(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Recording review - The Cairo Gang, Tiny Rebels (2013)

A tribute to Summer of Love psychedelia

Rule 34 effectively says that anything can serve as a fetish for someone out there. While I don't really think that Emmett Kelly has a sexual hang up about Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, and the psychedelic music of 1966-68, Tiny Rebels certainly flaunts his obsession with a particular sound. The EP jangles with dueling 12-string guitars, drifts along with simple melodies, and communes with ringing vocal harmonies. Except for some of the lyrical turns, these songs are precisely tuned into the period like an episode of "Mad Men". Beyond just capturing the instrumentation and innocent expression of the time, there are small touches that add verisimilitude to the conceit: the residue of amp hum lingering after a fade out, light echoing room artifacts, and subtle moments of saturated audio tape clipping.

The Cairo Gang serves as Kelly's nom de band, with a rotating cast of musicians passing through to fill out his sound. He's used the name to release a small collection of albums and EPs, but the band's most visible moment has been backing Will Oldham (Bonnie "Prince" Billy) on The Wonder Show of the World (2010). That wasn't Kelly's first collaboration with Oldham, but the shared billing explicitly acknowledges his role in providing the music for Oldham's lyrics. Kelly's playing remains recognizable, but Tiny Rebels breaks from that project's stark, stripped down sound, crowding these six new songs with a multitude of details.

The title track kicks off the mini-album with a sense of ambiguity. At first, the repeated high E note sounds like a tuning exercise, but the band joins in and transforms it into an eighth note drone that centers the song. Despite the falsetto harmonies and ringing guitar, the trudging pace darkens the mood. At this point, the words still maintain a period sense of obscure omniscience:
Standing atop the summit
The downcast seem to be
Below us, tiny rebels
With makeshift loyalty
The psychedelic mood thickens with "Take Your Time", which begins with a musical tip of the hat to The Youngbloods' "Get Together". The counter-culture lyrics are spot on, "Don't just sit and listen to what you're told," but the solo is the real treat. Two guitars start out in parallel, but remain independent, each meandering along their own path through a crystalline hall of mirrors. They drift apart, then occasionally mesh again. Just like the lead on The Byrds' "Eight Miles High", there's a naïveté that later period psychedelia would shed.

It's not until "Shake Off" that the band starts to introduce lyrical anachronisms:
As if I don't really want to be useful and I
Don't fucking feel much like getting control of all the
Retarded bullshit I must be able to shake off
Shake off
The casual profanity and the glib reference to suicide on "Shivers" clash with the musical setting, but I think that Kelly is deliberately playing the modern sentiments against the loving retro execution to create a more interesting artistic effect. He may also want to consciously distinguish himself from more earnest tributes to the past. Either way, this contradiction favorably sways my opinion on the album. As much as I enjoy The Cairo Gang's obsessive recreation of the past, Tiny Rebels would be an empty shell without the contrast. Piercing the patchouli purity gives the album the spark of rebellion it needs.

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