Culturespill » Psychedelic

Best Albums of 2011 Series: “Elephants at the Door,” Dumbo Gets Mad

9th December

Read nearly anything about Elephants at the Door by Dumbo Gets Mad—the nom de plume adopted by a twenty-something kid out of Northern Italy whose dreamy eyes and killer ‘stache bring to mind some younger, hipper understudy of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will be Blood—and you almost certainly will come across the following descriptive: psychedelic. Let’s be clear, Elephants at the Door is a terrific record deserving of much of the praise lavished upon it since “Plumy Tale” blew the fuse box of the music blogosphere last year. But to slap it with the “psychedelic” tag both undermines and mischaracterizes its achievement.

The term “psychedelic” is tossed around so frequently these days it’s become about as helpful a way of describing a band’s sound as “indie.” Anyone who has listened to After Bathing at Baxter’s, Skip Spence’s brilliant Oar, or even “Jugband Blues”—the lone Syd Barrett track on Pink Floyd’s 1968 sophomore effort, A Saucerful of Secrets—knows that genuine psychedelia is not something you bob your head to in your Prius on the way to the wheat grass bar. It’s something you hear before shouting “what the #@*% was that?” and looking funny at the friend who played it for you after lighting another roach.


Even some of the most deliberate stabs at psychedelia that emerged from the era in which the sound was invented—records likePet Sounds or Sgt. Peppers—still indulge the abandon, whimsy and discord that comprise the fundament of true psychedelia. What we have in Elephants at the Door, on the other hand, is far more calculated than all that. That it nonetheless keeps the listener dazzled for the span of at least eight of its ten tight tracks is an accomplishment that cannot be overstated. Simply put, this is a pop record, and a damned good one. Albeit with elephant noises and a band name taken from the hallucination sequence in the Disney classic Dumbo.

Elephants wastes no time winning you over with its peculiar and warm-hearted charm. Sure, you swear you heard the opening track’s burst of birds and bubbles somewhere on the first MGMT record (Hint: you did). And OK, maybe “Plumy Tale’s” gorgeous organ riff sounds an awful lot like somebody slipped some Ambien into the cocktail that once brought The Caesars’ “Jerk it Out” to an iPod commercial near you. But so what? No record that boasts its influences as abundantly as this one is aiming for originality—and thank God for that, since most records that do are pretty much bound to suck.

Dumbo is not the guy who breaks the ground; he’s the guy who shows up after the ground’s been broken and plants the most amazing daffodils in the cracks left behind. “Ecclectic Prawn” channels Odelay-era Beck while “Why Try” plays like a Portishead track filtered through a Tindersticks song. The ghost of John Bonham haunts several tracks with throbbing drums straight out of “When the Levee Breaks,” and some distinctly Bowie-esque vocals erupt out of the frothing, intergalactic stew that is “Harmony.” With its dueling synthesizers laid over a low-fi feast of jangling guitars and cymbal-heavy drum machine beats, “Harmony” sounds as much at home on a record as it might be in the Labyrinthe Zone of Sonic the Hedgehog.

This is a record for those who stumbled late to the altar of The Flaming Lips upon hearing The Soft Bulletin, music for people who stuck with last year’s Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffitti record for long enough to recognize its brilliance. Elephants never comes quite as unhinged as either of those records; these songs are composed, tightly packed things that never stray far from their creator’s guiding hand. But Dumbo’s stated affection for Captain Beefheart and his ardent embrace of the “psychedelic” label—however imprecise it may be—suggests that more daring experiments may be on the way. If Elephants is any indication, whatever he comes up with next will be well worth the wait.

Oh, yeah, and you can download the whole thing for free–as long as you promise to Tweet about it first. Check it out here. And if you’re yet to hear the sick “mix tape” Dumbo Gets Mad put out, you owe it to yourself. Check it out over at Anthony Fantano’s blog, The Needle Drop.

