105. COLD SUN – DARK SHADOWS (1970*)

Greatest Records, Psychedelia

My record collecting began in earnest in 1985. By that time, rock & roll was around 30 years old. I was still in my teens. I wasn’t around when Elvis started shaking his hips, and in my efforts to map out the history of popular music, my reference points were fairly limited. In some ways, this made the discovery of Tim Buckley, The 13th Floor Elevators, Love, Sly & The Family Stone, Nick Drake and Captain Beefheart even more thrilling, for I couldn’t imagine anyone else sounded quite like them. Of course over time perspective becomes clearer: recognising how The Velvet Underground or Can fit with the past and present lends their legacy even greater import. Then an LP like Cold Sun’s Dark Shadows comes along and I’m thrown into confusion.

So when Julian Cope suggested that Cold Sun invented post-punk, he must have been equally bewildered by what he heard. Nothing remarkable about that comment except that Dark Shadows was recorded around 1970. And just to clear up any confusion, the punk to which Cope was referring was not the ’60s garage variety. 

Cold Sun were formed in Austin, Texas. Bandleader and electric autoharp wizard Bill Miller, was obsessed by fellow Texan psych freaks The 13th Floor Elevators. He modelled his vocal style on Roky Erickson’s and like Tommy Hall, chose a unique instrument with which to make music. In many ways, Cold Sun are the Elevators’ spiritual heirs. The band made little impact during their short lifespan, and disbanded in 1973. Miller would go on to join Erickson as a member of The Aliens in the late ’70s.


    Mystery surrounds the recording of Dark Shadows; the band had signed to local independent label Sonobeat, but the label faced bankruptcy before any of their music could be sculpted onto wax. Even after the album was eventually granted a release on Rockadelic in 1989, not everyone hailed it a great lost psychedelic masterpiece. Indeed there is a Texan Psychedelia website out there where the contributors make little effort to be diplomatic. They make no bones about it: they hate Cold Sun. The threads are filled with denigrating remarks about how they ‘suck ass’ and so on. Unless the website is run by some longtime adversary of Miller, then it’s a genuinely puzzling reaction, for Dark Shadows has stood the test of time remarkably well. Indeed it is every inch the travelling time capsule that Cope suggests.

   ‘Ra-Ma’, a one-stop potted history of psychedelia starts out like some weird discordant tonal experiment in math rock from the mid-’90s, Miller’s autoharp sounding like switchblades being sharpened, before morphing into some Roky-inspired demented stream-of-consciousness rant about Egyptian mythology over the fried desert psych sound of Bull Of The Woods. There’s some genius guitar playing from Tom Mcgarrigle as he trawls through the debris of late ’60s Velvets’ via a prophetic detour to the ’80s, where The Chills’ feverishly tumbling ‘Pink Frost’ is, unbeknownst to itself, gifted some fresh ancestry. It sounds like nine separate ideas thrown on top of one another, and is insanely beautiful. ‘Ra-Ma’ would appear as the opening track on the original Rockadelic issue of Dark Shadows from 1989, but the track sequence on the first issue was not that which the band had intended, with ‘Ra-Ma’ originally envisaged as the last track. Curiously, the track earmarked by Miller as the album’s opener was ‘South Texas’ whose beginning is virtually identical to ‘Ra- Ma’. “Inspired by a weekend in Texas with two girls from Corpus Christi and a big bowl of peyote salsa at a drive-in Mexican restaurant”, ‘South Texas’ is a place where lips whisper of strange visions, cracks in the wall procure geckos whose stares bore into the soul and guitars weep and bleed in equal measure.

     The Velvet Underground – that most un-psychedelic of bands – played some shows at The Vulcan Gas Company in Austin in October 1969. One can only suppose Miller was in the front row. Ostensibly a Roky tribute, ‘See What You Cause’ is a primitive little VU rocker, like a two chord rhythm being bashed out on tin cans.

      It’s not all brilliant. For some ungodly reason, ‘For Ever’ reminds me of the Steve Miller Band’s ‘Jungle Love’. What concerns me even more is that I actually know that song! There’s a bizarre little glam break, after which the rhythm decelerates before speeding up into a frenzied SST-style thrash.

     There are so many touchstones here, most of which are from albums made after Dark Shadows, for instance the bawled phrasing over these lines from the seven minute rave-up ‘Fall’ (“Bullets, cannons roaring past, yet he does not hear a sound”) anticipates Patti Smith’s primal scream on ‘Land (of 1000 Dances)’. It contains a berserk cameo for the harmonica – there is another one on ‘Ra-Ma’. The first few bars of ‘Twisted Flower’ meanwhile are borrowed from The Zombies’ ‘She’s Not There’, although ultimately the song bears more than a passing resemblance to the obscure sub-Doors psych nugget ‘Suicidal Flowers’ by The Crystal Chandelier.

     One can forgive ‘Here In The Year’ it’s occasional meandering intrusions into groovy Strawberry Alarm Clock territory and even its momentary collapse in the middle, for it is bookended by two of the most sublime passages of music on the album. The first has the sort of pretty little butterfly picking that might have floated off the grooves of a Felt record from 1986; the second refracts the same melody through the most gorgeously transcendent use of feedback I have ever heard – think Galaxie 500 stretching out the beautiful tension of ‘Heroin’. It sounds twenty years ahead of its time.

