeching, most of which took place during and around Bolin’s solos when Candy obviously didn’t know what else to do. Here her voice is 100% under control. It’s a thing of beauty and power, potential completely fulfilled. New guitarist Jock Bartley’s jazzy but unobtrusive style and undistorted sound is a perfect fit for the songs. This is blues-rock, but it lacks the musical cliches of traditional blues. The production, which puts the percussion high in the mix and the guitar and voice low (the exact opposite of the first album) adds an eerie, late night feel; there’s no question that the *sound* of this album is as effective as the songs. The overall vibe is that of Candy struggling to the surface from a not-so-happy hole she’s found herself in. The end result is a positive one: wasted energy being trumped by creativity. The upbeat songs are filled with longing; the downbeat ones filled with hope. Moments like the raveup at the end of “Moving Too Fast” are intensely powerful, and lyrics like “I’ve been smokin’ hash/talking trash/wishing things weren’t real” have a sense of tragedy. This album has the kind of indefinable magic of a true masterwork.

The album itself is as perfectly structured as the songs within. Side one is relatively straightforward, developing the new style confidently but safely. “I Am Not Surprised” and “Moving Too Fast” brim with understated energy, “Someone To Chew” with sexual passion. “No Time Lonesome,” which has all of the heartbreak of a Hank Williams song, features a lovely, unexpected violin break by Bobby Notkoff, known for his work with Neil Young. On side two, the song cycle goes completely haywire, with each song being more experimental than the previous. Brilliantly, as strange as the songs are, they’re organized in a way that creates a perfect flow. “Sold My Heart” begins the side in understated (but lovely) fashion. Its mild country leanings are absorbed into the warped psychedelic country rock of “Sierra Cowgirl.” The following “Chasing Clouds” dispenses with the country and is pure downer psychedelia. Candy’s voice is almost buried beneath the heavy tremolo of the organ and the overwhelmingly loud cymbals. It feels like a windstorm many levels beyond the gentle breeze of the band’s name. Toward the end, a backwards guitar appears, moving the listener from this storm to one even more mysterious. The effect of floating in the sea, no destination in sight, is even more pronounced on “Sunset Ride.” It’s a wordless tone poem that anticipates the repetition and fade-in/fade-out structure of Brian Eno’s “Here Come The Warm Jets” and “Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy.” The turn towards art-rock completes itself with the free-form introduction to “Winter Always Finds Me,” which could have been pulled from the weirdest parts of Kevin Ayers’ SHOOTING AT THE MOON album. When the song itself kicks in, it merges blues and jazz and brings the album to a breathtaking conclusion.

SUNSET RIDE combines startling performances, unique production, and amazing precision. While it’s instantly melodic and appealing, it takes many listens for the overall brilliance of this album to fully reveal itself. Sit back and feel it a few times, then really start to listen closely. It may seem absurd to think that a very American band who started out as heavy metal and gravitated to blues and jazz could be legitimately compared to Eno and Ayers, but like all works of genius, SUNSET RIDE defies categorization. If there’s anything here to criticize, it’s the inclusion of the much-covered “High Flying Bird” on side one. Zephyr’s rendition is fantastic, fits nicely in the context of this album, and gives Candy her best chance here to belt it out. Nonetheless, given the strength of Zephyr's own songwriting on this album, a song we’ve heard by dozens of other artists is a mild letdown, probably enough to keep the album from being “perfect.”

Like Bolin, Candy Givens would die young, about ten years after the release of this album. It’s sad that Zephyr didn’t produce an immediate followup, but it’s hard to imagine that they could have. By the time SUNSET RIDE ends, they seem completely spent. Despite the lack of product, Candy and David Givens stayed musically active for years. They reunited with Bolin for some concerts and even released a mildly inspired new wave-styled album under the Zephyr name in 1980. Nonetheless, SUNSET RIDE is their real swan song. It doesn’t have the same air of doom and foreshadowing as pre-death albums like Joy Division’s CLOSER or Badfinger’s WISH YOU WERE HERE, but it does have the feel of artists who are going through great pain and turning it into beauty. Candy’s ability to express this feeling without words in the title track is almost awe-inspiring. Her legacy lives on with SUNSET RIDE.

- review by Aaron Milenski


© Patrick The Lama 2003

The Lama Reviews