Lucid Culture


17 Pygmies’ Follow-up to Their Classic Celestina Album Defies the Odds

Trying to follow up a classic is inevitably a thankless task. What do you do after you’ve recorded your Dark Side of the Moon, written your Foundation trilogy or painted your Starry Night? Conventional wisdom is that it’s time to move on, completely shift gears, flip the script and defy comparisons with your masterpiece, even if it might need a concluding chapter. Veteran California art-rock band 17 Pygmies have taken the hard road with their new album CII: Second Son, a sequel to their 2008 tour de force Celestina. That album, based on a short story about love and betrayal in outer space by guitarist/bandleader Jackson Del Rey, is a lavish, majestic, cruelly beautiful song cycle (we picked it as one of the 1000 best albums of all time). This one is similar, right down to the elegant silver packaging, but it’s more of an instrumental suite, sort of like Twin Peaks in outer space. Again, it’s based on a Del Rey short story, a twisted, Rod Serling-style cliffhanger included in the cd booklet. If the plot is to be taken on face value, heaven is autotuned: which makes it…what? You figure it out.

The opening instrumental sets the stage. It’s a retro 50s noir pop theme done as lushly orchestrated space rock, Angelo Badalamenti meets ELO at their eeriest circa 1980. With layers of guitar synthesizer, electric piano and string synth, it’s a lush, hypnotic wash of sound. They follow it with the first of only two vocal numbers, a 6/8 ballad sung with quietly menacing relish by keyboardist Meg Maryatt (who thankfully is not autotuned) which illustrates the story, that she’s landed in a place that’s too good to be true. Richly interwoven themes and textures follow: creepy music box electric piano, an ominous March of the Robots, backward masking, mellotron, pulsing waves of sound and a mantra of “shut down this process” that repeats again and again.

A variation on the ballad emerges from a long, hypnotic vamp: “There’s a hole in the sky,” Maryatt intones, spellbound, and then the strings go totally Hitchcock, fluttering with horror. “The sky, cold to the sight…” White noise echoes; an offcenter piano waltz, disjointedly disquieting synthy interlude and something of an operatic crescendo with a spooky choir give way to distant, starlit piano that morphs unexpectedly into a methodical, slightly funky Atomheart Mother-style art-rock vamp with distorted guitar and organ. They leave it there on an unfinished note. On one level, it’s a pity all this grandeur and suspense has such a hard act to follow. On the other hand, as lush, unselfconsciously beautiful psychedelia, it stands on its own. And as Del Rey has made pretty clear, this story isn’t over yet: if this is Foundation and Empire, we have what will hopefully be his Second Foundation to look forward to at some future time. It’s out now on Trakwerx.


February 25, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Album of the Day 8/24/10

We’re officially on vacation, so this week’s additions to the 1000 best albums of all time are ones previously featured in our three years’ existence. Over that time, we’ve found out that discovering a classic album is 10% being able to spot it for what it is, and 90% simply the dumb luck of knowing that it exists at all. Tuesday’s album is a prime example:

889. 17 PygmiesCelestina

In their practically thirty-year existence, 17 Pygmies have played quirky new wave, postpunk, ambient soundscapes and artsy, Fairport Convention style folk-rock. This is their masterpiece, an eleven-part symphonic rock suite about love and betrayal in space based on a short story written by bandleader/guitarist Jackson Del Rey. A theme and variations, its rich, icy layers of guitars and synthesized orchestration fade in and out of the mix, alternately hypnotic and jarring, with echoes of Pink Floyd, the Church, the Cocteau Twins, and echoing in the distance, Del Rey’s pioneering noise-instrumental band Savage Republic. Its centerpiece is a menacing, droning twelve-minute feedback instrumental punctuated by bassist Meg Maryatt’s gorgeously melodic, ruthless riffage. A major rediscovery waiting to happen: released on Trakwerx in 2008, it’s still available.

