If looks could kill… Leica Monochrom, 35mm Summilux FLE. At The Bishop’s Garden, where apparently finding a photographer around the corner wasn’t what the Russian woman expected.
In Apocalypse Now, before Captain Willard is sent up the river to kill Colonel Kurtz, there’s a review of Kurtz’s accomplishments, his military CV, which shows just what an amazing officer he was before he went off the deep end. And so we begin our story about Tim Presley, whose weird/magnificent Cyclops Reap was recently released under the band name White Fence.
Not three years ago, Tulip Frenzy called Presley’s band Darker My Love’s Alive As You Are the Album Of The Year. Last year, we awarded Hair, the collaboration between White Fence and Ty Segall, half of the the runner-up position to Woods in the Album Of The Year honors (the other half going to Ty for Twins). So we climb into our little PT boat heading up the river after Presley with admiration, respect, and gratitude for the pleasure his music has given us over the past several years. And also puzzlement. How has it come to this?
The reason we have embarked on this voyage is that, since 2010, when Darker My Love was put on hiatus, Presley’s White Fence albums have been tantalizing, frustrating lo-fi oddities, recorded in his bedroom, under the influence of, what exactly? What’s happened to the guy, his state of mind? Presley has now entered the category of pop genius-savants-eccentrics that include Syd Barrett, The Residents, and The Shaggs — in all cases, musicians you marvel at more than you enjoy. We’ve listened to each of the White Fence albums, and the feeling is this: you begin by hearing glimmers of pop smithery that brings a smile to your face, and then you wait for it to congeal into some kind of solid form, but riffs come and go, melodies dissolve faster than snowflakes in Los Angeles, and unless you are in, shall we say, a state where psychedelic albums can be understood in their fullest, you just have to wonder: what the Hell is he doing?
Last year, he put out the massive Family Perfume in two parts, released a few weeks apart. It was said that Part One was curated by Ty Segall, and in fact it came out just a few weeks after Presley and Segall’s great album. But after listening to both parts several times, we found it really hard to want to listen some more, because it was just too frustrating — too fragmented, ethereal, the sound quality too low, as both the key and the meters in which the songs were being played shifted in swirling mists. We gave up… And went back to listening to Darker My Love.
And yet our little boat takes a turn in the river and we can hear, from loudspeakers above the bridge ahead, Presley’s new ‘un, Cyclops Reap. One song (“Trouble Is Trouble Never Seen”) is sung in the exact phrasing as Eno’s “The True Wheel.” In another song (“New Edinburgh), we hear the riff from “Needles And Pins” float in and exit like it got poked by a pointed object. ”Pink Gorilla” sounds like an outtake from a lost ’60s artifact. Whole segments of Nuggets get thrown in a Cuisinart, along with jimson weed, nutmeg, and yage, and out comes… out comes… well, damn if this doesn’t sort of begin to work… If you get into the spirit of things, you begin to realize… yummy, this is eccentric garage psyche, but it actually sounds like… an album, replete with music spliced into units we generally refer to as… songs.
First, the sound quality no longer makes you think he recorded the whole thing on his iPhone. Second, there are more recognizable, longer-lasting fragments of melody on this one. Sure, this is surpassingly odd music, but… if you have the inclination to sit still and listen to what has to be one of the strangest career detours in the history of rock’n'roll, you will find Cyclops Reap to be a confounding, ultimately intoxicating album.
Which explains why, when we finally found him, Presley was sitting there playing sitar surrounded by naked Montagnards and a babbling Dennis Hopper. And having invested the time to discover how genuinely interesting this is, we think we’ll stay for a while, happy to discover we don’t have to carry out our mission “with extreme prejudice.”
Having Camper Van Beethoven open for Cracker would send Darwin into a tizzy, for they reverse all theories of evolution. Bands of virtuosi playing wildly inventive sets are not supposed to evolve, as David Lowery did in the early ’90s when he left Camper and formed Cracker, into straight-ahead roots rock. Okay, maybe their trajectory followed the path of the 1970s when punk rock was the palette cleanser that saved the meal. And yeah, we’ve been fans of both bands since their founding, so it’s not like the effect of seeing them back-to-back should have been a surprise. But to see Cracker follow Camper, as they did last night at the State Theater, is to understand just how magnificent both bands are, and what a deceptive and underrated genius Lowery is.
