FIRES WHICH BURNT BRIGHTLY – Donovan’s Brain (Career Records)
Montana-based psych collective Donovan’s Brain returns after a four-year hiatus – hardly a blip, really, in a trajectory that’s now spanned two decades. Joining San Francisco expat Ron Sanchez for the festivities are his fellow Montanan Deniz Tek and Mississippi power popster Bobby Sutliff, who once drove 13 hours to record with Let’s Active honcho Mitch Easter. His Career stablemate Roy Loney, who’s been shaking some action this year in tandem with his Flamin’ Groovies partner Cyril Jordan, is also on board.
"Fires Which Burnt Brightly" is a very lush-sounding record, replete with chiming 12-strings, Floydian grooves, and what sound like mellotron string sections. Sanchez & Co. roll out their entahr array of devices on the opening “The Same Mistakes,” with a lead vocal that recalls "Like A Priest Driven Ambulance"-era Flaming Lips. The second half of the program is designed as a “song cycle,” although the conceptual continuity is hard to follow for someone like yr humble chronicler o’ events, who lost the facility for remembering song lyrics around 1973.
Mostly, "FWBB "is a love letter to the electric guitar. You can hear it in the meaty solo Dr. Tek peals off on “Green 17,” sounding more than a bit like Gary Quackenbush from his ’60s Motor City homies SRC (whose first two albs you need to hear, if you can find ‘em), in the minor key blues homage to Fleetwood Mac’s lost founder Peter Green (curiously very low in the mix) on “Broken Glass Corner,” or in the swirling overdubbed dual lead that bursts through like a sunbeam through clouds on the coda of “Last Acid Rider.”
The weakness here is in the drumming, which in general is fairly lackluster. Comparisons being odious, the snotnoses in Dungen are into wallowing in the same trough of ‘60s psych influences as the Brain, but they do so with a maniacally flailing, Mitch Mitchell-style percussionist, and it makes all the difference. When Tek’s "Zeno Beach" also-ran “Vanished” reared its head, I felt something approaching relief to hear an actual drum fill -- played, I believe, by Tony Horton, ex-Deniz Tek Group, who once had an abscess lanced by his bandleader in a van while touring Europe.
Best moment here is “High Street Hit Man,” a Who-like ditty with someone (Horton?) replicating every good hit Keith Moon laid down on "Who’s Next"'s “Bargain” while Sanchez mourns the closing of the local rekkid store (but they’re opening, again, Ron!), putting me in mind of my fave-ever Brain cut, the Tiny Crustacean Light Show-era obscurity “My Favorite Record.” In my humble opinion, someone oughtta put ‘em both on a 7-inch for next Record Store Day. So there! - Ken Shimamoto
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A DEFEAT OF ECHOES - Donovan's Brain (Career Records)
"Come To My Party," intones Colter Langan on the severe and opening cut of the same name on the latest opus for Montana psychedelic collective Donovan's Brain and, although wrist-slashing is optional, he sure ain't breaking out the fairy bread and streamers.
This isn't exactly a happy album for most of the ride - three of the members were apparently undergoing breakdowns or break-ups throughout its making - but it's strangely uplifting in the long run. It might be one of the most engaging listens you'll have in a long time.
Engaging and demanding. Donovan's Brain makes multi-faceted, complex music for grown-ups that requires close listening. Even the instrumental pieces that divide the disc into distinct "suites" avoid being throwaways. This value-packed, 17-song disc includes a companion DVD - more on that later - but don't bank on "Control" making it to MTV or "Saturday Morning Hits" real soon. Donovan's Brain ignore marketing demographics (and just about every other boundary of genre, for that matter).
Donovan's Brain sure gets around - from languid minor chord narratives to crunching rockers in the space of a couple of tracks. In doing so, they call to mind more (early) Pink Floyd and Stones influences than you can comfortably point a stick at. From baroque to the Byrds, but amazingly coherent, and the odd bout of trippiness never gets in the way of the tunes.
