For their previous release, Rorchasched (2019), Long Island psych rockers Miracle Sweepstakes tried to record the album themselves. But issues arose, and they hired engineer Charles Burst, who’s worked with New Pornographers, Paul Banks, and Sunwatchers, to complete the job. Even then, perfectionism, busy schedules, and an unexpected zoning violation that put Burst’s Seaside recording studio out of commission, things didn’t exactly make the release easier–nonetheless, they crafted a thrilling record. On their third and latest release, Last Licks, Miracle Sweepstakes take another crack at recording themselves, less riddled with complications, and the result is a marvelous trip, one that gets better with every revisit.
Miracle Sweepstakes are led by songwriter, vocalist, guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist Craig Heed, whose work can be defined by dense layers of keyboards, shakers, tambourines, and other percussion instruments. And like any good psychedelic group, effects. Heed is also a talented visual artist and has created most of the band’s cover art in the vein of abstract expressionism. The group are rounded out by Ian Miniero on drums, Doug Bleek on bass, and Justin Mayfield on guitar.
The opener, “Last Licks”, is a beautiful Jefferson Airplane “White Rabbit”-like invitation into the LP. The guitar shimmers in the background while the bass, drums, and tambourine push the song forward in a limp, drag-drag pace. Heed’s vocals are sensitive and unthreatening as he sings his phrases in a delicate falsetto. When the chorus comes, it feels like a drug-addled carousel ride. An organ spreads the track with rung-out chords, and a whirling sound circles the mix. The vertigo is enough to make you feel sick. The orchestration, with its dense overdubs of synths, strings, and vocals, makes the compositions seem Brian Wilson-esque. It’s psychedelic, weird, and good.
Last Licks’ first single, “O-Pine”, opens with a bendy angular riff. The rhythmic feel shifts abruptly, going somewhere unexpected. It’s a full-fledged freakout before returning to the guitar’s main theme. Heed’s vocals are buried in the mix and have an old microphone fidelity. The lyrics aren’t nearly as important as the feeling the vocals evoke. It makes the content you hear, like “I know something’s wrong,” more impactful–it drives the overall effect of the song.
In “Ooh Ahh”, Heed’s vocals stand out. His agile melodies, supported by responding hits from the band, are infectious. “Green Candle” is a slow and gorgeous build, spawning from a ringing acoustic guitar. What seems like an interlude develops into a song. It’s the most captivating moment on the album, and the supplemental effects, auxiliary instruments, and vocal “oohs” in the background make its ascent powerful. When the drums kick in at around the three-minute mark, it continues to build with a rewarding, resolute groove.
“Rectangular Eclipse” has a watery guitar effect that builds with Heed’s vocals, sound effects flicker and fan in the background. Miracle Sweepstakes evokes the psychedelic pop of Syd Barrett’s hazy trip, Piper at the Gates. Heed meditates on the phrase, “Oh, what to do? Heart has its mind in the gutter.” The next track, “Bad Bee”, is a catchy rock number with jangly guitar and receptive percussive hits. The chorus here is another sticky one–Heed knows how to write a melody. Near the end, the band collapses in on itself as it speeds up and crashes like improvisatory avant-garde jazz.
“Let Something Happen” is made magical with glowing synths in the background. Heed’s falsetto is a lullaby supported by big arrangements with piano and synth pads. “Aah Ohh” is an interlude of sorts, not resembling much of a song but still effective with its wash of ambiance. “Nor’easter” is a sprawling seven-minute journey that travels through different places, never staying for too long. It’s a patient listen, but the song fragments within don’t reward you as much as the earlier part of the record.
Last Licks is an album of sweet psychedelic pop. The guitar effects and whimsical orchestrations throughout are reminiscent of the late 1960s, like early Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys, when multi-tracking and overdubs stretched possibilities in the recording studio. The album sparkles in its ability to play with expectations, too, and Heed’s vocal melodies and angular riffs take you to new places–places you’ll want to revisit.