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Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Jonathan Wilson’s Canyon Spirit

With touches of everything from psychedelia to folk-rock to prog, singer/songwriter Jonathan Wilson’s new album, Gentle Spirit, is something of a beard rocker’s—or more accurately, beard balladeer’s—wet dream, the kind of recording that sounds like it was meant for spinning seductively around a turntable while the listener sits cross-legged on the floor absorbing the credits and cover art like they’re part of a sacred text. And the seventy-eight-minute opus, lovingly recorded on analog gear, has indeed been made available as a double-vinyl LP.

But if you end up discovering Wilson’s work digitally, don’t despair—the experience isn’t analog-exclusive. “The magic is still there,” Wilson says, “looking at a digital scan of a painting you love still conveys the intent, maybe not the detail and resolution, but the intent is still there.” Besides, it’s not like Gentle Spirit was a live-in-the-studio recording; Wilson played the majority of the parts himself, diligently overdubbing each instrument as part of a long, laborious process. “The one-man-band approachcomes very naturally,” he says, “I’ve always recorded that way. Gentle Spirit was the first record of mine that had guests helping me musically. I enjoy both sides, live tracking with others and also being completely alone, working it all out.” While it’s not a concept album, Gentle Spirit nevertheless has the feel of a slowly unfolding song cycle that makes a long elegant arc. It’s not the kind of thing you just throw together. “I had a vision for the basis of the record,” Wilson affirms, “the bulk of the songs and the record’s meaning, but many things unfolded along the way, the record took many, many months to finish, it was an extended process.”

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Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Digging Into Deep Purple’s Paisley Past

If you’re like 99.9% of the population, the words “Deep Purple” instantly evoke the quintessential classic-rock power-chord riff that drives “Smoke On The Water.” Secondarily, the stratospheric wail of Ian Gillan screeching out the chorus of “Highway Star” might leap to mind. Both are to ‘70s rock what the lion’s roar is to MGM, and they make it immediately clear why Deep Purple has always been revered as one of the bedrock bands whose hard-rock tonnage paved the way for heavy metal (In it’s day, it was considered heavy metal). Given this knowledge, you might feel confident in knowing all one needs to know about the band. You’d be wrong.

Long ago and far away, back in the days of paisley and patchouli, there was another Deep Purple. Today it’s commonly referred to as the “Mk. I” version of the band. And while it included three-fifths of the “classic” ‘70s lineup, it was a different beast entirely. Keyboardist Jon Lord, guitar hero Ritchie Blackmore and drummer Ian Paice were all on board for the original incarnation of Purple, but instead of Gillan’s piercing wail, Deep Purple Mk. I boasted the low, soulful tones of Rod Evans, while Nick Simper occupied the bass chair rather than Roger Glover, and instead of chugging, chomping, hard-stomping proto-metal, they played a progressive-pointing brand of psychedelia.

In fact, the psychedelically inclined version of the band made no less than three albums between 1968 and ’69—Shades of Deep Purple, The Book of Taliesyn and a self-titled third outing. In the US, these releases have largely been swept under the rug, which is ironic, considering that ‘60s Purple’s greatest success by far was in America, where they scored three chart hits, most notably a churning cover of roots-rocker Joe South’s “Hush.” In fact, more people probably know that song from the Deep Purple version than the original. Nevertheless, all three albums have been languishing in obscurity for years, remaining out of print and all but forgotten by the world at large. Thankfully, the balance of rock & roll history can be restored to its proper position at last, with the Eagle Records reissue of Deep Purple Mk. I’s entire output, expertly remastered and featuring a brace of bonus tracks.

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Rolling In The Deep Cuts

The Feens

Whatever it is about the late ‘60s era of rock and roll, we just can’t seem to shake it out of our collective psyche. Bands like Cream and Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath have endured beyond their years, inspiring endless bands in their wake. The Feens, from Hamburg, Pennsylvania, are one of such bands. Their bluesy, psychedelic rock is bottom heavy with reverb-drenched harmonies to give it lift. Potent stuff. “Space Van” lures the listener into a heady brew of guttural guitars and psychedelic vocals. “Strange” kicks off with ropy guitars, settling into a bluesy groove, while “Find Another Love” adds a funk element into the mix. The Feen’s most ambitious track is probably the dark and stormy “Nebula,” where guitars gallop helter skelter over scales. It’s RUSH meets Cream—groove-centric prog that takes you someplace you’ve never known. That is, unless you lived through the ‘60s.

Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Take A Trip With Jesse Sykes, White Hills And Wooden Shjips

If you think modern-day psychedelic rock is all about paisley-bedecked revivalists stomping on fuzzboxes with their carefully maintained Beatle boots, forging facsimiles of every riff contained on the Nuggets box—not that there’s anything wrong with that—you’ve got a pleasant surprise in store. Not only is there a current crop of bands bringing a psychedelic spirit to the forefront while firing up a sound that eschews hidebound hippie fetishism, a bunch of them also happen to have ear-catching new albums on offer. Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter’s Marble Son has been out in Europe for a few months, but will be unveiled on American shores on August 2. The White Hills album H-p1 was just released on June 21 and Wooden Shjips will be unleashing West in September. For all you intrepid psychedelic explorers, we got the inside info on each of these aural excursions, straight from the source(s).

