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Artist: Mendelbaum

Album: Mendelbaum

Label: Normal

Review date: Jun. 22, 2003

Late 60s San Francisco Rock Unearthed


One of the lesser-known bands from San Francisco's late 60s scene, Mendelbaum recorded just one album, in 1970. This double CD reissue includes that album, together with an additional CD of live recordings from two shows in 1969.

Very much of their time, Mendelbaum combine semi-operatic vocals, great fuzz guitar sound backed with organ, and a solid rhythmic section. The relatively short first CD (35 minutes) opens strongly with "Days Gone By," heavy guitar rock a la Deep Purple, with similarly histrionic vocals, but I mean that in a good way. The song starts out with deceptively quiet vocals, delicate guitar, and organ, but then the drums and fuzz guitar kick in, and the vocals get more excited. The guitar leads come and go, and are pretty spot-on perfect, while the organ fills in the gaps just right.

The terrific swelling organ intro of "Since I Met Her" builds into a fast-moving rocker that breaks weirdly into a very different middle section a Queen-like pop-harmony chorus, solo bass, and prog-like keyboard makes for a unique change in the midst of a high-speed rock tune. On the other hand, "Oh, Yes, Yes!" is a vaguely countrified rocker, but heavier than that generally implies. It's got great guitar work and I'm a sucker for good organ, so there you go. Great stuff.

"Key of Be" is very much in the vein of their SF contemporaries, a slower Bay Area psych piece with thicker organ; at over seven minutes it's also the most spread-out piece here. It moves through a more dynamic sprawl than most, including a very laid-back segment at the very end. The lyrics are a bit goofy at times, but not egregiously so. The vocals here and on some other tracks remind me of David Crosby's solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name, from about the same period.

Dominated by a fantastic guitar and organ groove, "No Hiding Place" has a somewhat darker, creepy feeling. The airy middle section with claps echoing the drums is a bit goofy, perhaps, but it's effective nonetheless. And when the guitar riff comes back in, backed by the organ, it's pretty powerful. Chris Michie's guitar leads towards the end are air-guitar friendly as well. "All My Life" is pure 70s rock, with some guitar work that Aerosmith probably ripped off; "Walk With Me" is an acoustic guitar-driven heavy folk tune; "I'm a Fool" is the bounciest, most light-hearted song here. "Blood of the Nation" finishes the album with a calm and elegiac song, just acoustic guitar strumming, piano, and vocals. It's kind of a strange song to end with, being so quiet in comparison with the others.

The live disc is more than just an extra, because it contains almost completely different songs from those on the first CD. Unfortunately, the recordings seem to show a band with a better handle on things in the studio than on the stage. The CD starts with "Wars to Rainstorms," which is quite different, a folkier singalong which doesn't grab me in particular. The heavy use of George Cash's saxophone on songs like "No Reason" distracts from the feel of the band as well. The sax wailing really gets on my nerves, and it pulls the focus off Michie's guitar, which is unfortunate. There's also the two-minute "I Don't Know," a lethargic sing-and-strum piece that's nearly inaudible.

I'm left with the feeling that in 1969 the band was still finding its own voice, and the rather undistinguished songs that make up the live CD were left behind in favor of those that were recorded in 1970. Thankfully, the band apparently ditched the folk/country leanings for something heavier and darker. The result is a studio disc that's a hell of a lot of fun, and a live disc that's more of a curiosity.

By Mason Jones

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