It was a year of flux, was 1969. The Vietnam War raged on with lessening support back at home. Easy Rider left the conservative middle classes feeling very uncomfortable, though not as uncomfortable as the coverage of Woodstock had made them feel. "Peace? Love? No war? What are those crazy kids thinking of?" they cried. "Put 'em into uniform and ship 'em off to the Far East! Peace…please!"
Woodstock is a bittersweet event to me. I can remember the coverage of it here in the UK when I was a kid (yes, dear reader, I am that old), and the memory and spirit of that momentous event feels so hollow from this side of that golden moment. What if it had changed the world, just as the hippies thought it would? I have Matthew's Southern Comfort's version of Joni Mitchell's eponymous song of the festival, and I find it profoundly sad in its child-like, yearning optimism.
"Watch out. Lawton's on an acid flashback to 1971," I can hear you mutter to yourself. But, fear not, gentle patrons of The Sponge, there is rhyme and reason for this reverie and I'm about to impart it to you. So tighten your headbands, brush down your kaftans and get ready to get down with your bad selves.
I'm currently wallowing in the mesmerisingly good album from the Michigan-based outfit Wanderjahr. Is To Disappear is the album in question and I'll tell you simply this: it's excellent.
You have to buy this album.
With vibes harking back to late 60s/early seventies psychedelia, mixed with mid-1970s Steve Hillage overtones, Wanderjahr have produced a seriously disarming, attention grabbing collection of songs. Played with aplomb and confidence, produced with some real thought and care, Is To Disappear harkens back to that 1969 summer which promised to be the dawn of the New Age. Instead, it was ground under the collective heel of the establishment before it had produced its first real flower of power.
The album's title track opens the proceedings with ambient guitar/synth vibes reminiscent of the aforementioned Mr. Hillage. Vocals from the most strung-out moments of Crosby, Stills, and Nash flow into the mix along with sensitive percussion and acoustic guitar. I find it's over far too soon as I could have tolerated at least double the running time.
Old Hat appears to be an attack on either the establishment, organised religion, or a subtle blend of the two. "But now I see right through the smokescreen/And I can honestly say I'm not fooled". I'm reminded of The Small Faces and/or The Kinks in the underlying cynicism. We fade down to a lone vocal and some keening acoustic guitar.
Mother Nature's Gun begins sombrely as the lyric commenting on the futility and tedium of our daily lives. The vocal is delicate and floats through the mix like the babble of some barroom philosopher. Some heavy early-70s guitar overtones here. If you're at all familiar with either the Welsh psychedelic band Man (one of my personal favourites) or the American band Quicksilver Messenger Service, you'll be more than at home with this track, which builds to a nice slab of guitar at the end without compromising the baleful core of the song. The outro is almost pure Man. Very, very good.
Emperor Peacock finds the Wanderjahr lads in full nostalgia/idealism mode, telling the tale of the Emperor who rules over a land where "he has the world at his feet, no wars to fight and plenty to eat and all the trains run on time…" Can you see why my Woodstock references were more than just the ramblings of someone who has been locked away in an attic for twenty years? (Just for the record, I haven't been locked in an attic for twenty years….I got out after eighteen with good behaviour). The song has a twist at the end, however, since for all his Utopian surroundings, at the night, the Emperor "quietly despairs".
I Give Them A Name is a strange one. With the lyric "I can't stop killin' in the moonlight", I'm led to believe that this is a modern take on the werewolf theme. Sadly, this almost rockabilly song lasts a scant two minutes before ending with the cry of "Mama!" Strange and spooky in its normality.
The Meeting Place is back in the vein of the title track and, simultaneously, in the Steve Hillage groove. A great chord structure, which in turn builds and diminishes under the waves of feedback-driven lead guitar and keyboards. At some point, I must listen to this track with a joss stick burning. The phrase "far out" applies here, folks…reminds me of a party I once went to in Reading...but that's another story. I'll bet this track is a showstopper live. Bravo, Wanderjahr. This song is a vastly underplayed tour de force.
Happy With Your Hat On tells the story of a man who is only happy when he's wearing the hat his dead wife gave to him the day before she perished in a house fire. As you can imagine, dear reader, this song is a bit short on laughs, but is charming all the same as the hero daydreams of his toasted spouse whilst wearing his headgear. Yes, I know it sounds strange, but this is a cracking little song; the keyboards play the parts of a flute to convey the dreamy quality of the song and marry perfectly with the multi-part vocal harmonies.
You have to buy this album.
The Lovely Apprentice, with its cello, piano and percussion intro, relates the tale of the unrequited love a magician's apprentice has for her employer. "Is she just a prop he puts away?" the lyric asks. Another short track, which makes it all the more poignant, which segues into the album's closer, Mesmerize (Fall Awake). The Wanderjahr boys launch into overdrive, quite literally, here –- distorted guitars, crashing percussion and two-part vocal. It has that lo-fi feel of early 1970s experimental rock about it, with a time signature change and trippy, hippy guitar noodling before diving back into a Creamesque thrash at the end.
You really do have to buy this album.
You see, Sponge addicts, to be able to do what Wanderjahr have done here takes not inconsiderable skill, imagination, and knowledge of a broad genre of musical styles. I'm mightily impressed with the way this album has been constructed, played, and produced. Maybe it's the idealist in me, but maybe Woodstock's innocent spirit has never really left us. Maybe there is a corner of some upstate New York that will be forever August '69 ... and maybe, just maybe, if Wanderjahr keep their wits about them, that spirit of love and peace, in this age of distrust, war and hatred, will never die out completely.
There's some hope for us all.