Seattle siren Sykes and her band have been around for nigh on a decade, and their 2007 album, the memorably titled Like, Love, Lust and the Open Halls of the Soul, was one of the finer releases of that year. Sykes sings in eerily ageless tones that could be triangulated somewhere between Marianne Faithfull, Nico and Karen Dalton, while Phil Wandscher’s guitar work evokes the expansive sounds that came coruscating out of the Bay Area from the axes of Jerry Garcia, John Cippolina and Jorma Kaukonen in psychedelia’s golden age, without seeming overtly imitative. The follow-up to their ‘07 outing adds an extra quotient of crunch on some tracks, and Sykes explains that the emotional and aural gravitas of Marble Son was hard-earned. “It took longer than usual to make,” she says, “but a lot was going on—Phil and I broke up after being a couple for ten years, and I needed some time to triage and convalesce a bit, then see if we could carry on together musically [They have]. Also in that window, babies were born, people died and I got engaged to my new love.”

The darker side of that period’s experiences comes out in the music, as Sykes explains, “‘Birds of Passerine’ was written for Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. We toured with him in 2007, and his death affected me greatly.” She reveals that “Come To Mary” was “written for a friend that was suffering a terrible darkness and had gone into the woods up in Alaska, built a throne out of snow and drank himself to sleep. He was hoping to not wake up, but he did, thank God.” Sykes says the open, organic feel of Marble Son was very much intentional. “We knew we wanted to make a record that was mostly live and reflected the dire energy we seemed to be generating at the time,” she recalls, “so a good portion of these songs were recorded live in the studio.” And in an age of disposable songs that float aimlessly around a virtual universe, Sykes admits that she takes pride in Marble Son feeling “like an album.”  “It’s long and might require a certain commitment from the listener,” she muses, “and will probably appeal to people that are willing to be taken somewhere.”

New York City’s White Hills are no strangers to the darker side of psych either, as borne out by the bracing sounds of H-p1. Their music is more influenced by the surging, visceral drive of early-‘70s space rock a la Hawkwind, and the minimalist, motorik krautrock grooves of Neu!, but their blend of heavily processed guitars, swirling, burbling electronics and pummeling rhythms offers just as much incentive to take a heady trip to inner vistas as Sykes and company.

White Hills guitarist/frontman Dave W. tells us that one of the main inspirations for H-p1 was in fact the abstract expressionist art movement. “This movement was about raw and impulsive art,” he explains. “What mattered most was the act of painting itself. I applied this philosophy to the making of this album. The making of the music in its moment matters most. I wanted to create an album that evokes emotion and creates a story through sound rather than words, in the same way that an abstract painting does.”  While names from the beard-rock era justifiably abound in descriptions of White Hills (as above), the band’s ambitious axeman surprisingly informs us of a major post-punk inspiration. “Musically, the Virgin Prunes album Over The Rainbow was a huge influence,” he says. “This collection of rarities shows the often-brutal yet beautiful side of this underrated band. Their music is a mental workout. Similarly, H-p1 is a mental workout—sometimes ethereal, often intense. It’s not passive music. Communicating some kind of story with no words is difficult. You need to command the attention of the listener, draw them into the sound, so the music will stimulate their imagination.”

There’s a feeling of uneasiness running throughout H-p1, which Dave explains thusly, “This record has a concept or theme to it…a reaction to the greed that we are plagued with today…how the people in power see fit to tell lies in order to promote what they see as the greater good for us all. But is the end result really what is good or right for us all? Might it just be good for the rich to keep themselves wealthy?” With a zealous humanism that is itself more evocative of the Age of Aquarius than anything in the White Hills discography, he continues, “We are not in balance with the earth. No amount of money will save anyone when the earth is [un]inhabitable. All of the wars that are waged, religion, and political doctrines are meaningless in the end.” This ties in with the album’s inscrutable title as well, says Dave, “I wanted the title to sound clinical and somewhat sci-fi. In the same way that scientists name viruses, I see this greed as a virus that plagues our time. H-p1 is the name I have given to this disease of greed.”

Speaking of fuzz-baked guitars, pummeling grooves and a dark, somewhat sinister sound, Wooden Shjips‘ upcoming album, West, would make an excellent sonic segue from H-p1for your next stoner-rock soiree. The band hails from psychedelia’s spiritual home, where they cut their latest batch of mind-bending tracks. Keyboardist Nash Whalen says, “We recorded West at Lucky Cat Studios in San Francisco. The building, shaped like a wedge, fills in some space along the railroad tracks… space likely created at a time when the Southern Pacific railyards dominated the area. Now, across the tracks, framed by the freeway high overhead, are all these new buildings, cutting-edge biotech research facilities and fancy apartments. Transforming the landscape, migrating to the next big thing, trying to tap into the new gold rush… those progressions are always happening here in the West, and in part, our album explores that evolution and the desires driving it.”

With guitar riffs distorted to weapons-grade level, and Nash laying down a seemingly endlessly supply of hypnotic, snake-charmer organ riffs, the Shjips’ sound on West ultimately falls somewhere in the sweet, shaded spot between The Black Angels and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Nash reports that the recording sessions went by quickly and painlessly. “I think the vibe from feeling relaxed and comfortable comes through on the album,” he offers, adding in classic rock & roll fashion that “our biggest hassle was walking up the hill to get beer.”

 


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