Gianmarc Manzione

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Roky Erickson: He’s Comin’ Home After All

31st March


“I’ve gone through three changes: first I thought I was a Christian, then I was the devil, and then a third one where I know who I am, and I feel like an alien.”
— Roky Erickson

Call him “The great lost vocalist of Rock ‘N Roll.” Call him “The Unknown hero of Rock ‘N Roll.” Around here, though, we call him the haunted howling wolf of psychedelia. These are just a few of the countless expressions of praise rightfully lavished upon underground legend Roky Erickson, the man responsible for the skull-cracking mayhem known as The 13th Floor Elevator back in the 1960s and, for a far less memorable minute, in the early 1970s after Roky was released from the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Austin, Texas.

The band’s demise in 1973 was hardly surprising; they had hit a few minor snags along the way. A couple of members had to be booted for doing too much speed. Then their lead guitarist, Stacy Sutherland, became hooked on heroin and was subsequently murdered by his wife–that there’s a snag if I’ve ever heard one. If that seems like a harsh penalty for pumping the magic juice, though, you might want to keep reading.

The tragic B-movie horror flick that is the life of Roky Erickson, truly one of Rock ‘N Roll’s unsung pioneers whose influence has been explicitly noted by an array of bands that includes R.E.M., The White Stripes, Patti Smith, ZZ Top, The Butthole Surfers, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and goth-rock Gods The Cramps, among many others, reads like a page torn out of the bible your grandpa keeps in a drawer by the bed with his gun. I’d say that it sounds like a movie, but rumors of a biopic about Roky were dashed when Jack Black literally called him to say that he “couldn’t handle the part.” No shit, jack. That’s why he’s Roky fucking Erickson.

More Roky

No one’s really sure exactly what turned Jack Black off to the role, but there are plenty of possibilities. Maybe it was the electro-shock treatment forced on Roky at Rusk. Maybe it was the mind-numbing doses of Thorazine they choked him with, or those beatings at the hands of assholes in uniform there. Black was a sensible choice for the role, though, given that Roky’s anthem, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” was featured in the film that Black made his name in, the brilliant John Cusak flick Hi-Fidelity. If you think you’ve never heard “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” by the way, please kindly come out from under your rock and turn on the radio. Or watch this video (cheater).

So what foul offense did he commit to be beaten, electrocuted, drugged and caged, you ask? Simple: he took a single twist of weed on a drive through Mount Bonnell in Austin one day in 1969. Given the band’s aforementioned propensities for speed, heroin and murder, the cops, naturally, took an interest (can’t those bastards take a joke?), and then they took Roky in. Varying reports exist on exactly how many joints he’d packed that day, actually, but in a 2005 interview with Paul Drummond, Erickson insists the Cops’ story that he tossed a vial of pot out the window of his car was a load of horseshit and that they planted the evidence:

Erickson: Well it doesn’t seem right that I would through out a vial of grass into the weeds and a Policeman would stop and set his flashlight on it and get it .

Drummond: Are you saying he planted it?

Erickson: That sounds real good.

We’re sure it does, Roky. Real, real good. Just as it sounded good when he was busted loose from Rusk the night an “electric jug player” named Tommy Hall “took the door off the hinges with a screwdriver and snook me out of the hospital,” as Roky puts it (and all this time you thought “snook” was a fish!). And that’s where the nightmare began, really: the torture inflicted from the outside became the more inescapable torture within him: a prolonged bout with acute schizophrenia that left him to drown out “the awful noises” in his head by sitting at home amid a multitude of blasting televisions. Soon he was publicly announcing that a Martian inhabited his body, a claim that actually begins to make sense when you watch the documentary “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” which premiered at the 2005 SXSW Film festival, and listen to friends of his say things like “anyone who tried to have a conversation with him understood that he was not of this world.” Maybe Roky wasn’t kidding.

