Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: The Smiles and Frowns

Wow- these Arizona guys really know their 1960s British style psychedelia. The Smiles and Frowns set gentle, understated vocals over vintage guitar and keyboard sounds – as with the early bands of that era, this new album is basically tripped-out pop songs clocking in at three minutes or less. American hippie bands were more jam-oriented; the Brits added a surreal, often theatrical lyrical feel. The songs here are period-perfect: many of them would be perfectly at home on albums by the Pretty Things, the early Move, the Kinks, the Kaleidoscope, the Idle Race…the list goes on and on, getting more obscure and trippier the further out you go. Like so many artifacts of the time, this could be construed as the soundtrack to a short but intense trip…or maybe a long one. Time distorts under the influence of that stuff, as this album reminds.

Things get surreal right off the bat with the first two numbers. Sam, its vocals perfectly enunciated and tongue-in-cheek in the style of the day, is about a bird (symbolism anybody?). He drinks cappucino and “ripped off everyone…everyone was so psyched that he was so sincere.” Cornelius, for his part, is a pied piper character – is that a mellotron in the background? The Memory Man, train approaching as the song begins, is LSD personified. This one introduces a slightly more ominous feel to its steady, harmonica-laced piano pop.

The next cut, Huevos Rancheros sounds like the Kinks enjoying a harry rag with the Beatles in the Abbey Road parking lot during the Sgt. Pepper sessions. The instrumental March of the Phantom Faces is woozy and darkly carnivalesque with autoharp, Vox organ and a crazyquilt of methodically layered reverb keyb textures. By the time the big Beatlesque mellotron ballad When the Time Should Come kicks in, so has the acid. It’s a deadpan, defiant ode to idleness even as the time flashes by. The high point of the album – no pun intended – is the long outsider anthem Mechanical Songs, opening with a swirling Jeff Lynne style keyboard intro. It winds up with The Echoes of Time echoing the Moody Blues, its wistful lyric set to a blithe jugband tune with bells and eventually that mellotron again. Alice – how did we get here and how do we get back? Where the hell are you?

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February 18, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Jenifer Jackson – The Outskirts of a Giant Town

Her best album, the first instant classic to be released this year. Over the course of her previous six albums, Jenifer Jackson has carved out a niche that is uniquely her own, even though she wears her influences on her sleeve (Bacharach, the Beatles, and Brazilian jazz/pop most notably). There’s an impressive clarity of vision that pervades her music – a courageous one. It’s what Camus meant by lucidite – it’s evident from the first song on this album that this is someone who is firing on all cylinders, every synapse wide awake and often painfully aware of what’s going on. Her melancholy, intricate, jazz-inflected psychedelia doesn’t shy away from despair or loneliness. But there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel: as strange as it may seem at first listen, this is ultimately a hopeful, optimistic album. Recorded live in the studio in order to evince as much interplay as possible out of her stellar backing band, the cd is a multistylistic tour de force, opening with Don’t Fade, old school 60s- 70s soul with fluttery organ fills and a soaring vocal. Like Sandy Denny, Jackson’s formidable prowess as a singer may not be physical – she’s not a big belter – but she packs an emotional wallop.

The album’s next cut Suddenly Unexpectedly, set to a fast shuffle beat with a bossa melody and layers of keys, is pure psychedelic tropicalia. The following track, Saturday, is something of an epic, and might be the most powerful song she’s ever recorded. It starts out somewhat Beatlesque, like a George song from the White Album. She pedals a chord through the verse, then all of a sudden the minor-key chorus descends: “It doesn’t matter anyway – I’ll keep it in my memory, that lovely Saturday.” Then the second verse kicks in, and everything picks up a notch. Jackson is also a painter, and as the images unwind, this tersely imagistic portrait of a young woman absolutely and heartbreakingly alone is absolutely, heartbreakingly beautiful.

After that, we get I Want to Start Something, more old-school soul with psychedelic flourishes, accordionist Sonny Barbato playing some delicious licks off Jackson’s equally tasty rhythm guitar. Her voice takes flight again at the end of the verse: “I’d like to find a place that feels like home…been so many places I don’t know why I can’t find it.”

The next cut, Dreamland, begins with a strangely captivating, tinkly piano intro into a wash of cymbals, then Jackson’s guitar kicks in all by itself. It’s Nashville gothic with all kinds of eerie, echoey effects from lead player Oren Bloedow’s guitar. It’s scarier than the fast, bluegrass-inflected version she used to play live, with a gorgeously sad lyric: “The way you loved me was a sin/I played a game I couldn’t win/Still I tried so hard to enter in/To the outer edge of Dreamland.”

Other standout tracks on the cd include the title track, gentle pastoral raga rock evocative of Meddle-era Pink Floyd, with an amazing piano break by Barbato; Anywhere I Would Journey, with its slow descending progression and watery lead guitar; The Change, an epic old-school soul groove-fest that would be perfectly at home on an Isaac Hayes live album from the early 70s; and For You, which with its tricky time changes and 60s garage rock feel wouldn’t be out of place on a Love Camp 7 record.

This album is generously multi-purpose: it’s a hell of a headphone album, it would make a great bedroom record, but it’s also a good thing to give to anyone you know who’s going off the deep end. Jackson’s gentle, soft voice and her wise, knowing lyrics offer a kind of solace that’s completely absent in indie rock, and the inspiring interplay of the band behind her can be mesmerizing. She deserves props for having the guts to reach down into the abyss to come up with some of the songs on this album, while never losing sight of the subtle, frequently surreal wit that imbues so many of them. It’s only April, but I think we’ve found the best album of 2007 and this is it. Cds are available at cdbaby.com at the link above, in better record stores and at shows.

April 12, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments