Vic Conrad & the First Third: self-titled

[19 June 2003]

By Gary Glauber

If you’re into the type of eclectic loose atmospheric psych-pop that characterizes the Elephant 6 collective, you’ll likely enjoy the highly varied and intriguing self-titled debut from Australian musicians Vic Conrad & the First Third. Conrad, former lead singer from Adelaide-based the Garden Path, has joined forces with Colin Gellard on bass and Craig Rodda on drums (along with Martin Butler and Mike Festa and others like Bevis Frond’s Nick Saloman) to create a quirky collection of a dozen mostly soft, mostly short songs in an unusual number of styles.

Not everything attempted here works, but the listener who invests time will find rewards within. Repeated listens show how carefully Conrad mixes tempos and song structures, while influences like Syd Barrett and the Beatles seem to inhabit many of the aural landscapes.

The brief opener “Everyone” displays Conrad’s plaintive tenor, with lyrics that reflect the simplicity of the song: “Everyone gets undone, I don’t know why / You and I get it right, don’t even try / I would confiscate your heart / Take it back to where we started”. Beach Boy-type harmonies are called into play for “People Who Care” (supplied by the band Ice Cream Hands), basically a melodic pop piece about a tryst in the rain (“Look into my heart because the house is in a mess”) and following that same lover to work, busily summoning the people who care.

The upbeat piano-based love ballad “See My Way” is as close as Conrad and comrades come to being commercial. Gellard has some beautiful bass lines, Ice Cream Hands again lends harmony support, and the overall sound recalls Epic Soundtracks. “Pulse” is a short experimental chant set to a sort of heartbeat, minimalist and haunting and curiously Native American-sounding. Similarly, “The Day before She Died” is a quiet dirge sans percussion that recalls traditional folk music.

The Beatle-esque “Emily & Liam” covers a wide expanse of musical terrain in its near four-and-a-half minutes, going from a semi-traditional verse about drawing in a museum, then drifting away on Mike Festa’s pedal steel work before segueing into the beauty of the Martin Butler Evidence’s string accompaniment (violin, viola, and cello). This instrumental portion is alluring and accomplished, holding one’s attention while luring one into a near-trance state.

“Magneto” is another odd-song out here, a short simple electric piano refrain repeated over and over again behind cryptic lyrics about wanting to do things and getting what one deserves (e.g., “A rollercoaster running with a frozen plow). “Mr. V” is like mid-era Kinks, with a strong psychedelic flavor (again, another short one). “Hideaway” is a moody slower song, with some nice opening oboe by Bruce Stewart. “I Love You” seems a sort of half-psychedelic experiment, a song evolving as it goes into something more formidable.

The longest song, “DNA for Alice”, is the sort of ongoing psychedelic noodling you get from many of the other Elephant 6 collective. Unfortunately, the length seems somewhat unwarranted given the relative sameness of what’s happening musically (though if you’re meditating, you can get nearly 8 minutes of Zen-like trance out of it).

“Enough of This” is a sweet little countrified gem that closes the CD, again featuring Festa’s weepy pedal steel work accompanying Conrad’s lyrics of frustrated wishes and hopes from one spurned.

All told, this is an impressive but uneven debut. Vic Conrad & the First Third do present a diverse range of sounds, but perhaps need to focus more going forward, deciding exactly where they’d like to be on the musical spectrum, honing in and mastering that chosen sound. There is plenty of quirky and playful promise here, and I’d wager talent enough to deliver on it sometime in the near future.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/conradvic-st/