Posts Tagged ‘Country Rock’

Happy End – Happy End

Its been a long time coming, but many of the essential Japanese albums from the psychedelic era are now coming back to the reissue circuit. While most were represented in the CD-heavy aughts boom, the trickle back to vinyl has been slow for some, and even then it’s been limited to imports in many cases. With the reissue of the Hosono catalog through Light in the Attic, the artist’s other pre-Yellow Magic Orchestra work is now creeping out from the corners. Last year Survival Research reissued Hosono’s early band Apryl Fool, a band that would stand at the beginning of his journey into the modern musical heart, and now they’re continuing with the band he skipped onto next, Happy End. While the band’s sophomore LP is probably the most widely known, their debut hardly anything to dismiss offhand. Alongside Eiichi Ohtaki, Shigeru Suzuki, and Takashi Matsumoto, the latter also of Apryl Fool, they began move away from the blues that held sway of the Fool and into the strains of country rock, folk and lightly flecked psychedelia that would prove pervasive in their American counterparts. The difference here is that the band made the insistence on keeping the lyrics in their native Japanese, possibly alienating Western audiences at the time, but endearing them to their local crowds.

While it seems only natural that Japanese bands might sing in Japanese, at the time the Western influence was so strong that it was seen as almost a given that English language was the only path to prominence. This led to the Nihongo Rokku Ronsō or Japanese Language Controversy, a debate that the success of this album and the subsequent Kazemachi Roman helped to settle. It’s easy to see how this album catapulted the band to success — with a combination of soulful songwriting, adept musicianship that easily incorporates and melds their various genres, and hooks that should have transcended any language barrier — the only true curiosity is that the album didn’t crossover beyond their country’s bounds at the time. There are elements of CSNY, Moby Grape, and Quicksilver Messenger Service at play, especially in the three-part harmonies working their way through the folk forms, but the leads on Happy End tend to push further than most US/UK bands ever let themselves wander. In every sense this is a killer album that outstrips similar fodder that ruled international charts at the time. Very glad to see this back in print and hoping that this is the beginning of a run of the rest of Happy End’s catalog for US audiences.



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Black Lips

Like many I suppose my relationship with Black Lips has been fraught. The band’s always hand a sneer that’s both admirable (their ability to not give a damn about the winds of trend) and irritating (knocking out songs that feel like they coulda baked a minute longer). There’s an irreverence to their humor that skirts juvenile jabs, but it’s a good-natured poke to the ribs. Even when trying to put on a scrappy, dangerous garage guise, the Lips don’t really wish you ill. They’ll pick you up after shoving you to the ground. Aesthetically, their last record seemed to sap the last ounce of steam out of the sandpaper-piped garage that they’d been hounding for the past decade, so good news descends as the band has been born anew beyond the veil of country-rock. The gamble works and the twang sits well in their wheelhouse.

They add a roadhouse grit to the genre, melding their snide asides with the forlorn tales of hard luck, hard living, and hard liquor. It’s not a baptism in the genre but they’re definitely having as much of a dalliance as The Stones ever had. The Lips have always had a hardscrabble heart, now they’re just letting it bleed a bit more Tennessee Whiskey. Some of the renewed sheen might have something to do with Laurel Canyon vet Nic Jodoin at the board. With the exception of their Mark Ronson steered 2011 breakout, the band has often let the layers of sound fall by the wayside, preferring impact over subtlety, but Sing In A World That’s Falling Apart doesn’t just twang the guitar, it adopts the studio slick of their influences as well.

Lonesome harmonica pulls at the heartstrings, even when the song’s about a rogue GI Joe. Pedal steel soaks up the beer from the bar, sax squawks bump the jukebox, and Cole Alexander’s never sounded so buttoned up (but ready to rumple should the opportunity arise). While its nice to keep scratching the same itch, eventually that leads to lesions, so its nice to see the Lips swivel and shine. Country-rock’s a tried and true midlife dabble for a band, but nailing it takes more than a whim as they prove here.



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Mighty Baby – At A Point Between Fate and Destiny

I’ve talked about UK garage-soul band The Action and their fairly essential slab Rolled Gold here before, but up until now there haven’t been a lot of movements in the reissue of post-Action material by the always entrancing and sorely overlooked Mighty Baby. Sundazed has some fairly straight-forward issues of their two LPs and there have been a couple of live boots and unofficial runs here and there, but this attempt by Cherry Red to gather the complete recordings may well be the most ambitious yet, not in the least because it finally gives a fair look into the band’s scrapped third album Day of the Soup, which would see the band move even further from pop song structure and into the kind of live-driven, fluid psychedelia that loomed large on the American West Coast. They may be the most accomplished British band hooked into the style and they’ve long been overlooked by fans of the genre.

