Saturday, September 17, 2011
Quicksilver Messenger Service - Happy Trails
While I write reviews for this blog mainly to share music I think is great in some way (or at least had potential to be great), sometimes it can be just as illuminating to focus on examples of music that represent the opposite of great. I know I can come across as a snob here, but please believe me when I say that most of this music isn't really "bad" at all. Instead, it's more a feeling of disappointment that this kind of music is part of the problem, not the solution--it's a deliberately missed opportunity in the continuing battle to in some way evolve music into something it wasn't already before. So, I present to you the first installment of what's intended to be a recurring series entitled "Know Your Enemy." This album's the perfect opposite of the impressive breadth and depth of ideas in last review's album--an album that takes about 4 minutes of clichés and stretches them thinly over an entire 50 minute album.
The popular and critical party line seems to be that this album is a classic of US West Coast psychedelic rock--a live album of unbridled trippiness and unheard-of musicianship and a landmark in its field. Instead, all I hear is a worst-case-scenario and a band using its audience's indulgence as an excuse for some really lazy decisions. There's a good chance you're familiar with "Who Do You Love," written by blues legend Bo Diddley and made even more famous by the likes of George Thorogood, Ronnie Hawkins and The Band, and Townes Van Zandt. Well you're in luck--here you'll get to hear the song's verse/chorus vocal sections twice and you'll get to hear the song's riff for a total of over 25 minutes. The first side of this album is literally a jam on "Who Do You Love" split into such "cleverly"-titled sections as "When You Love" and "Which Do You Love." In reality it's an excuse for an extended solo from (mostly) guitarist John Cipollina which ranges from bluesy licks to...almost nothing else. "Where You Love" gets a little quieter and I guess you could say "spacey," but the underlying 5-second chord progression is the same. In addition to serving mainly as a vehicle for Cipollina's technically-proficient but unimaginative guitar work (he'll play the kind of repeating arpeggios or repeating string bend licks so incessantly it's easy to understand why punk rock by-and-large eschewed and abhorred the guitar solo), the song's head features unimaginably dull vocals; the arrangement pretty much stinks of white imposter blues with none of Diddley's authenticity, Thorogood's guitar muscle, Hawkins' weirdness or Van Zandt's country flair.
The cherry on top of the A-side's shit sundae is Side B's 7-minute opener, "Mona," another guitar solo vehicle centered around a blues riff that's almost identical to "Who Do You Love." I'm not saying guitar solos are bad or that extended jamming is always a sin, but for the sake of everything good about music, institute some variety in the songs you're jamming over, or transform the blues standard into something unrecognizable before you recapitulate the head, or play something other than stock lead guitar that everyone's already heard (even in 1969)--do anything to distinguish this music, just a little bit.
It confuses me greatly that this music is labeled "psychedelic," when to me it sounds mostly like generic blues jams and is a clear antecedent to jam band music. At least the good jam bands of the 90's had the sense to write some interesting compositions, come close to mastering their craft, or acquaint themselves with the more sophisticated improvisational tradition of jazz. Nothing here resembles the mind-expanding epiphany associated with psychedelic drugs other than the mind's ability to become overly impressed with simplistic repetition and lose track of time during 20-minute jam. Just because you're high on psychedelics when you're listening to a band does not make their music psychedelic. The album rounds out with a shorter song, a more interesting Ennio Morricone-flavored Spanish instrumental called "Calvary" and an actually fun, cheesy country cover in "Happy Trails," but it's far too late--we've already been insulted by 40 minutes of repetition, aimless laziness and self-satisfied cliché regurgitation. It's embarrassing to me that this band couldn't rise above their audience's rudimentary demands and give them something with mind-expanding jams and a collection of compositions and inventiveness that everyone could be proud of, even when they weren't stoned out of their gourds. You, Quicksilver Messenger Service, are the enemy, and I'll do everything in my power to stop you.
If you want to catch a much more satisfying glimpse of hippie culture, check out Dino Valente's eponymous 1968 solo album--he was the Quicksilver Messenger Service vocalist but was incarcerated at the time of Happy Trails' recording. His pop instincts probably could have elevated this coaster in the songwriting department and at least given us something to enjoy sober on repeated listens. Music can be better!