Listed: Espers + Camera Obscura
Psychedelic folk ensemble Espers have clearly learned a lot from their peers, as well as their predecessors. However, influence alone cannot explain the impetus and process that led to the creation of their debut album, Espers, which has already joined the ranks of PG Sixís Parlor Tricks & Porch Favorites and Currituck Countyís Unpacking My Library (among others) as a contemporary psych-folk classic. Meg Baird's pristinely whispery vocals blend beautifully with Greg Weeksí equally gentle autoharp and finger-picked guitar accompaniment. Weeks, whose solo albums have seen release on labels such as Acualera and Ba Da Bing! among others, may make him the biggest name in the group, but Espers is clearly a group effort, and a great one at that. Espers debut album, Espers is now out on Locust Records. Their list was also a group effort:
1. Mixed Tapes from Kevin Barker (as per Brooke) - I became friends with Kevin Barker (a.k.a. Currituck County) a few years ago, back when I was getting serious about learning fingerstyle guitar. Seeing a Currituck County performance helped me understand the mechanics of how a thumb-picked alternating bass line worked. Until then, I listened to John Fahey and Incredible String Band records and couldn't really visualize the technique that produced those guitar sounds that i loved. Shortly after our initial meeting, Kevin and I began trading mix tapes through the mail between Philadelphia and Washington, DC (where he was living at the time). The tapes from Kevin changed my life (for better or worse, i don't know).... especially Prepare Thyself to Deal With a Miracle Volumes 1 & 2, Wispy Paisley Skies: Psychedelic Rock Circa 1969-1972 and Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground. Within this batch of tapes lived songs by Bridget St. John, Anne Briggs, The Sun Also Rises, Forest, Comus, Linda Perhacs, Shide & Acorn, C.O.B., Robbie Basho, Mellow Candle, Dulcimer, Bread, Love, and Dreams, Steve Tilston, Amps For Christ... There was also a bit of Norwegian Black Metal (Ulver) thrown in there, which is just about the only thing Kevin pushed on me that didn't really stick.
2. Slumber Party at the Yodspace Last Spring (as per Meg and Chris) - We were fortunate enough to share a magical night at The New Grass Center for Underground Culture with Michael Hurley. After closing, Espers were kindly invited to crash at the space with friends Kevin Barker, Pat Gubler, whiskey and Byron's record collection, which we had free listening reign over (well, at least the caretaker and sweetheart Chris Corsano, said we could, so I hope this was okay). Some of the records pulled out that night: Bert Jansch's LA Turnaround got everybody breezy and sentimental, Exuma (s/t) laid some Bahamian voodoo shivers on us, Kevin treated us to a whole bunch of Wizz Jones records and a Fred Neil medley from ESP hippies All that the Name Implies. It was also really fun to watch Kevin climb around on the ladder in pjs searching out records like a guy who loves good records in a room full of good records. Sometime before breakfast, a song about a grey wizard was played over and over and over again and this was kind of a fun tune for about 10 minutes, but it had a pretty unbearably long half-life in oneĻs residual listening ear, so unless you want to have the line ≥The Grey Wizard am I≤ bouncing around in your brain for the next month or so, we might recommend not bringing this one into your life.
3. Michael Hurley (And Other Folk Heroes Made Flesh)) (as per Greg) - Michael Hurley's Blueberry Wine made us want to sign to Locust. We listened the fuck outta that record. We obsessed over the lyrics to "Tea Song". You know the line: "conjured up a leprechaun to dance upon the steam. ooooh ooh..." Several months later we were signed to Locust and Michael was giving Brooke and I, spur of the moment style, a private, late-night concert including that very damn song. I pissed my pants. I'm still not convinced it actually happened. Several months later we were blowin' around Wisconsin with Bridget St. John in the back of our van. I couldn't have been dead and in heaven, my ass hurt too much from driving for so long. A mere few months after that, I'm shaking the hand that Vashti Bunyan shook. Hey, one degree of separation is pretty fucking good when that one degree is Devendra Banhart. Michael, here's to you and all yr broke-down jalopies. May leprechaun steam fuel 'em through 30 more years of snockin' around town.
4. Easy Wind (as per Brooke) - Easy Wind was a jam band/dining club of sorts that Jack Rose, Laurie Sutherland and I had going for a short while last year. Apparently, Easy Wind is also the name of a Grateful Dead song, written by Pig Pen. I'd never heard it until Jack played it for me. He has a soft spot for the Dead. Easy Wind only played music together a few times, but it was really significant experience for me because Jack Rose is one of my favorite guitarists. A night of Easy Wind usually meant that I'd go to Jack and Laurie's old South Philly apartment, and we'd start off by indulging in a decadent meal. Jack makes great pizza, which we had a few times. Laurie once made tamales, and vegetarian sushi was one of my contributions. After these meals, and a few drinks, the instruments would come out. Laurie played various percussion, while Jack and I switched off between 6 and 12 stringed acoustic guitars, in various open tunings. I'd usually come up with a droney, repetitive, finger-picked progression, and Jack would improvise over it.