If Camper Van Beethoven can be said to combine music from a gypsy wedding with the dynamics of a ska hoedown, followed by an astral launch worthy of Pink Floyd, all in the same song, then Cracker should be viewed as a band that grafted Southern rock and country onto a frame stretched by punk rock and the Rolling Stones. Let’s just look at the bands they covered last night to get a sense of Lowery’s catholic tastes: Status Quo and the Clash (Camper), the Grateful Dead, Flamin’ Groovies, and Dwight Yoakum (Cracker). Oh, and of course the Clash song Camper played, “White Riot,” was played as a country’n'western, just to further confound the distinctions between the two.
If Luna had ever toured with Galaxie 500, Dean Wareham fronting both bands seriatem, you’d see the same dynamic — a man dancing happily with both his first and second wives. Last night Camper was just a wee bit off due to Victor Krummenacher being (temporarily) absent from bass chores, with David Immergluck filling in admirably, if not perfectly. There was an opportunity cost to the deletion of Immergluck softening the sound with his pedal steel and other instruments. Still, on songs like “All Her Favorite Fruit,” the band raised the theater’s roof.
Interestingly, Lowery came out for the Cracker set playing acoustic guitar for the first half-dozen songs, including staples like “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now).” After the complexity and swirling leads of Greg Lisher and Jonathan Segal trading off guitar and fiddle during Camper’s set, Lowery playing acoustic seemed to calm things down even as Johnny Hickman revved things up. Some years ago, Greil Marcus disgraced himself by complaining, in his review of Sticky Fingers, that the acoustic guitar strummed in “Brown Sugar” undermined the song, when history has shown that it actually made the song. And so it was last night: Lowery’s playing acoustic let the straight-ahead dynamic of Johnny Hickman’s clean Les Paul lines anchor things in a manner both soothing and thrilling, like stepping on the gas of a 1969 Firebird and feeling the engine roar.
Earlier this year, when La Costa Perdida came out, Camper received some Pitchfork love, unexpectedly included in the ranks of the cool. It is, in our opinion, a bit of a letdown after the magnificent New Roman Times from 2004, which was the single best takedown of the Bush years, an album that had the conceptual balls to render the Iraq war as rock opera tragedy and farce. Still, we’re glad to see Lowery and Camper get their due. That Cracker, which after all once had the Pixies’ Dave Lovering on drums — can’t get cooler than that — is not ranked higher than a guilty pleasure by the rock-crit crowd is a bit of a disgrace, like someone not groking Creedence Clearwater Revival. Are they at that level as an American rock’n'roll exemplar? Well, they don’t have the hits to equal what Fogerty did, but after seeing Cracker again last night? Yes, yes they are.
Just a week ago, we raved about the new Mikal Cronin album, MCII. So why do we feel the need to post on it again?
Because it is torturing us. We wake up in the middle of the night with “Am I Right?” blaring on our subconscious jukebox. We take a shower in the morning and “See It My Way” spontaneously jumps out from under the soapdish.
We can’t get enough of that psychedelic cello interlude in “Change.” We start saying to ourselves, well, the last few songs aren’t as good as the first four. And then start humming along to “Turn Away” like its Mikal’s next hit single!
We try playing other music — hey, the new White Fence is a change of sound, right? — but our ear buds threaten to be our ear former-friends, unless we play Mikal Cronin.
Look, we said it was a good album. Did we know it could grow on us like kudzu, like Necrotizing fasciitis, like a runaway metaphor?
We told you we thought he was great. Did we tell you that this album has entered our consciousness on an equal footing with Ty Segall’s Twins? We need relief! You need to buy MCII. But only if you sleep soundly and don’t listen to songs hiding under your soapdish.
My new novel, The Geography Lesson, is a comedy based on the repercussions stemming from the National Geographic Society failing to protect an Anasazi ruin discovered in Utah in 1968. (Want to know more? Go here, and check it out.)
But the sacking of that fictional Anasazi site was positively low-key compared to this Mayan ruin bulldozed to get road fill for a highway under construction in Belize…