Monday, April 16, 2012

Let the Good Times Roll - Again

The late 60s is a time of powerful mythology. The moon landing, Woodstock, Ken Kesey and the Magic Bus, Kent State, the Vietnam War, Charles Manson, Altamont... it’s a deep and extraordinarily rich vein that can be mined endlessly by anyone with an ounce of imagination.

At the time, people - and young people in particular - just seemed to be operating on a higher consciousness. They wanted a better world, social justice, personal freedom, the right to blow weed, get laid and have a great time without worrying about the consequences. They wanted something more. They wanted to live out loud - in the moment. They weren’t ‘hung up’ on personal security, the economy, the formalities of society and all its rules. All that was just the messed-up doings of The Man…  and The Man, as any fule knew, simply could not be trusted.

In the 60s the pursuit of a higher consciousness, enlightenment and freedom was the business of the times. It was a real and tangible goal. Cynicism hadn’t yet obtained a stranglehold on the dreams of young people. Sure, all the mind-expanding drugs on hand and the fact that television had not yet become the all-pervasive influence it is today was a factor, but there had to have been something else too. What it was exactly is hard to say... 

Without a doubt there was a remarkable surge of creativity which yielded music and artistic expression of incredible power. Jimi Hendrix was only 27 years old by the time he died yet he left behind three landmark albums. Ditto Jim Morrison (only with more albums). 

Coincidence? Maybe. What cannot be disputed is that there was a wild freedom to the music, an unconquerable spirit that was striving for the outer limits of human expression. But there was a price to pay. As always, those who flew too close to the sun ended up getting their wings badly burnt. Great art always demands its sacrifices.  

Shoot forward 40 years and we are about as far away from that idealistic world as its possible to get. Its hard to find anything to be optimistic about in this old world of ours. It seems we have been on a serious downer for some time now. The party train has derailed completely. Perhaps its time we hit rewind and went back to the beginning, remember what it was that got everyone so excited back then. Some people are doing exactly that. Let's take a closer look at a couple of them.

Jonathan Wilson is a seriously cool dude with a lot of talented friends and he's made an insanely groovy record in the form of his debut offering Gentle Spirit. It's a real soothing record, very, very laid back. And it tells us there is simply no need to dwell on all this heavy shit being laid on us on a daily basis. Jonathan Wilson doesn’t care to deal with all that. He’d rather kick back in his LA pad, grow his hair long and put down some tunes that would put the Dude himself into a state of aural bliss. This guy can really channel those much-vaunted good vibrations. Where did they go?

Sure it might stray into The Eagles type territory from time to time – and Lord knows The Dude wouldn’t dig that – but we can forgive Jonathan because he’s not some fat old dude trying to get his mojo back. He’s a young hepcat. He has friends like Charlie Sheen, no less (who gifted him his ride, a vintage Camaro muscle car). When he isn’t making this freakily chilled out music he’s building guitars. He’s a craftsman, he’s Jesus the Carpenter, there’s even a distinct physical resemblance. Praise the lord and pass the corn chips! 

And it is freaky… its time machine freaky. The sound is distinctively blissed out Southern Cali soul surfer stuff. Track 4, Canyon Rain, is a typical example. As the song opens to gently plucked acoustic guitar and what sounds like tabla drums, you’re not immediately sure if its brushes on cymbals you’re hearing or the sound of waves rolling in. Maybe they left the door open when they recorded it? The Doors’ Rider on the Storm comes to mind… but this is a much sunnier sound than the Doors. Wilson seems generally stoked with the world he sees around him. He’s a glass half full kind of guy. Only on Can We Really Party Today? does he get a bit moody and acknowledge that there’s something foul afoot in today’s world.

Wilson’s voice is not the strongest thing on the record. Tim Buckley he ain’t. It remains hushed throughout, only on  Magic Everywhere does he attempt some real singing. He’s possibly more comfortable with his playing than singing ability. And certainly Gentle Spirit is mostly about the playing.  It’s multi-instrumentalist’s dream. There’s even a harmonium! In fact, there is so much going on here it’s sometimes hard to keep track of all the instruments chiming in. It could be a great parlour game – ID the instrument and win a bong hit!

