Saturday, March 16, 2013

Deniz Tek, Donovan's Brain

Deniz Tek made his mark in rock 'n' roll history by founding Radio Birdman in 1974, while attending medical school in Australia, and helping launch punk-rock -- a label he disavows -- in the Antipodes. Birdman drew on the high-energy heritage of Tek's native Michigan (MC5, Stooges, Sonic's Rendezvous Band -- Stooge Ron Asheton co-wrote a song on their debut album, and Tek guested with SRB on visits home), the dark mystery of Blue Oyster Cult and the Doors, and the party spirit of soul and surf music. They built a fanatical following in Oz without music biz support, based around a residency at an inner city tavern they dubbed the Oxford Funhouse, released one album that was released internationally and another that only appeared in Australia after they'd disintegrated while touring Europe in '78.

For the past 35 years, Tek's alternated musical activities with a medical career that included service as a U.S. Navy flight surgeon and pilot, and an emergency surgeon in Montana. For my money, his best music appears on two albums that appeared in the late '90s and are now out of catalog. On 1996's Le Bonne Route and 1998's Equinox, recorded with producer/former Hendrix/Neil Young amp tech Dave Weyer, Tek blended hard rock with studio experiment in a manner that recalled the Hendrix of Electric Ladyland.

His fan base's rejection of Equinox -- whether been based on hostility to innovation or indifference to the featured contributions of Les Claypoolish bassist Todd Eagle -- caused Tek to abandon experimentalism. Since reacquiring the rights to these albums, he's toyed with the idea of re-releasing them in new versions, using alternate mixes, outtakes, and demo recordings. There's precedent for this in Birdman's Radios Appear, which was revamped for international release, utilizing remixed and re-recorded versions of some of the songs. Myself, I'd like to see the new material released in addition to, rather than instead of, the original albums; we'll see what eventuates.

In 2002, Tek founded Career Records in partnership with a fellow Montana resident, Bay Area expat/DJ Ron Sanchez, and also began to collaborate musically with Sanchez as a member of the psychedelic collective Donovan's Brain. In the last decade, he's played on the last three Brain albums, as well as touring and recording with a reformed Birdman (in what sounds like the last chapter in that band's saga, due to irreconcilable differences between other band members), collaborating with the Haltom City born/West Coast-based skating/tattooing/punk rocking Godoy twins (in the Golden Breed and Last of the Bad Men), and continuing to carry the Detroit flag, joining forces on different occasions with the surviving MC5 members, Rationals/Sonic's Rendezvous Band blue-eyed soul brother supreme Scott Morgan, and even the Stooges (the latter at a tribute concert to Ron Asheton which is soon to be DVD available).

On Income Tax Day, Career releases a new Tek solo album, Detroit, as well as the seventh Donovan's Brain opus, Turned Up Later, which features Tek alongside Brain principals Sanchez and Bobby Sutliff.

Detroit, inspired by the Motor City's sad decline, shows a previously unseen side of Tek -- one seemingly preoccupied by a vision of a world devoid of hope (although he's always been a wordsmith of somber mien). A quick glance at the songs' titles gives you a clue, which is borne out by their lyrics. "Empty factories / Taken over by the trees / A broken window's cool breeze / Death has the city on its knees," Tek sings in "Pine Box," over music that's Stones-like in the same way as Equinox's "Shellback." On "Fate, Not Amenable To Change," he paints a somber picture: "Tears and grief we try to mend / Knowing we're going that way again."

"Twilight of the Modern Age" provides momentary relief in the form of a balls-out rocker reminiscent of the title track from Outside (the benchmark by which all other Tek albums are judged), before "Can of Soup" lands in your lap with its depiction of life on society's margins. In "Growing Dim," the narrator imagines his own demise ("The light inside of me is fading...Keep me warm a little longer"), while in "Falling," he reaches across the Great Divide to a departed friend ("It's looking dark on the other side / Before you take off on your last ride / Just talk to me one more time"). Even the upbeat closer "I'm All Right" includes the line "Don't look at the cough 'cause you're going to find the cancer" and the caveat "...for now" appended to the title.

