Saturday, July 24, 2010

The C.A. Quintet: Trip Thru Hell (1968)

(Candy Floss [orig] / Sundazed [reissue])


Undoubtedly one of the most bizarre discoveries that the psychedelic revival of the late '70s failed to uncover, this album is truly steeped in all of the extremeties of late '60s rock music, for better and worse. Alternately giddy, inspired, unlistenable, and boring, it comes off as a sort of Midwestern White Light / White Heat, proving like that album that San Francisco had no monopoly on testing the extremes of druggy, kitchen-sink pop & roll.

The band displays a sly self-confidence throughout the record that makes it easy to forget how fringe and amateur they were. Although the influence seeping in from California is obvious, they sound more contemporary than most of the psychedelic bands of the day (even giving an advance nod to indie with the cheerful "Underground Music"), from their goofily over-the-top album cover to the gothic gloom & doom of the individual songs, which are easily as bleak and intense as anything that Jim Morrison or Lou Reed were coming up with. The most apt comparison may be to Arthur Lee, whose often apocalyptic declarations and versatile, theatrical vocals come into play here, but one wonders if the C.A. Quintet had ever even heard Love (or the Velvets, for that matter).

The record opens with its worst cut, "part one" of the title track, a tiresome though studio-virtuostic instrumental that stretches on with meaningless menace for nine minutes. Things get more intriguing after that. Songs like "Cold Spider" and "Smooth as Silk" fuse the glee-club vocals of the Free Design and the jangle of the Byrds with incongrous horns and an unsettlingly ever-changing mood. A song like "Colorado Mourning" that opens with pretty distance becomes a (delightfully) wrenching dirge. The only missteps are the douchey and very 1968 guitar workouts peppered all over the record, which are not manic enough to be fun and too seasoned not to be dull.

The C.A. Quintet was approaching something prophetic and new, although they never quite got there. You can get a fuller picture with the bonus cuts Sundazed included on their long-awaited reissue of the album. Non-album singles include the priceless (and slightly country-infected) "Bury Me in a Marijuana Field," possibly the all-time statement of purpose for psych, and an inexplicably amazing cover of the Motown classic "Mickey's Monkey." If the disc doesn't equal or even approach the ample skills of the Mothers of Invention or the Doors or the Dead, it's certainly smarter than all three. If it doesn't have the Velvet Underground's imagination, it's at least an album of boys having a blast and testing the limits in a similarly creative way. And if it doesn't become a regular habit for you, at least Trip Thru Hell is -- without question -- unforgettable.

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