August 24, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Smoldering Ashes – Songs in the Key of Mountain Birds Blue

Ridiculously catchy, often haunting, sometimes dreamy and psychedelic, Smoldering Ashes’ new album blends a vintage 80s new wave feel with a little goth and an occasional off-center folk feel for considerably more diversity beyond the wary, watery sound the quartet of Veronica Ashe, Jeff Brenneman, Dirk Doucette and Tory Troutman mined on their previous album Nervous Constellations.

The album starts out auspiciously with a casually torchy noir cabaret tune done southwestern gothic style, followed by a catchy midtempo new wave hit like Blondie at their most off-kilter and interesting. The third track could be a standout cut on Siouxsie’s Kaleidoscope album, building from pounding, ominous minimalism to a stomping crescendo with growly bass chords and aggressive wah guitar solo. Nick Charles Crossing the Alps (an inside joke, maybe?) is similarly dark and chromatic, like a stripped-down second part with eerie twelve-string guitar.

Track five, Eye of the Phobia has Ashe sounding like a more pitchwise Debbie Harry singing a mid-80s janglerock hit by the Church, maybe something off the Seance album. Give Yourself a Push blends Siouxie-esque menace with gorgeously catchy art-pop, taking the volume up a notch at the end even as it drops down to just vocals and roaring distorted guitar. 9,000 Year Old Man sets a distant otherworldly choir against simple psychedelic folk, T Rex as done by Steve Kilbey; Shake an Etch-a-Sketch nicks the Joy Division classic No Love Lost, right down to the skittish drums and the way the bass swoops up at the end of a phrase. The funniest cut on the album is a cover of the old Harold Arlen vaudeville song Lydia the Tattooed Lady, ironically a thousand times more apropos now than when it was written. Ashe affects a deadpan British accent as the band whoops and hollers behind her –  Lydia, as it turns out, has festooned herself with the Battle of Waterloo,Washington Crossing the Delaware…and Alcatraz! The album winds up with a brief, off-kilter new wave fragment, the psychedelically shapeshifting Le Locataire Diabolique (a collaboration with keyboardist Hyesoo Joen) and a trippy, atmospheric number. We’re considerably late in picking up on this one – it may have come out last year (on Trakwerx) but you just might see this on our best albums of the year list this December. Who’s counting, anyway?

April 17, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: 17 Pygmies – The Outlaw J.D. Ray

A cynical New Yorker might call this 17 Pygmies’ Pete’s Candy Store album (after the little Brooklyn bar that’s spawned a million quiet oldtime and roots bands since the mid-90s). 17 Pygmies date from the 80s, so they get cred for being both new wave and indie when actually what they’ve evolved into is a majestic art-rock band. And the grass isn’t growing under their feet. Hot on the heels of their lush, richly atmospheric, utterly macabre Celestina from last year (Lucid Culture ranked it one of the three best albums of 2008) comes this similarly quiet, spooky, mostly acoustic suite with even more of a minimalist feel. Built around simple, elliptically ominous lyrical riffs along with a main theme and variations, it’s sort of an acoustic Celestina. But by contrast with that album’s vengeful angst, this is a meditation on separation, longing and death.

It begins on a defiant note with Ain’t Gonna Work, a slow, swaying, pre-Civil war waltz with lush layers of acoustic guitar from founding member Jackson Del Rey along with bandmates Jeff Brenneman and Meg Maryatt (who also contributes accordion, mandolin, banjo and vocals). The waltz theme continues, hypnotically as a sense of dread quietly grows: by the fourth track, where the electric guitar finally tremolos its way in, it’s clear that this romance is doomed. A minor key is introduced, stately with slide guitar and mandolin trading sweet/harsh textures. Let It Rain the Blues, a gentle duet juxtaposes Del Rey’s resignation with Maryatt’s fetching, consoling tone – there’s a little Lisa Lost (of the late, great NYC noir rockers DollHouse) in the unaffected warmth of her phrasing.

