Play One Note

Psychedelic music blog covering psychedelic, folk, drone, metal, and all other forms of out music.

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Spacemen 3

June 26, 2010

Of all the totemic psych bands that I unreservedly love, perhaps nobody strikes closer to the genre’s elemental core than Spacemen 3.  It’s funny, then, that, for a band that so embodies psychedelia’s drug-addled core really operates on its traditional fringes.  To elaborate: Jason Pierce and Sonic Boom eschewed the typical psychedelic path—maximalism, studio trickery, and an emphasis on “trippy” drugs like LSD & mushrooms—but nevertheless arrived at an arguably purer psych sound than most of the many other bands on the road-more-travelled.

That was a mouthful!  Hope that made sense.  One aesthetic Spacemen 3 makes a convincing case for punk-as-psych, of taking single-minded minimalism and a bald-faced fuck-you attitude and rendering it transcendently substance-worshipping.  Hawkwind’s extended passages of interstellar, intramind travel seem fundamentally at odds with the three-chord, middle-finger blasts of the Sex Pistols until you hear “Revolution,” a typically hypnotic, repetitive, precision-blast of distorted snarl:

(Yes, yes, they look pretty damn corny with those bowl haircuts, but c’mon it’s 1989 and not a single person on the planet looked cool.  Instead of focusing on their sunglasses, check out that shot of the band playing the deliciously simple chord progression that starts 44 seconds in.  They’re just blatantly flaunting their songs’ simplicity.)

This attitude of defiant simplicity is all over the band’s work.  Jason Pierce’s count-in at the beginning of “2:35,” off of Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, is a telling rallying cry.  “One,” he says, in a disembodied, reverb-drenched voice.  That’s all they fucking need.  “One.”  They revel in it.

If aggressively simple riffs ad nauseam was all Spacemen 3 did, their schtick would be a pretty good one, but there’s more:

Sweet, disembodied bliss!  Sonic Boom’s ultra-hushed, heavily reverbed vocals wafting through a Velvets-on-codeine guitar figure, with that tremendous, meandering bass line anchoring the whole thing.  This is the same repetitive, minimalist ethos, but through an introspective, contemplative lens, as opposed to the precise aggression of “Revolution.”

Note the lyrics, too: Spacemen 3 did love singing about (and doing) drugs, just not the ones you typically associate with Pink Floyd.  Instead of traditional psychedelics, heroin through a needle was their choice.  There’s another Velvets association there, which actually points toward a really fruitful path if you’re looking for antecedents to the Spacemen 3 sound.  It’s a fitting one: Like their eventual followers, the Velvet Underground took defiantly anti-psychedelic musical constituents and somehow at something with remarkable affinities with and associations to psych.

(For the record, the studio version of this song, a richly hi-fi, horn-drenched cut off of 1987’s The Perfect Prescription, mercilessly blows this YouTube clip out of the goddamned water, but I gotta make do with what I’m given.)

Pierce and Boom released a handful of fantastic albums, notably the aforementioned The Perfect Prescription and 1989’s Playing With Fire, before imploding with predictably druggy messiness.  Both emerged in their own concerns which took their original band’s aesthetic and bent it to serve new and (mostly) enjoyable ends, but nothing they’ve done alone—even Pierce’s best Spiritualized work—comes close to the bare-bones brilliance of Spacemen 3’s best stuff.

I guess that’s a matter of some debate.  People do love their Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, and I have to count myself among them.  Either way, they’re perhaps the quintessential Play One Note band, embodying Mark Hollis’s maxim better than anyone else.


You know the drill: Spacemen 3 album reviews to follow.  I’ll definitely write about those two classics, and maybe I’ll get in on that Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, which is such an apt title I almost don’t even want to point out how fucking apt it is.  Also, more Pram.  Be well.

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A Leap

June 10, 2010

(Forgive the banal title.  I just don’t know how to properly name what I’m about to relate.  Warning: It’s about an injury I sustained, some “thoughts,” and “myself.”)

I’m listening to Gastr Del Sol’s Camofleur right now.  Since I first heard this album seven years ago, it’s been one I return to frequently, and with unfinished opinions.  There’s something about the bizarrely intricate compositions David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke crafted on here that resists neat filing.  I can’t ever listen to this album and go, “Okay, got it,” and move on.  This is music designed to be incongruous with expectations.  Like all great 90s post rock, Camofleur invites introspection.

Though it’s not particularly plaintive or insular—in fact, far from it—this invitation to inward thinking fits the mood I’ve been in for the past couple of weeks.  I’m dancing around the subject, so I’ll just come out with it: Just over a week ago, during Memorial Day, I was swept up by a strong current, tossed 15 feet over a dam, and landed on some concrete.  My shoulder caught the brunt of the fall, and I tore my rotator cuff.  I also hit my head, and tore my eardrum.

