Wednesday, April 15, 2009

row Hits


"A meet-
ing of the minds, a musical summit, staged in a sagging barn in North Mississippi."
-- Andrea Lisle in the liner notes

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Years ago, I interviewed Pete Kember, alias Sonic Boom, and
asked why he chose to cover Elvis' sparse lament "Lonely Ave-
nue" on his debut album, Spectrum. His answer was simple:
he had a thing for songwriter Doc Pomus, i.e. it was more about Pomus than Presley (and Indian Giver's "Til Your Mainline Comes" even features a noirish "Lonely Avenue" bassline).

So, it's not completely unexpected to find that Sonic also has a
thing—a jones, if you will—for Memphis session musician/pro-
ducer Jim Dickinson, who's manned the boards for everyone
from Big Star to the Replacements and contributed keys to the
Stones' "Wild Horses." (And I can only assume the admiration runs both ways.) Their collaboration combines space-rock with south-
ern stylings, and it's unlike anything I've ever heard before.

Recorded in Mississippi with an eight-piece band plus the Tate
County Singers, the nine-track recording represents a harmo-
nious melding of two different worlds, to say nothing of diver-
gent geographic and generational backgrounds (Sonic grew up
in Rugby, UK), though the drone-rocker's interest in gospel
has always been crystal clear; see "I Walk with Jesus," et al.

Throughout, the collaborat-
ors alternate vocals over a
bed of theremin, moog,
keyboards, synthesizer,
saxophone, electric and
acoustic guitar, upright
and electric bass, fiddles,
trumpet, and drums (plus,
crickets on "Mainline").

The whispery Sonic sounds the same as ever, while Dickinson comes on like a crusty cross between J.J. Cale and Tom Waits. Neither is a great singer, but both have enormous appeal. I particularly like the way the Captain sounds as if he's singing through dentures or the bottom of a bottle of bourbon.

For "Mary," "Mary Reprise," and "Confederate Dead," the gen-
tlemen put the vocals aside. Fittingly, two sound like Sonic; the other like Dickinson (to clarify, Sonic decorates "Mary Reprise" with wordless utterings that have a certain "instrumental" feel).

Spaceman 3 and Spectrum adherents will surely recognize
three of the other tracks, specifically "Hey Man" (Perfect Pres-
cription), Mudhoney's "When Tomorrow Hits" (Recurring), and "Take Your Time" (Highs, Lows & Heavenly Blows). These new iterations may not be superior, but they're hardly inferior. I particularly like the extra fuzz on the hymn-like "Man."

I doubt I'll be the first to describe Indian Giver as a sort
of psychedelic gumbo or Delta drone. (For the All Music Guide, Mark Deming dubs the disc a "Dixie-fried freakout.") Had I heard this record in April of 2008, the time of its original release, it would've easily made my top 10 for the year. Call this mu-
sical meeting what you will. I call it: absolutely fantastic.

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"A gentlemanly agreement escalated into a full-fledged battle for
the controls, and then whoosh! Sonic was ejected from the ship...
an experiment halted midstream, with just these nine songs as proof that it even happened. Which man was in the right? Each has his battalion of saints ready to voice an opinion—and, each says, the collaborative door has shut. There will never be a second mission."
-- Andrea Lisle

4/20 update: Will Bratton of Pomus Songs, Inc. writes, "Re-
garding the song 'Lonely Avenue' (Pomus), Pete Kember prob-
ably spoke more about Pomus than he did about Elvis because
Elvis never recorded 'Lonely Avenue.' Ray Charles and countless
others did, however. Pomus did write 19 other songs that were
recorded by Elvis, including 'Viva Las Vegas,' 'Suspicion,' 'Little
Sister,' 'Mess of Blues,' 'Surrender,' 'Kiss Me Quick,' and '(Marie's
the Name of) His Latest Flame.'" I can no longer remember
whether Sonic made the error or me—I suspect it was the
latter—but in my mind's ear I could hear Presley perform-
ing "Lonely Avenue" while we were speaking, and must've
conflated song and performance with "Heartbreak Hotel."

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Endnote: Spectrum plays Neumos on 5/2. Click here
for my 1991 interview with Sonic Boom. Image from Pure
and Harp (click the link for Fred Mills' preview).

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