Scorpion-Shaped Clouds Do Not Great Garage-Rock Make
Outrageous Cherry is connected to half the bands in Detroit, especially through lead singer/songwriter Matthew Smith. He’s produced the Go (Jack White’s old band), he’s played with the Dirtbombs and Andre Williams, he gets around. Smith’s got the Volebeats for his alt.country-rock thing, and this band is his late 1960s garage rock thing. After years of putting out records for small American indies, he got lucky last year when Alan McGee picked this 78-minute opus for release on his Poptones label.
Let me just say that I think Alan McGee is a wanker. For every great band Creation signed in the 1990s, there is an equal and opposite asshole move by McGee that negated that band’s success. He let Oasis and Primal Scream get completely out of control; worse, he pretty much ruined any shot my poor Boo Radleys had at international success, and then went on to slag Boo mainman Martin Carr in his book and his interviews. And No One Messes With Martin on my watch. So I don’t care if Poptones goes nipples-up. But I won’t hold that against Outrageous Cherry, who have finally managed to get this record out in the U.S. on Rainbow Quartz.
Overall, they’re not a bad band at all. Larry Ray, who has played with “psych-legends the Spike Drivers” (from the press release), is a very good guitar player. His work is creepy/sexy/cool on a lot of these tracks, and provides the link between rockabilly and psychedelic music, which a lot of neo-psych groups forget. (After all, didn’t Pink Floyd start sucking when they forgot about the blues?) The opening of “Through Parallel Dimensions” is that Chuck-Berry-does-acid riff we’ve all been waiting for; “Everything’s Back to Normal” is a good old-fashioned proto-punk hoedown of sorts, with syncopated riffs and hot lines aplenty. And while the rhythm section of Aran Ruth on bass and Deb Agnolli on drums doesn’t really stand out, they don’t fall on their faces either. Well, okay: Ruth’s “cover painting” makes for just about the ass-ugliest God-awfulest fake-late ‘60s cover I’ve ever seen. (I don’t know how they will sound with their new drummer, Carey Gustafson, but I suspect it’ll be the exact same. The real focus is on the guitar parts, and on Matthew Smith’s vocals.
I want to state very clearly that there are some really nice hooky songs here. The second “side” of what would be a double album on vinyl is where things really heat up; “Here Where the Stars Are Cracking Up” and “Wide Awake in the Spirit-World” are catchy, and they lead right into a song which has really grown on me, the drony slowcore tune called “My Demon Friend”. The melody of “History of Magic” is all twisty and turny, a great I-wish-I-was-a-hippie slowdance song. (I can just see the long hair swaying in the gym. . . .) And “It’s So Nice to Be Here” is a punchy bouncy way to end a record: “So nice to be here with you at last / My faded image of the oncoming past” don’t seem like great words to close out a long record with, but they work, kinda.
I can’t really recommend this to people who don’t have a lot of time on their hands, for three reasons. First of all, it’s way too long for most listeners; real old-timey psych-garage albums were 35 minutes and out, a couple good songs and some filler, see ya on the next record in six months, buh-bye—and to suddenly be confronted with 20 songs in almost 80 minutes can seem like kind of a slog.
This is related to the second hurdle, which is the production work. Everything is remote, far away, muffled in some kind of attempt to “recapture” the sound of all those great Nuggets bands and their low-tech aesthetic . . . but good lord the human ear can only take so much of that. If you want to hear Ray’s best guitar work, you have to strain yourself something awful, and the bass and drums might as well be absent for all the thought put into them. And you’d think Smith would want his vocals to stand out, but every single song fuzzes them out with echo and reverb and pre-reverb; sounds like he recorded himself over Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. It’s just too much work . . . for most people.
And this is the third problem with this disc: I’m not sure that Matthew Smith understands the genre to which he genuflects. Yeah, he’s heard the Standells and the Chocolate Watchband and the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the 13th Floor Elevators and all those bands, but I’m not sure he really feels them. His songs seem to mimic all the details but none of the soul, and it ends up sounding fakey and bad-derivative instead of heartfelt and good-derivative. They’re all somewhat surreal in their lyrical content, but in the exact same way. Track three, “The Unseen Devourers”, talks about “Scorpion-shaped clouds / That pass by my window / Here they come right now”; track 11, “The Astral Transit Authority”, goes right back to the well with “Staring through the window one way drain / Through the rain through the rain but I only detain / Jets flying overhead in the corner of my eye”; and track 20 starts with “Moonlight cut-out projections dangle / Each night the same starry curtains entangle”. Three different songs that feature the narrator staring out the window? It’s a little much.
Despite this, though, and the overall sonic sludge of The Book of Spectral Projections, I’m going to keep listening to it and loan it to my brother and everything. I don’t think you’ll get this record after five spins; I sure didn’t. But these hooks have grown on me after 15 listens, and Smith’s ham-fisted sincerity has begun to win me over. It’s a great record for when you’re staring out your window at those scorpion-shaped clouds. . . .