It’s New to Elliot: as suggested by Brooks Strause

I have returned. We had our baby, Maggie, and she’s just wonderful. Better than any record I’ve ever heard.

I need to thank Michael Watson, Ryan Werner, Sarah Hohnstrater and Benjy Klostermann. They all did a fantastic job for me while I took my break from this. I’m sure they realized that it is a slightly time-consuming thing to do, so I’m endlessly thankful that they took the time to do it.

And now, we get back to me getting the records from other people and then reviewing them. This week, I’m honored to review records picked by Brooks Strause.

Brooks Strause is, in my opinion, one of the most talented songwriters to ever come out of Iowa, and maybe the entire world. I have spent many an evening watching Brooks perform, either solo or with his band the Gory Details, and found myself completely bowled over by his devastating voice and his icy persona. To only know Brooks as he is on stage, I’d be too terrified to talk to him. But luckily we share mutual friends, and our paths have crossed often enough that I’ve gotten to know him as a person. Brooks is a quiet, kind man who thinks deeply about everything in the world, and a conversation with him always ends with new insight.

Brooks contacted me about suggesting records for this column, while telling me that he loves reading it because he disagrees with almost all of my opinions. He particularly disagrees with me when I talk about anything in the psychedelic genre, so the five records he gave to me this week all fall somewhere in there. Let’s see if I can properly open up my mind, maaaan.

The Pretty Things — S.F. Sorrow

As I’ve said before, my definition of what constitutes psychedelic rock is something like, “It kinda sounds like…it’s on drugs…maybe?” I don’t know much about it. I had heard of The Pretty Things, but didn’t know they were considered psychedelic. I also saw in advance that this was a concept record, and ohhh boy, that could go bad for me. I’m not sure exactly what concept or story is being told on S.F. Sorrow, but I know that The Pretty Things backed it up with a dizzyingly creative bouquet of whacked-out rock music that makes The White Album sound a bit tame. Coming out the same year as that record, S.F. Sorrow achieves a nice balance between letting songs go to shambles and fall apart, yet telling a cohesive story through a song that uses lots of tones and shapes to get its point across. The vocals are beautiful, but also get aggressive and tortured. The guitar playing could almost be described as noodly, but it’s always rooted in the song’s core melody. Very rarely are the songs boring. Many of them chug along and go harder than I would expect, and even the more jammy parts don’t overstay their welcome. And then the record ends with “Loneliest Person,” a strangely sad song with just acoustic guitar and voice, completely going against the entire album’s aesthetic up to that point. Maybe someday I’ll dig in and figure out what that “concept” was about. I hope it’s not stupid.

My Opinion: 8/10

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown — self-titled

If you’re not familiar with Arthur Brown (and I barely am either, if that makes you feel better), he was one of the originators of what became shock rock. He presented a crazy, possibly Satanic persona where he painted his face like King Diamond and performed while wearing a crown of actual burning flames. Uh YEAH, the guy wasn’t messing around. And this was 1968, when doing stuff like that was almost unheard of. The band scored an incredibly surprising hit with “Fire,” surprising because the song starts with Brown shouting, “I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE.” But from there the song turns into a toe-tapping garage rock anthem propelled by a catchy Farfisa organ riff, as Brown croons and yelps like a deranged David Bowie. The rest of the record doesn’t maintain a similar awesomeness, but it never stops fascinating. As the band arrangements quiet down and drift into a softer prog-rock area, Arthur Brown still commands the proceedings with his unsettling voice and lyrics that are just vague enough that he could credibly claim to not be advocating Satanism. And for good measure, they add in a cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell On You,” I assume as a tribute to one of the very few artists who proceeded Arthur Brown and gave him a platform for freaking out squares.

My Opinion: 7/10

Dr. John — Gris-Gris

Brooks knows that I adore Tom Waits beyond compare, so it feels like he had me listen to Dr. John so I could educate myself as to where Mr. Waits got his inspiration. The whispery, raspy, hepcat vocal stylings that Waits has used most of his career were clearly being used by Dr. John a few years earlier. Another record that seems so far ahead of its time, this stuff is steeped in New Orleans bluesy weirdness, often using a language that might be Cajun, but I should warn you that I have no idea of what I’m talking about. Dr. John’s blues gives way to psychedelic craziness, employing jam sections that get a bit too loose for my taste. Other songs establish a really neat vibe, but they don’t do a whole lot else once they start. The best parts come from the old timey Gypsy melodies that get warped just enough to make you feel disoriented and sick. That’s definitely a hallmark of Brooks Strause’s full band arrangements, so it was cool for me to hear a record that must have influenced him and showed him that it’s okay to be a raspy strange person.

My Opinion: 6/10

Gal Costa — Gal

I’m not sure if Brazil in 1969 was undergoing a huge cultural shift where the youth got wild and started doing drugs and stuff, but if this Gal Costa record is to be considered, there must have been a segment of the culture who picked up on what was going on in America and incorporated it into “Musica popular brasileira.” This is like a mix of bossa nova and samba, which are two styles I know nothing about. So the record kind of sounds like that stuff, but with flourishes of American psychedelic rock, going into wild guitar solos and the occasional freak-out jam. Because I’m so unfamiliar with the basis of this type of music, there was very little for me to latch onto melodically. The record would be almost nothing without the bass playing that never stops traveling all over the neck and finding bouncy rhythms to keep things cool. Gal Costa is the obvious star of the record, and her voice is pretty amazing to behold. She can croon like a torch singer, she can intone clearly like a pop singer, and she’s not afraid to shriek and yell like an American. I would like this record a lot less if it didn’t make me feel so sexy. Want to impress your friends at a party and get everyone in the mood for romance? Put this on. (I of course am only implying that you and your friends will get freaky with each other once you all go back to the privacy of your own homes. Keep that swinger nonsense outta here.)

My Opinion: 5/10

Comus — First Utterance

Taking their name from the Greek god of festivity and revelry, Comus formed at an art school in Kent, England and played folk music that took cues from the ancient days of their native country. Flute is all over the record, and the vocal styles and lyrics combined with the instrumentation echo the soundtrack of a Pagan ritual in the 1600’s. As you might imagine, this was not what people wanted in 1971. But First Utterance has become a word-of-mouth cult classic, and I think that might be due to its singularity and boldness. The only percussion on the record comes from bongos and hand drums, so the songwriting and playing has to be its own driving force, and Comus does this very well. At times the lead singer sounds like an evil gnome, and I’m very grateful that he doesn’t do this over the whole record because I would have not been pleased by that. Some have called this “acoustic metal,” and the band Opeth was heavily influenced by Comus. This comparison is fitting in the record’s wildest, heaviest crescendos, where group vocals and furious strumming create an unsettling cacophony. In this sense, I think I detect an influence on Brooks Strause’s old band, the Old Scratch Revival Singers, who made hauntingly brutal folk music with upwards of nine people on stage howling and clanging together. I always appreciate being introduced to a record that’s wholly unique and made its mark on history, and Brooks certainly gave me that with this one.

My Opinion: 7/10

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