Archive for Stephen McBean

On Black Mountain’s “IV”, The Unexpected Ingredient Is Sincerity

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 12, 2016 by johnbuckley100

Since Black Mountain’s eponymous debut in 2005, followed one year later by Pink Mountaintops’ maiden voyage, we’ve viewed both of Stephen McBean’s vehicles as tandem expressions of his already heterodox talents.  The influences on his songwriting apparent early on included Modern Dance-era Pere Ubu, New York’s No Wave bands, and when he and Amber Weber sang a duet on “Druganaut,” it sounded much more like Sly and The Family Stone than X, which was interesting.  The homages to Led Zeppelin, the cheesy Deep Purple keyboards, the clear reference to Station To Station-era Bowie: it soon all added up to a dazzling porridge, heavy and melodic at the same time, with deadly seriousness offset by antic glimpses.  Black Mountain could — and on the great Wilderness Heart did — play proto-metal and punk, back to back.  And with other band members launching such disparate vehicles as Lightning Dust and Blood Meridien, the Black Mountain Army was seemingly as potent a force in modern music as the Elephant Six Collective.

But even with certain surface charms, 2014’s Pink Mountaintops album, Get Back, was a turnoff.  Suddenly it triggered, at least in Tulip Frenzy’s World HQ, a reassessment, as it rendered McBean’s magpie plucking of influences suspect.  We wondered who the real McBean was: the distant bandleader launching his attack from Vancouver, or one more cool cat taking on the world from L.A.?  With only their fourth album in 11 years, we now have the answer, at least from Black Mountain: IV is their best full album since they took their name from the large pile of Afghani sitting on the table in front of them.

Even their naming convention is a reminder of the influence of Zep, but on IV, the seemingly biggest influences on McBean and company is their own prior work, as a band and an aggregation of the sister bands.  “You Can Dream” sounds like something Lightning Dust would play at Edinburgh Castle.  The opener, “Mothers Of The Sun,” is their best long-form construction since “Bastards Of Light.”  The combination of McBean and Weber has never sounded stronger, and on a song like “Constellations,” you have all of Black Mountain’s charms in one interplanetary locus.  After the last ersatz and kitschy Pink Mountaintops outing, McBean returns with something that sounds, dare we say it, sincere.

All is forgiven.  Black Mountain’s fourth record is their best yet.

Pink Mountaintops’ “Get Back” Reveals More of Stephen McBean’s Multiple Personalities

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on May 1, 2014 by johnbuckley100

In the early years of Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops, the meme developed that the latter band was an “alternative side” of Stephen McBean’s personality.  In retrospect, that’s a little hard to figure, or it is at least a little simplistic. Stephen McBean is such a protean figure that his constant alternatives to his last invocation could rapidly resemble a hall of mirrors.

And anyway, are the two bands, the two… aspects… of McBean’s songwriting, singing, and most excellent guitar playing, really so different? Let’s rewind to the beginning. Pink Mountaintops’ brilliant 2006 album Axis of Evol could easily be seen as coming from a similar sensibility as, say, Black Mountain circa its first record or the Druganaut E.P.  “Cold Criminals” sounded like it was the product of someone who’d spent a lot of time listening to Pere Ubu’s The Modern Dance, while “Bicycle Man” was steeped in the No Wave sound of New York circa ’78.  Are those different sides?  So far away from one another?  Not really.

To us, McBean has always been one of the great dabblers, an ambitious throwback who could in the span of two years record one of the best Velvet Underground-sounding songs — Pink Mountaintops’ “The Gayest of Sunbeams” — and one of our favorite invocations of Led Zeppelin — Black Mountain’s “The Hair Song.” The only people who split the difference between Zep and the Velvets while in the same rough phase of their careers are those who, as the lyrics to the great Black Mountain song “Voices” would have it, have come down with the same bug all of us at Tulip Frenzy are riddled with: “Rock’n’roll voices on the radio/I’ve been in love with you since I was five years old.” He loves it all: all those rock’n’roll voices: Lou’s, and Bowie’s, and Robert Plant’s, and often in harmony with a singer as great as Amber Weber, which brings us to such pairings as Exene and John Doe and Sonny and Cher.

While his shambling, hippy-era countenance might give off a hash and patchouli perfume, leading you to think of McBean as a slacker, and while the pace of releases since 2005’s eponymous Black Mountain album might not seem like he breaks a sweat, the sheer volume of not just good, but thoroughly excellent music McBean’s been responsible for over the last nine years is pretty remarkable.  If his interest was simply in being a rock star, he probably would have helped corral the Black Mountain Army to keep pushing through in support of Wilderness Heart, which caused a stir in 2010.  But instead the band put out some new songs on the Year Zero film soundtrack, toured a bit, and did not sustain the momentum.  It’s easily recaptured, they’ve built a good following.  But McBean’s not interested, it seems, in such straight forward careerism.