Roky & The Explosives

And neither are the legions of loyalists who shower him in thunderous ovations at his many recent live shows, particularly at the sizzling performances he’s been putting on with veteran garage rockers The Explosives. It’s clear that Erickson has no interest in cashing in on dated glories, as he rocks just as hard on signature tunes like the scorching metal rant “Two Headed Dog” or “It’s a Cold Night for Alligators” as he does on “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” gems he produced despite the crippling onslaught of mental illness. For a guy who dropped out of high school rather than conform to code by cutting his hair, such willful defiance of a condition that has silenced so many great voices is characteristic of the kind of determination that enabled him to write hundreds of songs while cooped up at the State Home.

Not to be confined by any particular sound or label, Roky explores a range his hard-nosed rock reputation doesn’t always credit, as gorgeous ballads like “Starry Eyes” or “You Don’t Love Me Yet” elicit as many sing-alongs from crowds as anything else he’s done. With The Explosives, though, even the gentlest ballad is transformed into the most sneering rocker, as on this rendition of “Starry Eyes” from a gig in Stockholm last year. But it’s the banalities of Roky’s new life after schizophrenia and a disastrous deterioration under the care of his mother that might be the grandest miracle of all: he has a driver’s license for the first time in decades, owns a car, and even votes.


Trailer for “You’re Gonna Miss Me” Documentary

Much of his comeback–both on stage and off–is in thanks to his younger brother Sumner, who won legal guardianship of him in 2001 and reversed his mother’s support of Roky’s refusal to take prescriptions for his paranoid schizophrenia. His teeth had undergone severe decay and he was living in federally-subsidized housing, depending largely on the kindness of friends and strangers to get by (especially for those sweet cream ice cream malts he loves so dearly–he once traded the rights for several songs with Doug Sahm for nothing more than a milkshake, exactly the reason why his brother had to help him dig out of a tangle of grossly exploitative royalty deals that left him penniless). Then the cops came back to bust him on a bogus charge of mail fraud; yes, Rocky was taping neighbors’ mail to his walls, but reports that “He had been collecting and distributing mail for two neighbors, but when they moved away Roky continued to collect but no longer distribute. When police came to his home they found it all unopened and some of it taped to his walls.”

Roky & His Bro

Roky & His Bro

Only since Sumner’s lucky day in court has his brother Roky really taken back his life, keeping his mind in check with medication he should have been taking all along, delivering more public performances than he’d done in decades, and even recording new music. Now Roky’s got a web site and tour dates (a gig in new Orleans is coming up on April 30), and the web is abuzz with reports of the most unlikely rock ‘n roll resurrection since the last Jim Morrison sighting. Hell, you can even find the guy on MySpace. Chicago Public Radio reported last year that long time 13th Floor devotee Billy Gibbons, singer and guitarist of ZZ Top, is rumored to be doing an album with Roky that may see the light of day this year, further confirming that what would be the twilight of any other rocker’s career is actually Roky’s second dawn.

MGMT: Surf Jungle Country is Born!

30th March


“I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars”


If it already feels like you’ve taken one too many sips of hallucinogenic mushroom tea while stepping inside another episode of VH1’s “Where Are They Now,” especially the part where the featured “artists” do lots of drugs, get fat and completely forgotten by the world, and then try to not be forgotten anymore by making really terrible music in their middle age for a “comeback” tour attended by thirteen-and-a-half people worldwide, that’s as it should be: You’re reading an article about MGMT, a duo of self-described “mystic paganists” devoted to “opening the third eye of the world” with their debut LP Oracular Spectacular. The album’s first track, “Time to Pretend,” which is featured in the new movie 21 about some MIT kids who took Vegas to the cleaners by learning to count cards, takes aim at every one of those VH1 cliches with the sharp arrow of the band’s notorious sarcasm:

I’m feeling rough, I’m feeling raw, I’m in the prime of my life.
Let’s make some music, make some money, find some models for wives.
I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin, and fuck with the stars.
You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars.

This is our decision, to live fast and die young.
We’ve got the vision, now let’s have some fun.
Yeah, it’s overwhelming, but what else can we do.
Get jobs in offices, and wake up for the morning commute.

