Friday, February 16, 2007

KAK: The True Electric Sailors

The title of this blog comes from a song by the short-lived psychedelic rock group KAK, who produced only one album (KAK, in 1968) before quickly splitting up.

The lead singer is Gary Yoder, originally of the Oxford Circle, a band of spotty-faced young 'uns hanging out around UC-Davis in Sacramento and finding themselves, based on talent alone, big fish in a small pond. More and more the band took road trips to San Francisco to play the big venues such as the Avalon and the Fillmore, opening for the likes of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band and Them. They cut a single, "Foolish Woman," then split apart just as they were beginning to make a name for themselves. It was 1967 and the Summer of Love.

But Yoder, presumably on the strength and popularity of Oxford Circle, was offered a contract with CBS Records/Epic if he could quickly get a band together. He reunited with lead guitarist Dehner Patten of OC and recruited Joseph Damrell (of Group B) and Christopher Lockheed, and on a major label's budget, they spent the summer of 1968 in San Francisco writing the music. The album was assembled in roughly a week, received modest airplay, and disappeared into obscurity along with the stacks-full of other Bay Area bands that had been hastily signed in the aftermath of the mainstream success of Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Either due to a lack of chemistry or a manager, the band parted ways quickly. But the album still holds up pretty well. Although the lyrics are naive and simple, the band's music has a charm, striding a line between folk and R&B. Kak bashed out some pretty decent songs that are a cut above most of the psych rip-offs of the day--perhaps because the band's intentions were genuine. Some are a bit too hastily-written, like the slightly smug opener "HCO 97658" (named after the id number for their studio session--a good indication for the amount of thought put into the track), but others stay with you, like the "Trieulogy"--a medley of three songs that form the album's centerpiece--and the ballroom-rocker "Disbelievin'."

But ultimately Kak was put together by luck, and the album released by chance. The sound holds up, and the album, which isn't too dissimilar from Moby Grape's debut, is inescapably likeable. It was rereleased in 1999 on the U.K. label Big Beat Records, as part of their "Nuggets from the Golden State" collection of reissues.

Monday, February 12, 2007

My Perfect Playlist on the Radio

In case anyone's interested (I would call it "morbidly curious"), I will be interviewed briefly (really briefly!) on Madison's 92.1 FM "The Lake" tomorrow at noon CST. This will be followed by five songs chosen from my "perfect playlist" (I gave them ten, so I don't know what they picked). Since this is a classic rock station that specializes in music from the late 60's and early 70's, there will be a good sampling of psychedelic rock--I'd be surprised if they picked any of my more obscure choices. You can stream it online here.

Well, that was fun. Apparently they ran around the station trying to find a copy of the Velvet Underground version of "Sweet Jane," and had to settle with a Lou Reed live version. They played:

1) Dear Prudence - The Beatles
2) Little Wing - Derek and the Dominos [Jimi Hendrix cover]
3) She's a Rainbow - The Rolling Stones
4) Hurdy Gurdy Man - Donovan
5) Sweet Jane (live) - Lou Reed

I will put an MP3 up later if I was able to successfully tape it.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

King of Prussia

I can't resist Save the Scene, the debut album from King of Prussia. It's a small album, self-released while the band shops for a label, but their sound is fully-formed and big, and the album is at least as good as the new Shins--no, better. Part of the reason they've emerged with such a big, sophisticated sound is that, well, they're from Athens, Georgia, the best music scene in America right now to polish your indie-pop skills--but more because the members have already paid their dues in other outfits impressive in their own right: most of the guys migrated from the now-defunct Beijing, and Peter Alvanos of Fabulous Bird joins them. They also joined members of Athens' preeminent Elephant 6 collective to form "An Observatory" at a recent R.E.M. tribute concert. Their pop sound is a warm embrace, but the lyrics are laced with acid wit and clean storytelling, as on the first track of the album, "Spain in the Summertime," which you can download below. Even wittier: the lyrics to the entire album are printed in miniature on the CD, and if you order directly from the band--as you must, at the moment--they'll give you a magnifying glass to read them. The lyrics are so good you'll humiliate yourself to use it. But spin this album for friends and give them all the help you can--this underground release deserves a vast and bright spotlight.

