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Columnfortably Numb: Psych Rock For October Reviewed By JR Moores
JR Moores , October 18th, 2021 10:42

JR Moores dons his sailor's cap and jumps aboard the not-so-merry yacht of psych. Home page photograph of GNOD

Every so often I like to drop the phrase "yacht psych" into my columns in the hope that it might catch on so I can then credit myself smugly with having officially coined a subgenre. I could add that stripe to my music critic uniform (it's an M&S cardigan) and it would be another step towards afternoon tea at The Dorchester with Simon Reynolds, Kitty Empire and the skinny boy from Almost Famous. I'm still waiting, folks.

Usually, the term is applied in a light-heartedly derogatory tone. Whenever there is a passing reference to Tame Impala, for instance, whose music is what you'd now hear moments before Patrick Bateman's axe entered your parietal bone. Pond are another one. They're what Simon Le Bon would stream when trying to impress a gaggle of sarcastic nephews. His aural palate agrees with their flavour, and he just finds them a bit more professional than MGMT.

It's a twist on yacht rock, of course, which was invented by J.D. Ryznar and his colleagues for an internet comedy series, and applied to acts like Hall & Oates, Toto, and Kenny Loggins. Treated in a slightly more serious fashion, yacht rock was the subject of two-part BBC4 documentary presented by the splendid Katie Puckrik. I'll be honest. I was kind of hoping Auntie Beeb might call up to discuss the prospect of a yacht-psych series presented by the haggard me. I'm still waiting, folks.

Try to picture my displeasure, then, when I discovered that my esteemed colleague, Noel Gardner of Straight Hedge and New Weird Britain fame, had used the term yacht psych before me, in a passing reference to Cave. (This Chicago band is not to be confused with the goth prince Nick Cave who doesn't spend a lot of his time on yachts, but did arrive in England when the ship transporting his coffin ran aground at Whitby.) Damn you, Gardner! You're always one step ahead of the game. Back to the drawing board I go.

Piratetronica? Itch House! Hypnagogic Terry Core? Mighty Gust Thrash! Larder-wave? Insider Music! Aldi Crunk? Nu-quaff! Post-empowerment hyper-prod? Chamber Sludge? It's harder than you think.

Mild High Club – Going Going Gone
(Stones Throw)

Although much of it was cheesy and hasn't dated wonderfully well, not all yacht rock was bad. A case in point is the magnificent Steely Dan. If you don't like them when you're 20, as soon as you hit your next decade or two, you'll find yourself snapping up all the reissues and trying out moustaches. Unlike ELO, Steely Dan were the true heirs to The Beatles (Abbey Road, at least). For all their polish and precision, there was something properly edgy about them. It's hard to put your finger on, but it's there all right. Not all the yacht rockers had a semi-detectable hardness or sense of irony to their glossy output. They were all, however, operating during The Cold War. With the real possibility of nuclear doomsday lurking in everybody's psyches, it's no wonder musicians and consumers sought solace in handsomely produced odes to high-heeled chicks. It wasn't enough to drown out the fear. This brings us (finally) to Mild High Club, aka The Acceptable Face Of Yacht Psych. The sound itself is lovely and lush. Smooth wooziness. Light touches of cocktail jazz. Elbow padded grooves and silky soft beats. A hint of classic soul. While there may be a little darkness floating somewhere in the sheen, the gently sung lyrics contain the true sense of dread. They're informed by the miseries of late capitalism, climate change, collective and individual madness, and other concerns. "America, what the fuck?" sings a baffled Alexander Brettin on the opening line to 'Me Myself And Dollar Hell', before running through firearm fetishism, evangelical Christianity, rampant individualism, greed, wastefulness and other Western ills. All in a cool three minutes. As the album title suggests, its songs are full of goodbyes and endings and losses and loomings. Even the more personal ditties seem to have dismal global subtext. Its sugar coating makes this bitter pill easier to swallow.

