21 September 2009

Research 1-6-12 - 1968 - In Research

Quality: 3.5 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 3.25 out of 5

Here's a pretty schizophrenic band for your consideration. At times, they go for the full-on biking hard rock sound, yet then stick in spacey folk-rock songs or honky-tonk songs in between. They certainly get an "A" for diversity. They get a "C-" for album sequencing, however. Unlike the common flaw of front-loading an album, somehow Research managed to stick all of their better songs on side two, with the opening tracks being a little underwhelming. Maybe that's supposed to leave you with a good impression should you make it through the first half without turning it off. Just as a side note, the stereo separation here is particularly annoying, with the drums often hanging out isolated in the left channel. At least it's a pet peeve for me.

On side one we get the balls-out, biker schlock of "Can You Baby" and "Juicy." Those don't particularly manage to keep my attention, but. Neither does the 'old-timey' sounds of "Highway Song" and "The Grass is Greener." I'm down with older styles, and I still love to occasionally put on my Roots and Blues box set, but most of the 60's bands trying to go down that road made a grave mistake. Research is no exception. Fortunately, the side two tunes almost seem to be a completely different, and much better band. "Lip Smakin' Good" comes across like a hairy, freaky, and entertaining Rolling Stones parody. "Omar" is one of those minimalist, reverbed folk-rock tunes. It's like one of the quieter songs from the Jefferson Airplane's "Surrealistic Pillow" with a touch of Donovan thrown in. "The Feeling" is a fun acid rock anthem, and "I Don't Walk There No More" is a more straight faced Stones interpolation.

Do yourself a favor and skip straight to track five or six to give yourself a good impression of these guys. Then decide on your own what to make of side one. This is far from essential, but you never know when music grabs you the right way, and Research gets at least a sporting chance at doing so for you.

Mars Bonfire - 1968 - Faster Than the Speed of Life

Quality: 3.75 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 3.5 out of 5

Mars Bonfire is not the name of the band, but rather the pseudonym of Dennis Edmonton, who played with an embryonic version of Steppenwolf. As soon as you take a glance at the track listing, you'll note the presence of "Born to Be Wild." The version here is in fact the original. As with the rest of Mars Bonfire's album, the hard edge rock is blunted, for a slightly more wacked-out, psychedelic rock vibe. Obviously the connection to Steppenwolf is going to stand out, and the music here doesn't have the thick crunch of that band, but opts for a thinner, yet phased and sometimes sleeker sound. There is a little more instrumentation present here as well, but like the more famous band, rock organ remains in its position of primacy. Really, I prefer the Mars Bonfire vibe and find the version of "Born to Be Wild" here to be superior. It helps that Mars Bonfire is generally a fine songwriter.

As such, there are some other standout songs here as well. The first three tracks really would fit right into your acid rockin' AM playlist. Sure, Mars Bonfire's voice is a little ragged and spazzy, but it gives the impression that he's really trying. I think "Sad Eyes" is a particular winner, splitting the difference between hard rock and AM sunshine pop. As the album moves on, that smaltzy AM pop sound does work its way in. "How Much Older We Will Grow" encroaches on Procol Harum's territory and "Sad" and "Tenderness" sound like something you'd program in to follow the Grass Roots. Still, you get "So Alive With Love" and "The Night Time's For You," which are both basically the same song but at least share the same groovy beat.

If you have any interest in Steppenwolf, it's a no-brainer that this deserves your attention. For the rest of us, there is some enjoyable, single-like material to wrap our ears around. This album may be chock-full of filler, but the highlights really are highlights and nothing here is so bad that I feel compelled to move on to the next track.

09 September 2009

The Beatles Remasters - Stereo vs. Mono

Note: I made revisions to this review on Sept. 12th, having spent more time with the mono box.
Obviously the Beatles are not particularly obscure, but these patron saints of psychedelia deserve at least a little monkey luv at the Psychedelic Garage with their remasters. We'll focus our psychedelic lens starting with "Rubber Soul" and continue through to "Abbey Road," bypassing "Yellow Submarine" because it's not worth it, and "Let It Be" simply because I don't like that album. I've heard most of the stereo remasters at this point, and the sound is quite sterling (I'm patiently waiting for my mono box to show up in the mail, but I have heard them all in Ebbett's form). All the bass missing from the 87' discs have returned, sometimes with a vengeance. I had to flat line the bass listening to "Abbey Road" in my Volkswagen Beetle, whose sound system usually annoys me due to lack of bass. There is some grunge back in the voices, which helps McCartney sound a little more human in those cheeseball moments of his ("Your Mother Should Know," "Ob-la-di Ob-la-da," and the list disturbingly goes on), makes Lennon sound more awesome, and Harrison spacier. Of course in the stereo versions allow for greater clarity in the instrumentation and allows the listener to have greater appreciation for the arrangements. Still, the Beatles were mostly involved with the mono mixes up until around the "White Album," and I'm greatly looking forward to the denser, but in my opinion generally more interesting mono mixes.

