Friday, September 24, 2004

Dusted Goldmines and Heartbreak Hotels

One of the more unheralded tunesmiths in the US psych underground is Matthew Smith. The multi-instrumentalist, audio engineer, Detroit OG and all around cool dude leads the bubble gum acid pop explosion, Outrageous Cherry; lends his talents to Cary Loren's (Destroy All Monsters) mystical acid folkies Monster Island; is a founding member of the sad and lonesome Volebeats; and plays extended improv jazz/acid psych workouts that sound like undiscovered Krautrock classics with the duo THTX.

The Volebeats never really hit it off with the indie rock crowd, let alone the general public. A few twang pop aficionados and Bloodshot obsessives may've stumbled across 'em, but mostly word of mouth is their strongest supporter since they hardly play any gigs outside of Detroit these days and have little in the way of public relations. Brian Crook (of the Renderers, Terminals and Flies Inside the Sun) turned me on to 'em, and he doesnt even live in the same hemisphere. It's all the more interesting given Detroit isn't really where ya go to make it as a country group in the first place. Seems these boys like doing things the hard way, though some might just call it the wrong way. Still, the truth is the Volebeats have actually done it the right way, from the first album, Ain't No Joke (Gadfly Records) originally issued 15 years ago and featuring two different lineups, on up to hidden classics like The Sky and the Ocean (Safehouse) and The Mosquito Spiral (Third Gear), featuring a more solidified group of graceful practitioners of what Gram Parsons liked to call Cosmic American Music.

With the Voles, cover selection and performance is an art form, too. Just like with all those great bands in the 60s--the Beatles, Byrds, the Band, Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix--a well chosen cover adds a bit of a twist to expectations and even points the listener somewhere new. The Voles relish musical revisionism more than most, often turning songs on their head and revealing new layers of meaning. That's what makes Country Favorites (Turquoise Mountain) such a goddamn bittersweet beauty. It's still understated and delivered at a mostly shuffling pace with warm vintage production. Things are roughly split down the middle between catchy downcast originals and covers by folks like Roky Erickson, Serge Gainsbourge, the York Brothers and Funkadelic. And yes, they recast Slayer's "Die By the Sword" as a smoky, psych folk/country anthem to the evil that men do. And I can't put into words the magic conjured on "Maggot Brain." Lovers of early 70s Pink Floyd will be dazed and seduced.

Another fella that's been kickin around just as long (hell, longer!) and enjoyed an equal position of ignored genius is Mr. Howe Gelb. The Arizonian and folk mystic has been one of the most consistently mesmorizing songwriters in the underground since the mid 80s as the leader of the evolving ensemble, Giant Sand, rolling out album after album of weird grungy roots rock, rockabilly punk, lounge jazz and more while continually defying expectation and classification. There's much to find under the 'Sand, from early 90s indie guitar romps like Ramp (Restless) to the mid 80s psychobilly workouts of the debut, Valley of Rain, a bit closer to the Gun Club's stuff from around then. My current favorite is still 2000's Chore of Enchantment (Thrill Jockey), an oblique slice of country blues, psych rock, weird noise, jazz, folk and good old fashioned Crazy Horse inspired metallic fury. Funny how Wilco gets pegged for reinventing the wheel with Foxtrot, when Giant Sand already did it better two years before.

Aside from the occasional solo album and odd appearance, Giant Sand remaines the one thing you can count on, evolving and getting older, but always with some valuable common threads: Howe's croaked voice, like a young Leonard Cohen crossed with a giddy Lou Reed; his immaculately sloppy guitar skills; the quality and depth of his material.

Is All Over the Map is Chore's followup, not including 2002's inspired covers collection, Cover Magazine. It's also Giant Sand's first album of all new songs since 911, which Gelb manages to elegize in the haunting scorched noise cum folk pop of "NyC of Time." It basically says what a lot of media pundits and talking heads have already, but with an economy of prose more reserved for Charles Bukowski (or Lou Reed). Simply one of the finest Giant Sand songs you'll hear. "Remote" comes damn close to as good with a kicked up rockabilly storm that again has me thinkin' prime Gun Club and features a guest vocal from one Scout Niblett. That's another great thing about Giant Sand. Ever the master of smooth underground hip charisma, Gelb has roped in some of the greatest female voices in folk and pop in harmony roles. The rest of Is All Over the Map the title says, not necessarily as cohesive or instantly satisfying as Chore of Enchantment from start to finish, though things eventually cohere into more than just the latest (and greatest) Giant Sand album. It's more like a postcard sent from the Arizona desert with one of those cutesy little hearts affixed to one corner.

Steve Earle, the former junkie/current musical activist, says in the liner notes that the rush was on to get The Revolution Starts Now (Artemis Records) released before a certain election was rigged, er...decided. And the Twang Trust delivered. The Beatles love of opener "The Revolution Starts...", broken into two parts, is a real beaut, as are the honky tonkin "Home to Houston" and the protest ballad "Rich Man's War." The slow burning "Warrior" sounds halfway between his classic Train Comin' Round the Bend period and the Doors. Things get goofy on "Condi, Condi," before some Cheap Trick worthy power pop in "F the CC" shakes things up with an angry hoot and holler: "Fuck the FCC / Fuck the FBI / Fuck the CIA/ Livin' in the mother fuckin USA!" Damn, Steve! Yet the question remains; who the fuck's listening?

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