Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Stumptone's "Spark"

Not long ago, a friend of mine (luthier extraordinaire Mitchell Cigainero) asked if I didn't think the music I play (um, guitar-based rockaroll) isn't obsolete. This gave me cause for pause at the time, but then, a little more recently, a younger friend (muso-scribe Alex Atchley) gave me a take on it that wouldn't have occurred to me: that with the intarweb making every style and genre of music that's existed for the century-plus since the advent of sound recording instantly and perpetually available, nothing is obsolete.

Like a lot of music-obsessed folk who came of age in the '60s and '70s, I've spent an inordinate amount of time wondering how popular music could have progressed so far, so fast, and then stopped. Put it in a bigger frame and realize we're just a century out from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring premiere. It's hard to imagine a musical event having such impact today. (Sub Ornette's NYC coming-out, aka "The Battle of the Five Spot," if you like. Same principle applies.) It seems to me, in light of Mr. Atchley's observation, that we're now in a period of neo-classicism, in which all of the ancestral heritage that's been documented since Edison's cylinder is being digested, absorbed, and recombined, and the only "progress" being made is incremental.

Thus, almost 50 years after Revolver, the persistent popularity of psychedelia should come as no surprise. To these feedback-scorched ears, psych comes in two flavors: the sensory overload variety, and the heightened awareness variety. The former, beloved of people that teethed on punk and metal and anyone else who revels in excess, is best typified by the early works of Pink Floyd, the Flaming Lips, and Mercury Rev. The latter, more accessible to those with more sensitive ears and nervous systems, is exemplified by the later works of those three bands (in Floyd's case, maybe "middle period," i.e., pre-The Wall, might be more apropos) and the deceptively gentle-sounding masterworks of tormented artists like Brian Wilson and Arthur Lee. Both strains attempt to replicate a state of seeing the world through fresh eyes, with a child's sense of wonder (albeit through some crazy filters) -- which is not a bad way to engage with one's actual physical environment, as opposed to the way today's perpetually plugged-in, ever distracted children of McLuhan move through our auto-tuned nightmare.

The patron saints of psych, Floyd's Syd Barrett and the 13th Floor Elevators' Roky Erickson, were daring pioneers who skirted madness while exploring the extremities of expanded consciousness. Stumptone's Chris Plavidal -- a quiet, unassuming family man who makes his living as a photographer -- is an improbable inheritor, but with Spark, he's delivered the most satisfying psych record I've heard since Beck's Morning Phase.

Like its predecessor, 2007's incandescent Gravity Finally Released, Spark was recorded at the Echo Lab in Argyle with engineer Dave Willingham, a Plavidal collaborator for two decades, who provides shimmering studio ambience, setting the songs like scattered gems amid dreamy soundscapes. Its release (under the title Adventures in Magnetism) was rumored around this time last year, but has been delayed because Plavidal wants the record on die-cut vinyl -- Stumptone recordings always come beautifully packaged -- and such things take time. (I heartily concur: The Romance of the Artifact lives!)

The song structures are simple, with occasional melodic surprises. The magic comes from the way Stumptone's musicians will use anything -- harmonica, brass, a snippet of feedback -- to enhance a harmony, suffusing its edges in a soft, warm glow. Plavidal builds his music from the ground up, blending acoustic and electric textures, starting with his voice and guitar, which draw on folk and blues sources in the same way as Nick Drake's did. He's played a few "Stumptone" gigs solo, or with just Mike Throneberry's drums to accompany him -- which the skinsman does with more sympathy and subtlety than one might expect from a muso who's done the duty with spacey Mazinga Phaser and the garage-y Marked Men. Once-and-future Sub Osloite Frank Cervantez is an ideal guitar foil, a tone scientist who expertly fleshes out the sound without stealing the spotlight, and Plavidal returns the favor by sitting in on trumpet with Cervantez's main band, the ambient duo Wire Nest. Peter Salisbury -- who lives in Denton, played with Plavidal in Baptist Generals, and sits down when he plays -- is the utility musician, and contributes bass, keys, and backing vocals when present.

Song-wise, there are a few highlights. "Mutiny" is a mutated country blues worthy of mid-period Fleetwood Mac, which makes oblique commentary on the current political scene ("Don't you tread on me, motormouth...Keep your panic to yourself"). The album's zenith is probably the sequence of "Penny Lea" (for Plavidal's wife) and "Good Times" (hold the Easybeats/Nile Rodgers allusions, please), both of which take highly personal moments and make them universal, leading into "Adventures in Magnetism," a sonic tour de force.

Like the quality of light through a window at a certain time of day, Spark's pleasures are fleeting, but beguiling enough to make you want to sit still long enough to experience them, again and again. While the album is definitely psych of the heightened awareness variety, Stumptone has it both ways, with a cassette EP's worth of sensory overload in the form of two 15-minute tracks of exploratory mess and noise: brisk and bracing stuff. Release date for both remains to be determined. Keep an ear tuned.


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