Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Red Skull Pt. One (Bacon From Mars)

This is the start of an irregular feature, The Red Skull. We take in more CDs than we can possibly listen to when we first get them at our house. The goal of this feature is to go through some of these things we've picked up. The ones we got because they looked interesting, then there's the myriad questionable promos Amanda receives. I'll write about the ones that really stand out. Or write about the ones that are straight up awfulness. Today's albums are a collection of songs by Kaleidoscope called Egyptian Candy, and The Kinks Present A Soap Opera.

A large scale dumping of garage rock collections fell upon Amanda's store last month, it's taken awhile to wade through everything. It's range from the sublime (the object of this piece, Kaleidoscope, The Blue Magoos, Mouse & The Traps) to the so-so (We The People) to the embarrassing (The Peanut Butter Conspiracy). Kaleidoscope was the last of the bunch that I listened to. As I had become accustomed to the hyperbole infected liner notes of these CDs, I didn't bat much of a lash at the grand claim that "despite releasing excellent albums, made the Velvet Underground look famous in comparison". Now, taken as a statement of fact, this is true. The Velvet Underground probably sold more records while they were together. But we can all tell by this statement that Scott Isler is trying to tell us that Kaleidoscope is more obscure and yet on the same level of greatness as Velvet Underground. I really couldn't believe the balls of this guy writing the liner notes.
Then I listened to the CD. It's no White Light/White Heat, but it is very, very good. I was weary of the band because of the obvious psychedelic signs that were all over the case of the CD. The name of the band, the swirly lines on the cover, titles like "Pulsating Dream" and "Keep Your Mind Open". I was getting ready for insipid rhymes and being told that opening my mind would lift the Pentagon etc. I was wrong in all of my assumptions.
Some of the melodies have that similarity to your general summer of love hippy-dippy bullshit. The band takes your mind off that very quickly. They twist "world music" into the Arthur Lee blueprint for acceptable psychedelic rock. Goddamn, I hate that term world music. Generally dismissing thousands of genres into one. Putting Fela Kuti next to Micheal Flatley. I understand that it's hard to organize shelves in a record store into "Afrobeat" "Celtic" "Reggae" "Klezmer" etc. would be near impossible, but "world music" is just godawfully dismissive. Anyway, completely got off subject there. I was talking about Kaleidoscope.
Kaleidoscope started out as a bluegrass band. You can hear that in melodies and songs like "Baldheaded End Of A Broom" and "Cuckoo". They mix all that in with instruments that I've never heard of before, like the oud, the doumbeg, and the saz. These foreign instruments rub elbows with distorted guitar drones and banjos and mandolins. This all creates a genuinely unique sound. David Feldthouse and David Lindley the guys who play all these instruments and were the main guys behind Kaleidoscope aren't squatters in other cultures either. They are actually proficient at these instruments, unlike the swarms of sitar players that popped up after Sgt. Pepper's came out.
This band is also up on that whole gypsy thing that is getting so popular in the indie rock circles now. They just happened to do it forty years earlier than Beirut or Devotchka. (Not to deride either of these bands, because I'm totally into this shit too, guys.)
They even get all Flying Burrito Brothers on us on "Life Will Pass You By" third singer Chris Darrow sounds like the doppelganger of Gram Parsons here. It sounds fantastic. It's jaunty with high plains lonesome three part harmonies.
On "You Don't Love Me" they get their guitars at a dirty Junior Kimbrough/Black Keys tone and get impossibly bluesy. As with most of the songs on this collection, there isn't a precedent for this sound on earlier tracks.
They reach their peak on "Beacon From Mars" with it's drone and melody that totally rips off "You Are My Sunshine" (in a good way). The song was originally titled "Bacon From Mars" which would have made it one of the greatest song titles ever. The blues element of this band surfaces again during this song. It's a dark 12 minutes, not a boring dark like the 18 minutes of Love's "Revelation" at the end of Da Capo.
Any of these songs could have served as a blueprint for a passable late sixties garage band that could be lamented and called the forefathers of punk/gypsy rock/space rock/alt country/the as yet not created cross between indie rock and jugband music... instead Kaleidoscope got all of these down. Achieving an eclectic nature that few bands were truly able to achieve.
So, Scott Isler, liner note author, you came the closest out of the fantastical post-Nuggets hype men have to the truth in your hyperbole. While none of the members of Kaleidoscope were as good as lyricists that Lou Reed used to be. They did hop genres as The Velvet Underground did, just on a different side of the street.

I ended up writing much more about Kaleidoscope than I thought I would, so I will return either later today, or tomorrow with my thoughts on The Kinks Present a Soap Opera.

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