Enter Pink Mountaintops’ Get Back, in which with an imposing posse behind him — J. Mascis on guitar, Daniel Allaire from Brian Jonestown Massacre on drums, Rob Barbato of Darker My Love on bass, etc. — McBean invokes everything from Station to Station-era Bowie to “All Along The Watchtower.”  Ensconced in Los Angeles these days, McBean continues a Canadian-style assault on greatness: low-key, humorous, thoroughly competent.

We think “Ambulance City” may be the most infectious rocker out this year, which is saying something since John Dwyers’ Thee Oh Sees have already released an album.  “Through All The Worry” sounds like something you wish Social Distortion was still putting out.  “Wheels” is the “All Along The Watchtower” analogue, though obviously invoking the Hendrix version.  Whether that’s Mascis or McBean on lead, we don’t know, but it is like sonic dental floss, cleaning out the cavity between our ears. We can see the members of Crocodiles smiling when they hear “Sell Your Soul,” one of those songs that makes you remember how mid-70s Bowie was so influenced by early Springsteen, he borrowed Roy Bittan to play piano. “North Hollywood Microwaves” is Not Safe For Driving With Children Or Spouses, an hilarious novelty.  By the time we get to the closer, “The Last Dance,” we’ve returned to mid-’70s pre-punk, to the Station To Station sound with which the album began.  It’s an impressive, Rockist tour de force.

How Get Back ultimately fits into McBean’s canon is unknowable at this time.  What we know is that his multiple personalities are given full vent, and that a figure whose bands have called to mind Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, the Velvet Underground and Pere Ubu, and Bowie, always Bowie, is as well-rounded an artist as there exists today.  Selfishly, we can’t wait to see the set of characters McBean inhabits on the next slab of Black Mountain.

Pink Mountaintops “Ambulance City” Is Song Of The Year

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on April 26, 2014 by johnbuckley100

We have only to wait until Tuesday to get our mitts — our ears — our ear mitts? — on Pink Mountaintops’ Get Back.  But just from what’s been released so far, we know this is going to be one of the highlights of the year.  “Ambulance City” may be the finest rocker yet released by any unit of Stephen McBean’s Black Mountain Army — and represents a return of Pink Mountaintops to the upbeat rocking form present on 2006’s Axis of Evol, partly missing on 2009’s Outside Love.  Powered by Brian Jonestown Massacre nuclear instigator Daniel Allaire on drums, both “Ambulance City” and the hilarious “North Hollywood Microwaves” rock harder than anything we’ve yet heard from HQ-band Black Mountain, nor any of its lethal units, Blood Meridian, Lightning Dust, etc.  Tulip Frenzy thinks we will declare a holiday Tuesday, and just reach for our headphones.

On Black Mountain’s “Wilderness Heart,” Stephen McBean Writes The Book

Posted in Music with tags , , on September 14, 2010 by johnbuckley100

We’ve always known that Stephen McBean was ambitious.  Any questions about this were dispelled last year when album cover art for McBean’s other band, The Pink Mountaintops, looked like the jacket for a post-war classic novel.  He did not write the Great Canadian Novel with The Pink Mountaintops’ Outside Love, but with Wilderness Heart, the long awaited  realization of his main band Black Mountain, he’s done it.  Or at least produced an equivalent achievement — and something considerably more exciting.

When the single “Old Fangs” was released this summer, Black Mountain seemed to pick up where 2008’s Into The Future had deposited them, a band channeling greasy metal chords and organ riffs from the early ’70s.  “The Hair Song,” which popped up on their MySpace page in August, was a tantalizing mix of Led Zeppelin 3 and “Kashmir,” and we assumed it to be at least mostly tongue in cheek.  But McBean’s ambition is not to recycle the great early ’70s metal bands, but to at once surpass them while also capturing the breadth of what it used to mean to make an entire album.  You know, bombastic, slow-churning temples ‘o riff rock, followed by the folky duets with the sultry sounding female whose voice serves more as emollient than counterpoint, followed by fast galloping proto-punk and then one of those magical concoctions that could only exist in context within an album. You see, it is a firm belief around these parts that the album, as a delivery vehicle and unit of measurement, is as perfect a vessel for displaying music as the novel is for displaying writing.  To pull out songs from Wilderness Heart and not play the whole damn thing would be like summarizing Ulysses in PowerPoint.