King of Prussia - Spain in the Summertime

King of Prussia on Myspace (with order info)
Fabulous Bird
MP3: An Observatory - These Days (live)

Friday, February 9, 2007


Vancouver band Abernethy has just released its new album College Grove on Spinning Gold Records, and the opening track, "Astronaut," is something I've been sort of obsessed with these last couple of weeks. Lead singer/songwriter Joseph Abernethy has a gorgeous voice, which the album showcases across 11 tracks. But it's "Astronaut" I play over and over, probably because it's the poppiest song on the record, led by Stephen Toon's classy piano, rising and falling, while Abernethy's voice soars above it. Fine work.

Abernethy - Astronaut

Abernethy on MySpace
Spinning Gold Records

Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Shot Heard 'Round the World

The Brooklyn-based folk-rock band The Shot Heard 'Round the World has assembled its debut album, and it's the sort of modest pleasure that you refuse to lavish superlatives upon, until a week later you realize you've already listened to it twenty times and that has to mean something good. So put away that snobbery toward the modest: this is a wonderful album. Ten Songs for Town and Country reminds one of the early recordings of that other Brooklyn folk band you love (or should), The Essex Green, mainly for its devotion to the countryside, rivers, mountains, and prairie, while dabbling in the aural experimentation and quick changes in tempo and style that indicate a restlessness more akin to Arthur Lee--by way of Belle and Sebastian, as you won't find much fury or cynicism here. Recorded in "a cabin in rural Vermont," this is a pretty low-fi album, and at times relaxes back into simple, lovely piano instrumentals, but it's packed with delirious melodies that circle like leaves kicked up by a strong wind. Songwriters J. Alexander Farrill and Timothy Miles Bean have assembled some sublime mood pieces--eleven of them actually. "Casseopeia" twinkles like the constellation it invokes in its chorus, but with the simple, eloquent imagery of faces lit by lightning bugs. "Darker, Darker," with its mournful violin, strikes the only downcast note in an otherwise openly joyful album--but it's strident and sophisticated. My particular favorite of the lot is "Dead on Night," which pairs the quivering vocals with a background of soft, squealing feedback before bursting into an open sky of trombone and clarinet. It's not an album that's meant to change the world, but describes its own, and with the sort of detail and beauty that speaks to a real talent in the making. It's out on the fledgling Mountain Landis label.

The Shot Heard 'Round the World - Dead on Night

The Shot Heard 'Round the World on MySpace
The Shot Heard 'Round the World Official Site

The Psychedelic Alice

It would be difficult to deny that Lewis Carroll's "Alice" children's books--Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass--had a tremendous impact upon psychedelic music and pop culture in the mid-to-late 60's. The touchstone, of course, is Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," which drew out some of the trippiest moments of Carroll's books and described, explicitly, how they could be a "Just Say Yes" screed. Alice became an icon of the 60's generation, eating mushrooms which made her grow taller (or higher) and innocently swallowing the unknown contents of bottles labelled only "Drink Me." "The Annotated Alice," which picked apart the meaning of Carroll's sentences and characters, became a bestseller. The BBC, in 1966, aired an "Alice in Wonderland" featuring Peter Cook, Michael Redgrave, Peter Sellers, John Gielgud, Alan Bennett, and Leo McKern, directed by Jonathan Miller, with a lovely sitar score by Ravi Shankar; it played up the disorienting and disturbing aspects of the source material. The famous Walt Disney version was rereleased in theaters with a promotional poster that emulated the psychedelic designs of the Haight-Ashbury concert posters. John Lennon was a professed Carroll fan--his own prose writings emulated the wordplay of his idol--and his ultimate tribute was, perhaps, "I am the Walrus," named after Carroll's "Walrus and the Carpenter" passage. Obscure psychedelic and garage bands, eager to sneak in any kind of a wink-wink reference to the drug culture to add an aura of hip legitimacy to their songwriting, inevitably tackled "Alice in Wonderland" subject matter--often crassly, but sometimes to impressive effect, as with the songs of Frumious Bandersnatch and Boeing Duveen & the Beautiful Soup, both of whom even named themselves after Carrollian verse.

Today I'm providing a zipped compilation called "The Psychedelic Alice." At 25 tracks and almost 80 minutes, it's a general survey I've put together of psychedelic artists tackling the world of Alice, to varying degrees of success. Some of the bands and songs are very well known--"I am the Walrus" and "White Rabbit" are naturally included--but many are very obscure, from Central Nervous System's psych-rock to the soul stylings of the King George Discovery. The tracks are arranged roughly to follow the events of the books, or as much as can be expected. Some of the tracks may not, in fact, be inspired by Lewis Carroll--"Walking in the Queen's Garden," by the post-Van Morrison Them, may have nothing to do with the Queen of Hearts, for example--but they fit pretty well anyway, and fill in gaps in our narrative.