The mono set finally came in the mail, and sounds quite phenomenal. They didn't compress and limit and throw all the sound into the red, so it has a very smooth, quarter inch tape sound that the stereo remasters lack (and makes it sound firmly of 60's vintage). The liner notes for the mono are pretty impressive as well, even more so than the stereo version, whch I still enjoyed. Rubber Soul and Help! also include the 1965 stereo mixes. They're not too far off from Martin's 87' mixes, but they do benefit from the more appropriate remastering.

For those of you still stewing over which mix to go for, here are a few of my album-by-album notes:

Rubber Soul
The rockers like "Drive My Car" and "Run For Your Life" end up with a much sharper edge in the mono mix. Still, this album tends to be known for its folk rock cuts (especially in the U.S. version, which isn't part of either set). The stereo gives them a little more of an open, 'playing folk in the field' sort of sound, which is likely appealing for many of you. I still have to give my vote to the mono, which has a more claustrophobic, darker sound. I like my folk-rock a little hairier. Anyway, those of you sticking with the mono disc still get the 65' stereo mix, which is pretty oddball, but not as different from the 87' mix as some would have you believe. both of them feature hard stereo separation, which is a major pet peeve of mine.

I'm pretty split over which mix of this I prefer. In the column for stereo is "She Said She Said" and "Tomorrow Never Knows." The mono mix of "She Said She Said" annoyingly brings down the instruments when the vocals come in. Maybe I'm too OCD, but this almost ruins the mono album for me. "Tomorrow Never Knows" works pretty well either way, but I can't deny that the swirling sound effects in stereo is a major plus. Mono manages to add focus and aggression to rockers like "Taxman" and even "Doctor Robert" that the stereo lacks. "Eleanor Rigby" works a lot better when Paul and the strings are not in separate channels as they are in stereo, and in general George's Indian excursions, like "Love to You" here, work much better in mono. Sitar and tabla work much better when not spread out.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Y'know, I always thought that this album was waaay overrated until I heard the mono mix. Now it stays in contention for my favorite Beatles album. I will give that "A Day in the Life" works better in kaleidoscopic stereo, but the rest of it deserves to be heard in mono. The title tracks rock much harder in mono, as do "Getting Better" and "Lovely Rita." "She's Leaving Home" runs a touch faster and mono, giving it a grace completely lacking in stereo, the version on which I always found the track a drag. Paul knew what he was doing here- it just doesn't sound like that in stereo. Well, almost. I have trouble dealing with "When I'm Sixty-Four" in either mix. Lennon fares well in mono as "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" becomes, like, eight times more psychedelic and "Mr. Kite" is much groovier as well. "Within You Without You" is far more focused in mono, and I no longer consider it a dull excursion as I did with the stereo version. All in all, I'd call the mono a psychedelic masterpiece while the stereo strikes me as a mere shadow.

Magical Mystery Tour
I guess that the EMI engineers had figured out the whole psychedelic mixing thing by this time as the stereo version is generally listenable. The only major flaws are that "I Am the Walrus" infamously switches to mono since the "King Lear" broadcast at the end would otherwise be impossible, and "Baby You're a Rich Man" sounds pretty thin to my ears. Still, I feel like the mono has a groovier vibe - especially for the actual soundtrack songs and "Penny Lane," which comes across too cutesy for me in stereo. Although "Blue Jay Way" loses some elements in the mono, the mysterious vibe comes across just as well, if not better than the stereo track. There is something to be said for the wide open instrumentation of "Strawberry Fields Forever," but in the end I still prefer mono. Basically, this album is a toss-up in the sound debate. Oh yeah, I know the picture cover is incorrect; I just like the EP version better.

The Beatles
By this time the Beatles were taking more of an interest in the stereo mixes, and some of those were even created before the mono mix. In fact "Revolution 1" and "Revolution 9" (the latter of which I actually LOVE) never saw mono mixes and the ones on the mono album are simply fold-downs of the stereo (meaning both tracks are simply shoved together). The mono mix does sound more like a cohesive band than the stereo mix, which led most listeners to assume that the songs were basically solo pieces. There are many differences in the mix, for examples the extra bit at the end of "Helter Skelter" is missing in mono (including the famous shout of "I've got blisters on me fingers!"), and the mono "Good Night" goes straight into the orchestration, while the stereo fades it in. In general, I feel that Lennon's and Harrison's tracks, especially "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "I'm So Tired," "Happiness is a Warm Gun," and "Cry Baby Cry," tend to have superior mono mixes, while McCartney's and the sole Ringo track are better in stereo. Ringo's "Don't Pass Me By" is sped up and mono and it sounds like he's been snorting helium. In general, the stereo is perfect for cruising in your car or listening on the hi-fi, while the mono is great for a different perspective and headphone listening. For this one, you may very well need both.