Forget about our mothers and our friends
We’re fated to pretend
To pretend
We’re fated to pretend
To pretend . . .

There’s really nothing, nothing we can do
Love must be forgotten, life can always start up anew.
The models will have children, we’ll get a divorce
We’ll find some more models, everything must run it’s course.

We’ll choke on our vomit and that will be the end
We were fated to pretend
To pretend
We’re fated to pretend
To pretend
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah

“We were really sarcastic when we met them,” Van Wyngarden tells Rolling Stone of his first meeting with Columbia Records execs, who soon signed MGMT to a four-album deal worth six figures, “They asked us for a list of dream producers, so we made one: Prince, Barack Obama, Nigel Godrich and ‘Not Sheryl Crow.’ ” Culturespill’s vote, for what it’s worth, is for “Not Sheryl Crow”–not EVER, in fact.

MGMT: “Electric Feel,” Oracular Spectacular (2008)

Oracular, a collection of psychadelic synth-pop jams in which Andrew Van Wyngarden sounds like he’s singing from under water and inside the sun simultaneously, at turns Mick Jagger and Andy Gibb, is an easy choice as Culturespill’s inaugural “Best Band You’ve Never Heard of” installment. But you’ll be hearing plenty about them soon. The album debuted on UK charts at the 12 spot, and the band’s core members, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, have graced just about every major magazine’s “artists to watch” reports in the past year, including feature coverage in Spin, BBC and Rolling Stone.

Of course, getting feature coverage in Rolling Stone can be a bit like getting a sharp stick to the eye–the magazine wreaks of perfume ads and spends more time endorsing politicians and pop wannabes these days than it does talking about something called “music”–you know, the stuff it was founded for. But while obsolete rags like Rolling Stone strive desperately for a contrived coolness–kind of like that scrawny white boy in high school who came to class with a lunch packed by mom and boasted of many untrue sexcapades in his best Ebonics to fit in–the boys of MGMT do their damnedest to fit nowhere at all.

They got their start doing “these obnoxious, noisy live electronic shows . . . where we would write these weird techno loops and arrangements that we could play with live.” Remarking on “these weird California Credence-style songs” they wrote to perform live a while back, Andrew and Ben explain that “A lot of people hated it. That used to be the goal of our shows. We were still trying to be obnoxious and somehow people got into it.”

MGMT: “Time to Pretend,” Oracular Spectacular (2008)

Drenched in addictive hooks that marry Prince and The Flaming Lips in a union of space-funk and soul that somehow captures exactly the sound the band describes on their MySpace page–“surf jungle country”–Oracular delivers a sound that’s as fresh in 2008 as Beck’s was in 1994, leaping onto the scene with the same “we don’t care” abandon that “Loser” brought to the biz back then. And people are “getting into it”–lots of them. It’s no accident that the album vaguely echoes The Flaming Lips. Oracular IS produced, after all, by David Fridmann, the captain at the console for many a Flaming Lips album. Roll Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots with some speed-laced nicotine and you’ve got the addictive mindfuck that is Oracular Spectacular.

Apart from their music, though, what’s refreshing about Ben and Andrew is their indifference to the punk-rock disdain for corporate influence that has itself become one of the cliches they expose, claiming instead to have “talked a lot about selling out as soon as possible” before anyone but their buddies knew who they were. Touché! Nonetheless, here’s to hoping that next year’s Grammy Awards completely ignore this masterpiece deserving of universal adoration, a neglect that has become a seal of approval for bands too good to be caught on TV with Brittney and Beyonce–and let’s hope it stays that way, for the sake of both the band and their growing number of fans.

And keep your eyes peeled for a curious little LP rumored to be out “in early 2009,” featuring an indie supergroup of sorts that emerged from MGMT’s recent tour with indie pop prodigies, Of Montreal. Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal’s frontman, has teamed up with Andrew VanWyngarden to form a side project called Blikk Fang. Judging from the certainty with which Spin projects an LP release due next year, the two of them seem pretty serious about it.