Music

Roky Erickson: I Have Always Been Here Before: The Roky Erickson Anthology

David Marchese

Erickson's status as a cult legend is based in large part on his sci-fi rockers, but to dismiss this portion of his music as lunatic kitsch would be a grave error.


Roky Erickson

I Have Always Been Here Before: the Roky Erickson Anthology

Label: Shout! Factory
US Release Date: 2005-03-01
UK Release Date: Available as import
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In a manner more tragic than just about any other musician, Roky Erickson's musical career can be divided into two eras: before and after institutionalization. The first disc of I Have Always Been Here Before, his first career-spanning compilation, covers the highlights of Erickson's career with the fondly remembered Texas psychedelic tricksters the 13th Floor Elevators. With Erickson at the helm, the Elevators turned out some of the most lysergically tinged, jug-laced garage rock around. Yeah, that's right: Jug-laced. The burbling, blooping sound of an amplified jug, sounding almost like a primitive sequencer, blurs the edges of these psych-punk masterpieces.

While they may have been at their best as psychedelic ravers, the Elevators also had a gentle, folky side that Erickson would revisit throughout his career. Songs like "Dust" and "I Had to tell You" drift by on a mix of homegrown wisdom and warm guitars. The music of the Elevators showed a commitment to the promise of the psychedelic experience that so much of that era's music lacked. When you listen to Erickson's singing and the band's playing, there is none of the sense of opportunism or dilettantism that plagued so many superficially similar bands.

But all good trips must end, and the heyday of the Elevators was cut short in 1969 when, to avoid possible jail time for marijuana possession, Erickson entered a state hospital for the criminally insane. He was there for three and half years, and had his diagnosis of schizophrenia "treated" with electroshock therapy and Thorazine.

1975's "Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog)", the first post-institution track on the album, speaks volumes about the effect the experience must have had on Erickson. Altogether more savage and unhinged than anything that came before it, the song also signals a shift of subject matter from starry-eyed mysticism to B-Movie imagery full of horrific demons and monsters.

Erickson's status as a cult legend is based in large part on the aforementioned sci-fi rockers, but to dismiss this portion of his music as lunatic kitsch would be a grave error. Unlike, say, the Misfits, Erickson's use of this subject matter has no trace of kitsch or camp. For a man with an already tenuous grip on what we think of as reality, and confined to an institution where strangers in labcoats did funny things to his brain, the idea of sinister forces on the prowl was more fact than fiction. A song like "Bloody Hammer", in which Erickson rails like a man possessed about refusing to have his mind hammered out, takes on a disturbing meaning in the light of his experiences. While it is tempting to think of the stuff Erickson is singing about as escapist fantasy, it's impossible to shake the feeling that it was all too real to him. That fact is what gives this aspect of his music its frightening intensity and demands that it be heard as something other than the aural equivalent of a freak show.

But all was not dark in Erickson's world. His softer songs took on an even more immediate presence after his confinement. It's as if he became a frayed nerve, feeling higher highs and lower lows. These songs are proof that even in the face of evil, Erickson had the gumption to hold on to the belief encapsulated in the title of perhaps the album's most moving song: "True Love Cast Out All Evil".

With both the darker, fierier material, and the lighter, more reflective songs, the structure and performances of the music is always unique and committed. It's impossible to know how much input they had into the music, but a word of praise must go out to the musicians backing Erickson on all 43 cuts. They play with a commitment and imagination far beyond your typical garage rock.

The music Erickson made with the Elevators allows a wimp like me to get a glimpse of the kind of conviction needed to stretch your mind as far as it'll go -- where the possibility of floating away is real. The music he made afterwards allows those luckier than him to get some tiny sense of what it's like when your mind is under attack and what it takes to fight back. It's a selfish and shameful thing to say, but if it took Erickson going through what he did for this music to come into being, I'm glad it happened.

If his latest music is any sign, the angels seem to have driven the devils from Erickson's mind. According to his official website, which, like the album, was put together by people who care, Erickson is "doin' great". Let's see to it that he stays that way. Buy this album.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

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7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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