Weird Owl is a genuine anomaly in the music industry in several ways: since forming in 2004, the group has not let anything – not lineup changes, not label changes, not changes in focus or sound – deter them from keeping a consistent release schedule. The band’s fifth full-length (sixth release) finds the band nailing a genuine and true presentation of psychedelic rock – that which is lighter in tone and weirder of mindset as it was in the early Sixties, not perfectly streamlined and tight as tends to be the case when one looks at modern psyche-pop acts like The Flaming Lips, and not darker or more sinister as the current breed of stoner rock bands have been in the twenty-first century either. Granted, there’s still plenty of weirdness to go around through the eight songs which comprise this album, but all of the music here is infused with an innocence which can’t be taught or faked and is as easy to hear in the pink vinyl pressing of Bubblegum Brain Waves as the color is to see.
As soon as a record player’s stylus touches down on “Before and Beyond” and the song begins to build as it opens the album’s A-side, listeners won’t be able to stop their enthusiasm from growing with it. Here, the group hits on a classic styling which causes pulses to begin swelling (in a similar manner to how “Sultans Of Swing” by Dire Straits, “Too Sick To Pray” by Alabama 3 and “In The Flesh” by Pink Floyd did for Money For Nothing, La Peste and The Wall respectively) and combines it with some fresh new vision and flavor as well as a bucketload of young enthusiasm. As one might expect, for example, John Cassidy’s keyboards open the going with some haunted theatrics, but they’re then blown completely off the line as the dual guitar assault of Jon Rudd and singer/guitarist Trevor Tyrell appears and completely overtakes the mix with an epic/bombastic drone. The vocals might typically boast a more authoritative presence but the guitars are really the dominant entity here; they really force all the expression forth from the song and make it exciting.
While the standards and several of the precedents set for Bubblegum Brain Waves by “Invisibility Cloak,” the A-side seeks to build on that base substantially after the opening track lets out. “You (Sometimes Not You)” focuses a little more on synth sounds and emotional delicacy (Tyrell sounds a little stoned as he lopes through his vocal performance too), while “Black Never White” simultaneously factors in a little more of a Lou Reed/Velvet Underground aura (the comparisons are easy to make from the second Tyrell utters the words, “Here she comes” at the opening of the song) before closing the side with a more acoustic, balladesque and decidedly Brian Jonestown Massacre-esque sound for “Such A Myth.” In that moment, there’s no question that listeners will be excited to flip the record over and see what else the band has in store, but it might take a second for them to realize that the running of this album’s A-side is only about sixteen minutes; it is only when the vinyl wants flipping that listeners may realize the first four songs have taken them an incredibly long way in a deceptively short period of time.
In keeping with the pattern/progression put forward by the Bubblegum Brain Waves‘ A-side, the B-side opens with the lean and tight stoned grinder, “War.” There, Tyrell takes a decidedly more emotionally torn tone for his vocal as he yelps and sighs his way through couplets like, “The glades of Mars are red again, there’s blood on the floor/ Resources can all be had, But still they want more” which makes the song instantly engaging in a way that the A-side never quite achieved no matter how good it was. That sudden change can immediately pique the interest of listeners with the right mind and, when the song ends and “Bartholomew Iris” begins, they’ll be completely swept away by a new and remarkable dramatic turn in the album’s running.
It’s important to point out that, while it appears comparatively late in the album’s running (this critic would contend that the song should ideally have been the A-side closer), no argument against the dramatic focus of “Bartholomew Iris” can be made. Here, after a brief guitar build, Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV personality Genesis Breyer P-Orridge begins rifling through a story in a manner which is simultaneously ecstatic and deadpan (check out lines like, “Bartholomew Iris was uneasy. There was an emptiness that surrounded him – a great shadow of the unfulfilled. He worked as a pseudonym developer for the Unenthused With Life Corporation – his clients were mostly wealthy dilettantes who wishes to be given an entirely different identity.”) and, combined as it is with the staticky, synth-y structures which appear behind it, listeners feel as though they’ve been successfully transported to the set of a sci-fi movie not unlike that of Blade Runner or perhaps Looper, and find the chills that the monologue inspires in them both significant and remarkable.
That track also marks a significant turning point in the development of the album, or at least listeners’ perception of it; after hearing the story and the band’s performance of it, the coldness and isolation that the track may have caused them to feel endure through “Things I Saw In The Coffin” (which really does feel lugubrious) and the side-closer, “Tired Old Sun,” as well. Through the last track, Tyrell makes the most of the distant, echoey tones applied to the song’s production and strikes a balance between sounding both hopeful and doomed before simply trailing off at the close of the album. On paper, that end may read as unsatisfying but, in listening, the way that “Tired Old Sun” ends these proceedings is actually just the right ticket; because it ebbs away so well, listeners are left reaching after it figuratively, and trying to keep a little of that last fade for themselves. That desire will spur them to flip and re-start the album again, in hopes of keep some of the magic; the album is both satisfying and habit forming, in that regard.
So how does Bubblegum Brainwaves relate with the rest of Weird Owl’s catalogue, now six releases in? Running front to back with the album, it would be difficult to not call this album a step forward for the band. True, there is absolutely more potential mainstream appeal here than the band has showcased before (read: as stated, it’s poppier, more memorable and more concise than any of the group’s other albums have been) which some fans may balk at and call the certain beginning of the end, but the truth is that this album features a lot of promise that many may not have even considered possible for this band; these songs are good and are accessible to a greater percentage of potential listeners than just already-established fans, college radio aficionados and scenesters. Again, some critics may say that all of those aspects equate to obvious signs that Weird Owl is selling out but, if that’s true, i contend that they’d be wise to sell out some more – if it means that music of this quality is what we can hope for. [Bill Adams]
(Whistling Dwarf Music)
Bubblegum Brainwaves is out now. You can buy it directly from the band on their Bandcamp page.