With the exception of drummer Ron Craighead, the core members of Donovan's Brain (Ron Sanchez, Colter Langan and Jeff Arntsen) are multi-instrumentalists, but this is the first album that they've recorded wholly as a band unit. Ron Sanchez is the glue, rounding up (and, good natured guy that he is, probably rounding on) his bandmates and playing guitar, keyboards and synth. Jeff Arntsen (bass, lap steel and organ) and Ron Craighead (drums) form a pliable rhythm section, and Colter Langan plays six strings or four. Being a collective, that still leaves room for guest players and they all make substantial contributions.
Deniz Tek adds fluid and forceful guitar to four tracks (listen for the scuzzy backing on "Decade of Days", slide and acoustic on the sweeping instro "Bondi Tombstones" and a memorable solo on the superb Colter Langan piece "Too Far Gone"). Bobby Sutcliff adds his guitar and vocals to the assured rocker "City Morning" with its beach Boys outro. Megan Pickerel's voice leavens "The Boy Who Cried New Town" and longtime Brain member Richard Treece sprinkles guitar over the out-there "Penny For Your Thoughts" with a degree of magnificence.
The star, for me, is the aforementioned "So Far Gone", a swelling Colter Langan tune that would be all over the airwaves in a fair and just world.
Oh, and that bonus DVD...in a world where we want more for our heard-earned (and we want it now), this is superb value. The stark, black-and-white splendour of the Brain's "Control" sits well alongside a trio of stylish and engaging clips from labelmate Penny Ikinger's stunning "Electra" album. This is a visual entree to one of the best sounding discs on the Career label, and Penny's videos round make for a neat pairing as the Brain backed Ms Ikinger on her 2004 US tour.
It's the rockers on "A Defeat of Echoes" that (naturally) grabbed my attention - but it's the more meandering and/or atmospheric songs that keep me going back to soak up more.- The Barman
THE GREAT LEAP FORWARD - Donovan's Brain (Career Records)
Donovan's Brain didn't need to leap anywhere on this, their fourth long player. The last album, "Tiny Crustacean Light Show", arguably crystalised all that went before and still makes regular appearances on the I-94 Bar sound system. "The Great Leap..." now finds itself on high rotation for much the same reasons, but is fast cementing itself as an even stronger, more consistent effort.
I'm catching up on my psych but if there's a better band doing it like this, I look forward to hearing 'em. You can call psych music "retro" till the cows come home, but that would be a disservice. The fact is that the best psych doesn't consciously set out to make it 1967 again. Donovan's Brain uses bits and pieces from the back pages (Pink Floyd and Man are obvious reference points) to go somewhere fresh.
There's a timeless quality in the groove on "The Great Leap Forward" and it goes beyond the band's ability to create soundscapes. The Brain does that well - but it also rocks. You'd probably think that was a given, with the addition of Radio Birdman's D. Tek to the line-up for this album. But I've been re-playing their back catalogue and the simple truth is that this band always did rock. (God know what else I thought they could have been doing on a track like "Tell Me" off "Eclipse and Debris" ).
Anyway, it's probably an idea to leave your preconceptions at the door when you listen to "The Great Leap..." The first (obvious) impression is that each and every member of the Brain is an accompished player. The backline of Ron Craighead (drums and vocals) and Jeff Arntsen (bass and vocals) provide a strong but nimble basis for Colter Langan (guitar and vocals) and Ron Sanchez (guitar, vocals and keyboards) to run off each other and play foils to other guitarists and instrumentalists. Additional players like Deniz Tek (who contributes guitar to "All Fall Down" and "The Known Sea", as well as lead vocals to "The Ballad of Where's Jim?") and Dave Walker (guitar and vocals on the epic "Ocean of Storms") complete the core of the band, while guests bob up in various places.
"Crystal Palace" is appropriated from Arntsen's band Racket Ship and guest Megan Pickerel's dual-tracked vocals and the nagging guitar accompaniment create a dark, otherworldly feel that's one of the highlights of the album. "All Fall Down" has both a swelling grandeur and quanit pop ring. (Echoes of the Flamin' Groovies, it's said, and who's to argue?) Colter Langan's "Cloud Maker" has a great vocal as well as some gorgeous guitar (the latter from Brain collaborator Richard Treece, who plays on five cuts) and brings to mind a glaringly obvious comparison to a '60s song that I can't name (my flashback's not working properly right now.)
Sanchez himself puts in strong vocals on four cuts ("Loving Indifference", "The Known Sea" and "Human Is", as well as the edgy "My Little Town", where veteran Dave Walker, ex-Fleetwood Mac, Savoy Brown and Idle Race, weighs in). Ron's production work has rendered something worth bottling too. Every instrument has room to breathe (no mean feat with a band where so much sound is layered), and the bass and guitar textures are a treat. I'm betting a fair proportion of this album was recorded live too because it feels just right.
Fave pop moment: Colter Langen's "Following Orders". It's light in touch compared to some of the cuts book-ending it and sits perfectly. Fave guitar moments: Treece's aforementioned "Cloudmaker" lead and the Sanchez guitar work on "The Known Sea". Heaviest moment: The Walker-and-Sanchez-penned redempotion-and-death closer, "Ocean of Storms".
You do just about need a road map to work out who plays on what but this album sounds anything but patchwork. There's a consistency and strength running through the songs, which themselves demand a lot from the listener. Only two tracks ("Loving Indifference" and "Ocean of Storms") run for more than six minutes and there's more than enough in the compact, taught arrangements to keep you going back.
- The Barman
TINY CRUSTACEAN LIGHT SHOW Donovans Brain (Get Hip)
Ron Sanchez makes records "like soundtracks for dreams" (as someone once wrote less accurately about Frank Zappa). From his home in Bozeman, Montana, the expat San Franciscan masterminds the psychedelic collective called Donovans Brain, whose members hail from as far away as Seattle, Austin, Boise, and even London (in the form of three ex-members of the 70s Brit jam band Help Yourself). Although theyre recorded over extended periods, utilizing material from the four or five writers develops and a revolving cast of players, Brain projects sound surprisingly seamless (maybe cos theyre mainly recorded at Rons own studio in Bozeman, Gods Little Ear Acre).
Although Sanchez calls this new one "our 73 album" ( a reminder that for most people "the 60s" happened in the 70s come on now, fess up, how many of you listened to "Dark Side of the Moon" a thousand times the summer of its release?), its really another in the grand tradition of 98s pop-psych compendium "Carelessly Restored Art" and last years more open-ended and exploratory "Eclipse and Debris." The crucial ingredients are still plentifully present: the layers upon layers of spacey guitars (with ex-Help Yourself axeman Richard Treeces fretwork a particularly noteworthy element), the vocals alternately ethereal and impassioned (this time out, theyre mostly by another Brit, Dave Walker, currently a Montana resident, whose pedigree includes Idle Race/Savoy Brown/Fleetwood Mac/Black Sabbath/Mistress), often employing two singers simultaneously but not-quite-unison in the manner of some early Floyd. The difference this time is an increased focus on songs, rather than jams (although there are plenty of extended instrumentals, most notably on Sanchez "Electric Trains," which alternates rockin and mellow sections).
The title track features Joakim Ericsson from the Nomads on drums, and its a pounding garage-rocker with an off-kilter sounding riff and wailing harp courtesy of R. Treece. "House of Edward Devotion" (written by Boise deejay/Brain mainstay Colter Langan with help from Dave Herlihy of Bostons O Positive, for whom Colter once roadied, and originally recorded for the Brains "Butterfly Wheel" cassette) is head-swirling psych, featuring ex-Help Yourself bassist Ken Whaley holding down the underpinnings. Sanchez "Edward 4 Souls" winds its way through several tempo changes, punctuated by bracing blasts of effects-laden slide from Treece. Perhaps the best toon here is the aforementioned "Electric Trains," which chugs its way between passages of bluesy riff-rock and more Floydian pastures, with an interval of free-form guitar noodling and choral interjections giving way to a lyrical jam section of lysergic abandon.
Kels Kochs "Northampton" is a 68-style thumper with galloping drums from Seth Lyon and lots more blazing Treece guitar. "Whos Little Girl" sports some Beatlesque chord changes, over-the-top vocals, tinkling piano courtesy of yet another ex-Help Yourself, Malcolm Morley, and dual slide guitars from Sanchez and Treece. Drummer Lyons "Zion Like A Dove" is percussion, synth n guitar experimentalismo.
Sanchez "Dont Cry Princess" has the stately feel of some later-period Floyd, with guitars alternately blues-drenched and lyrical and agreeable collisions of synth and pianner. "Ox Blood" bears a riff reminiscent of the one from Johnny Taylors "Hijackin Love" (familiar to all Scott Morgan fans), but actually comes from the repertoire of Raven, a Bay Area band led by legendary Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina and including Dave Walker, who also sings it here. Synchronicity? YOU decide!!!
Admittedly, Donovans Brain aint for everybody (if you didnt dig the last Deniz Tek studio album, frinstance, you prolly arent gonna go for this stuff). Some people might be bothered by Rons treble-happy mixes, which I attribute to his being a guitar player and having fried the midranges of his ears from too many years standing in front of big amps, but I could be wrong. But if you have an ear for adventurous, uncompromising music (forget the psych tag for a minute), "Tiny Crustacean Light Show" could be right up your alley. Myself, I cant wait to hear the NEXT Brain opus. This stuff is muy addictive!- Ken Shimamoto
CARELESSLY RESTORED ART - Donovan's Brain (Get Hip)
ECLIPSE AND DEBRIS - Donovan's Brain (Get Hip)
Some qualifying remarks: Psych is not high rotation at the I-94 Bar. We mostly prefer our drinks shaken vigorously, not stirred. In his younger days The Barman spent considerably more time at parties rolling around on the floor of the garage than hanging in the kitchen, mixing up mushroom omlettes. Plus, the quality of psychedelic bands in I-94 Bar home turf in the last decade or so wasn't that high (even if The Moffs were a Citadel signing). So if it's not namechecked on "Nuggets" it has to be something special to merit much airplay here. That said, these two discs have spentconsiderable time in the CD player lately, expanding the aural boundaries and freaking out Dr Zachary Smith, the resident Burmese cat.
Donovan's Brain is the vehicle for singer-guitarist-keyboardist-producer Ron Sanchez, a well-travelled musical adventurer who grew up on the West Coast seeing, and hanging out with, the likes of the Flamin' Groovies, Chocolate Watch Band, Jefferson Airplane and Love. He now runs a radio program and recording studio in Bozeman, Montana (an isolated place by most people's standards) and visiting collaborators include peopleas diverse as Ken Stringfellow (of the Posies, who guests on "Carelessly Restored Art") and Scott McCaughey (REM alumni). Both The Nomads and Deniz Tek have recorded or mixed material at Ron's Gods Little Ear Acre (GLEA), the former putting down tracks for a forthcoming single and the latter doing re-mixes of the Passengers demos for a forthcoming release. The "Carelessly Restored Art" band is a floating cast of 15 musicians and much of it is drawn from a rock opera "Shambolic", while "Eclipse and Debris" was put down over a two-year period with a more settled configuration. Vocals are shared by Sanchez, Dave Walker, Paul Rose et al.
Donovan's Brain recall late 60s English psych of Pink Floyd (prior to the genre's defining points becoming laser light shows and inflatable pigs) but with firmer garage foundations. "Carelessly restored..." sprawls in parts, but in a way that draws you back. The guitar playing's exemplary. Stand-out cuts: The chiming trip and martial beat of "50,000,000 Years Before My Time" (also the single), the fuzzed-up drone of "Heavy Water" and the Beatle-esque "Tad's New Cymbal Stand" (reprised to good effect in a different form on the second album.)
I have a feeling guitarist Richard Treece was a big contributor to the way "Eclipse..." sounds. There's a contemporary feel to many of the tracks that sits well with all the sonic weirdness this crew collectively plucks out of the Montana air. The "creeping fear guitars" are well-named in the atmospheric "Central Services", "Moon Shines (Story of the Sticks)" recalls early Died Pretty (with Brett Myers on vocals) and the guitars are positively Stones-like (circa "Exile on Main Street") on "Underdose". The sound concoction on "Helium Eraser Bends" wouldn't be out of place on a '60s sci-fi soundtrack while "Tell Me" is a lesson in distorto-dynamics for that whole generation of SubPop would-be's.
There's another album on its way to the plant as you read this (GetHip's release schedule being as it is, you might wait a while to see it on sale, so hunt down these two).
- The Barman
1/2 (Carelessly Restored Art)
3/4 (Eclipse and Debris)
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