San Francisco quintet Tea Leaf Green has been one of this country’s finest groups of improv rock gypsies for more than 15 years, releasing numerous excellent studio recordings, several concert recordings, and even two DVDs. They have toured across the U.S. and the world, making stops at all the prominent music rooms and most premier festivals, performing in front of thousands of people. Yet mainstream recognition (i.e. having their songs played on radio) and financial rewards have been hard to come by. The band’s seventh studio recording, an adventurous and multi-influenced slab of psychedelic, improv and pop rock, should go a long way towards changing that.
Then again, more than likely, it won’t.
At least, that’s the loose theme of the aptly titled Radio Tragedy. Singer/guitarist Josh Clark has stated in a press release that the album “…is a reflection on the ups and downs on the road to radio gold…” and that with this release, the band focused on honest, heartfelt music that lingers in the shadows of “…auto-tuned rappers and inane teeny bob prop puppets…” that have choked the life from American Rock and Roll.
The key words there are “radio gold.” These 11 songs all sound like relics from a long by-gone era of pop and rock radio, when hit songs were figuratively melded into gold records. There are several familiar themes apparent on Radio Tragedy, such as on opener “All Washed Up”, which finds an old, haggard seaman drowning in the bottom of his bottle. Wah-wah guitar and a chantey whistle penetrate the dense, salty air that envelops the song’s protagonist as he waits for his ship to come in. “Easy To Be Your Lover” meanders and swirls its way through a multih-ued pastiche on vintage George Harrison calliope and Bee Gee’s layered falsetto harmonies. A thumping rhythm and more psychedelic guitar flourishes wail on the classic rock nugget “You’re My Star”, which has an air of the “don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” blues.
Yet Tea Leaf Green are more than classic rock revivalists, and Radio Tragedy is anything but lost in the ‘70s. Repeated listens reveal modern influences as well. Remember, the tragedy here is the demise of pure radio gold. “Fallen Angel” has a slight country lilt, relating the story of a wayward soul praying for absolution and to be allowed in at the golden gates. And the country lilt is taken up several notches with requisite twang git-tar and jubilant, Jerry Lee Lewis like piano on “Honey Bee,” an absolute slice of toe tapping, pure country pop perfection and easily the best song on the album.
The tone mellows on a few lovely songs. Bassist Mathis, an Oklahoma native and formerly of the Tulsa based Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, gets melancholy and reflective on the sweet ballad “My Oklahoma Home,” singing to his wife as they travel west towards Richmond, California, with its giant, guarding Redwoods and dense fog. And closer “Nothing Changes” is a solemn and quite depressing blues ballad that reflects on a life of despair from Murphy’s Law and gives the album its title:
“This bottle’s almost empty ; I cannot catch a buzz / And the radio’s a tragedy of country songs and fuzz / In other words… Nothing changes.”
By all accounts, Radio Tragedy is Tea Leaf Green’s finest studio platter yet, looking back on a time when the music on the radio was more pure and heartfelt. Furthering the point is the cover art and comic book-ish liner notes, illustrations all done by Clark that portray a noir-ish death of radio. America’s highways are littered with the wreckage of numerous fine rock bands that haven’t lasted as long as The Leaf Green has. They’ve made an excellent studio recording—with heartfelt songwriting and engaging performances. The true tragedy is that few are going to care.