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

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Recording review - Treasure Fleet, The Sun Machine (2015)

Better the first time I heard it


Treasure Fleet's The Sun Machine sees them trying on their grandparent's paisley and, like many retro acts, earnestly pretending that it’s a natural fit. That said, there’s nothing wrong with their idealized immersion in the past. Heck, on any given weekend, the Society for Creative Anachronism exults in chivalry and sword fights without worrying themselves about the Plague, so this is just some more harmless fun. Like the knights of the SCA and their armor, Isaac Thotz and his band have studied the old masters of forging psychedelic grooves. The Sun Machine has plenty of moments that are a treat to settle into, but the fundamental problem is that many of those parts are overwhelmingly derivative or, to be charitable, they are unsubtle homages. Assembling chain mail requires skill and the band demonstrates their own musical talent, but it’s more artisinal than artful. They could have redeemed this with a bit of irony or acknowledgment of their sources. Better yet, they could have added more of their own creative character. Instead, the record devolves into a pastiche of classic rock and psychedelia.

The core idea is quite interesting. The Sun Machine has a grander scope than just an album, as it serves as the score to a short film also written by Thotz. Fittingly, this evokes Pink Floyd’s soundtrack work like More, rather than a concept album. But without context of the movie, it’s hard to draw any kind of coherent story from these songs. The lyrics ramble from stoned bicycling to seeking mental balance in a free form association. Still, that's hardly a detriment for this kind of music where clarity is rarely expected.

The first track, “The View  From Mt Olympus”, blends bits of “Roundabout” by Yes with The Who’s Tommy (especially “Sparks”) along with some Moody Blues. It’s packed with a host of retro touchstones, with the trippy vibe accentuated by mutated guitar distortion, draped in washes of echo and wah, all compressed into a little more than three minutes. What’s not to love? Treasure Fleet still had me, even as they seemed to be trying to win a bar bet on how many allusions they could cram in.

Unfortunately, they lost me two songs later with “Max Consumption”. The cool motorik beat and obsessive drive remind me of Brian Eno’s “Third Uncle”. It's a phenomenally catchy song, but as much as I enjoy the music, the lack of original lyrical content kills it. Aside from the opening verses, the bulk of the song is a warped medley of unrelated tunes, from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and Queens of the Stone Age’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer" to Harry Nilsson’s “Lime in the Coconut”, all shoehorned into the same relatively tuneless chant. The Kinks, Simon and Garfunkel, the Dead Boys, and a line from “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground join the party as well. It's surprising that they left out “Mother’s Little Helper” and “White Rabbit” to round out the loose theme of food and drugs. There's a long history of appropriating pieces of other songs, from jazz musicians quoting pop melodies during their solos to hip hop sampling. A reference can become a building block to extend the piece, a recognition of a similar theme, or a way to comment on the material. It can even be a little in-joke for those paying attention. In this case, though, the borrowed lyrics don’t mesh or build on the original words and it feels like Treasure Fleet is either lazy or have little regard for their audience. They even lifted the title from The Kinks' "Maximum Consumption". It's frustrating because, without the distraction of the purloined lines, they could have expanded their own words into a great piece. Instead, this cheap imitation sabotages a good song and makes it impossible to listen to the rest of the album’s musical allusions without a jaded ear.

That hurts because there’s plenty of good material on The Sun Machine and Treasure Fleet even came up with some of it on their own. Honestly, if I weren't already so familiar with their sources, I could have easily added another star to my score. Other listeners might not be so picky. But I’d still recommend bands like The Men, The Electric Mess, or even Acid Baby Jesus, if you want to hear a good blend of retro and neo psych jams.

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