Howlin' Rain – The Dharma Wheel
(Silver Current)

To say that Howlin' Rain appear to have stepped straight out of the 1970s is not to undermine their ambition. Those wide flares, wider-brimmed hats, furry sideburns and furrier-collared jackets belie the fact that this band formed as recently as 2004. True style never goes out of fashion, if you can pull it off convincingly enough. Nor should it be off-putting to learn that Howlin' Rain is the most accessible of Ethan Miller's various projects. He's also played in tattered psych searers Comets On Fire, garage psych rockers Feral Ohms and psych-folk supertroupe Heron Oblivion. This bloke sure knows how to psych. The first clue that Howlin' Rain's sixth studio album is going to achieve a cinematic grandeur arrives with its opening number. It's titled 'Prelude', contains zero lyrics, lasts for six spiralling minutes, and stays just the right side of PROG. Thereafter, it soon becomes apparent that this is Howlin' Rain's greatest album to date. (Give or take this writer's fondness for 2014's Live Rain, but that's a concert recording so it maybe doesn't count.) This time, the quartet's signature jam-band sound is embellished with soul-funk keyboards provided by Black Crowes associate Adam MacDougall. What's more, they've pulled off the veritable mini-coup of enlisting Scarlet Rivera, best known for playing on Bob Dylan's Desire. Her violin adds gravitas and heartstring tugs to a recording that already sounds as rich as Don Henley's lawyers. Miller's voice has a warm pain to it, comparable to Paul Rodgers', without slipping into the latter's penchant for cabaret blues shtick. His lyrics have a poetic quality, too, whether handling loss in a fairly straightforward manner on the ballad 'Annabelle' or when, as on the 16-minute title track, channelling "the multi-dimensional experience of a World War One soldier passing from this world back into matter". You won't find that at the Aerosmith Las Vegas residency.

Winkie – Here Comes Success
(Dying Machine)

It's hard to resist an album title that's both boldly ambitious and most likely sarcastic. Here Comes Success? It's reminiscent of Everybody Loves Urusei Yatsura or Album Of The Year by Faith No More. Pardon this digression, but when James' hit album Laid came out in 1993, the band members felt their libidos swell. Then after 1997's Whiplash, singer Tim Booth ruptured two discs in his neck, so he thought he'd better be more careful. Next time, they plumped for Millionaires in hope of becoming stinking rich. The cosmos had lost attention in James by then (it wasn't the only one) and the record performed less well than intended. Whether or not this New York duo are on the cusp of big things, Winkie are pretty nifty at naming their songs as well: 'Burn The Town Down'; 'Go And Have A Holiday, Judas'; 'Pissing On Idols'... You can imagine those being printed on the reverse of a CD by Mogwai, who have more great song titles than Ant & Dec have National Telly Awards. No post rock record be this, however. It's got more of darkwavy shoegaze vibe; a description that doesn't do full justice to Winkie's vampire bite. The beats strike like Catwoman's whip. The disorientating synth lines would stir butterflies in the tender belly of John Carpenter himself. Singer Gina sneers in such a way it makes you feel culpable for not getting off your buttocks sooner to put greater effort into solving humanity's infinite troubles. There's a bleak and angry atmosphere to the whole darn thing; a near-industrial pessimism it seems to share with last year's Splintered Metal Sky by fellow New Yorkers White Hills. 'Turn Off The Lights' is a little more soothing, in a "this episode of Twin Peaks doesn't have Bob in it" way. The overall vibe suggests the grim reaper, or some switchblade-wielding mugger, is more likely than success to be hiding round the corner. But you never know. It could be just what the public needs right now.

Endless Boogie – Admonitions
(No Quarter)

Once all based in the Big Apple, the members of Endless Boogie have since scattered themselves across the globe. Such dispersal can risk draining the creative juices of any given act, like when Gomez' Ian Ball relocated to Los Angeles in 2002, the year of the last record by them that you bought. Even when Ed O'Brien moved down the road from Oxford to London in 2003, it ended Radiohead's final proper artistic push (the Kid A/Amnesiac era). Exchanging MP3s over broadband is no substitute for regular intimacy and one cannot underestimate the loneliness of the long distance drummer. Luckily, this curse has not yet struck Endless Boogie, even if their latest collection does come padded with a solo piece from guitar player Jesper Eklow. Some of the LP was recorded in picturesque Sweden. Other sessions took place in a grotty Brooklyn basement. You can just about guess which songs came from where. Kurt Vile pops up at one point, with a slide guitar and boingy synth part, but overall Admonitions does not depart too far from the classic EB formula: a winning mixture of Beefheartian growls and Mirror Man jamz, severely locked krautrockian grooves, AC/DC sparsity and Blue Cheer heft. The opening song is nearly 23 minutes long and then fades out, suggesting that in real life the band kept playing it for another eight days or so. 'Jim Tully' lasts a similar amount of time. It's a moodier piece than the first epic, at least initially. It almost resembles the sand-encrusted meditations of Earth's The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull. On that note, 'The Conversation' and 'The Incompetent Villains of 1968' are opioid drones. 'Disposable Thumbs' and 'Bad Call' are the friskier cuts, displaying greater influence of the brothers Angus and Malcolm Young. On one of those songs, Paul Major's door-creak voice channels Mick Jagger at his wildest. On the other, he sounds like the paranoid and ranting recluse that he probably is. More time in Sweden might do him the world of good.