One thing to keep an ear open for is how the character of Alice is treated in the lyrics of each song; at times she's a psychedelic heroine, or a young innocent, or even a buzzkill, depending on what the musicians were trying to accomplish with their song. Many of the songs are pretty vapid attempts to hook into the trend, and don't mean much at all. A couple of other things to note: "A Sitting on a Gate" is taken from an Alice in Wonderland concept album from the late 60's, which blended spoken verse with music. "Beautiful Soop (excerpt)" is taken from a much longer recording by Pauline Oliveros, and isn't rock or pop at all, but an avant-garde, electronic composition. The final track is an excerpt from Ravi Shankar's score to the aforementioned BBC special, which ends the compilation on a pretty nice note, I think. I had leftovers, and could compile a volume 2 with some more contributions--go ahead and email me an MP3 if you have an Alice rarity in your collection. The only guideline is that it must be from the 60's or early 70's--the Alice heyday!

The Psychedelic Alice - zipped file

Track Listing:
1. Alice is a Long Time Gone (The Incredible String Band)
2. White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane)
3. Sea of Tears (Dotti Holmberg)
4. Alice in Wonderland (Central Nervous System)
5. Cheshire (Frumious Bandersnatch)
6. The Mad Hatter's Song (The Incredible String Band)
7. Alice in Wonderland (The Dave Heenan Set)
8. Walking in the Queen's Garden (Them)
9. Beautiful Soop [excerpt] (Pauline Oliveros)
10. Fairytales (The Lemon Drops)
11. Alice from Wonderland (The King George Discovery)
12. Through the Looking Glass (The Monkees)
13. Through the Looking Glass (The Mike Stuart Span)
14. Jabberwock (Boeing Duveen and the Beautiful Soup)
15. Talking to the Flowers (The Everly Brothers)
16. Who Planted Thorns in Miss Alice's Garden? (Tom Northcott)
17. Alice Designs (The Sugarbeats)
18. Tweedle Dee (Peter Doyle)
19. I Am the Walrus (The Beatles)
20. The Lion and the Unicorn (Skip Bifferty)
21. A Sitting On a Gate (Peter Howell)
22. Alice in Wonderland (Berkeley Kites)
23. Looking Glass Alice (The Bunch)
24. Which Dreamed It (Boeing Duveen and the Beautiful Soup)
25. Alice in Wonderland [End Titles] (Ravi Shankar)

Sunday, February 4, 2007


I had wanted to see Wonderwall pretty much since becoming a Beatles fan (in high school), since the soundtrack counts as one of the very first George Harrison solo albums, only preceded by an Apple release of experimental mellotron noodlings. Since those days of fandom, my obsession with the shortly-lived psychedelic heydey of 1966-1968 had placed the film even higher on my must-see list, but a certain wary reservation let me turn down the offer, from Rhino's exclusive Handmade line of limited-edition releases, to purchase the film on DVD with assorted collectibles. After all, this had every likelihood to be a head film of the pretentious variety (is there any other kind?).

There are unintentional head films (i.e. 2001: A Space Odyssey), and then films in which the filmmakers actually desired the audience to drop acid to enhance the viewing experience (i.e. El Topo). The best head film, aside from Kubrick's, is George Dunning's Yellow Submarine. The Beatles distanced themselves from the animated film, not even supplying their own voices, because they assumed it would be on par with the Beatles cartoon show--aimed squarely at children--and only agreed to the project because it would help complete their contract to make a certain number of films. But the finished result is at least on par with A Hard Day's Night, and far more artistically successful than the film directed by the Beatles (or at least Paul McCartney), Magical Mystery Tour, and Let it Be, which completed their film contract with a depressing fizzle. Yellow Submarine was a kaleidoscopic fantasy inspired by Beatles lyrics but calling to mind Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth, and perfectly in tune with the childlike surrealism of John Lennon. Plus, since the filmmakers were able to hand-pick Beatles tunes (apart from the handful of "new" throwaways handed them by the band), the soundtrack, finally released in its entirety in the late 90's, is stunning, highlighted by a rendering of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" that represents the height of artfully used rotoscoped animation--after the sequence there was applause in the theater, at a revival showing in Seattle. I would imagine that if you were going to drop acid while watching a film, Yellow Submarine would provide a very pleasant trip.

