Friday, November 05, 2004

Rock of Ages

Homestead and Wolfe
"Our Times: The Gold Star Tapes 1973-75"
(Anopheles Records)
Mom once suggested I should try meeting a girl at church. Not surprisingly, I responded with something like, “No way, I’m cool! I need to meet girls at record stores or on college campuses.” But I also knew that she was onto something. There is a certain caliber of individual found among the hallowed halls of religion: gals with their heads on straight and their hearts in the right place. Yet choosing the right one can be so damn hard. It’s not as easy as picking a new world leader. You might pull the mother of God. You might snag a frigid schoolmarm with designs of bringing the final judgment down on your ass. Something like “Our Times” swings the pendulum back towards the sanctity of (good ol’) homespun American church values with its breath of warm air and soulful, cascading melodies.

Homestead & Wolfe is comprised of members of a church congregation, and their sole album, recorded from '73-75 and privately released in '75, is not your typical Holy Roller choral affair. It’s the music of a rock band, and, yes, a pop band. There are hints of folk and country in there too, as well as other influences. Formed by Ernie Bringas (onetime member of early '60s singing duo The Rip Chords, then youth minister of the Good Samaritan United Methodist Church in Cupertino, California, located at the intersection of Homestead and Wolfe), this ensemble is that rarest of blessings—a hobby band that’s also an exercise in melodic song craft of the highest order. The nine songs that comprise the original release of this hidden treasure are remarkably accomplished, literate slices of wry social observation and haunting musical eloquence cast as homespun folk pop.

The truth is this is not amateurish at all. This is not the Langley Church Project. Bringas had connections and realized that his “band” was more than just a weekend gig, so he took them to Gold Star Recording studios in Hollywood, the same place where the Beach Boys and tons of others, including a younger Bringas, had recorded many a sweet soulful melody. He took full advantage of the opportunity and used seasoned session players, though they were always performing songs that the band had written along with their own harmonies, based on the vivid arrangements of Joanne Avery. The mastery displayed here is largely thanks to the depth of Avery’s voice and vision, but this is also the work of a unified, capable musical ensemble, informed by experienced leadership and a sense of exploration that is practically dead in mainstream pop music today. I wasn’t so sure of all of the above till I listened to the first half of this album a good seven times all the way through without interruption.

“Slow Down” is a timeless bit of AM pop perfection where every instrument is given full room to breathe and interact. Janice Gundy’s resonant lead vocal is simply a joy to behold over a melody that’s familiar and neatly arranged, yet always maintains a warmth indicative of productions of the era. The guitar, bass, percussion, organ and harmonies of this track could not be more perfectly induced, while Jay Dee Maness’s constant, ethereal presence on pedal steel perfectly straddles the tightrope between maudlin excess and haunted tonal poetry. “Love Comes Through My Door” features another rush of heart-wrenching pedal steel and heaven sent harmonies to powerful effect. These songs are timeless, and the performances are pretty much flawless. Same goes for the bouncy “King of the Mountain,” a more obviously religiously themed piece, but never do these folks leave the realm of artistic expression behind to push forward some agenda. It seems the overriding themes of Homestead & Wolfe are love, tolerance, inclusion, devotion, and even a healthy sense of cynicism—the obvious result of trying to live the good life in America circa 1974. The gut-wrenching “If I Never Show” is a fine illustration. Over a bed of dripping pedal steel, finger picked acoustic guitars and no percussion, Avery sings, “the drums now are silent / the prophets are few / the streets all are empty / where marchers came through” as the opening to a painful letter to a lover lost to combat. Sandy Denny could not have done it any better. “See the Children Die” on the other hand is recounting of Wounded Knee told with tense emotion and unflinching honesty, performed with real eloquence. The piece builds with a lone tom and shaker, the pulse of Native tribalism. Over this, guitar and electric piano mimic a surreal cavalry call. Janice Gundy’s slightly deeper alto perfectly conveys the grim details with a depth that has me once more reaching for Sandy Denny and Karen Carpenter for comparisons.

Nestled alongside all these more obvious traits is a general datedness that could feed a tendency to mock or dismiss such a seemingly square ensemble. For reasons outlined above, that would be a detriment, but without question there are a few moments that could and maybe even should arouse a chuckle or two. Take the springy chorus harmonies on “Your Freedom’s in Question.” I know what you’re thinking, it’s a song about the ongoing struggle for the soul of man, and it is! But it’s also a fierce indictment against Nixon and the Watergate era wrapped up as equal parts roots country pop and flailing post Who psych pop. It’s an amazing piece of work by any stretch of the imagination. And “Beat of the Drum” is a blatant bit of mid/late 60s garage psych archeology that has to be heard to be believed. Closer “Mary Jane,” about the lure of pot and other illegal substances, rightly combines a sense of stoned bliss with cautionary lyrics about the grim junkie lifestyle.

All of this comes courtesy of Anopheles Records out of San Francisco, a label that till now was mainly known for fucked up garage psych and an excellent live album by Australian art punks, Venom P. Stinger. Homestead & Wolfe seem to stick out like a sore thumb in such a roster, but in truth they are a band who played for themselves, for the love of a good song, and they didn’t really care what anyone else thought but maybe their friends and family. So, if you like the names mentioned above, and Gram Parsons, or the Byrds, or Nagisa Ni Te, give “Our Times” a spin or three.--from a forthcoming update of Foxy Digitalis.

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