My mother and I haven't connected musically since our mid-'80s sing-alongs to Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger, but a recent move from the foothills to the beach has forced us to spend a good deal more vehicular time together and thus more time debating music selection within the confines of a U-Haul.
In the course of trading off CD selections, and after our third listen to the Marshall Tucker Band's Carolina Dreams, I queued The Warlocks' latest release, Phoenix Album, in the hope that she would like something produced after the year of my birth. Two minutes into the first song, "Shake the Dope Out," she had this to say:
"It's got a beat," she offered. "I can dance to it."
I should explain that this comment stems mainly from her less-than-thrilled reaction to Bonnie "Prince" Billy's "I See a Darkness," a track I had hoped she would like, considering that Johnny Cash covered it on his American III album.
Unfortunately, I was incorrect, and my confidence was betrayed when she had lambasted the song for being "too slow and sad." Touché, mom. Touché.
Still, here was a chance for a feather in my cap she actually liked the opening chords of this Warlocks song. The fuzz-drenched guitar and the driving drumbeat probably reminded her of the glory days when she was a hippie wannabe, listening to the organ-drenched riding music of Steppenwolf or Foghat in some "Easy Rider"-ish euphoria. Even the druggy lyrics did not addle her, more likely because she keeps the treble so high that words are indiscernible than because of any benign acceptance of drug use. By the time the high-pitched squeal of feedback closed out the first song, her interest was piqued.
"Those songs sounded like something I have heard before," she said.
That was her response to the medley of psych-rock that followed "Shake the Dope Out." She was correct though, as we both agreed that "Hurrican Heart Attack," "Baby Blue" and "Stickman Blues" would not be out of place on an early-'70s Bob Dylan record, minus one of the band's two drummers, a few effects-drenched guitars and, of course, the sitar.
"Baby Blue" she particularly enjoyed, as it boasts a catchy chorus ("I'm wasting my time with you/ My baby, baby blue"), and an uplifting beat that belies the morose lyrics, creating an enjoyable juxtaposition. "Stickman Blues" begins with a tribal rhythm that would not be foreign to a 1930s be-bop orchestra, as the lead singer, Bobby Hecksher, channels the Man himself, sounding so much like Dylan at times that I had to check the liner notes.
"Why do they start sounding so weird?"
She made that remark a full seven minutes into "Cosmic Letdown," as Sonic Boom makes his presence felt on the album with a song that acts as the bastard cousin of "Transparent Radiation." She makes a valid point though, as this track is slightly off-putting to your run-of-the-mill pop fan. Echoes of space-rock reverberate in a din of electric fuzz as a single guitar line guides the listener on what I like to think of as an "epic" journey into the heart of darkness.
"I like the guitar, but the rest of the music sounds so muddy."
As I came to find out, my mom is a sucker for lazy lap steel, so the country-tinged tracks "The Dope Feels Good," "Moving and Shaking" and "Inside Outside" (which boasts a harmonica solo) were nearly up to her standards for good music. Once again, she made a valid point in that the melody is buried for the most part under a mountain of oscillating effects and noise. Therefore, none of these songs are immediately rewarding, but require time and effort if one wants to discover the wonderful pop-songs obscured behind a wall of sound.
"Is this song still playing?"
That was her final remark, made in reference to the final track of the album. Yes, I was surprised my mom couldn't handle the lengthy "Oh Shadie," considering her generation gave birth to the 30-minute drum solo and rock concerts that lasted upwards of four days. I guess the '80s and '90s robbed the baby boomers of their patience (as well as their pensions, but that's another story).
It's a shame though, as "Oh Shadie" results in a culmination of all the previous techniques used throughout the album. Think of it as the conclusion to The Warlocks' musical essay regarding the amalgamation of '60s psychedelica, '70s pomposity, '80s lo-fi, and, finally, the '90s shoegazer movement. The inclusion and synthesis of these influences is impressive, yet ultimately a bit depressing, since it leaves the listener distinctly aware that no new ground is broken here.
This stands as the final critique of the album: that while these are accomplished musicians distilling their favorite musical influences, they fail to transcend those influences. And so, in the end (and I am sure my mom would agree with me), I've decided that the Phoenix Album is somewhat enjoyable but not particularly noteworthy. Not like those classics mom still enjoys. Now where's that copy of Carolina Dreams?