Despite the generally expansive mood of the album, it only strays into bloated over-indulgence on the last track, Valley of the Silver Moon. You know from the outset it’s gonna be a stretch to keep it interesting at over 10 minutes. Bear in mind, the album was originally conceived as a vinyl double album (naturally) and clocks in at 78 minutes. Many of the tracks are over 5 minutes in length. It’s a great driving album. You won’t have to change the CD for most trips and it will definitely curb your more base impulses when you encounter retarded drivers on the road.

At a time when retro sounds are definitely in vogue, Gentle Spirit stands out by its lack of irony. It sounds like it comes straight outta the early 70’s but minus the mush and blur of a cocaine comedown and the asinine vocals that marred much of the music of that time. If you are feeling bummed out with the 21st century, you could do a lot worse than roll a blunt and put Gentle Spirit on the turntable and journey back to a time when things seemed kinder and gentler, even though they probably weren’t.

In a very similar vein to the action being laid down by Mr Wilson we have these Swedish sisters who go by the cute name of First Aid Kit, who also seemed to have been plucked directly out of Haight-Ashbury circa '69 and dropped from the sky into our laps.

It’s not just the clear as a bell vocals on their second full length outing, The Lion’s Roar, that evoke Joan Baez, Dusty Springfield and other immortal songbirds from the age of aquarius, it’s the whole vibe of the thing. The record itself seems to bear the hallmarks of the vintage technology of the times. Yes it’s recorded in high def on state of the art sound equipment and it sounds deliriously good on my stereo, but it’s still a note perfect tribute to the tube amp vibes of the times.  

These gals are obviously steeped in the mystique of Venice Beach, the legendary Newport Folk Festival and the aforementioned San Francisco hippie mecca – Hash Ashbury. If the muumuus  they're wearing on the cover is any indication, along with the ironed-out hair half-way down their backs, they are very 'hip' to the power of this era. They are clearly deeply immersed in it.

Indeed. And why not? Look around you. Does anyone really want to live in the present times? With the messages of doom and gloom churned out 24/7 on 155 channels. If I have to hear the phrase ‘global economic crisis’ one more time I’m gonna kick someone’s teeth in, I swear… Heck no, people, that’s no way to live. So let’s stuff a little hash into our pipes, kick back on corduroy covered sofas, fire up the lava lamp and get down to the sounds of yesteryear.

Despite their youth, First Aid Kit have clearly worshipped long and hard at the altar of great music. On the stunning second track Emmylou they name check rock love affair legends Johnny Cash and June Carter and Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. They are well aware of what has gone before but it doesn’t intimidate them. They are up for the challenge of shrugging off the weight of the giants, while still acknowledging their influence.   

On To a Poet, the uncanny mimicry gets almost spooky. How do such young artists manage to deliver music this powerful, this effortless, when English isn’t even their first language? It’s a delightful mystery.

Throughout the album the girls voices are very much front and centre. The purity of their pipes is freakish and hauntingly reminiscent of… who, exactly? It’s hard to pin down. They seem to channel dozens of great female vocalists of the past, including current ones like Chan Marshall, Polly Harvey and Beth Orton.

Despite their relative youth, the music is startlingly mature and accomplished. They barely put a foot wrong, making The Lion’s Roar easily one of the best releases of this year thus far.

CODA: While researching this piece I stumbled across a new outfit that fits perfectly in with the general sentiment expressed here. They are a spacerock crew out of San Francisco called Wooden Shjips (no, that is not a typo) and they are mind-bendingly good. I am seriously excited about these guys. I mean, think Grateful Dead, Hawkwind, Can, all the way through to KYUSS, Nebula, Sleep and all that awesome blissed-out desert pschyedelia that came out of that Arizona scene. Wooden Shjips take all that and chuck it into the blender. Its serious head-nodding stuff but extremely groovy with it. They are just WILD man, wild. FAR... freaking... OUT.

They have just released a new full length CD called West, which I immediately ordered. Prior to that they had some very exclusive vinyl only EPs out on some obscure labels, which have now been collated into two CDs - Vol 1 and Vol 2. They also have another mini-LP out called Dos. Apart from that I don't know much about them at all except that the lead singer has an awesome beard and plays a wicked looking vintage guitar. 

Without much further ado, here is a couple of jams from these monsters for you to get your head around. WARNING: This music will seriously do your head in! So don't attempt to operate any heavy machinery or make a cake while grooving to this. Brownies maybe, but not cake!

This is the first track off the new album, West

The band playing live for Radio station KXLU. The bassist appears to be blissfully unaware that he's been mauled by a vicious spider.