McCartney and Lennon both had interests in avant-garde film. McCartney, while a Beatle, also provided a score for a now-obscure British film; but it must have been unexpected when Harrison put a film score under his belt. In retrospect, for a Beatle who would later score eclectic projects such as the Madonna/Sean Penn vehicle Shanghai Surprise and the IMAX film Everest, and co-found Handmade Films for the benefit of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, his first choice doesn’t seem so unusual after all.

Wonderwall is of the “head film” genre, but at the same time it’s very, very British in its sensibility; it’s one of the strangest head films you’ll see. It stars not a hippie hero but the aged Jack MacGowran, hired because of his role as Professor Abronsius in Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires (so IMDB tells me now, but while I was watching Wonderwall I was constantly reminded of the doddering vampire-hunting professor). Playing Professor Collins, he spends his day peering through a microscope, and by night peering through the hole in the wall of his apartment, spying upon the neighbor girl, a hippie model. The discovery of the hole is given great import. The professor, living amidst piles of papers and shelves of books, tosses something angrily at the wall because of the racket—Harrison’s sitar music—playing loudly next door. His butterfly collection drops to the floor, shattering glass, and in the dark he can see a cross of light beaming from the tiny hole (a lovely use of lens filter). Through it, he sees the beautiful young woman reclining in red light while listening to the sitar play. As he looks back at his butterfly collection, the butterflies, now animated (in every sense of the term), flutter before his eyes and fly into the ether. The next time he spies through the hole, the girl and her friends are presumably in a fashion shoot; she’s skiing in falling snow, bizarre poses are struck, all to Harrison’s mixture of traditional Indian music and rock ‘n’ roll. And they are in a fashion shoot. After the animated-butterflies sequence, all scenes in the film have a rational explanation. No surprise a scientist is the main character—this is scientific, mathematic surrealism, which only lets the butterfly scene slip by because someone forgot to carry the one. Nevertheless, there is a long, somewhat irritating dream sequence midway through the film, which features backwards-playing notes as the professor envisions himself battling the girl’s rakish boyfriend, who’s wearing a superhero suit with “LSD” on the chest. One of the film’s most striking images, and its best stab at surrealism tempered by reality, depicts the professor madly digging peepholes between the bricks of the wall, so the multicolored lights of the psychedelic room on the other side shine through like a Christmas tree. Less satisfyingly, the following scene has our voyeur using every one of the holes to spy on his neighbor making love, the camera undercranked.

That scene, like the rest of the film, has a thin line to walk. It has to be charming, funny, and fascinating and not, well, creepy and disturbing. It almost works—but, unsurprisingly, does not. This is a film about a sheltered, lonely elderly man who becomes aroused—I’m sorry, “turned on”—to the carefree world of the younger generation, primarily through the act of obsessively spying. How could that work? And could this film have been made in any other year than 1968? I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, the Peter Sellers comedy, attempted something similar, and the results were either more or less successful, depending on whether you’d rather be watching this story unfold as a broad comedy (as Toklas did) or as a semi-serious fable (as Wonderwall is). Either way, it’s hard to take it too seriously in the twenty-first century. Sure, there’s some ostensible human interest when the girl’s boyfriend occasionally visits the professor (they almost become friends), or when the professor rescues the girl from a suicide attempt. These moments seem out of place in a “head film.” In fact, the film seems to be well on its way to a quaint, minor-key ending with the professor returning to his lab and his microscope, but as he looks through his favorite peephole, he sees a fantastic vision of his neighbor drifting away from him and becoming one with the cosmos. Frankly, the film could have used more of that sort of naïveté, but as it stands, Wonderwall tries to please both the trippers and the middle-brows.

The film would have fallen completely into irrelevance if not for the producers’ smart decision to hire George Harrison for the score, and his soundtrack album, which stayed in print when the film did not, is a feast of mind-expanding explorations anchored by the dreamy sitar. So much of what should be intolerable in this film is elevated by his accompaniment. The opening title sequence is a particularly remarkable blend of Harrison music with otherworldly visuals (the professor’s microscope slides). If any of this film sounds interesting to you, I’d recommend seeking it out, despite its flaws. But this is for psychedelic historians only.