Abbey Road
This album never had a proper mono mix (there are a few rare fold-down mono mixes), so at least there's no problem deciding which one to go for. I will say that I never really 'got' this album with my 87' CD, but with the improved sound I totally dig it. The fantastic arranging of the side two suite comes to light, and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" becomes dynamic proto-metal as opposed to the monolithic slab of dung I always took it for. I've also found myself listening to "Mean Mr. Mustard" repeatedly, which could cause insanity since it's only one minute long.

Past/Mono Masters
I'm totally biased here. Since these are the singles, it seems to me that the mono tracks are the definitive ones simply as AM radio stations in the 60's could only play mono. Of course, with the mono edition you miss out on the great "Ballad of John & Yoko/Old Brown Shoe Single," as well as the superior single version of "Let It Be," which only saw stereo mixes, but you do get the Beatles' tracks from "Yellow Submarine" in never released mono mixes. Harrison's tracks there really flower in mono, and "It's All Too Much" strangely comes across a little more like the Steve Hillage cover from 1976. That's pretty groovy. Meanwhile, "Don't Let Me Down" has a lot more power with the stereo version. With either edition, you get my sentimental favorite Beatles song in mono, "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)."

08 September 2009

Roland P. Young - 2006 - Isophonic Boogie Woogie

Quality: 3 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 4.75 out of 5

I don't know very much about Roland P. Young. I've gleaned from the music that he 1) is most likely a saxophone player, and 2) probably completely out of his mind - not that we're viewing that as a necessarily bad thing. The insanity present in these grooves make me recall the sounds of the great Sun Ra. Young definitely emits that sense of adventurous, sonic daring-do. He is missing, however, Ra's method behind the madness. Although obviously lacking in discipline, straight up musical madness can have its own charms.

"Crystal Motions" is pretty interesting, with a tight grid of chiming percussion, eventually interrupted by odd vocals and a blast of saxophone. After a couple of straight-up saxophone experiments, "Loveliness" balances some more conventional (but still out there) sax soloing with a drone and more chimes. The minimalist experiments continue until "Magenta Sky," which sounds like it's from another album with it's programmed slightly askew smooth jazz. I almost hate to admit it, but it's my favorite track here.

Even after several listens, I'm not sure what to make of this one. I want to like it for it's odd vibe, but in the end it's a little too minimalist to truly appeal to me. I doubt it helps that some of the tones here veer into a headache inducing treble range. But hey, maybe you have more tolerance for that than I do.

Sky Picnic - 2008 - Synesthesia

Quality: 3.75 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 4 out of 5

It's pretty difficult to actually recreate the psychedelic, garage-punk sound of the 60's. There's a certain sensibility in the playing, a vocal flow that is distinct for the time, and of course the need for clunky, tube-driven production. Sky Picnic is another modern group to make the attempt. Truthfully, they don't get all the way there. The production is way too clean, and I can't help but hear a touch of indie rock sensibilities in the vocals - it's fine but doesn't quite fit. That said, the songwriting does hit the nail on Syd Barrett's head and the playing would fit nicely in an underground, pop-art soaked psychedelic club. All in all this is a pretty fun listen for the heads out there. At the very least, it manages to rate pretty favorably with the better Elephant 6 bands.

"Half the Queen's Face" is definitely a winner, throwing the Floyd's "Astonomy Domine" into a blender and making an groovy beast from the acid-soaked pulp left behind. I love "Moons of Jupiter," which once again has something in common with the Floyd ("Interstellar Overdrive" for those of you not paying attention), but even more so makes me think wistfully of the fake-Chocolate Watchband's "Dark Side of the Mushroom" or "Expo 2000." "The Wise Man Lost His Head" filters in some of the more psychedelic moments of the Beatles while the closing "Sequence IV" goes for the epic, multi-part vibe, although it doesn't quite hit me in the sweet spot that the preceding three tracks do. I imagine that last one works quite well live, though.

This is enjoyable, if somewhat derivative psych-rock. But I don't think that Sky Picnic's goal is some much to innovate as to try and recapture some 60's vintage psychedelic lightning in a bottle. At this they do a pretty fine job. With hindsight as their guide, they tend to hit on the finer points of that musical era while gleefully avoiding the missteps and dross that even the better bands of that vintage occasionally stumbled into.

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