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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “In Love with Oblivion,” Crystal Stilts

26th December

For the first foreboding minute of “Sycamore Tree,” the opening track of the second LP from Brooklyn-based quintet Crystal Stilts, you might think you’re about to hear a clumsy-but-inspired take on The Doors’ “Not to Touch the Earth.” Which would be an appropriate place to kick off the festivities on In Love with Oblivion, really, since Brad Hargett and his reverb-muddied baritone sounds like he’s shoveling somewhere deep within himself to unearth his inner Jim Morrison throughout the album.

Kyle Forester’s keyboard clamors in the tortured dark of the song as you wonder if you’re trapped inside some Twilight Zone rerun. Then Andy Adler kicks in with a mean bass line and suddenly the track erupts with chugging percussion straight out of a Sun Records-era Johnny Cash single. Guitarist JB Townsend turns in licks lifted directly from the psychobilly playbook of The Cramps, Hargett enters with a vocal performance that sounds like he’s singing from six-feet under, and the blue-plate special of influences these guys serve throughout Oblivion begins.

And that’s just track one.

Through the Floor” delivers a radiant and similarly lo-fi festival of hand-claps, jangling guitar layered over a stinging solo here and there, and Hargett’s booming voice draped in the chirping echo of background vocals. If Phil Specter wasn’t in jail for killing Lana Clarkson you almost might think he’s the man moving the knobs at the console. As if guiding you on some comprehensive tour of all-things ’60s, Townsend saunters out of the doo-wop era and into Byrds-brand psychedelia on the exceedingly jangly “Silver Sun,” where he sounds like he’s stolen Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker and fully intends to keep it for himself.

Along with tracks like “Flying Into the Sun” or “Shake the Shackles,” “Silver Sun” is equal parts Highway 61-era Dylan and Murder Ballads/Let Love In-era Nick Cave as Hargett continues his relentless tribute to Joy Division and The Doors. By the time you make it through the nearly eight-minute-long “Alien Rivers,” the masterpiece of the album and easily among the finest tracks cut by any band all year, you might ask yourself “Why did no one cut this record in 1965?” You encounter the ghosts of many other bands throughout Oblivion, most of them at least as old as your parents–The Ventures, The Box Tops, Velvet Underground, to name a few.

Oblivion actually is the first of two records the Stilts have dropped this year; they released a fascinating EP in November called Radiant Door. There, Hargett shows off his upper register with such aplomb on “Dark Eyes” you wonder why he doesn’t go there more often. If you thought you heard a drowsy interpretation of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” somewhere in Townsend’s guitar work on “Alien Rivers,” Hargett makes “Dark Eyes” sound like it’s Michael Stipe Karaoke Night in your stereo.

A couple tracks later the Stilts turn in a devastating cover of “Still as the Night” by baritone badass Lee Hazelwood, known to you as the dude who wrote “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” for Nancy Sinatra in 1966. Hazelwood died in 2007 at age 78, but Hargett sounds perfectly pleased to carry the legend’s “Cowboy Psychedelia” torch himself. The cover is worth the price of admission alone, and the EP as a whole suggests that the Stilts are far from exhausting the creative vision they explore on their first two LPs.

The frenzy of genres critics contrive to describe the Stilts’ sound is a testament to how intensely the band has listened to the many long-ago groups they worship throughout this LP. From “garage-pop” to “neo-psychedelia” to “psych-pop” to “shoegaze” to the dreaded “post-punk,” a term as overused these days as “psychedelic,” what you end up with here is a band that has gone so far in a direction all their own you need a lexicon to interpret the mumbling and fevered attempts bloggers make at helping people understand what the hell they sound like.

To this blogger they mostly sound like a band called Crystal Stilts, and the wild fun they obviously are having throughout In Love with Oblivion makes it clear that they would have it no other way.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Best Albums of 2010 Series: “Warm Slime,” Thee Oh Sees

16th December

 

theeohsees.jpg

If Thee Oh Sees were a dorm room, it would be half-a-foot deep in paper plates stained with pizza grease and have a kitchen sink so bloated with the foul and crusted silverware of meals long past that it belches at you when you pass by. It also would likely reek of some unmentionable mixture of urine, unclean dogs and neglected laundry. And we may need to toss in a few condom wrappers thrown to the floor, walls yellowing with stains of bong smoke, and perhaps a stash of happy mushrooms hidden somewhere under the bunk.

Welcome, my friends, to the music of Thee Oh Sees.

This rioting pack of garage-psych brats hails from San Francisco, and they’re hell-bent on simultaneously resurrecting and razing the cultural stomping ground once lorded over by acts like The Sonics, The Electric Prunes, The Count Five and The Trashmen. The ‘60s script these kids read from is one they’ve studied hard and know by rote, even down to their propensity for cutting a new record every eight minutes or so (six LPs in the past three years alone, and a record in Warm Slime which they claim to have recorded in a single day).

The Kinks released three new albums in 1965 alone, and The Rolling Stones, not to be out done, released four new albums of their own that year as young bands scrambled to stuff the insatiable maws of slave-drivers back at the ranch of one big label or another. Thee Oh Sees don’t even have a distributor, no less a big-label slave-driver, but their Wikipedia discography reveals an extended rap sheet of LPs, EPs, 7-inch releases and the revolving door of labels they’ve thrown them to.

To top it all off, John Dwyer, the epicenter of this calamity who seems only to have gathered a band around him as an afterthought, has paraded through seven prior bands before arriving at the one he’s with. And even then he can’t seem to settle on a name.

“From the OCS to the OhSees to Thee Oh Sees, John Dwyer . . . has molted band names like some rare endangered bird determined to shake off pursuers,” Jayson Greene of Pitchfork remarks.

No wonder their video for “Meat Step Lively” from 2009’s Help seems to serve the sole purpose of inducing an epileptic seizure.

But in Warm Slime Thee Oh Sees have the record The Black Keys and White Stripes thought they’d been making all these years but were never unhinged enough to deliver. The record is an unrelenting siege of distortion, reverb and rage filtered through the sieve of the long-gone garage gods they worship in song. “I Was Denied” is a glorious romp that laces Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover” with a few tabs of acid and sends it on its exceedingly merry way. The turbulent “Castiatic Tackle” amps up The Cramps’ “Goo Goo Muck” to a decipel even those godfathers of psychobilly didn’t know they had in them. And the title track clocks in at nearly 14 minutes of blistering abandon that will leave you panting for more.

These guys’ fingers may be dirty with the dust of your grandma’s vinyl collection, but with records like Help and Dog Poison in 2009 and now Warm Slime this past May, they leave absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this most certainly is not your grandma’s rock ‘n roll.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Roky Erickson: He’s Comin’ Home After All

31st March

Roky

“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 furious.com 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.