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The United States of America - The United States of America

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Artist: The United States of America

Album: The United States of America

Label: Sundazed

Review date: Aug. 26, 2004

The most ambitious, idiosyncratic debut album of 2004 is 36 years old. To be honest, I’m not quite sure of the United States of America LP’s competition in 1968, outside the first release from the Silver Apples, who have a lot in common with the USA in their combination of arty psych-rock and pulsing synthesizers. The Silver Apples differed from the USA by recording more then one record – unfortunately the USA never were given the chance to build on or to betray the promise of their only album. The brainchild of avant-gardist Joseph Byrd (a disciple of John Cage and co-founder of the UCLA New Music Workshop), the band fused concepts from serious composition with pop music and then-cutting edge electronic effects to produce an album of acid-rock less dependant on lysergic guitar for its impact than those great, weird sounds of primitive synthesizers from in ’60s

Besides its use of electronics, other noteworthy elements that set the band apart from its contemporaries include the conspicuous presence of a credibly rocking violin, the conspicuous absence of the electric guitar, and the fire-and-ice vocals of lead singer Dorothy Moskowitz, who recalls in equal measures Grace Slick and Nico. Accordingly, the album’s best rockers fall somewhere between West Coast hippie rock and the harder-edged, self-consciously urban work of the Velvet Underground. “Hard Coming Love” is their most Jefferson Airplane-ish moment, although few Jefferson Airplane songs kick off with a scorching minute-long violin solo. “Coming Down” eerily anticipates Stereolab by two decades – although quicker paced and propelled by fuzz bass – and is about exactly what you think it would be about – “Reality is only temporary” Moskowitz croons, among other choice drug-enhanced insights.

The pounding “Garden of Earthly Delights” is the real honey here, a Hieronymus Bosch tribute that ambivalently portrays the pleasures and pains of sin, and which showcases Byrd’s electronic effects at their most powerful. For diversity’s sake there are also a couple of airy ballads, utilizing synths and distorted instruments to lull rather than to unsettle. “Love Song For the Dead Che” is Burt Bacharach on downers, while “Cloud Song” suggests an out-of-body experience set to music.

The less successful tracks on the album are the ones that ditch subtlety for extremely strident attacks on bourgeois America. It’s easy to appreciate the vitriol displayed in these songs, but like some Woodstock-era “radical” film where middle-aged straights gnash teeth at each other while trying to drink away the emptiness of their plastic suburban lives, they haven’t aged incredibly well. Sung by Byrd, “I Won‚t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar” is very reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s smarmier work with the Mothers of Invention, and it’s hard to think of another song from the 1960s that explicitly mentions S & M besides “Venus in Furs.” The cheating husband tells his teenage love-toy: “Tying you is fun, and whipping you is grand” - but he can’t leave behind his split-level and his kids and his Yorkshire Terrier and et cetera. Or his pool.

The “Eleanor Rigby”-esque “Stranded in Time” starts out: ”Early in the morning / When the sun is still asleep / Father drinks his cup of coffee / Kisses Mother on the cheek / Off to work he goes / What he does nobody knows / But he’s sure to bring home money every week.” And that’s all you need to know about this track, because if you listen to music from the ’60s at all, you’ve probably heard this same song literally dozens of times before. Yes, another song about how boring people with jobs are to rock musicians. At least “Stranded in Time” is mercifully short, and the next song makes up for this brief lapse of unoriginality by having lyrics depicting homosexual cruising in men’s rooms, which may represent some sort of rock songwriting all-time first. This is the original LP’s conclusion, the unnerving “The American Way of Love” (the CD has 10 more bonus tracks), a sound collage which mixes garage rock, ragtime, alarming synthesizer gurgles, snippets from the record’s other songs (in the fashion of Queen’s “More of That Jazz”), and various oddball elements, producing the album’s most explicitly experimental composition.

Judging from the liner notes of the new Sundazed CD release, with commentary from Byrd and Moskowitz, the group was plagued by an incredible amount of inter-band tension and plain misfortune in its short life (Richie Unterberger’s short chapter on the USA in his book “Unknown Legends of Rock N‚ Roll” gives a history of the band similar to that given in the CD liner notes, but with significantly little overlap between the two of examples of What Went Wrong). The group split soon after the release of their debut, the members going on to other projects.

On a final note, if you like the USA, you might want to pick up Phil Och’s Pleasures of the Harbor, where Joe Byrd provides the fantastically jarring backing music to its epic closing track “The Crucifixion,” nearly drowning out the folk singer with what sounds like a symphony in the hull of a sinking battleship. One wonders what those folkies who screamed “Judas” would have thought of it.

By Mark Hamilton

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