Weak Signal – Bianca

Paul Morley once wrote something about Julian Cope being the only person who can sing the words "baa baa baa" and really mean it. Similarly, when Weak Signal croon about having a bloodstream full of drugs, it's easy to imagine this is based on real-life experiences and isn't the idle boast of a fair-weather Sunday toker. Theirs is a sorry tale of being still too wasted from the night before to negotiate getting on the bus to work, feeling too sinful to visit the local church, and too nervous to stagger home to an unsympathetic partner. The fact that it is sung over such murky chugging only makes it more convincing. "I hope you can't relate," notes Mike Bones, who has also played with Soldiers Of Fortune and Endless Boogie. The trio is completed by Sasha Vine and Tran Huynh. Many of their new songs are a little prettier than 'Drugs In My System', although most possess a beshaded Velvets-esque acidity. 'Come Back' could have been written by one of the siblings from The Jesus & Mary Chain. In contrast, 'Sorry' recalls the effortless anti-folk charm of The Moldy Peaches. Bonus points are awarded for the scorching J Mascis/Neil Young guitar solo that cuts through the second half of 'I'll Stay'. It all slots together rather well. Perhaps the drugs do work, after all.

Moon Juice - Fuck Synchronization

Drummer Konrad Agnas and keyboardist Johan Graden, who both hail from Swedish musical dynasties, have joined forces with guitarist Cherif El Masri and together they are Moon Juice. The latter member has played in a variety of Egyptian groups, including The Invisible Hands with Alan Bishop. Under the solo alias of Tarkamt, he also released the genre-defying Live At The Necropolis tape in 2018, via Doom Trip Records (an imprint which, despite its name, more often trades in cassettes). Recorded on a rooftop in Cairo, and meddled with in post-production, Fuck Synchronization possesses Bandcamp tags which read "alternative", "ambient", "experimental", "free jazz" and "improvisation". These give some idea, but do little justice, to the sonic smorgasbord on offer. It's a very playful record, yet one with deep soul, and a mischievous sense of purpose. Speaking of impishness, Bishop himself pops up on 'A Slow Transistor' to wail both vocally and "mit sax". Other guests include Nadah El Shazly, Aya Hemeda and Omnia Hemeda. However, it's the main trio who are the stars of the show, rustling around off-road, searching for new pathways and discovering all manner of strange and interesting truffles.

GNOD – La Mort Du Sens

Some bands are so comfortingly productive that when there's any gap between releases you can start to get itchy and irate. That's how I feel about GNOD, who can never put out too much music often enough, as far as I'm concerned. Their presence has been sorely missed over the last year or so. All we had to settle for was a collaboration with João Pais Filipe, a couple of split seven-inches and a rarities LP. Where were you when we needed you most, oh mighty GNOD? I'm reminded of that story about Bruce Springsteen, who was driving around New Jersey in the days after 9/11, when a passenger in another car rolled down their window and shouted, "Bruce! We need you now!" The Boss did as instructed and quickly set to work on The Rising. Just a few months ago you might have spotted me wandering around the deserted streets of Salford and remote roads of rural Ireland, plague mask clinging to my sore ears, litre bottle of hand-sanitiser in my front pocket (no, I am not pleased to see you), while repeatedly muttering, "Where art thou, GNOD? Where art thou?!" Fear not, for GNOD hast not forsaken us. They were busy working on La Mort Du Sens (translation: The Death Of Meaning). Lo and behold, it's a lurching slab of cathartic post-psych ferocity. Like all the best noise-rock records, there are two drummers pounding pneumatically, who everyone else in the line-up has to strive to out-loud. The guitars saw relentlessly into the base of your spine. There's the odd jazzy flourish but their main mission is to grind out the no-wave grim-rock. The vocals are yelled with all the pent-up frustration of a seething Rollins, although not in an American accent, obviously. "I live in a grey town," groans Paddy Shine at one point. It's a grey nation, fella; one that's only getting greyer. GNOD began working on this record in late 2019 and completed it during lockdown, so it straddles both ye olde world and the new normehl. Mr Shine says an appropriate alternative LP title would be What The Fuck? It's a similar attitude to Mild High Club – discussed above - albeit in a very different mode of psych.

Electric Wizards: A Tapestry Of Heavy Music, 1968 To The Present by JR Moores is available in all decent bookshops. GNOD are in its index. Tame Impala aren't