It's always interesting for me to see how Jack approaches improvisation, because he has so many different influences, and heĻs a really sensitive and accomplished player. There are times when he'll rub a slide over one fret of the guitar for an eternity, coaxing out subtle microtones. Other times he'll take a more syncopated, melodic approach, or drone with his Basho-inspired "trills." Casually playing music with Jack was better than any guitar lesson imaginable.
I should mention that the soundtracks for those dinners were pretty memorable also: Henry Flynt's You Are My Everlovin', various Indian Classical records, Peter Walker's Rainy Day Raga, Sun City Girls, Skip James, and the Grateful Dead, of course.
5. Brooke's Bootleg Video Stash (as per Greg) - My Espers experience began on a palette in a far corner of Brooke's former Northern Liberties loft space. It was my home during the forging of most of the first album's material and the recording of the full-length. In full denial of full-time jobs, I ran up my credit cards with food purchases and filled my free time devouring the assorted VHS cassettes of shorts, clips, and documentaries (like the criminally neglected Heartworn Highways, which features a young Townes Van Zandt drunk, goofin' it up with his giggly girlfriend, two dogs and a rifle, and a heartbreaking rendition of his "Waiting Around To Die") which littered Brooke's unkempt shelving units. Amidst the underground cinema shorts and full length films sat the true gems of Brooke's collection: Bob Dylan's appearance on the Johnny Cash Show, Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest episode with Donovan and Rev. Gary Davis, and the surly, hilarious antics of a young John Fahey on Guitar, Guitar, a 2-camera, live to videotape, PBS-style interview/performance show hosted by a know-it-all, dolled-up 60's housewife (who gets into it a bit with Fahey). Also of note were tapes of Neil Young doing Harvest material for the BBC prior to the album's release (soooo stoned, and looking younger than one could ever think possible), T Rex and The Family doing sets of acid-rock excess between collages of naked Dutch hippies trapped in floating, translucent plastic tubes (why aren't festivals that exciting nowadays?), and Tim Buckley with members of the Mothers playing Starsailor-era material to a Dutch television audience.
6. Clive Palmer - Just Me (as per Meg and Chris) - Solo album from the main man. His version of "Girl from the North Country" wrecked CJ for a week. It's just Clive and his banjo on most of the tracks singing the old songs, and itĻs keeping some of us going until February is finally over with.
7. The Black Bear Commune (as per Greg) - Being that we ourselves dwell in a commune-esque, three house compound, our Meg's x-mas gift to the band of a book detailing life at one of hippiedom's vanguard freak-hovels seemed no less than perfect. Reading it on the heels of Cometbus' "Back to the Land" issue gave less depressive insight into the mostly failed movement, and jived with our own obsessions towards the more radical counter-cultural offerings. That the commune still exists to this day is a testament to human tenacity, not to mention fodder for post-rehearsal ruminations of a free concert drop-in during our next West Coast tour. I, for one, am looking for any excuse to roam naked with the natives.
8. Driving Music (as per Meg and Chris) - Driving through Connecticut can be a drag. We had no choice but to make our way through the state on our way to Maine last summer to play the 5000 strings festival. Heavy eyes and a hazy late afternoon sun softened the experience, but better yet was the Bo Hansson album Sagat Om Ringen that Tara Burke (Fursaxa) slid into the cd player. Such a great album, and it makes you think you are driving even when snug at home and dreaming of Shelob. Fleetwood Mac's Then Play On is another favorite. The heavy session thunder of "Coming Your Way" turns any highway drive, bridge crossing or simple approach into a poised attack. Somewhere on our way to Chicago, Greg broke out Deep Purple's In Rock, good riffs for that 'we're almost there?' feeling. When midnight comes and you still have 7 hours to go, Les Rallizes Denudes is a good tonic to keep you from running off the road and into the mountains. Play twice in a row and tune into Art Bell reruns for a true journey. Then there were all those early times with the classic rock radio in Greg's old Blazer (RIP). Rate-that-Solo canĻt be beat as a travel game, along with the fun of thinking that maybe it is possible to will someone to get the Led out.
9. The Album Cover to Catherine Ribeiro and Alpes' Paix (as per Greg) - Brooke managed to score an original Philips LP of this, Alpes' finest record, for something like 16 bucks. Unbelievable! The washed out cd reproduction of this richly toned, glossy cover does it an immense disservice. The image has Ribeiro, stark and empowered yet all-welcoming, sitting easily amongst her bandmates, flowering branch in hand, bearded, bedazzled co-conspirator Patrice Mouliet at her back, and a massive tree trunk shooting heavenward supporting their combined weight. Ribeiro comes across as goddess, white witch and peasant, which is no less than the multiple effect of her voice on record. The magnetic quality of this metaphysical nature scene is undeniable; a staggering example of the early 70's earthy aesthetic and the penetrating influence of honest idealism.
