Out There in the Dark
At first squint, it may seem a tad oxymoronic to be told that a terrific new album will take you on a journey. After all, critics have been employing that standard ever since Bob Dylan painted his first masterpiece. Even today's rap/metal hybrids like Korn and Limp Bizkit aim to lead their audiences somewhere (even if it's into a dully monochromatic cul-de-sac).
Matthew Smith, songwriter/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist auteur of Detroit's Outrageous Cherry, has a literal journey in mind. Specifically, from Brian Wilson to the Velvet Underground. And while other groups have attempted such fusions (most notoriously the Jesus and Mary Chain, to whom Outrageous Cherry has been compared), nobody ever really satisfyingly stitched together the sunny vocal harmonies, surf guitars and production techniques that marked Wilson's early '60s achievements with the darker, amphetamine-fueled hard rock skree of the late '60s Velvets. Smith, however, whether due to his encyclopedic knowledge of rock history (the group's 1995 album Stereo Action Rent Party was an all-covers affair saluting everyone from Television to the MC5 to Leonard Cohen to the Incredible String Band) or to his estimable production skills (he's worked with artists as diverse as Kim Fowley, His Name Is Alive and new Sub Pop punk band The Go), is up to the challenge. Aided and abetted by bassist Chad Gilchrist, lead guitarist Larry Kay, and drummer Deb Agolli (the group's Mo Tucker, and secret weapon), his musical vision comes to life as vividly as an elaborate Stanley Kubrick set design.
The fourth Outrageous Cherry album kicks off with the British Invasion-styled "Georgie Don't You Know" just to whet the appetite: tambourine-led driving rhythm, massed vocals, and a Phil Spectorish, wall-of-sound arrangement. Soon enough the listener is delivered straight to Wilson's doorstep; "Where Do I Go When You Dream?" is pure Pet Sounds, paying direct homage to both "God Only Knows" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Then it's a cross-country zip from Saint Brian's L.A. bungalow to Uncle Lou's NYC loft; "Song for Inoshiro Honda" has a thick, thudding, fuzzed-out melodic vibe that's equal parts "What Goes On," "Beginning to See the Light" and "I Can't Stand It," while the 11-minute closing epic "There's No Escape From the Infinite" turns into a frenzied psychedelic maelstrom featuring dueling guitars (in opposite channels, no less) that suggest an update of the classic Reed-Sterling Morrison blueprint. Other stylistic familiarities crop up, of course. The Byrds-with-strings "It's Always Never" in particular is brilliant, a violin and cello sneaking in to make the 12-string guitar jangle all the lusher. But the beauty of this album is how, despite the listener's inclination to play spot-the-influence, it works as a unified piece, sucking you down into a hobbit's hole and spitting you back out into a vibrant wonderland of myriad hues and textures. Along the way, you might spot the Mad Hatter handing out blotter acid at Monterey Pop, and that's probably Charlie Manson you glimpsed lurking underneath the Altamont raceway bleachers, too. Choose your impression; Outrageous Cherry has the sonics to go with the visuals.
Worth noting, by the way, is that Outrageous Cherry is among the first handful of signings to Del-Fi 2000, the new "modern rock" imprint of venerable '60s surf/exotica label Del-Fi. When a noted tastemaker like Del-Fi label honcho Bob Keane gives a group his thumbs-up, people pay attention. As should you. -- Fred Mills
Ramblin' Jack Elliot
The Long Ride
Ramblin' Jack Elliot has been kicking around making music since the '50s. The singing cowboy from Flatbush, New York, has been written about by Jack Kerouac and did hard time on the road with Woody Guthrie. When a young Bob Dylan was still searching for a voice, he borrowed Elliot's drawl and inflections and called them his own. Elliot has been an inspiration to several generations of folk musicians and continues to tour the world over. Coming up on the year 2000, this elder statesman of American song certainly has nothing left to prove, which is why this new release is such a pleasant surprise.
Continuing in the direction of last year's Friends of Mine, The Long Ride is a lighthearted and often idiosyncratic combination of traditional and modern material. As an interpreter of vernacular music, Elliot is still remarkable, evidenced here by his version of the country classic "A Picture From Life's Other Side" and the timeless blues of "St. James Infirmary." Ultimately, what makes this record unique is the juxtaposition of songs. It's certainly no surprise that he would include Woody Guthrie's "Ranger's Command," but how about Mick Jagger and Keith Richards' "Connection"? Toss in material by Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Elliot himself, and this is one intriguing collection.
Produced by noted blues/roots boardman Roy Rogers, the album brings together a cast of fine musical and vocal collaborators including Dave Van Ronk, Maria Muldaur and Dave Alvin.
On "St. James Infirmary," Van Ronk and Elliot sound like two grizzled veterans revisiting their glory days, while "Cup of Coffee" is little more than an improvised conversation in song from Ramblin' Jack and fellow Big Apple folkist Tom Russell. As the tune meanders unsteadily to its conclusion, the duet beams with a sense of genuine comradeship. Time has not diminished Elliot's vocal ability. Instead, it's given it even greater depth as an instrument of expression. Throughout the album, Elliot's stony voice sounds like he has lived (and lived hard) every one of his almost 70 years.
A solo acoustic version of Dylan's "With God on Our Side" closes the album while managing to sound like a recently dusted-off vintage 78. The simply arranged seven-minute track becomes an effective coda to this unpredictable and rewarding collection. The Long Ride is both a roughhewn and vibrant work from a legendary artist who -- with any luck -- won't be treated as a museum piece any time soon. -- David Gofstein