A brief hum of feedback echo then a scuzzy crash of drums, a squall of guitar; “First Wave Intact” is crunching the gravel of my neural driveway with a heavy, insistent tread.
the open way’s too dangerous
listen close, they’re watching us
Welcome to the opening song on “Now Here is Nowhere”, the 2004 album by Secret Machines. The trio formed in Dallas at the opening of the millennium, their sound displaying a number of influences pleasing to these ears: Neu!, nineties Flaming Lips, smears of psychedelia and a pervasive mournfulness.
There is a fine attention to sonic detail that at first seems slightly at odds with some of the distortion and waves of sound. But nothing is haphazard; these lads love the aural world and invite you to paddle your way into their ocean of beautiful noise. I would have appreciated a little more detail on the synth and keyboard parts: they add texture, colour and variety to the classic trio format.
A sense of post-modern, post-insurgency, post-rock paranoia permeates this arresting debut. At times it is as wintery as the artic band-room on the cover. Leaves fall, love fails, lives fade.
right before my eyes
erased, our lives erased
Yet somehow the overall feeling is not one of desperation or despair. Is it the stomping Zepplin drum sound? The VROOM guitars that inject energy at chest-height? The lyrics that gesture without pointing?
The second record opens with “The Road Leads Where It’s Led”, a powerful guitar-laden song with a slightly disturbing lyric that evokes “I Don’t Like Mondays” in its refrain…
they’re blowing all the other kids away
Here is a confident young band who give themselves space to expand, explore and drill into the possibilities of their songs. And some of the songs are really strong. “The Road Leads Where It’s Led” evokes – in a positive way – “Be Here Now” period Oasis (with less swaggering bombast) while the drifting eddies of “Pharaoh’s Daughter” had me picturing John Paul Jones adding mellotron colours to “The Rain Song”.
Sequencing a 50 minute album for vinyl presents something of a challenge. Secret Machines opt for a bookends approach: the opening and closing songs are both around nine minutes and comprise sides A and D respectively. It works partly because it focuses listener attention, one of the things I’m enjoying about vinyl compared with set-and-forget CDs. [And just don’t start me on in-house streaming].
Disclaimer: Listening to music in the mp3 format is like drinking champagne through a thin plastic straw. Yet as folk may not know this music, I have added a song. If you can use headphones, it may sound a little less crap. This surliness in no way diminishes my gratitude to GlitcHead for posting the clip on youtube.
The above cover – a ‘negative’ of the album – caught my eye a few months after acquiring “Now Here Is Nowhere”. It also posed the question, when is an EP not an EP? “The Road Leads Where It’s Led” comprises a single of sorts (the CD title track and one of the strongest on the original album), a sub-standard B-side and four cover versions. It clocks in at over 37 minutes. Perhaps it is simply a very generous single.
The cover versions are the interesting part. Given my fully paid-up membership of the Krautrock Klub, a cover of Harmonia’s “(De Luxe) Immer Wieder” was quite a lure. And it does not disappoint, revealing both the melodic core and Teutonic chug of the original with some added guitar crunch to boot.
Charging Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” with dirty electricity sort of works; it is certainly interesting to hear the metaphysical lyric painted oil-slick grey, but you gotta wonder whether you would want to be “born again in another world” if this was the alternate world. Slowing “Money” to a funereal pace is, frankly, a bit boring. But their re-interpretation Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country” is startling. It’s slow unfolding is like sitting in an ancient thrumming power station dreaming of green hills and reminds you that the real value of covering songs is how a good version re-invigorates the original. New light through old windows, for sure.
So, let’s say you liked the first Secret Machines album. Where would you go? What would you reach for next? What might a non-linear listening map radiating out from Now Here Is Nowhere look like?
Here is where I went.
Mew “No More Stories Are Told Today I’m Sorry They Washed Away” ^
The Flaming Lips “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart”
[Warner Brothers, 1993]
Oasis “Be Here Now”
Led Zepplin “Houses of the Holy”
Secret Machines “Now Here Is Nowhere”
Secret Machines “The Road Leads Where It’s Led”
^ The actual title is twice this long, but I’m not prepared to countenance such wankery. Yes, it is another grumpy moment.
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