Tek isn't always so deep and dark. "Let Him Pay For That" recalls the Aftermath Stones in its unflattering portrait of an old flame that has a "new old man." "Perfect World" roars out of the gate, its Who-like dynamic buildup ringing with promise, ex-Atomic Rooster/Spinal Tap thumper Ric Parnell fairly exploding all over the traps. But the big lyrical payoff to "In a perfect world" turns out to be "'d be my girl" -- fairly anticlimactic in light of all that's come before.

The musical settings here create a unity of mood that harks back to Radio Birdman's underrated swan song Living Eyes and the aforementioned Outside, with a difference. Sonically speaking, Detroit has an intimate feel that's new to the Tek canon, and its creator revels in the pure sounds of guitars, both electric and acoustic, in a way he hasn't since his debut solo outing Take It To the Vertical. There are solid riffs, richly rumbling chords, and double-stop leads that reverberate with the heritage of Berry-to-Richards-to-High Time MC5. Backing is solid and supportive, with Daddy Long Legs' blues harp being a particularly fine addition. Sure, Tek's a limited singer, and more like a modern bluesman than a tunesmith -- in that regard, he's not unlike Iggy. But until he retools Le Bonne Route and Equinox, Detroit can serve as a fine port of entry to his work for the uninitiated, and old fans will find much to like here, as well.

In this age where no genre ever dies, the longevity of psychedelia as a musical style is only slightly less surprising than the durability of punk and metal; witness the recent emergence of Tame Impala. Psych tends to come in one of two flavors: the kind that's produced by people who are "experienced," emphasizing chaos and dementia (think The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow, or In A Priest Driven Ambulance), or the kind that's designed to sound good to people who are "experienced," and is often elegantly crafted (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dark Side of the Moon, or The Soft Bulletin). On early releases like Carelessly Restored Art and Tiny Crustacean Light Show, Donovan's Brain started out on the Piper/Ambulance side of the equation, but with the advent of Career, they've both increased their output and gravitated toward the Dark Side/Soft Bulletin zone.

This trend continues with Turned Up Later, recorded during the same 2010-2012 time period as Detroit with many of the same musicians. Many of the tracks unfold with stately majestic leisure, and Sanchez's keyboards and mellotron are key to the sound of this record -- something different for the usually guitar-oriented Brain. Sanchez also has the perfect voice for this kind of material; he sounds like he's coming out of a lysergic haze, in the manner of Syd Barrett or Wayne Coyne, and Donovan's Brain sounds most like itself when he's behind the mic. (For a good example of this, get lost in "As the Crows Fly"'s languid spacey dreamscape.) There was some turbulence during the sessions, when Sanchez's main foil, guitarist-singer Sutliff, was severely injured in a car crash and spent six weeks in a coma. (Thankfully, he's since recovered and even returned to the stage.) Vocalist-mellotronist Tony Miller stepped in to fill the gap, bringing some Forever Changes-style orchestral pop touches to the proceedings.

Sutliff contributes several of the record's highlights, starting with the opening "Take Me With You When You Go," which  combines a garage rock edge (think Electric Prunes) with vocal harmonies and guitar obbligatos that recall Blue Oyster Cult during their money-making period. "My Own Skin" is a commentary on the difficulties in communicating human experience ("I can't tell you where I've been / But I'm not at home in my own skin") that had me mentally picturing Mad Men's Don Draper telling Roger Sterling, "Oh, come on, Roger -- lots of people know that who have never taken LSD!" "Restless Nights, Many Dreams," with its electric 12-string jangle, sounds (of all things) like Brendan Benson channeling the Byrds via Tom Petty -- a stunning surprise. "Morning Side Dream" almost veers into prog territory.

In many ways, the hero of the piece is drummer Ric Parnell, the Atomic Rooster veteran who portrayed the spontaneously combusting Mick Shrimpton in This Is Spinal Tap. Parnell also drummed on TAMI Show choreographer Toni Basil's '80s dance hit "Mickey," turned down an offer to replace Aynsley Dunbar in Journey, and logged time with Wayne Kramer and the Deviants in the '90s. Here, he plays almost orchestrally, lending the slow pieces the requisite grandeur, and providing crisp, snappy punctuation on the uptempo numbers. All of the participants in Turned Up Later are clearly saturated with knowledge and love for this style of music, and it emanates from the sounds they make together.


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