Features and reviews focusing on the known and unknown legends of Rock 'n' Roll; the private press heroes, doomed power poppers, psychedelic guitar warlords, avant garde outsiders, and lo-fidelity all stars.
Based on the sounds contained on Chicago-based avant-folkie Bill MacKay’s latest albumFountain Fire, it seems apparent he’s been racking up the miles both literally and figuratively. It’s a dusty gem of an album that slowly reveals its treasures with repeated listening, and feels like a sprawling road trip across a new weird America with a transatlantic flight or two thrown in for good measure.
Album opener “Pre-California,” sets the table in a cinematic fashion, allowing a widescreen view of MacKay’s 6-string sprawl replete with walls of rumbling, and sliding guitars which evoke images of tectonic shifts, and primordial volcanic ooze. It’s a mostly instrumental set, but the few tracks which utilize vocals are stunners; such as the Janschian English folk moves displayed on “Birds of May.” It’s a timeless sounding set that hums with a crackling kinetic energy, even in its quieter and more contemplative moments. Closing with the urgent and apocalyptic sounding “Dragon Country,” MacKay seems to evoke the sound of darkness descending with its nervy acoustic finger picking, walls of tremolo, and sneaky electric guitar lines. Fountain Fire is an album that evokes powerful emotions and imagery almost entirely via MacKay’s masterful guitar work. Just hop in the van, and let him do all the driving; it’s a trip worth taking.
Motel In Saginawfrom the heretofore-unknown group StumpWater is another winning archival discovery from the trusted ears of the Drag City label which is being reissued for the first time in conjunction with Galactic Zoo Disk. Originally self-released in 1973, the amazingly still-active Aurora, Illinois based group’s unearthed album is a denim clad sepia toned slice of conceptual folk rock. The whole damn thing is so professional sounding and spot on, that you might even find yourself checking the record’s label for a steamboat; if you know what I mean.
The album is based around a group of characters that populate the small town hotel that gives the record its name. Using it as a conceptual framework on which the group hangs the occupants’ sad and desperate tales of loneliness. Sound wise; it’s all beautiful shimmering minor key strumming and tight vocal harmonies that would probably even impress the Croz himself. The writing is pointed, and mostly devastating character sketches that don’t let anyone off easy. “Romantic Courtship Turns Into Boring Marriage Blues,” unflinchingly details the decay of a relationship; the writing boasts an approach, and a dark humor which is very similar to another one of the era’s new Dylans, Loudon Wainwright III. Elsewhere, the album deals with death, “Now That He’s Passed Away,” isolation “The Hermit,” and the addiction “Tired Man” with the same type of direct songwriting precision and skill.
Motel In Saginaw sits nicely alongside such other real people loner folk epics such as label mate Gary Higgins’Red Hash and David Kauffman and Eric Caboor’sSongs from Suicide Bridge. Much like the aforementioned albums, the record’s bleak subject matter may be a bit too heavy for some to take. But for those that hang in there though the dark roads the group takes you down, there’s two rays of light that break through the existential gloom that hangs over that Saginaw motel in the form of the album’s two closing tracks; first there’s the wonderfully disarming title track which is love song in the truest sense of the word, and then the stunning album closer “A Thousand Voices.” These final two songs speak to finding love and salvation in others in order to break out of the confines of one’s own self-imposed prisons. The stories this album tells are universal; ones that are able to speak to the heart of the listener as much today as they would have in 1973. For those who aren’t afraid to go a little dark, it’s check in time.
I Have To Feed Larry’s Hawk is the latest from neo-psychedelic wunderkind, and occasional Ty Segall collaborator, Tim Presley. It’s a cryptic, and delicate song cycle that began it’s life in the rural United Kingdom town of Staveley, before being committed to tape in San Francisco, where it used to be a good move to be sure to wear flowers in your hair. A fact that I don’t think was lost on its creator, as the city’s past psychedelic vibes seem to have gotten under Presley’s skin on the resulting LP. While the finished product bears the audio and aural markings of both locations, it also remains content to float in its own peculiar pharmacological bubble outside of time and space.
The album feels like one of hazy rebirth. You get the Barrettesque sea legs of the title track, and the Beefheartian shuffle of “Until You Walk”, along with the ode to the mysterious locale of “Fog City,” presented to us in two versions that only help to add a generous helping of disorientation. The album’s primary 12-song cycle is built on this theme along with two additional instrumental pieces of Harm Reduction that seemed geared to assist the listener with the sometimes bumpy reorientation process. You’re going to need it, as this new internal world is populated by both natural wonders and piss covered floors. Set free to find a new illusion? This seems to be the main dilemma the album is grappling with. I Have To Feed Larry’s Hawk ultimately leaves the listener to decide the answers for themselves. Be forewarned, regardless of what you think, that hawk still needs to be fed. As Presley notes, there’s always a danger in leaving the past.