Denouement arrives on the wings of a brisk bluegrass tune, but she’s not ready to give up on the guy, even if this means the next place she sees him is heaven. We never get to see if this actually happens or not, through a slow, elegiac return to the initial waltz theme, a banjo tune that sounds as if it’s sung from the point of view of the girl’s mother and then a swaying Mexican border ballad with some juicy Spanish guitar and mandolin phrasing. As you can imagine, this story doesn’t end well. Who would have thought that 17 Pygmies would have had a great Americana album in them? It’s just out on Trakwerx.

November 27, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: 17 Hippies – El Dorado

To name your band 17 Hippies is at worst straight-up hubris – or else this sprawling, playful 13-piece German group have obviously never heard of adventurous California art-rock cult artists 17 Pygmies. And titling their latest album El Dorado is pretty much the equivalent of calling it Darkside of the Moon. So much for names and titles – this is a fun collection of quirky, imaginative, mostly Balkan-flavored songs and instrumentals. The band clearly has a good time messing around with various world music genres – as excellent as the musicianship is, it’s quickly apparent that much of what they do isn’t to be taken seriously. It’s party music in the best sense of the word.

The album opens with a slinky Levantine dance rolling along on a banjo groove with a lyric whose silliness transcends any language barrier. The second cut is sad; the third is a joke; the fourth, La Zona Drom (The Gypsy Area) welds Lebanese slink to a swaying, stately gypsy dance beat with a big clarinet crescendo. The next one features mandolin, horns and a muted trumpet solo like something quiet from the Gogol Bordello songbook.

Sung in French, Solitaire is a brooding after-hours lament, followed by a blithe German-language acoustic pop song, a children’s number, then an uproariously successful blend of bluegrass and dark Eastern European folk with a delicious string chart. They wind it up with a big Balkan brass band number spiced with banjo that builds to a haunting crescendo with the strings going full tilt. Memo to the head hippie – next time you’re planning on covering an English-language drinking song, you might want to do something other than a number that gradeschool kids sing on long bus rides. 17 Hippies play le Poisson Rouge on Sept 1 at 7 with Rob Curto’s Forro for All.

August 31, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Smoldering Ashes – Nervous Constellations

Much of this cd is the great album the Cure should have made between Faith and Seventeen Seconds but didn’t. Same watery guitar, same dark pensive sensibility, but none of the affectations. This collaboration between Oklahoma musicians Veronica Ashe and Troy Troutman and 17 Pygmies guitarist Jeff Brennman and drummer Dirk Doucette bridges the gap between 80s goth like This Mortal Coil and Dead Can Dance and nouveau psychedelia in the sense that its ambience is warm and draws you in. Ashe’s voice has an offhand beauty not unlike indie acoustic siren Linda Draper, and the two share a terse, imaginatively playful lyricism (do they know each other?).


After a brief, pensive opening track spiced with some raw harmonica playing, there’s the marvelous A Comedy of Arrows. Bouncing along on a deliciously watery chorus-box bassline straight out of the Laurence Tolhurst playbook, packed with big boomy chords, it’s catchy beyond words. The following two cuts, Shenfinity and Sea Blue are a study in contrasts, the first a beautiful 6/8 reflection, the second reverting to Robert Smith style new wave pop. The next track, 1000 Birds Scatter is slow and ambient with bluesy lead guitar and a striking tempo shift on the bridge. Other standout tracks on the cd include Duct Tape and Superhero Love, a dead ringer for legendary Australian art-rockers the Church with its lush, echoey layers of guitar; The City Electric, which gets totally psychedelic with a water-droplet effect (echoes of Country Joe and the Fish, maybe?); and the beautifully deliberate, tastefully orchestrated Temporary Archive. “I believe in chaos, a chance on a mystery bus tour,” Ashe announces matter-of-factly. The cd concludes with the brief, evocatively carnivalesque Kite:


The carnival’s come and it’s time to say

Goodbye, cruel world…

Hello to spring, take off the mask

Put on your face

So long, string

Time to see you you fly


An aptly optimistic note on which to close this marvelously captivating cd, best experienced on earphones late at night.

