Spires That in the Sunset Rise
Four Winds the Walker
The Artist Revealed is Taralie Dawn
(Galactic Zoo Disk/eclipse)
When I was 14, growing up in central Ohio, there was a late-night-TV host named Fritz the Nite Owl. He showed a lot of great 70s sci-fi and horror movies, sported a biker mustache, and wore gigantic sunglasses with owl wings on the sides. During breaks his bespectacled head would float over a still from the film, and he would muse aloud over spacey background music that was like nothing I’d ever heard before, given that my parents’ tastes ran more toward barbershop and Anne Murray. I wrote a fan letter to the Owl, who was also a local radio jazz DJ, and asked him for a playlist. When he responded, I learned for the first time about trippy jazz like Sun Ra, electronic weirdness like Throbbing Gristle, and, perhaps most powerfully, the dronescapes of early Tangerine Dream.
I hadn’t ever tried drugs. But I wanted to hear music that re-created the experience of what I guessed drugs were like: being half-asleep, nestled between dreaming and wakefulness. “Psychedelic music” to me became any sonic experience that could induce and reward meditative attention while wreaking havoc on pop conventions. The best early psychedelic acts, from Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles to a million less familiar bands, got something right by being overtly omnivorous, especially in their appropriation of non-Western instruments and scales. They made sense of their influences by blurring cultural boundaries, using dissonance, reverb, and simple chord patterns. Psychedelia expanded the reference base that pop music could draw upon, and it gave my musical expectations a big jolt.
I got a similar jolt a year and a half ago, when I was caught off guard at the Empty Bottle by Spires That in the Sunset Rise. Seated like a chamber quartet, they played minor-key orientalist songs, switching off on a wide array of percussion and string instruments. Their music reminded me of relatively recent free-form no-wave bands like the Theoretical Girls or the Scissor Girls, but also the psychedelic classics–the aimless yet uptight space jams from the likes of Love, Devil’s Anvil, and Pearls Before Swine.
I was then only dimly aware of the long-skirted and unshaven “psychedelic” revival that includes folks like Simon Finn, Six Organs of Admittance, Animal Collective, and Tower Recordings. The second time I saw the Spires, at the Million Tongues Festival at the Empty Bottle last year, I would discover the ugly free-folk underbelly of this trend: monotony justified by a conceit of musical nostalgia, psychedelia as a fashion statement. What the Spires do is darker and more rootsy. The Spires surprised me, I think, by being so gloriously familiar.
The members of the band–Kathleen Baird, Taralie Peterson, Tracy Peterson, and Georgia Vallas–play, among other things, autoharp, zither, harmonium, guitars (electric, acoustic, slide), thumb piano, banjo, flute, cello, and a truly impressive number of percussion instruments. All sing. The Spires’ raw self-titled debut album came out in 2003 but was recorded more than a year earlier. Their second and more coherent full-length, Four Winds the Walker, officially comes out in July on the Providence-based indie Secret Eye, but on June 9 they play a record-release party at the Bottle.
The music on the first Spires album evokes the wheezing collapse of untuned, poorly maintained Victorian musical automata. Taralie Peterson described to me a telling moment during one song, when Vallas was using a toy chime set that literally fell apart as she played it; the sound of its disintegration was left in the recording. But despite the looseness and simplicity of the music, there are always great ideas going round, particularly in the ensemble arrangements. While rhythmic hooks are central to their music, the Spires skillfully move around between musicians and instruments–rhythms regularly change, silence shifts into noise, thumb pianos and banjos collide.
If the first album is a cloud–not the cute fluffy sort–the new one is more a murky stream. It’s clearly a more considered songwriting and recording project than the debut; there’s more instrumentation and there are more sonic layers, more variety and life to the quartet’s discordant ragas. The sound is still deliberately scattered; tempos swell and then disappear like a brief but stirring rush of endorphins.
But the album overall has a nice dramatic build, bookended in classic concept-album style by an overture and a coda (though whether a discernible concept exists is beyond me). The voices and instruments both echo and contradict one another; shrieks, chants, moans, and drones populate the postcolonial netherworld the group creates.
They pay only moderate attention to finish and technique and their arrangements are mainly designed to present strange melodic and rhythmic ideas. The dirgelike lyrics take on violent, even apocalyptic themes. On “Shining,” Taralie sings, “Even as the birds swoop and cut circles in the air the voice came in from the wind it looks like we’re from one body and in a thousand shreds.” The songs don’t flow outward and upward–rather, they pool in a dark, vivid, oily slick, releasing sweet fumes.
There’s a similar tension between order and chaos on a pair of solo albums by Spires members. Taralie Peterson has recently reissued her 2002 album The Artist Revealed Is Taralie Dawn, under the name Tar Pet, on vinyl (she also produces CD-R versions with individually designed covers). On the album her quavering pixie voice only occasionally sparkles through a morphine mudslide of string tracks, including acoustic guitar, zither, cello, and autoharp. She plays flute, piano, and organ as well, and slips in some ambient samples, but there’s no percussion; there’s an impressionistic absence of rhythm in most of
the songs, and many of their elements seem to have been intentionally recorded without reference to one another.
There are moments of clarity, though, where daylight breaks through the heavy patchouli mist and the mood is more soothing. In songs like “N.O.” and “My Darling One,” she picks a lovely minor refrain on guitar while singing in a goth murder-ballad croon. Peterson’s voice, the strongest part of the record, exudes menace even at a murmur, and evokes a riot-grrl fierceness, tending alternately toward bitterness, torpor, melancholy, and hysteria. It’s appealing when it’s mixed low, giving the wall of dissonance a spacey blurriness, but it stands out well over more sparse nonarrangements. The record may not be “psychedelic,” either in the traditional pop sense or by my picky definition, but it seems related to the foggy, formless compositions that many current bands are offering under those auspices.
Kathleen Baird’s new solo recording Scatter Ways, released under the name Traveling Bell, takes a much more relaxed approach than the Tar Pet disc. On many of the quasi-Near Eastern songs, picked guitar progressions resonate with the droning organ or harmonium and her multitracked deep, swooping voice. She backs up her singing at points with a ghostly croon or whisper, and accompanies herself on bells and other instruments. Baird’s songs aren’t as densely orchestrated as either Spires album or the Tar Pet disc, but her tracks feel more planned. She expresses chaos subtly, as with the soft phantasmic wind chimes on “Song for Eno.” The songs that descend into darkness or impermeability comprise layers of rhythm and texture, with samples of ambient sound occasionally augmenting the careful addition and subtraction of instruments as the compositions build out of and fade back into a moody half-light.
Baird’s delicate, aching songs recall the intuitive perfection and sad tones of Donovan, Nico, or Joni Mitchell. On Scatter Ways the spooky chill I associate with the Spires is held at bay by a glow of tenderness; the melodies take on an autumnal sense of loss, or a springlike hint of comfort and hope. The new “psychedelic” bands too often settle for formless wanking instead of trying to value subtlety, alter awareness, and create psychic drama. Spires That in the Sunset Rise have been lumped into that scene, but they do something those other bands haven’t: charm the subconscious.
Spires That in the Sunset Rise, Wooden Wand & the Vanishing Voice, Bird Show
When: Thu 6/9, 9:30 PM
Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
Info: 773-276-3600 or 800-594-8499