A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
April 12, 2013
Once again The Black Angels prove that a band can play psychedelic music without sounding campy or even all that retro.
Granted, on its new album, Indigo Meadow, the Austin band certainly employs some sonic tricks from the psychedelic era: lots of reverb, lots of fuzz, some Mideastern/East Indian-sounding guitar licks and melody lines here and there, creepy electric organ — and in a couple of places you’ll hear that electric jug sound pioneered by the Angels’ Texas forebears, The 13th Floor Elevators.
The band’s music is strong enough that it doesn’t seem defined by these musical embellishments. It’s fresh and powerful. It seems like a logical progression from the psychedelia of yore, not some cute re-creation — even though the band does have a song with the unfortunate title “I Hear Colors.”
Like the group’s previous album, Phosphene Dream, on which the Angels moved away from 16-minute astral odysseys, Indigo Meadow puts more emphasis on melody and has shorter and punchier tunes than those found in the band’s early work. Indeed, the longest song here is shorter than the shortest song on the Angels’ 2008 album Directions to See a Ghost.
But if anything, Indigo Meadow seems heavier and more hard-rocking than Phosphene Dream. For instance, the fuzz-drenched guitar riff that starts off “Evil Things” could aptly be described as “Led Sabbath.”
On the title song, Stephanie Bailey’s thunder drums and a tense, repetitive guitar riff — almost suggesting the soundtrack of the shower scene in Psycho — set the mood before singer Alex Maas begins what isn’t exactly a tender tune of love: “Lay your hands across my chest, girl/You’ve been a problem since the moment I met ya/You always cause a real friction/Put your pale hands on my face, my love.”
Fractured romantic tension is one of the underlying themes of Indigo Meadow. True, the hopped-up, electro-poppy “You’re Mine” sounds like the singer has a bad case of schoolboy puppy love, but other songs show the darker side of love.
On “Holland,” one of the more mellow tunes on the album, Maas sings, “I’d rather die than to be with you tonight.” In the refrain of “Love Me Forever,” as Maas repeats the song’s title, it sounds more like a command of a megalomaniac than the plea of a lover.
And an undercurrent of misogyny seems to creep into one of band’s attempts at a timely topical tune, “Don’t Play With Guns.” This is the Black Angels, so it’s not going to be your typical protest number. It’s about a young woman who manipulates people to “kill for fun” for her. “Now Angie she was a demon/She had six arms and Lucifer eyes/She always had this glow.”
Some of the best songs here are those on which the Angels seem to be having fun. “The Day” sounds like some forgotten Yardbirds tune. “Twisted Light” is nice and trippy, showing off Bailey’s heavy-fisted drums. And even though I made fun of the title, “I Hear Colors” (subtitled "Chromaesthesia") is a wild stomper with crazy organ (it would make Ray Manzarek proud) and a theremin exploring the colors of sound.
I’ve always felt that psychedelic rock withered too soon back in the late ’60s. Attempts at a revival in subsequent decades have fallen flat, usually devolving into fey self-parody. But The Black Angels are one of the few bands that didn’t forget the “rock” part of psychedelic rock. Long may they fly.
* In the Ley Lines by Dengue Fever. This is being billed as Dengue Fever’s lost album. It features five alternative mixes of previously released Dengue tunes, plus another five recorded live in Peter Gabriel’s studio four years ago.
This collection wasn’t actually “lost.” It just wasn’t widely circulated, available only for subscribers to the Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound, a service for audiophiles set up by a British company that manufactures stereo and home-theater speakers.
Although I’m familiar with almost all of the songs on the CD, I’m glad the album is available for us plebeians. The live tracks are especially full of the kind of the wild energy that you expect in a Dengue Fever show. (The band played in Santa Fe at least three times in recent years. I’ve caught them twice and would go again.)
A little Dengue 101 for the newcomers: the group was the brainchild of Zac and Ethan Holtzman, California brothers who were huge fans of late ’60s/early ’70s Cambodian rock ’n’ roll. This was a crazy sound that was heavily influenced by American surf, psychedelic, garage, and soul music.
Cambodian rock was basically destroyed — as was much of Cambodian civilization — by the evil Khmer Rouge regime in the late ’70s. The Holtzman boys and their pals got down the instrumental component of this brand of rock, but Dengue Fever didn’t really blossom until it hired Cambodian-born singer Chhom Nimol, from a family well known in Cambodian music circles.
The band’s first three studio albums are well represented. (The fourth, Cannibal Courtship, was released after Ley Lines was recorded.)
There are rousing versions of “New Year’s Eve” and “Hold My Hips” from the group’s 2003 self-titled debut album, a nice spooky rendition of “One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula,” which was a highlight of Dengue’s breakthrough album Escape From Dragon House, and two duets with Nimol and Zac Holtzman that first appeared on the third album, Venus on Earth. These are “Tiger Phone Card” and “Sober Driver,” which sounds slinkier and sexier here than it did in its original form.
While all the songs on this lost album have appeared elsewhere before, a couple may be new to casual fans because they were available only on deluxe versions of Dengue albums.
“The Province” is one of those slow, pretty mysterioso tunes the band does so well. But I prefer “Doo Wop (Today I Learnt to Drink),” a rocking little tune originally done by Cambodian star Ros Serey Sothea. She disappeared during the reign of Pol Pot, but thanks to Nimol, her song lives on.
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