November 18, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: 17 Pygmies – Celestina

[editor’s note: this being Halloween, it’s only appropriate that we’d review the most haunting cd of the year]


17 Pygmies’ new cd Celestina is a concept album, an eleven-part symphonic rock suite about love and betrayal in space based on a short story written by bandleader/guitarist Jackson Del Rey. It’s a lush, beautiful, absolutely haunting, mostly instrumental art-rock masterpiece, without a doubt one of the most gripping albums released this year. Celestina is symphonic in the purest sense of the word, a theme and variations that twist and turn and recur throughout. Its rich, icy layers of guitars and synthesized orchestration fade in and out of the mix, alternately hypnotic and jarring, with echoes of Pink Floyd, the Church, the Cocteau Twins, and echoing in the distance, Del Rey’s pioneering noise-instrumental band Savage Republic. The narrative traced by the tracks – simply titled Celestina I through XI – is discernable from the start, and it’s not pretty, despite the music’s glimmering grandeur.


It opens with the introduction of a disarmingly simple, gently menacing, Middle Eastern-inflected central theme, ambient and atmospheric with washes of strings, perhaps created by a guitar synthesizer pedal. The next movement, bracing and stately with reverb-and-delay guitar, is a dead ringer for legendary Australian art-rockers the Church circa Priest Equals Aura, singer/bassist Meg Maryatt’s disembodied, ethereal vocals perfectly capturing the mood. “Feels like heaven,” she sings, but the unease in her voice is visceral. Celestina III builds the instrumental theme introduced in II with lush washes of strings, getting gentle and really pretty at the end yet without losing its menacing undercurrent  


In Celestina IV, a new theme is introduced with octaves in the bass. “What’s that sound?” Maryatt asks, her voice processed to a horror-movie timbre.The album’s centerpiece is its turning point, a murky, reverberating twelve-minute feedback instrumental evocative of Yo La Tengo at their most thoughtful or a quieter Savage Republic tune.  It’s absolutely evil, the guitars’ low resonances phasing in and out for minutes on end until the bassline making a tentative entrance, pushing the melody around, finally grabbing it by the throat and thrashing it around with methodical, deadly force. Throat-singing over the low-register roar adds yet another layer of sinister overtones. At the end, the drums stomp on it a couple of times just to make sure it’s dead.


The next cut is a big, anguished, puzzled ballad with stellar vocals again from Maryatt: it’s something of a cross between a macabre DollHouse anthem and a standout cut from Priest Equals Aura. In VII, reverting to classical mode, the initial theme returns, mingling with its counterpart from II, taking on an altogether different meaning. At the end, bells toll quietly in the background. A fight scene ensues, a quietly anguished cry in a vacuum followed by a long noise jam, the instruments locked in a battle to the death, ending with the same long series of distant wails that began it. When the main theme recurs again, the arrangement is more ethereal and far darker, making it clear that the whole idea of this relationship was disastrous from the start. Closing the suite, loops of tinkling electric piano contrast with a wobbly wash of synth, building to a haunting, darkly nebulous constellation of strings. The cd ends on a surprisingly anticlimactic note, just the guitar playing simple arpeggios with an 80s chorus-box feel.


As with all of 17 Pygmies Trakwerx albums, the cd is beautifully packaged in an artsy, cleverly handmade cardboard sleeve and insert. Available at cdbaby dirt-cheap for thirteen lucky bucks. You’ll see this in the top five or so best albums of the year when we publish the list in December.