When I fell, I fell face first, with numb disbelief.  Everything played out with crystal precision.  Absurdly, unbefitting one’s “final thoughts,” I thought that this—this oncoming collision between flesh and stone—is what Greece must look like.  I saw the concrete rush up.  I felt the awful, visceral slap of my airborne body thud against the dam floor below.  I heard the shrill klaxons echoing inside my head, drowning everything else out.  I remember everything.

Hospitals, drugs, and diagnoses followed.  The ER doctors could not then determine the cause of the intense ringing in my left ear, and suggested I contact an ear, nose, and throat specialist.  I can’t tell you why, but I waited.  My hearing did not improve; in fact, it often worsened throughout the day, a muffled hum slowly drowning out voices and sounds until I went to sleep, when it would return to a dulled baseline in time for the next morning.  I stumbled out for a convalescent breakfast with my girlfriend—who I watched fall mere seconds before I did so myself, and who I briefly thought died, and who actually suffered a stable fractured vertebra, but is otherwise fine—and lost track of what she was saying among the restaurant’s soft conversation.  I was asking people to repeat themselves constantly.  I’ll be honest: I lived in a numb, low-level panic.  I thought my hearing was fucked.

Continuing with that honesty, here: I am not a strong person.  I am now—and was then—totally aware that, not only was I lucky to be alive, but that the injuries I sustained were happily minor for such a fall.  I have not spoken to an EMS technician, nurse, doctor, or specialist who has said otherwise.  And yet, I couldn’t help but feel how oddly cruel it was that, of all the nicks I sustained, relatively speaking, that one to my eardrum would be among that short list.

During this time, I actually thought about this blog a great deal.  Writing this thing is more for me than it is for anyone else, because c’mon who feels like reading 700 words about a Charlemagne Palestine album, but (or perhaps because of that) I thought about it anyway.  And I decided, in my numbness, that I could not possibly consider writing about music at all, ever again, if I couldn’t fucking hear it.  Seemed reasonable enough.  Not that I hashed this, any of this, out all too much, but whenever it crossed my mind, that’s kind of what I decided.

Forgive the bitterness of the previous paragraph.  Despite my self-reported lack of strength, I actually did my best to reconcile my little spill with what could be a lifelong impairment.  I forced myself to realize that, although things have always turned out okay for me, being a bright, white American from an upper-middle class background, such insulation did not guarantee me from permanent damage.  It was entirely possible, I thought, with some resignation and some horror, that I would be this way forever.  And yet, through all this, I maintained an element of denial.  I didn’t really want to go to an ear, nose, and throat specialist, because I did not want to be told my head was wrong forever.  I didn’t want to see myself break down.

Amid this realization, wrapped as it was in a refutation of sorts, I saw Bert Jansch and Neil Young on Saturday.  A part of me was absolutely terrified of going, but my irresolution actually made it easier, for once, to pretend the issue couldn’t be exacerbated.  I love Neil Young, but Bert Jansch is an all-time favorite of mine, nearly as influential and just as important, in my eyes, as Bob Dylan or Mr. Young himself, and much more gorgeous to listen to.  His guitar playing was effortlessly beautiful, as he unassumingly unwound gossamer melodies.

And, sitting there with one earplug in, listening to my favorite guitar player play some of my favorite songs of his, I broke down and cried.  And I surprised myself, because, while I would totally expect them to be tears of self-pity, they were actually tears of crisp, pure joy.  Here I was, with my hobbled yet ultimately healthy girlfriend, largely healthy myself, watching an impossibly generous musician work his craft for an appreciative audience.  I was listening to music.  Regardless of whether or not my hearing was going to ever be as good as it was, I was mostly okay with it, because I was alive, and I did not watch someone incredibly dear to me die as I first thought I had done, and I can still hear Bert Jansch fingerpicking.  And I was capable of happiness this way, too.

That following Monday, I made an appointment to get my hearing checked, and was able to get in that afternoon.  The doctor looked at my eardrum and told me the cause of my hearing loss was due to the smallest tear in one that he’d ever seen.  With a couple weeks of keeping it dry (the cause for my daily, progressive hearing loss was due to water getting on my eardrum while I showered), it should heal right up.  So I’m okay anyway.

Writing all this might be overshare to a degree.  I don’t know.  I just figured, hell, it’s music-related, so why not.  If you’ve made it this far, thanks.  If not, thanks.

I’m so happy.

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