Monday, March 7, 2011

13th Floor Elevators: Easter Everywhere (1967)

(International Artists)


Psychedelia has been kitsch since before you and I were born; even those of us who love the Seeds do so half-ironically, and the garish LP covers of the late '60s are choice monuments of tastelessness -- beloved, maybe, but mocked just as much. But Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators would prefer you to take them seriously, thank you very much. On their second album, they tone down the excesses and overstated incongruities of their 1966 debut Psychedelic Sounds to craft something no more commercial but far starker -- and even less fitting with the San Francisco definition of drug music. Like the first LP, Easter casts a remarkable net through the underground: at least two other bands with small followings, too quiet to be heard over the Airplane din, were crafting similar textures in the same period, most likely without a clue as to one another's existence. It's not nearly as strong, but this is easily of a piece with the long-players Love and the Velvet Underground were busy on this same year. More importantly, this strange, subtle record is a steaming and admirably restrained bit of left-field rock that (accidentally?) proves all roads lead back to the Byrds.

That's because the guitar wash in general -- really, theirs along with everyone's -- is infected with the sound of "Eight Miles High," which may lay claim to being the most earth-shaking single of the '60s. But more specifically, meet your new favorite oddball Dylan cover: the Elevators' "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" is an amazingly hunkered-down, passionately singular moment -- as revealing and stunning an instance of total recasting as the Box Tops' "You Keep Me Hangin' On." In its own perverse way, it's a reverent cover, as over five minutes Erickson and Tommy Moore and cohorts get farther lost in the song than they ever seem to in their own. Experiments like this have tremendous curiosity value and emotional payoff, and more to the point, they feel prophetic -- which makes it all the more unfortunate that after this was issued, the band was basically done. "She Lives (In a Time of Her Own)" has twice as many layers than are instantly apparent, "Postures" rambles pricelessly, "Earthquake" successfully weirds up the Stones, and "Dust" and "I Had to Tell You" knife their way through everything with unexpected pop expertise.

One thing for sure -- this isn't more of the same, even if Moore's electric jug is an obvious bridge. The fooling with guitar textures throughout Easter Everywhere, as much as it may owe to the hilariously studious devotion to LSD insisted upon by Moore, is a shimmering proto-shoegaze; there are times when you could easily mistake this album for a recently-recorded treasure from Yo La Tengo or Sonic Youth; the devotion to pop filtered through distortion, feedback, and beautiful fuzz and force are as pronounced as the velvet Underground's. Revert to 1980s indie and the forecasting is even more pronounced.

But those are all the parts when the guitars take over, when it could just as well be an instrumental LP. Where the Elevators fall short is, alas, the increasingly lost-sounding, distant, flat vocals from Erickson, who came off snobby and sneering on Psychedelic Sounds and simply unfeeling and bored here. His ample, horrific troubles -- electroshock therapy and years in an insane asylum due to being caught with a single joint -- were still ahead, so why does it already sound like he's holding us at arm's length? Disturbingly, it's like he's already afraid of being hurt, like a part of him has already resigned. All the same, the first two Elevators LPs will live on as Erickson's legacy, and as a fascinating curiosity serving to prove the point that we really had done everything by the close of the '60s.

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

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