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Howlin Rain

Howlin Rain has always made their bed with the prospect of bending staples of ‘70s rock radio to the whims of something wilder – a dial that’s more psychedelic and free. While they dash through territories left vacant by Steppenwolf, Crazy Horse, Humble Pie, and The Band, in a post-radio world where influences seep in through deep dives and algorithmic suggestion they’re picking at bits of the fringe like Fat, Mighty Baby or Josephus as well. They dress shades of unrestrained early ‘70s Dead in heavier boots, whiskeying up their acid runs with the grit of Southern Rock. Ahead of quite a few other contenders this year, Howlin’ Rain is leading the edge of Cosmic Americana – pure and easy as a Sunday bar-b-que on the surface, but with a glint of madness in their eyes. The band is equal parts block party and bike club bonfire and that’s what makes The Alligator Bride burn so bright.

Perhaps spurred on by another fire eater project from Miller in the form of Feral Ohms, the core of Howlin’ Rain hasn’t felt this ragged in years. The past two albums in particular sanded the rough edges that marked early Rain, focusing on the tender blues beneath the tumult, but with The Alligator Bride we see Miller and co. back to the business of distilling lightning into choogle. The record is propelled by the bass in a way that rock hasn’t tapped into since Grand Funk and The James Gang shuttered their stores. Buoyed by the groove, the record snakes through southern charms and country’s arms to find purchase on the banks of the Mississippi. It’s mud covered with a howling heart.

If Howlin Rain was conceived as the comedown, slow-simmer backing to Comets On Fire’s coin, then they’re working their way back towards the fire with this album. That melodic heart is kicking strong as ever and there’s rhythm in their blues – swingin’ in the ways that lead the Stones down to Alabama to find their own country soul. It’s what Howlin Rain does with that soul that takes their aesthetic from throwback to evolution though. There’s no shelter to give them because they’ve burnt down the barn and are eying the house. With The Alligator Bride the band have let the danger back into their sound and that flash of the knife is just what’s needed to draw blood.



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Bonny Doon

Sure there’s something “hazy and pastoral” about the songs that appear on Bonny Doon’s new LP, Longwave. There’s a soft focus around the edges and an undercurrent of bliss, but there’s something I’d have to call aimlessly suburban about the album. Despite writing a good deal of the record in the quaint sounding town of Mystic Lake, MI, I, as a born and raised Michigan lad have to note that this berg is smack dab in the middle of the state. That leaves it surrounded on all sides by the tedious sprawl of Michigan highways. Now, if you’ve never experienced them I envy you, they’re an almost unrelenting expanse of featureless roadway that boasts no change in elevation to break up the monotony. It’s with these concrete threads in mind that I find the core of Longwave’s charm. There’s something soothing in its laconic presentation of a pop that touches on cosmic Americana, but packages it in the ’90s hangover of Alternative that once scraped the radio waves late at night on my Midwestern car stereo.

On long stretches of these roads I’d often console myself with music and with the right kind of bittersweet sway, those dull drags through big box America blur into a heavy sigh. Bonny Doon have captured the swirl of cracked plastic signs lined in squat strips, eking out an existence swaddled in dulled teals and muddy yellow. They’ve found the soundtrack to the American ground loop of small town existence. There’s a great sense of pop that’s thriving under the hood of Longwave, but its ‘from-the-hip’ nature and sauntered tempos lend well to a kind of nostalgia that dredges up a sense memory for smoke stained bowling alleys, Bob’s Big Boys and that smell of rain right before it breaks. Sure the landscape is dotted with cell towers now, but as Detroiters themselves, Bonny Doon must know that some places hold onto the past as modern ruins – industrial dioramas to the American Dream gone south, haunted with the ghosts of fried egg routines and holding fast to traditions no one agreed on. There are plenty of ennui miners these days, but somehow the smoke rings that dissipate around Bonny Doon’s alt-pop, shaded thick with twang and a half awake, half dreaming sigh, evoke an era lost more than most. This one’s a long-latcher, finding its way to your heart and squeezing softly.




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