10. Folk Camp (as per Meg) - Any kind of music camp is exceptionally nerdy, and folk camp was no exception. But as a reward for my tolerance in being able to hang with the full reality of some of the most depleted elements that the folk revival has wrought upon the present tense, I could walk out of my room in the middle of a perfect mountain summer night in NC - lunar moths and all - and sit on a rock or a log and listen to one after another killer old-time jam featuring the likes of John Herman, Riley Baugus, and Ira Bernstein's shoes. Other treats included a mind-bendingly bizarre guitar lesson with John Cohen, a moving conversation with Don Pedi about the mountain dulcimer and his travels getting started, which included meeting the late Richard Farina, and my chance to sing with two of her most treasured, most favorite living ballad singers, Sheila Kay Adams and Bobbie MacMillon. If iĻm not wrong, Bobbie knows upwards of about 800 ballads. Both artists learned (Bobbie exclusively learned this way) many of their songs from other people, not from recordings. ItĻs hard to explain properly or with authority, but there is just something different about hearing songs in person that have passed from one person to another, without the interference of recorded music. Maybe this is just me putting a nice spin on the fact that my tape recorder (taping was allowed at all sessions) had a major meltdown about an hour into folk camp. Folk camp was awesome.
While the vast majority of the American music-buying public was unaware, Scottish folk-rock ensemble Camera Obscura were quietly making all of the albums that Belle and Sebastian fans were so desperately seeking. Finally Merge Records has earned the rights this this excellent 6-piece and has recently released its American debut album, Underacheivers Please Try Harder. Full of powerful pop ballads, Underacheivers as literate as it is catchy, and as sacharrine as it it is sharp. Underacheivers Please Try Harder is available now on Merge Records.
CAMERA OBSCURA TOP TEN
1. The Pastels - All the things Iíve been doing in the last twenty years, learning to talk, growing into things, living the life of quiet despair and I could have been doing the Pastels. Until the last few years it all seems like such a waste.
2. Alasdair Gray - 1982 Janine - I really like his books and this isnít the best, but Iím looking forward to studying it in English class next week because I know that most people will hate it. I think its because its so hateable that I love it. Lots of pervy, dated, sexist old manís fantasies. And thereís a sad story amongst the lesbian pile-ups.
3. Icicles - Iím kind of grimacing as I type this. It seems terribly predictable, like all those indie mailing list folk describing how winter makes them feel warm inside and reminds them of their favourite Field Mice b-side etc. Itís just that Iíve been driving round the Scottish countryside today and there were hundreds of amazing icicles and half frozen waterfalls and I carried on being fascinated and wanting to touch every one. Some sort of consolation for the absence of snow in the West.
4. Bill Douglas - Trilogy - I just saw this recently and it was amazing, harsh and relentlessly bleak.
5. Lloyd Cole - Rattlesnakes Reunion Concert at the Barrowlands in Glasgow - It's not till October but is still really exciting. Iím hoping heíll re-grow his quiff for the occasion so I can forgive the grey hair. Iím hoping everyone will feel something like a teenage girl.
6. Cat Power Ė The Covers Record (Matador) - This is the kind of record I fantasize about making. I love the sparseness of it, just her voice and a piano or a guitar. Its simplicity makes it very powerful and for me thatís the beauty of it. The highlight is Ďwild is the windí. It always leaves me with a knot in my tummy and a tear in my eye. Iíd go as far to say that Cat Powers version of this song is better than Nina Simoneís, and as far as Iím concerned, she rules.
7. Nina Simone - Sugar in my Bowl - The Very Best of Nina Simone 1967-72 - If you want to get into Nina Simone and youíre not sure where to start, I recommend you start with this 40 track CD. Itís worth it alone to hear her version of Bob Dylanís ĎJust Like Tom Thumbís Blues.' I mean this is the kind of song thatís hard to imagine anyone doing justice to, and that includes Bob Dylan these days. The arrangement is fantastic (she arranged and produced it herself) as are the arrangements of all the songs. Go and buy it, I urge you.
8. The Loviní Spoonful - "Do You Believe in Magic" - This is my favourite song of all time. I generally like songs that make me feel miserable, but this is the exception. Itís so feel good. I expect Iíll still be dancing round to this when Iím old and in a home.
9. Compilation tapes made for me by my friend Gerry - Gerry has been making comp tapes for me for about 10 years now. I suppose you could say heís been giving me an education. Iíve been introduced to so many bands and songwriters through him and for that Iíll be eternally thankful and grateful. The latest tape had a postcard of a Rothko painting as the inlay card and was entitled Ďas long as youíre happyí. It included an outstanding version of ĎAbraham, Martin and Johní sung by Dion. The vocal is amazing and the arrangement is inspiring. I almost crashed the car the first time I heard it. Actually, Gerry should start some sort of tape exchange. I think heíd make a lot of fellow music lovers happy.
10. Richard Hawley - Late Night Final - This is the best record Iíve heard in ages. I love his voice, I love the songs, I love the arrangements and I love the production. I just canít fault it. It sounds like an old record from the sixties and there arenít too many people who can pull that off. It will break your heart, and probably your stereo if you listen to it as often as I do. I might live to regret saying this, but this album is the best thing to come out of the UK since Tigermilk.
By Dusted Magazine