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Sunday, April 17, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: Neo-Psychedelia
Neo-psychedelia is a fairly vague term, covering a wide range of artists from the post-punk era of the late 70's to the current day.
It is a term that finds room to include early 80's English bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and the Teardop Explodes, late 80's Americans like Lenny Kravitz, space rock like Spacemen 3, and 90's experimenters like Mercury Rev. Thus, a playlist consisting of this music will invariably jump great distances from style to style.
What these dissimilar artists have in common is their conscious attempts to draw from the trippy sounds, textures, and experimentation of the original 60's psychedelic bands. Some took their cues from the psychedelic pop of the Beatles, Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, middle era Byrds and Hollies, and the like. Others drew from the darker, longer form structures of later Pink Floyd and Can, still others from the fuzzy distortions of late 60's psychedelic garage bands. The neo-psychedelic bands could be poppy and light, sharing common ground with jangle pop, or they could be heavy, focusing on feedback saturated jams, or bizarre sonic experimentation.
Some of these bands played up a druggy image, while others simply created pastiches from the sounds without any overt lysergic subtext. For the most part, it was an indie phenomenon; much of this music was too far-out for the major labels to bother with. However, some major label artists dabbled in it in the 80's, including Prince and Tom Petty.
Neo-psychedelia never became a movement or a scene, with the exception of the short-lived Paisley Underground movement of Los Angeles in the early 80's. For the most part, it has remained a pliable, flexible library of sounds and textures cultivated and customized by isolated, individual bands. Neo psychedelia has a lot of crossover with dream pop, shoegaze, space rock, pop underground, and noise pop. Because of the ephemeral vastness of the genre, there are literally dozens of bands that equally merit inclusion on this list.
Some important neo-psychedelia artists and songs include:
1. Dukes Of The Stratosphear: 25 O'Clock
Dukes Of The Stratosphear was really XTC working under an assumed name; they cut an album and an EP in the mid 80's that didn't really fit comfortably into their body of work, and invented a Sgt. Pepper-like alter ego to go with it, with each member taking on a new name for himself. Their EP 25 O'Clock was released on April Fool's day, 1985, and ads claimed it was a newly discovered rare recording by a forgotten 60's pop/psychedelic band. Indeed, it sure sounds like one, "25 O'Clock" bears hallmarks of the Beatles, Kinks, and Syd Barrett.
2. Green On Red: Gravity Talks
Green On Red first appeared as part of the paisley underground movement in L.A. during the early 80's. Gravity Talks is their most overtly psychedelic offering, with much of the color coming from Chris Cacavas' organ. The title track is the best cut from the album, recasting late 60's psychedelic conventions into a roots-rock Americana mold. Later albums from Green on Red would abandon most of the psychedelia altogether, focusing on a John Fogerty inspired roots rock; they were later credited with being one of the forebears of the No Depression movement that produced Uncle Tupelo.
3. Rain Parade: What She's Done To Your Mind
Paisley Underground contemporaries with Green on Red, Rain Parade had a college hit in 1982 with this echoey, jangly Byrds-influenced single. Rain Parade would pursue a heavily psychedelic course that would grow more explicit with each release, but they never found an audience beyond a very small devoted cult. Their albums are well worth seeking out for fans of psychedlia. Guitarist David Roback would form Mazzy Star in the late 80's.
4. Mercury Rev: Coney Island Cyclone
Stately, phase-shifted psychedelic mini-epic, complete with backwards guitar, fuzzed up vocals, lumpen rhythm, trippy lyrics. Yerself Is Steam, Mercury Rev's debut, stands as a near-masterpiece, full of free-form chaos put into the service of undeniably melodic pop tunes. Like many bands who debuted with heavy slabs of psychedelia, Mercury Rev would gradually move away from overt psychedelia on later releases, as their experimentation grew more organic and less derivative. Still, even their derivitive stuff sounds like nothing before it; how derivitive can it be?
5. The Apples In Stereo: Tidal Wave
The Apples In Stereo were part of the Elephant 6 lo-fi collective of like minded artists including the Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Secret Square. The Apples In Stereo specialize in a very mid-late 60's style, on "Tidal Wave" they graft a "Journey To The Center Of Your Mind" guitar to a lo-fi harmonic pop song that can best be discribed as a cross between the Beatles and Sonic Youth. Fun Trick Noisemaker was something of a bridge from the gloomy sounds of Grunge and a newer, more optimistic, almost giddy alternative style that was developing in its wake.
6. Echo And The Bunnymen: The Killing Moon
These dour Englishmen combined post-punk with moody psychedelic atmospherics. While the vocals recall the somewhat overripe approach of the New Romantics, this makes great use of echoey 60's guitar, and what appears to be a mellotron in the background. They never really made much of an Impact in America, but in England they were huge for a brief period; "The Killing Moon" was their second top-10 hit.
7. Spiritualized: Electricity
Spiritualized, formed by Jason Pierce in the wake of space rock pioneers Spacemen 3's breakup, specialized in an overtly druggy brand of psychedelia. "Electricity" is a major triumph, recalling psychedelic-era Pretty Things crossed with the Move. Frenetic, fuzzy, pulsating, and rough, this has all the hallmarks; the album from which it is taken, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, is easily the most psychedelic release of the 90's. While this cut is a straightforward garage rocker, much of their music is far more elaborate, hypnotic and complex. This, and the album it is from are strongly recommended.
8. Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians: Egyptian Cream
Robyn Hitchcock, formerly of the Soft Boys, had released a few solo albums before this one, the first with his new backing band, the Egyptians. "Egyptian Cream" is a twitchy, nervous number with dreamy, spacy, off-kilter vocals, ringing guitar, and distortion. This represented a change of sorts for Hitchcock, who relies more on guitar and keyboard textures here more than he had previously. Vaguely reminiscent of the 3 O'Clock.
9. Plasticland: Alexander
Milwaukee's Plasticland isn't well remembered now, but in the 80's they produced a string of records that recalled the punkier 60's psychedelic bands like The Pretty Things and the 13th Floor Elevators. "Alexander" a garage band sounding kickoff to their 1984 debut album Color Appreciation, re-released a year later as Plasticland on Enigma captures their sound perfectly; most of the rest of the album are get-to-the-point punky psych-rockers clocking in under 2 minutes each.
10. Lenny Kravitz: Let Love Rule
New York's Kravitz hit gold immediately upon his debut with this retro hookfest in 1989, gaining substantial MTV rotation and radio airplay. While the song is nothing but an amalgamation of late 60's devices, Kravitz manages to imbue it with a personality of its own; while it instantly sounds familiar upon first listening, but unplaceable. Kravitz has continued in a similar vein ever since, crafting songs that instantly sound like half-remembered early 70's tracks yet never sounding too much like any specific one. He's racked up a large body of hits in his career, yet has never been pigeonholed, appearing on the rock, pop, adult contemporary, r&b, and modern rock charts; a remarkable crossover appeal.