October 31, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: 17 Pygmies – 13 Blackbirds

17 Pygmies is the name of the band. Former Savage Republic-an Jackson Del Rey and Louise Bialik’s long-running West Coast outfit started out as a skewed new wave/pop band but has gravitated toward art-rock since. This new cd has been a long time coming, and it’s been worth the wait. It’s a beautifully rustic, mostly acoustic record with vocals by Bialik, austere fingerpicked guitar, autumnal melodies and light percussion in places. Think of it as the thinking person’s alternative to Hem. It picks up steam as it goes along.

The understatedly memorable opening theme, Heavenly Intro is reprised at the end of the initial tracks as Heavenly Creatures. In between, we get the pretty title cut and the absolutely gorgeous Tree of Life (if this is about pot, it must be seriously hydroponic). After that, the stately waltz Get Out!, the haunting 6/8 ballad Water Carry Me with its pastoral blend of guitar, piano and violin and then truth in advertising with A Brief Interlude – more 6/8 time with beautiful fingerpicked classical guitar, sounding like a good baroque classical piece. The next song, 125 History has ghostly vocals set to stark strings; Lila Paosa, which follows, is another quiet pretty song with ringing overtones from the guitars and organ adding just a tinge of disquieting dissonance. Strings come in toward the end and build to a crescendo. Ubi Sunt (Latin for “where are then”) and Heavenly Creatures feature both piano, voice and strings. There are three bonus tracks on the first cd – quite possibly left over from a previous project – which make a good triptych in 6/8: an instrumental with piano and strings, an original song, and a cover of the McCartney chestnut from the White Album followed by a piano instrumental to close it.

This is a double cd: the second one is called 13 Lotus which (seems to be) 13 remixes of the song from 13 Blackbirds. It’s pretty much all hypnotic, sleepy, downtempo, mostly instrumental trip-hop variations except for a rather disturbing version with sirens phasing from speaker to speaker which will quickly have listeners rushing to the window and then wondering where all the emergency vehicles are. It’s all well worth owning and comes in a charmingly illustrated, Edward Gorey-esque double cardboard sleeve.

November 12, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: 17 Pygmies at PA’s Lounge, Somerville, MA 5/25/07

Following Randi Russo and her band is never easy, but long-running California act 17 Pygmies proved more than worthy of the task. The band setup for the current tour includes three guitarists, including Jackson Del Rey (ex-Savage Republic) on Strat as well as a 12-string acoustic player and their frontwoman switching back and forth between acoustic guitar and accordion. If it’s possible for a sometimes quirky, often transcendentally beautiful art-rock band to slay, 17 Pygmies slayed.

They opened with a couple of tunes set to a pummeling surf beat, the second with a ridiculously long title (edited version: Sammy Hagar Saves Los Angeles from Godzilla). It didn’t sound anything like the Hag or Godzilla – in fact, it was a dead ringer for Misirlou up until the chorus – but it was the perfect opportunity for Del Rey to show off his devious wit. Then they got serious.

The rest of the set was mostly new material from their new album 13 Blackbirds (their first release since the 80s), as well as some unreleased songs. 17 Pygmies alternated lush, ornately arranged art-rock anthems with quieter, introspective, pastoral fare featuring a lot of fingerpicked classical guitar. With the clang and chime of the 12-string carrying the melody and Del Rey’s nimble, sometimes minimalist leads and fills hovering and circling around, they brought to mind other great, artsy jangle bands like the Church, the Byrds, Fairport Convention or the late, great Wirebirds. Mixing major and minor chords, verses that built slowly to towering refrains and then subsided again, the band held the small but attentive audience spellbound. If the live show is any indication, the new album must be amazing. This is a band you should get to know.

They ended their hourlong set with a psychedelic Kinks cover and then a suitably volcanic, seven-minute take on the Neil Young classic Cortez the Killer which Del Rey attacked with appropriate frenzy when it came time to solo, chopping at the fretboard with a fury that would make Old Neil proud, using his effects pedal to get a watery, chorus effect that effectively set this version apart from the millions of others.

May 27, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments