I love it when someone pours their heart completely into a record, leaving absolutely nothing behind. Utica’s J Schnitt is one of those someones. Some of you might know him as the talented guitarist who has been playing live with The Real Burnouts over the last few years, others might know him as a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who has produced a whole raft of albums available on his Bandcamp page. “Speaking Esperanto” was the first time I’d heard him, a 13-track album of near flawless alternative folk-rock anthems that sounded like a greatest hits compilation. It’s unashamedly American, occasionally imbued with the twang of country guitars and shuffling Americana drums, at times like a contemporary take on “Blood on the Tracks” era Dylan. The music is as good as note perfect, intricate and expertly imagined, the voice world-weary enough to sound believable, and yet it is the song and melody where J Schnitt really excels.
The opening three tracks – “Ocean Liner”, “Lewis Caroll’s Daughter”, and title-track “Speaking Esperanto” are three such examples of melody leadign the way. “Ocean Liner” is a toe-tapping piano folk-pop grower with exquisite lines like “once I was the wind in New York City” and a catchy chorus that greets you like an old friend every time you start the record. “Lewis Carroll’s Daughter” is Irish-folk, infinitely cooler than Mumford & Sons, brought to life with banjos and brass. It’s one of my real favourites with more great lyrical brilliance as we hear the story of a girl who pretends “Lewis Carroll was her father for the day”. Upon writing this, I was pleased to discover that J Schnitt is something of a undercover storyteller, and without going as far as giving us definitive characters, you sense that there are real people, not just ideas behind the lyrics, and the words are powerful enough to keep your attention and stop the album slipping away into background filler. Another example of song-story, title-track “Speaking Esperanto”, was arguably the most accessible of all the songs. Another Dylan-esque ballad with intricate acoustic guitar picking, shuffling drums and accordian interludes, as good a place as any to start if you’re pushed for time and want to give this record a chance.
“God Bless The Idiot Swimmer” is a slow parade, a guitar march down your street, leading into “Conversations With A Dashboard Jesus”, another traditional acoustic rock song that grew on me the more I listened to it. Next comes “Monday Loud And Clear”, probably my favourite of all the tracks, one of those melodies that has popped involuntarily into my head and made me say “oh, what’s that? oh yeah, it’s j. schnitt!” With it’s poppy up-tempo tune, Beach Boys’ vocal melody, hand claps and Indie Rock guitars, it’s slightly off-track from the general vibe that runs through the other songs. Funnily enough, in terms of construct it sounds like one of the simpler songs, yet it works simply by being a great little song.
“The Astronaut and The Trampoline” is another stand out. A slow atmospheric track telling the dreamy story of… well, an astronaut and a trampoline. Unless I’m not supposed to be taking this song literally, in which case, it’s an ode to aspiration, a epistle for daydreamers aiming for the clouds. It also sounds like the sort of thing you might hear in a 1960′s suburban music hall, when some touring band rock up in their van and scare the bejesus out of your mum and dad. ”Healing Sores With Fatal Curses” returns to a more modern sound and reminds me a little of Snow Patrol or Travis, the sort of song you expect to discover on late night MTV, again deviating from the country-folk central ground of the album, but making the whole composition all the better for it.
Talking of different, “Magnus 11.99″ is next. An almost splintering vocal take backed with stripped organic instruments that sounds like pistons and machinery, topped off with some kooky keys that are quite brilliant to behold. “Pretend” returns us back to the more familiar acoustic guitar and piano, as close as the record gets to a flat-out bell-less ballad, the instrumentation carefully mapped out, and J Schnitt’s voice at its fragile best. Definitely one for those of you who are stuck behind windows on rainy afternoons and probably not for those of you smoking pot in the park on a sunny afternoon. “It Is What It Is” comes chasing along on its heels, a clever blend of country, folk and pop, probably my third favourite song behind “Monday…” and “Astronaut”. Again, melodically it is one of the simpler songs, but it’s an absolute gem. Probably not for you rainy day window gazers, but for those of you back in the park… fill your boots.
Closing tracks “Walk In The Light” and “Black Cloud” are two of the darker tracks to finish the record. The former has traces of Dylan’s “Gates of Eden” with its rambling half-spoken, half-sung vocals over a bustling tune, and the latter is a creepy, claustrophobic soundscape with electric fuzz and sudden bursts of melody, banjos and pianos and drums, all building to a crescendo that leaves you feeling somewhat dazed and excited to hear the whole thing again from the beginning.
So all in all, I’m suitably impressed by J Schnitt’s “Speaking Esperanto”. It’s a far cry from the weirdness I usually hear being peddled from his Utican peers, far more polished, professional and a watertight vehicle, yet still with a heartfelt motor driving it. It’s more a record of quiet contemplation than a soundtrack to go out and get trashed to, a slow burner on the ground rather than an explosion in the night sky, something you can warm your hands on when the winter nights draw in, with a little bit of something for almost everyone thrown in.
Download for free: lenn9o9n.bandcamp.com/album/distant-shores
Uncle Dave told me to quit with the weird reviews where I attempted to “experience” the record I was listening to and instead focus on the recording itself. “People don’t have time to wade through pages and pages of nonsensical prose, they want you to get to the point at hand, tell them what the album is, a bit of blurb about the artist, what you think of it, and where they can get it. They don’t want to hear about how I took over the world or the pointy headed man’s parents or any of that other stuff you’ve been writing for the last week,” he said.
“You’re doing it again,’ he added.
So without further ado, this isn’t the story of “Distant Shores”, Lenn9o9n’s second album. Some records are like fully bloomed exotic flowers, stopping you and making you say “ahhh” and “aw that’s trippy that one” and “weren’t we supposed to be going somewhere?” “no?” “fuckit” “ahhh that’s pretty” and “oooh listen to that one”. Other records are less obvious, like seeds. They sink their roots into your mind and the songs grow there throughout your life, entangling with brain waves, choking out normality. “Distant Shores” (and generally anything Lenn9o9n produces) is pure seed, songs that take root forever. One man, one keyboard, an acoustic guitar with loose buzzy strings, a kick-ass cello and a load of samples and beats. Bands take note: sometimes it’s not about how big or bright your flower grows, sometimes it’s about simply planting it in the right place for all the right reasons. “Distant Shores” does not have any pretensions – it is a record that was clearly made from the love of making music, equally cerebral and emotive (“give them anything that tingles the heart strings”), and for the lo-fi, self-recorded psych genre, it is as accessible as lo-fi self-recorded psych records get.
Back in a dream, the floor began to reverberate beneath my feet. Lenn9o9n was punching a piano under the floorboards, a charming, almost space age voice singing “Opposites”. “Both my parents are opposites / They’re the kind of people that you won’t visit when you put them together / Unless of course you are the kind who studies the mind”. I felt my foot tapping along with the contagious melody and remembered that I’d heard this record before, 3 years previous, only I’d loved it and lost it amidst the chaos of the day. ‘I’m sorry, what was the question again?’ I asked out loud. Two dogs in the corner of the room were wagging their tails, clearly enjoying the music as much as I did. “Opposites” was as poppy and obvious as “Distant Shores” would get. To get to the darker, meatier stuff, we had to venture further into the record.
Second song (“Treat It Like A Joke”) was all strumming flamenco guitars, multi-layered electronic beats, synthetic strings and vocalised kazoo sounds. It was a thing of such beguiling weirdness that I felt myself involuntarily getting to my feet and climbing up onto the kitchen table where I began to flail my arms around in something that could vaguely be discerned as “dancing”.
At this point the pointy headed man’s mother poked her head up over the table ledge. ‘Fuck Uncle Dave,’ she said. ‘Do you realise how long Lenn9o9n’s been down in our basement? 1237 days, that’s how long. I heard he since made a record out of other people’s poetry, which by the way is well worth a listen, but THIS record, “Distant Shores”, it’s really something, as original as it was when we first heard it 1237 days ago. You know how I know how long it’s been? I remember the date specifically as it was the same day my husband dropped acid for the first time and ended up losing his job!’
‘Best day of my life by a loooooong way!’ yelled the pointy headed man’s father, now break-dancing badly on the kitchen table beside me.
‘I’m not supposed to write this shit,’ I told them.
‘What did you think was going to happen?’ asked his mother. ‘This is Lenn9o9n we’re talking about. You try and not fall in love with his music! He isn’t like anybody else. Nobody. It’s impossible to compare him to other artists. I don’t know what they made him from, but the music he creates, these shadowy electronic pop masterpieces, it’s like he’s writing them from another reality.’
The next song had started, a funky acoustic number with hand claps and Lenn9o9n singing “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7… counting all the things that never happened!” (“What’s That Fucking Ringing?”)
‘I told her this would happen,’ said the pointy headed man’s father, doing one of those weird Russian folk dances where you squat and kick your legs out, while downstairs Lenn9o9n melodically shrieked “It’s my geeetar!”
I felt a sudden irresistible urge to do star jumps. ‘I never made that phone call to my editor!’ I blurted out, my arms and legs thrusting outwards in the shape of a star.
‘WHAT!?’ shrieked the pointy headed man. (He’d been sitting at the table the whole time, pushing peas around his plate with a plastic fork.)
It was true. We’d been chased across the country in the seaweed encrusted camper van. I didn’t know who was chasing us, or why, but in my transparent heart (which I wore on my sleeve), I knew implicitly that it was because I hadn’t called Moon Crumb. Eventually the two of us ditched the van and proceeded on foot until we arrived at a small town in the middle of nowhere, and No 909 Strawberry Lane, the pointy headed man’s parents’ house. He told me we would be safe there. He didn’t mention anything about star jumps.
‘Why does nobody listen to a fucking word I say?’ wailed the pointy headed man, grabbing his pointy head in his hands. ‘You know what? Fuck it. Fuck the lot of you. Fuck the lot of you right in the ass.’ And he turned. And he walked away, slamming the back door behind him.
“What’s That Fucking Ringing?” came to an abrupt end and the three of us hung there awkwardly, like musical statues.
“A Black Light to a Blue World” began as I stepped off the kitchen table and made my way down to the basement. It was a mesmerizing slice of electronica, effects laden vocals mixing with a wheeling beat and 60′s keys. The acoustic guitar began to strum and Lenn9o9n sang “Seeds in your mind Seeds in your mind / We’re all standing on the shoulders of time”. At least I think it was “seeds”. It may have been “sea”. Either way, it was such a great understated voice, spelling out every soft syllable like a magician chanting incantations. There behind a haphazard workstation, cluttered with knotted leads and electronic machinery spilling onto the basement floor, sat Lenn9o9n. ‘Oh, hey man,’ he said with a smile, attempting to wave, but finding his arm snagged on a cable. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Never mind what I’m doing here? What are YOU doing here?’
He stopped and stared at the apparatus surrounding him. ‘Well…’ he said, ‘… I suppose… I’m making another record. What year is this by the way?’
’2014,’ I told him.
’2014? Wow. Fuck. Are you sure?’
‘Sure I’m sure,’ I said. I didn’t sound at all sure.
Then he picked up his guitar and sang this simple, stark, acoustic ballad called “Sound Off”. It was shockingly great. As much as I truly loved the dark electronic pop hymns, it was fun to hear another string in his bow. As he played, for no apparent reason, a big swirling vortex of colour began to revolve on the basement wall behind him.
‘Did a portal just open on that wall?’ I asked, pointing at it.
‘That?’ he asked. ‘Oh, that always happens when I play.’
Then came “Do It For The People”. It was an electronic arrangement that made me want to put on boxing gloves and get slaughtered by giant Russians. ‘Like Rocky on mescaline,’ I said as I waded into the portal. It was at this point that I remembered what Uncle Dave said about keeping it simple. And now here I was wading into a portal. It was just about the complete opposite of simple.
On the other side of the portal was a giant clock face, floating in the darkest depths of space, the point in reality where time originated. “Saved” played in the impenetrable space around my head, tiers of ambient pressing guitar and keyboard notes with spacey vocals and strings that reminded me of “I Am The Walrus”. No shit. It really was that good. I looked to my left and saw that Lenn9o9n had followed me through and was suddenly wearing a black jumpsuit with a glowing blue lightning bolt on his chest and a black balaclava on his head. ‘Oh shit,’ he said, turning his ears to space and listening, ‘here comes Uncle Dave, and he’s not happy.’
“Let’s start what we have come into the room to do!” boomed a voice from the stars.
‘Was that a Morgan Freeman sample?’ I asked Lenn9o9n.
He laughed as the giant clock began to descend through space. I felt a chill go up my spine as “A Pale Child Reads Aloud Excerpts About The Sun” began. Bleep bleep bleep bleep. All the while, Lenn9o9n’s cello saws, a glockenspiel peals and a beat begins to gather momentum.
The entire fabric of space time splits in two and a huge crack in the universe opens. All these bodies fall through the crack, faster and faster, until they are a blur of faces, and eventually they are the blur of one single, solitary face. Uncle Dave. He picks up a plastic fork and examines it. He talks about how he never got a break, how his parents didn’t love him and his children weren’t grateful. He goes on, seemingly oblivious to my presence, on a giant clock falling between the stars. There is no sign of Lenn9o9n, the pointy headed man, or the pointy headed man’s parents and I’m starting to freak out. The song continues to play between my ears and Uncle Dave keeps complaining until a big pool of liquid hate forms at the centre of the universe, in the core of my brain.
I trip on the second hand, dizzy as the pool of liquid hate begins to spin. And the faster it spins, the bigger it gets, until the whirling pool of hate is bigger than the universe and trickling from my nose and ears and suddenly, just when I think I can’t take anymore, my brain explodes into trillions of tiny stars.
And now I’m back at the kitchen table sitting opposite Uncle Dave. We’re watching the lottery on a television in the corner of the room. ‘You should have called your editor,’ he says, never taking his eyes of the lottery woman with her gleaming teeth and plastic hair. ‘All you needed to do was make that one little phone call, but no. She would have told you that people don’t have time to wade through pages and pages of nonsensical prose, they want you to get to the point at hand, tell them what the album is, a bit of blurb about the artist, what you think of it, and where they can get it. They don’t want to hear about how I took over the world or the pointy headed man’s parents or any of that other stuff you’ve been writing for the last few weeks.’
The first number gets called and Uncle Dave checks his ticket with a grin. ‘You’re doing it again,’ he said.
‘Who are you?’ I asked him.
‘I was Robot Dave Bukowski,’ he said, pinching his own fleshy, pock-marked cheek. He stopped and watched the numbers rolling across the screen, each time glancing down at his lottery ticket and smirking. ‘I knew if I broke you out of that institute that you would lead me right to him,’ he said finally, waiting on the last number to be drawn. ‘This is Lenn9o9n we’re talking about. Do you think he makes twee little mindless records? No, he doesn’t. He sings about the absurdity of being and he tells you the truth. Sure, he’s shit hot on the cello, his production skills are fucking Interstellar Gamboge the Third, and his voice lulls you into a false sense of security, but you’ve got to be prepared to go somewhere if you’re going to listen to his records. This isn’t pop as you know it, though clearly that whole Elephant 6 menagerie is an influence; no Marty, this shit is the real fucking deal. Lenn9o9n is different.’
The last number gets drawn and Uncle Dave leaps off the couch, rabidly punching the air. ‘Motherfucking bingo!’ he cries, waving his ticket in my face. ‘I’m a goddam billionaire!’
I’ve heard enough. “A Pale Child Reads Aloud Excerpts About The Sun” ends and I head for the door. ‘Here,’ says Uncle Dave and he tosses me a silver coin. ‘Don’t say I wasn’t kind to you.’
Outside, the sun is shining. Uncle Dave’s neighbour at number 907 is pulling out of his driveway, waving a lottery ticket out his window at me. He looks exactly like Uncle Dave. At number 911, another Uncle Dave is smoking cigars in the flower bed, caressing a towering sunflower. Everywhere I look is Uncle Dave. And as the closing song begins to play between my ears (“Distant Shores”), I stuff my hands in my pockets and shuffle up the street. It’s one of those simple piano ballads, a whispered lullaby across continents and centuries, trickling down between the cracks in the sidewalk of my mind and seeping into the earth. I make my way up the road to a grubby red telephone on the corner and I find myself thinking that the pointy headed man’s parents and Uncle Dave got it wrong.
Lenn9o9n is not so different. If anything, he is arguably one of the most human songwriters that I know. This is how he makes the music he does. Samples collide with melodies and emotions collide with cognition. Everything is dangerously unexpected, but achingly reassuring. “Distant Shores” is simply a complex and seriously great little record and an absolute must for anyone who values originality.
I step into the phone booth and pick up the receiver. Dial my editor’s number and place the coin into the slot.
‘Hello?’ I ask. ‘Hello?’
But nobody answers. And the flowers grow up through the cracks and the clock falls through space and Uncle Dave is everywhere and “Distant Shores” has taken root in my mind.
I couldn’t find any videos for this album, so here’s “Love in G” from 2005.
‘Why are you wearing that copper diving helmet and carrying an umbrella?’ asked the bald professor from the opposite side of the table.
I opened the visor. ‘I’m not,’ I told him.
He clicked his pen once, twice, three times and snorted through his nose. ‘Tell me again how you got here,’ he said.
My shoulders slumped. How many times did they want to hear the same story. There was a cliff. A floating camper van. One minute I was drifting on the ocean and the next I was here. In the hospital. ‘Shhhh,’ I said. ‘Can you hear that?’
He cocked his bald head to one side and sniffed the air. ‘I’m sorry, hear what?’
An acoustic guitar was being strummed in the distance. Americana drums rolled. Piano chords rang out. And there was a voice. A voice of the earth and dirt and fire. ‘It’s coming from the air vent,’ I told him and pointed up at the wall behind his head. ‘It sounds like Indie Rock, only…’
‘You realise this is all in your imagination?’ he said.
‘Only there’s something else,’ I mumbled, hearing the singer, the words as clear as if they were written in the air in front of my face. ‘Do you like Indie Rock?’ I asked him.
The professor sat back in his seat and crumpled his brow. ‘My taste is eclectic,’ he said. ‘I like most things.’
‘That sounds a bit grey to me,’ I said. ‘I like people who know what they like, who don’t fuck around with music, who wear their transparent hearts on their sleeve.’ I pointed the umbrella at him, like a gun. ‘You clearly keep your heart safely in your pocket.’
‘I think this session is over,’ he said, unimpressed, and he called for the orderly.
‘La la la,’ I said.
It was raining when I returned to the ward and the window beside my bed was leaking. I told the orderly there was a puddle on the floor and if the puddle got any worse we would all drown. ‘Yes, yes,’ he said. And then he went back to his chair to do his crossword.
The music was getting louder. I pressed my helmeted head to the window and asked myself what had changed? A drum like a heartbeat. Acoustic guitar notes like raindrops splashing on the ground, and then there was that voice again. The voice of earth and dirt and fire, part human, part animal, causing my transparent heart to beat even harder on my sleeve. Now it was raining from my eyes and I remembered what had changed. Somebody turned the contrast down on the world. The hospital gardens were navy blue. My white pyjamas looked grey. I laughed at my ridiculous back story and the song exploded into life, guitars chiming while I danced through the puddle and splashed across the ward. There was an old man in the corner with a shock of white hair. He insisted on wearing a lab coat over his grey pyjamas and he kept telling anyone who would listen that he wasn’t an artist. Or a brain surgeon. I picked him up and waltzed him down a corridor, following the song, music that seemed to be bursting at the seams. ‘It’s Indie Rock,’ I said to the old man. ‘But it’s something else as well. Something…’
‘I’m not an artist!’ cried the old man with two left feet, terrified of dancing.
The orderly crept up behind me and jammed a needle into my shoulder.
When I awoke I could hear a new song coming from the air vents, even louder than before (“Woe Is You”). I looked around. The old man was frantically sketching formulas in the air (the hospital staff having previously confiscated all his pens after he decimated 17 rolls of toilet paper). The orderly was sitting at his table, stumped by his crossword. The song was instantly epic with slow thrashing electric guitars, building and building to a crescendo upon an unshakeable foundation of piano and drums. For a moment, my mind was like the jumping needle on a scratched record, perceiving those five minutes of song over and over again, and each time it got bigger and bolder, until it became one of my favourite songs of 2014.
And of course there was the voice. The first time I heard it back in the professor’s office, it sounded familiar. I’d heard that raspy, battle-scarred tone in a thousand bars across America, fronting a thousand unremarkable bands across America, Jeff Buckley impersonators perched on wobbly bar stools crooning “Hallelujah”. But the more I listened, the less familiar this particular voice became, so much so that I wondered if it was the same voice each time I heard the song.
I beckoned the old man across and gestured at the air vent. ‘Here Doc, help me up,’ I whispered.
He glanced back nervously towards the orderly while I clambered on his shoulders and pulled myself up into vent. As I was pulling the grate shut behind me, taking care not to clatter my helmet against the frame, the old man looked up at me. ‘I can hear it too,’ he whispered. ‘They don’t want us to acknowledge it though. They want to choose what we put in our ears. They’re scared of the music being made by the little people. Music from the little people can move us through space and time.’ He was getting increasingly animated the more he talked, so much so that I hurried to shut the vent in case he drew the attention of the orderly. ‘The band you can hear are called “Hunter and Wolfe”,’ said the old man as the grate clicked back into place and I began to shuffle up the claustrophobic ventilation shaft.
I heard the bells of an old musical box and the strumming of an acoustic guitar up ahead, so I shuffled through the darkness towards it. The song was called “Even Odds” and it reminded me of the Fleet Foxes. “I will never leave you alone” sang that voice while piano notes romped beyond it and I understood how important the intricate piano and guitar lines were to the record. The voice, ever-changing, dominated Hunter and Wolfe’s body of sound like the friendly face of an old friend, but the instruments were the bones beneath the surface, the sophisticated skeletal structure holding the body together. From the moment I’d first become of aware of the songs playing in the air ducts, they’d gotten progressively more impressive, the stylistic and tonal range granting retrospective authenticity to the opening upbeat numbers.
I tumbled from the ventilation shaft at the other end, out into a dimly lit and large circular room with a small stage set at the heart of it. Two men sat on the stage, wearing identical copper diving helmets. One was finger-picking his umbrella. The other was singing into his. The song was called “All My Might” and it was so beautiful and stripped back that it became daunting to describe. I thought of Elliott Smith and I thought of Beirut and I thought “If this was a Beirut song then this would be my favourite Beirut song” and I thought “Elliott Smith would have been proud of a song like this”. All around the circular room sat patients who had climbed up through the ventilation shafts on their wards, following the music, and were now sitting there in their diving helmets, clutching their umbrellas, quietly awestruck. A pin dropped on the other side of the room while the intricate notes from the umbrella rang out. These were songs of relationships, broken, mended, breaking, mending. These were words for all of us to silently digest inside the protective cells of our cumbersome helmets.
And as the notes came to a close and we drew our own conclusions, several more pins dropped out of the wall on the far side of the room and a sturdy looking man with a pock-marked face stood there in the outline of a doorway. He was wearing a boilersuit, some kind of pest control, and holding an electric drill. We could see that outside the rain had turned to snow and a chilly wind swept the flakes into the room. As Hunter and Wolfe launched into “Please”, a bluesy ballad that Joe Cocker would love to have wrapped his lungs around, the pock-marked man stepped forward and introduced himself. ‘My name is Robot Dave Bukowski,’ he said in a mechanical voice, ‘and I am here to set you free.’
Seconds later we were piling through the door in the wall and staggering across the hospital car park as “Please” concluded. I looked around at the patients in their helmets, falling forwards under the weight, dropping their umbrellas that blew across the snow. “Paris, Ohio” kicked in, an up-tempo modern guitar and piano-led song, somewhere on the rock spectrum between the Strokes and Radiohead, with an “I’m coming home” chorus that spurred my feet into moving forward. Now the hospital staff were spilling from the doors of the institute, rugby tackling and sedating anyone they could get their hands on. Dogs were barking. Lights were flashing. Alarms were ringing. I hit the 10ft perimeter wire fence and turning my umbrella upside down, hooked the handle over the top of it and heaved myself up. ‘They’re getting away!’ screamed a voice, and as I jumped down on the other side, I looked back and saw the bald professor flailing around on his knees in the snow. So I waved at him. And kept running.
4 days later…
The busy cafeteria hummed and clanked with love and life and loss. I stood in front of the payphone, still wearing the diver’s helmet and fished the last coin from my pocket, turning it over in my hand. I remembered the words of the pointy headed man. I was supposed to phone my editor at Moon Crumb Magazine and report in. It was very important; urgent even. I took a deep breath and walked away from phone, over to the jukebox where I stuffed the coin in and flicked through the records until I found what I was looking for. “Days and Works” by Hunter and Wolfe. I selected track 8 of 9. “Somebody New”. A vaguely baroque track with a healthy dose of Highway 61-era Dylan. I sat back at my table by the window and poured myself another cup of black tea. As a guitar strummed and the increasingly unfamiliar voice ignited a glow in my chest cavity, my eyes flitted between the other patrons in the cafe, lost in conversation, their winter scarves slung across the backs of their seats. And every so often, insulated by the crowd, there was someone like me, with a copper diving helmet on their head and an umbrella in their hand, although nobody seemed to notice them or care. Perhaps they didn’t even realise themselves.
Closing track “We Both Know” began to play. Like “Even Odds” it reminded me of The Longpigs and I desperately wanted to tell someone, mainly to see if anyone could remember that band, only there was no one to tell, there was just me and my now lukewarm tea. Out in the streets, the snow had turned to sludge on the sidewalk and people hurried from one place to the next. Some of them wore winter scarves around their necks, and some of them wore copper diving helmets and carried umbrellas. I was certain, in my transparent heart that I wore on my sleeve, that there was something for all of them in this album. It was “Indie Rock”, only it was much, much more than that too.
Finally “Days and Works” drew to a close with the voice on its own, multi-layered entrancing harmonies that again reminded me of the Fleet Foxes’ contemporary take on classic song structure, offering a glimpse that for Hunter and Wolfe this album might be a joyous, considered and consummate collection of recordings, but at the same time perhaps it is just scratching the surface of what these two guys are capable of.
I drained the last of my tea and gazed out of the cafe window as a vehicle pulled up outside. It was an odd looking camper van with bits of seaweed poking out through the hubcaps and bumpers and the driver was a pointy headed man with plastic looking skin. He didn’t look up from behind the wheel. I grabbed my umbrella and went outside, climbing up into the passenger seat. ‘Did you call your editor?’ he asked me, staring into space.
‘Yes,’ I lied.
‘Good,’ he said and he started the engine at the second attempt. After a short while down the road he asked me, ‘Where have you been?’
‘Around,’ I said.
‘What’s with the helmet and the umbrella?’
‘What helmet and umbrella?’
He glanced sidewards at me.
‘Have you heard of Hunter and Wolfe?’ I asked him.
‘Hell yeah I have,’ he said enthusiastically. ‘I’ve heard all music through infinite space from the beginning of beginningless time.’
‘Can you do the chest thing?’
‘So now you want me to do the chest thing?’ he asked me, an involuntary grin passing over his mouth like a cloud across the sun.
‘Now I want you to do the chest thing,’ I said.
He parted his robes and from a speaker in his chest “Days and Works” began to play again.
I opened my eyes to silence and gloom. I felt hollow, but I wasn’t sure why. My head hurt for reasons I couldn’t entirely fathom. I sat up and saw that I was in a shack. Sunlight poked through a gap in the corrugated iron roof and a scrawny ginger girl sat on the bottom of my bed, sucking on a joint and studying me closely. She wiped her runny nose on her sleeve. ‘Where am I?’ I croaked and she spat on the straw floor. ‘Bolton?’ I asked. I distinctly remember that I was somewhere up north. I’d previously fried my brain with psychedelic sounds and slipped back and forth through time like a piece of flotsam on a cosmic tide.
‘Whatever,’ she said.
A horn honked outside. I jumped out of bed and sprinted to the door. There was a timeworn camper van parked in front and the pointy headed man was sitting behind the wheel. He looked like someone who had been waiting a long time, with his plastic skin glistening red in the morning sun. My heart sank at the sight of him and the endless expanse of sandy brown scrub all around us. ‘Oh shit. I’m pretty sure this isn’t Bolton,’ I said.
‘Get in,’ he growled. So I got in.
‘You’re not going to do that thing again, are you?’ I asked as he started up the engine on the second attempt. ‘You know, that thing you do with your chest?’ We began to drive away from the shack along a dusty brown track. ‘Because I don’t think I could handle that,’ I told him.
‘No, I’m not going to do that thing with my chest,’ he said and he stuffed a cassette into the camper van stereo.
‘Good,’ I said, as Byrdsian guitars began to jingle-jangle and I felt myself melting into the passenger seat. A magical voice mumbled, “It is what it is yes, no, yes, I don’t know…” ‘This song is speaking directly to me,’ I told the pointy headed man as we bumbled through the dust. ‘It’s lo-fi psychedelic imperfect perfection. The sort of song that you wish would turn up more often at jumble sales. I never find songs this good at jumble sales…’
‘Whatever,’ said a voice in the seat behind us, and I turned to see the scrawny ginger girl, in amongst all the blankets and crap, sitting forward and rolling another joint. I just about leapt out of my shoes in fright.
‘Who the fuck is that?’ I whispered to the pointy headed man.
‘Ezra,’ he said. ‘Or Bob. It may even be Interstellar Gamboge the Third for all I know. I have name blindness, you see. It’s like colour blindness, only with names instead of colours.’
Meanwhile my body was melding with the threadbare upholstery as canny shifts of pitch and tempo and telephonic ba-ba-bas filled the inside of the van. ‘It’s happening again,’ I muttered deliriously.
‘You can stop it at any time,’ said the pointy headed man, gesturing towards the stereo.
But we both knew I liked it too much. ‘What’s this one called?’ I ask the pointy headed man.
‘”Car Crash”,’ he told me.
‘Jesus,’ I said and sank as far into the seat as I could, watching the empty road ahead of us. I sort of half expected a cactus to come running out in our path and cause a head-on collision. I’d sunk so deep into the passenger seat that I virtually WAS the passenger seat.
The second song began and I let out a long drawn-out sigh as no cactus had materialised. “Johanna” the second song was called. Another mumbling psychedelic masterpiece with hand claps and raffish drums and a chorus that said the singer didn’t want to fall in love again. Which kinda sucked, but the melody was so good that I kinda didn’t care. ‘Who is this?’ I asked the pointy headed man.
‘Whatever,’ said Ezra from the back.
‘I wasn’t speaking to you,’ I said, irked by her presence.
The road wound on. “Let Go of My Heart” played. More 60′s guitar lines, chiming us along in the wake of an auspicious dream. The sun climbed high and we rolled the windows down. I didn’t know where I was or what I was listening to, but I loved it and life felt strangely good or goodly strange, either/or. ’By the way,’ said the pointy headed man, ‘your editor called.’
‘Moon Crumb Magazine.’
‘Moon Crumb Magazine?’
‘Are you just going to repeat everything I say?’ he asked me and pointed at the glove compartment. I opened it and there was a red telephone, one of the old fashioned ones with a dial in the middle. The cord was frayed like it had been yanked in a hurry from a wall. ‘You promised her one review a week for a year,’ he said.
I stared at the telephone and the telephone stared back.
And then we arrived at a little village in the middle of nowhere. And now I knew I wasn’t in Bolton, or anywhere near Bolton. The next song was called “Mexican Village” and I understood that the music had dislocated me and I was travelling again through space and time. ‘I know this song,’ I said. ‘It’s one of my favourite songs in the world, but I have no idea who wrote it. I don’t suppose that matters.’
‘Whatever,’ said Ezra, wiping her nose on the back of my seat and offering me the joint.
In the village square everyone started dancing to the song that was blasting from our camper van. And then they started smoking. And drinking tequila. There was a piñata and the pointy headed man was attacking it with an inflatable hammer. We rewound the tape and played “Mexican Village” over and over again, digging its wonderful guitar riff and happy hand claps and tambourine and the voice mumbling on melodically. Ezra got talking to some American girls. The moon and the sun swapped places and fairy lights got strung from village rooftops. When the tequila ran out and the song faded to a close, everyone piled into the camper van and we drove off into the desert. Like a great tidal wave of sound, the music was at our backs, moving us through the universe. ‘You still haven’t made the call!’ shouted the pointy headed man over the American girls who loved the cassette and wanted to know who it was. They screeched that they thought it was the love child of Brian Jones and Daniel Johnston, brought up by Beck and the Buzzcocks.
I said I didn’t think that was possible, but I sort of knew what they meant.
We parked at the edge of a cliff and “Girl Power” boomed from the speakers. Everyone was dancing again and I had a feeling that drugs were at work. I lay down in a patch of flowers. A patch of flowers on the edge of a cliff in the middle of the desert. The song itself was fuzzy and supercool. It reminded me of Bowie before he lost it. It reminded me of that excited feeling I got when I first heard Black Moth Super Rainbow and understood that you could go backwards to go forwards. I could have stayed in that patch of flowers forever. Only someone got it into their heads that we should all jump off the cliff. It was at that point I concluded drugs were definitely at work. ‘What!? That’s madness! We’ll die!’ I protested, but nobody was listening, they were all too swept up in the chorus. I looked up at the pointy headed man who was sitting with Ezra on the roof of the camper van. ‘Whatever,’ he said with a shrug, and one by one, everyone, except us, went over the edge.
The three of us got back in the camper van. “And Your Bird Won’t Sing” came on. It sounded like that Beatles riff, only inside out. More psychedelic sustenance. ‘I’m glad we didn’t jump,’ I tell them as the pointy headed man puts his foot down and we reverse off the cliff. And we fall with the guitar riff and the words and suddenly someone sits up from under the pile of blankets beside Ezra.
“Fight the Power” starts as we fall. One of my favourite gems on the record. The camper van plunged through the air towards the ocean and I looked in the rearview mirror at the old man with his wild white hair and his lab coat, shaking off the blankets, and frantically waving a clipboard around. ‘Marty! I’ve got it!’ he screams.
‘Marty?’ I scream back. ‘Who’s Marty!?’
‘My calculations indicate that “Fuzz Classics” is completely and utterly and unquestionably QUIXODELIC!’ he yells, totally ignoring us. ‘Now, if only I can cross check my analysis alongside samples of sonic tissue taken from The Real Burnouts and Zombie Girlfriend Hospital Attack Force, who knows what we might discover? Previously, I dismissed these individual entities as one-off musical mutations; the little guy armed with only instruments and ideas, beaming these out across the galaxy! And yet, here we have a third great shining manifestation of the same mutation! Do you know what this means, Marty!? It means we could conceivably be listening to the dawn of a MOVEMENT! And yet… the questions remain unanswered: Why the fuck are we falling off a cliff? Who made this legendary record? And what in god’s name have you done to my DeLorean!?’
‘Whatever,’ said Ezra, as we crashed violently into the sea.
The force of the camper van smashing into the water was enough to make me black out. The last thing I saw was a cactus on the sea bed, waving at me and laughing his prickly ass off. Due to me being unconscious, I missed the next song on the record “Earth Girl”. According to the pointy headed man, it was a “scuzzy, fuzzy, punk-psych hybrid with a catchy refrain urging us not to go to California.”
‘Why?’ I asked as we sat on the roof of the camper van, bobbing atop the ocean waves. We were drifting further and further away from the shoreline. Eventually all we could see was sea. ‘What’s so bad about California?’ I wanted to know. He looked at me like I’d finally cracked. ‘Where’s Ezra?’ I asked.
‘Who?’ he said.
‘You know, Ezra? Bob? Interstellar Gamboge III?’
He shook his pointy head as “Ezra” began to play. It was a slow, magical, bright-eyed, melodic ode to somebody else called Ezra. It was the sort of song that wedged itself between two parts of my brain and refused to budge for several days after. The scientist dude demanded to know which two parts it was wedged between. I told him I didn’t know, so he sketched a brain on his clipboard, only it looked nothing at all like a brain so it didn’t help. ‘What are all these parts?’ I asked him, jabbing my finger at various hipcampocogs and skullmotors sketched on the clipboard. ‘Do they even exist?’
‘Marty! I am NOT an artist! Nor am I a brain surgeon!’ he protested and huffily threw his clipboard into the sea.
It was at this point that I remembered I’d missed a second song during the black out. It was called “Hanging Out”, so that’s exactly what we did. We hung out. And the sun came up. And the sun went down. And the sun came up again. And the scientist dude sat with his back to us the whole time, arms folded across his chest. And the whole world seemed stoned because of the song.
Penultimate track “Camelot” played. More delirious effects laden golden chaos. A cloud in the shape of a knight passed over the sun. And it was at this point that I noticed Ezra hanging there in the sky above the camper van. ‘Shit,’ I said, pointing up, ‘how did she get up there?’
“It’s too weird, it’s too weird” sang the voice in the cabin below.
‘Did you call your editor?’ asked the pointy headed man.
‘Call?’ I asked. ‘My editor?’ I asked.
‘You’re in so much trouble,’ he said, shaking his head.
Last track, “Starting Over” began. It reminded me of hearing The Stone Roses’ bootlegs for the first time. Raw and gritty and great. It reminded me that we needed bands like this, whoever or whatever they might be. That our musical heroes shouldn’t be the Bonos or Chris Martins of the world, but guys like Syd Barrett, guys like this, doing their own thing, without a care in the world for what the world might actually think.
And then the ripped out red telephone began to ring.
‘You’d better answer that,’ said the pointy headed man. ‘That’ll be your editor. She’ll want to know where you are. That review was due on her desk yesterday and here you are on the roof of a camper van, in the middle of the ocean, unable to identify two brain parts.’
We searched around for the phone. And eventually we realised we didn’t have it. Ezra had it. And sure enough, there she was, floating in the sky, out of reach, clutching the telephone. The cassette ended, but the phone kept on ringing. ‘I don’t even LOOK like a brain surgeon!’ yelled the scientist dude.
I closed my eyes. ‘SO much trouble,’ said the pointy headed man. Just to ram home the point.
‘Whatever,’ I said.