If ever there was doubt that McBean’s guitar playing could deliver upon his ambitions, we find an answer in “The Way To Gone.”  (Questioning McBean’s guitar playing is not a put down, for after all, the guy aspires to the same league Led Zep were in, and they had a guitarist by the name of Jimmy Page.)  On Wilderness Heart, McBean’s fretwork is as impressive as his singing and songwriting, and the band as a whole — comprising the bassist and drummer from Blood Meridian, not to mention the Pink Mountaintops and other projects — shows evidence not just of practice but of all the scrimmages they’ve played.

Tulip Frenzy World Headquarters has grokked on Black Mountain since their arrival some years back, loved the way McBean and the band alone seem to have been able to capture the No Wave sound of the late ’70s (“Bicycle Man” could have been an Eight Eyed Spy outtake), loved how they could fold Sly and the Family Stone call-and-response vocals into a song like “Druganaut,” loved the way they seemed to have been immersed in albums like Station To Station and, in the guise of the Pink Mountaintops, Pere Ubu’s Modern Dance.  We have not loved quite so much the Black Sabbath/Cactus Seconal riffs, but admire McBean for sticking to his guns.  Live, they’re interesting in part for what a mild-mannered presence McBean is, hiding behind his beard, his guitar, and the microphone stand; the fierceness he shows in the studio slips in real life, like some Wizard of Oz mask that gets dropped when the curtain’s pulled back.

We’ve been waiting for Wilderness Heart the way last year we waited for Outside Love — wanting evidence that Stephen McBean and Black Mountain could pull together the album their ambitions promised.  Consider it delivered.

The Forthcoming Delight Of Black Mountain’s “Wilderness Heart”

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on August 20, 2010 by johnbuckley100

In the last 12 months, Black Mountain has made moves toward world domination mostly through the cosmically odd use of “Druganaut” in an ad for the Buick Lacrosse (see Tulip Frenzy’s writeup here.)  I guess last year was The Pink Mountaintops’ turn, though it was disappointing that we don’t seem to have anything new from other Black Mountain offshoots such as Blood Meridian or Lightning Dust.

Then in late July we got the gloriously sleazy single “Old Fang,” with its Deep Purple organ and video of Stephen McBean riding shotgun in an early ’70s Mustang as a Susan Atkins-type hippie vixen hitchhiker lures him to her psychedelic lair.  “Old Fang” could have been the #1 song on WBCN circa 1972, and Black Mountain would have been headliners at Watkins Glen or something. In 2010, it comes off as an absolutely pitch perfect slice o’ mid-Nixon grunge.

The release of “The Hair Song” on their MySpace page gives a further indication of where the forthcoming Wilderness Heart is heading — the purest homage to Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and the boys, replete with “Kashmir” strings — this side of Lez Zeppelin. Get ready.  September 14th release date.

The Pink Mountaintops’ “Outside Love”

Posted in Music with tags , , , on April 30, 2009 by johnbuckley100

Judging by the album art,  the Pink Mountaintops Outside Love is not really a platter of of music, but a novel written by Professor McBean from the University of Vancouver. Stephen McBean may be the auteur, but music-making, unlike novel-writing, is a collaborative act (unless, of course, you’re Prince), and he seems to have recruited half the musicians in Canada to assist him.  These include, of course, his Black Mountain brethren, but also the likes of Sophie Trudeau (from various bands in Montreal.)  Even the New Pornographer’s Kathryn Calder shows up in the choir.

It’s interesting McBean’s eye for talent would wander to Montreal, given the expansiveness of the sound here, the cathedral space and Spector-esque density, which could put one in mind of the Arcade Fire.  Maybe the best way to think of this is McBean’s authorial sensibility has brought him to construct a number of short stories, harkening to the masters (Bowie’s “Heroes” being a template for “Axis: Thrones of Love,” The Velvet Underground’s entire clanging, thumping oeuvre the template for Outside Love‘s only outright rocker, “The Gayest of Sunbeams.”  He may as well be quoting from masters of the short form, like Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme.)

It’s hard to know how this fits into the McBean cannon.  Here’s a guy whose Black Mountain’s most recent incarnation was brilliant early Pyschedelic Metal, and whose “Behind The Fall” is the single greatest evocation of NoWave ever — at least by someone who wasn’t there.  And here on “Holiday,” he sounds like he’s happy to play in a Mekons country dance around the campfire.  “And I Thank You” would not sound out of place on a Wilco album.   As an author, he stretches.  Previous outings by the Pink Mountaintops have been the faster counterpart to Black Mountain.  This one heads out in multiple new directions, but at mostly a slow pace. It is, in places, very beautiful, which is not a description often invoked when talking about Black Mountain or Pink Mountaintops (“thrilling” and “heavy” probably having the boldest print in a word cloud.).  It’s pretty  likely the next Black Mountain album will confound us all, because this author has so much talent, he can write anything, comedy or tragedy, and rock’n’roll in any of its many incarnations.

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