Friday, September 10, 2010

The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (1966)


(International Artists)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

This album is new to me and the first chance I've had to properly hear this band; these songs give me that elusive feeling of musical magic falling into place off some half-attentive cuff. Of course I've meant to listen to this for approximately a decade, but for whatever reason, it slipped my mind until Roky Erickson's quite enjoyable album with Okkervil River earlier this year. And what a delight to find such a fun '60s album to explore anew, even though I'm not sure "fun" is precisely what this band was aiming for. This is Serious Business, and for 1966, it feels surprisingly harsh and bold.

The Elevators are widely noted for their promotion of drugs, with band member Tommy Hall's sleeve notes explicitly advocating mind-altering substances as an aid for the enjoyment of the record (and life in general). But if this is truly the beginning of "stoner rock," it's in a spirit of greater levity and eclecticism than the music to which the term generally applies. This band could do more than one thing, and yes, this is druggy music, but it's also genuinely oddball in discernibly rational ways. Even as it, as my girlfriend pointed out, conjures up images of straight-haired blondes slouching against walls and sofas in yellow-wallpapared living rooms, it comes off as unlazily imaginative: a tornado hitting a beach party. The way some perfect Tom Wolfe version of the '60s might have happened.

Part of the reason I find this so irresistible is how it effortlessly dives into some of my favorite rock & roll gimmicks, it must be pointed out, even before the Velvet Underground released their debut album (but not before they were making such noises on stage). Perpetual drone, dirty garage sound, ranting and affected vocals, excessive tremolo, apocalyptic distortion, and lovingly buried melodies -- this is dream pop for me. Part of the mysterious vibe of menace it achieves is thanks to Hall's electric jug, which parades on like a monolithically bizarre backdrop, but one shouldn't discount the amateurish intensity of Stacy Sutherland's guitar playing, riddled with vague but hyperactive emotion.

The 13th Floor Elevators' most famous cut is their single "You're Gonna Miss Me," which you've heard and is more or less an example of classic garage sound, but with an ominous tension bubbling underneath, even with the boisterous (if raw) Erickson lead. It's a worthwhile sample of the most base ideas of the record, but even a quick, unexpectant entrance will throw the investigator of this LP for a loop, particularly the modern listener: song number two, "Roller Coaster," recalls the Stones and anticipates Pavement (the slapped-together-into-Heaven feeling) and relates surprisingly little to "Miss Me" with its still tense but subtler, more casual vibe, not to mention its improved (and calmer) songwriting. Still more startling -- "Splash 1," sideways balladry with the most memorable melody yet. The surprises peak a bit later with the provocatively arty "Thru the Rhythm," which sounds like... '80s indie rock? No wonder everyone was covering these guys by then.

Television famously covered "Fire Engine" at a lot of shows. The first time I heard a 13th Floor Elevators song it was that one, for that reason, and I admit to being disappointed that the freshfaced precision of Verlaine and pals on their punky, slicing version was traced back to a shapeless nightmare involving an actual siren and a lot of impassioned (terrified?) shouting. In the context of the album, I get it; "Splash 1" is peace and this is war. Its pounding beat and populist rockshow come out on repeated listens so it starts to feel really impressive and it, too, looks ahead to later touchstones: I hear some Pere Ubu in it in addition to the more direct line to Television and the New York scene.

For all that, the Elevators still belong to their time, and this produces a lot of the charm to be found here: just look at that album cover for starters. Roky wails in a cathartic, high-pitched manner no serious rocker would dare attempt after the heavy metal indulgences of the '70s; if anything, his Yoko-like yodel is more delicate, restrained, and status quo. But the fact that he could then get away with his more flamboyant and... fearless caterwauling in the former category legitimizes him against any tainting and reminds one of just how experimental the band was at the time. The drug thing is inescapable, sure, and if you listen to this long enough you start to sound like you've been dropping or smoking up yourself, as I just did when I actually said out loud during "Monkey Island" that "you can feel the space of the room here." But even if only occasionally, there's something to be said for the blankbrained release of intense red-light bad-trip psychedelic rock.

The baddest trip here? Oh, easy, "Kingdom of Heaven." As much as Erickson and company could sound like the Animals or the Kinks ("You Don't Know" Is the Kinkiest, with truly awesome guitarics) and even the Byrds ("Don't Fall Down" is shimmery music, its flighty mood alleviated only by the vocal deadpan), this is pure joyous self-imposed misery: the siren from "Fire Engine" returns amidst plodding drama to craft some addictive dirging that rivals the most methamphetamine-addled jams in the VU catalog (and certainly makes the Beatles' "I Want You" seem redundant and three years too late, even if only for a little while).

At the beginning, the 13th Floor Elevators were Texans playing rock & roll; Roky Erickson's subsequent tragedies and the short, sad life of the band itself seem irrelevant when faced with a record as teeming with life as this. Of course you can spend all your time gazing through the mind enhancement-addled clichés, and there are plenty to find, but you'd be missing the point: some of the purest, most enjoyable, and most artistically innovative and respectable garage rock ever made. I can't wait to check out Easter Everywhere.

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