    Dark Shadows is the fearless creation of a unique foursome of peyote-fuelled Texan heads, so obsessed with making music that they believed they could change everything. In that sense, it is a tragic, even desperate failure, but I’d recommend you give it a moment: it will seek out your soul and suck you in with its deranged beauty. (JJ)
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86. BEACH HOUSE – DEVOTION (2008)

Dreampop, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia

  
In the mid-1980s it would have been obvious to most – particularly to those with unwieldy stockpiles of vinyl – that it was only a matter of time before we were carrying our record collections around on a small portable device. A marginally less reasonable expectation of mine was that, without being troubled by having to make an awkward selection, I could instantly be dispatched the music my heart and soul desired. A telepathic transmitter (we’ll say app) would process neurological data, consult my hungry eardrums, and, bingo, the perfect musical recipe would materialise instantly. Alas, if this idea is ever fully realised, it will serve scant purpose. Nine times out of ten, the dial will point to Beach House.

So many of the things I love about music – the listless two chord purity of the ballads of The Velvet Underground and Mazzy Star, those swirling somniferous waltzes of Spiritualized, the empyreal sojourns of Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine and Hugo Largo, the spooky toy town keyboards of early Fall, the pagan folksiness of Vashti Bunyan and the Incredible String Band, not to mention Brian Wilson’s blessed gift for melody (his left ear has been left here, believe me!) – are manifest in the glorious six album harvest reaped by Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand over the last decade.

From the very beginning, on their self-titled debut album, Beach House orbited a universe of blurry memories and hazy dreams. Nebulous narratives alluded to fractured relationships, but everything in that low-fi reverie lacked definition and precision. Four years later the duo had transformed themselves into sophisto-dreampop auteurs, their third album Teen Dream, a purring dislocated pop classic, universally recognised as one of the decade’s landmark albums.

In between those two, they released Devotion in February 2008. It marks the precise moment where the confidence is surging but the ambition still held in check by a mushrooming adventurousness sufficient in itself to procure its own reward. The music at this point is still facing inwards, basking in its own glow; after Devotion it would reach outwards. No harm in that at all of course – it deserved a wider audience, and the subsequent albums are of consistently high quality – but something of the charming amateurishness was lost as the production became progressively more assured. The Suicide-al drones may have remained, but a little less would be heard of that primitive programming (those Casio-style rhythms and beats) or those yearning Wicker Man folk stylings. Scally’s guitar is often buried lower in the mix than it would be on the later albums – here it often sounds unobtrusive – fuddled pedal steel, frilly licks – and is certainly of secondary importance to the organ. Along with Legrand’s velvety Nicoisms, balanced with that magical childlike imagery, the versatility of the organ – equal parts Sale Of The Century game show, spooked out Munsters moongazing, and Cale-ist celeste à la ‘Northern Sky’ – is as integral to the sound here as it is on say The Doors or Felt’s Forever Breathes The Lonely Word.

‘Wedding Bell’ rolls along jauntily with a kooky harpsichord riff – Alex mixes up the guitar lines with a burst of garage fuzz, followed by backwards psych. In spite of the lyrical ambiguities, ‘You Came To Me’ is a gorgeously haunting slice of chamber pop; it’s choppy oriental rhythm resembles something explored previously on ‘Tokyo Witch’ and anticipates the epic ‘Take Care’ from Teen Dream. But here the magick lies in Legrand’s irresistible delivery, particularly on these swooning lines: “you came to me/in my dreams/and you spo-o-o-o-o-oke of everything/sweeter than the days/ that I was breathing.”



‘Gila’ has a knockout off-kilter melody – the bass hits its bottom note in a fleeting but jarring collision with the sparkling organ while Scally plays out a simple repetitive sonar rhythm and the phantasmagorical harmonies threaten to disintegrate completely… it’s the sort of song that books into your cranium for an extended vacation. Like a good host you welcome it warmly, but a warning: it may not check out on schedule. 

The languorous melancholia of ‘Turtle Island’ suggests a loneliness beyond repair: “By the dock of the pond, Turtle Island/I will wait for you there, creeping/Silently, I can’t keep you/Right behind me/All my days in the sun...” Likewise, on first hearing ‘Some Things Last A Long Time’ may be noticeable only for its brevity. However, the evocative lyric (by Daniel Johnston) hints at desperate heartache. As with the greatest love songs, it is what is left unsaid rather than what is voiced that matters. Beach House know this all too well and there is rarely anything explicit in what is being communicated. They simply intimate, we duly evaporate. I have found myself at times, eyes tightly shut, singing along to the words of the twinkling ‘Astronaut’ as if they had fallen out of the pages of a William Blake anthology, where, on paper, they are absurdly childlike. But the music is so ravishing they are afforded an uncommon poignancy. 

The holy fire of the solemnly gothic ‘Heart Of Chambers’ adds dark layers of density to proceedings. After momentarily threatening to mutate into ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ it recovers with its very own anthemic finale (“In our beds we’re the lucky ones/filled with the sun/In our beds we’re the lucky ones/fill us with the sun”) – this would become a Beach House trademark – the splicing together of two different song ideas into one, the second part a protracted coda, an unexpected left turn, the Beach House twist on the perfect pop song.

I can’t even begin to describe ‘Home Again’, the album’s closing track. For some reason unbeknownst to me, I am transported back in time: 26 years to be precise – 18 years before this song was even dreamt of! I realise this is illogical at best and can only imagine the song’s atmospheric sweep must resemble something I listened to once, as a young man, at a time when anything was possible. It possesses the power, the resonance to resurrect that daydreaming youthfulness, long ceded to the concerns and responsibilities of adulthood. Perhaps that time was my true ‘home’, the time when everything was simpler, more spontaneous, more free. And perhaps my love affair with Beach House is indicative of an onrushing midlife crisis as I long for a return to those lazy days. But, oh to have heard these wonderful songs when I was nineteen…

“Home Again/Constant heart of my devotion/Must be you, the door to open/Home again, be here, be with him/Will I swim out of your ocean?”
(JJ)