Music Reviews: West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, plus Hardwicke Circus, the Baseball Project, Monster Mike Welch, Elliott Murphy, and a Doc Watson tribute
A 1968 radio spot for the fourth LP by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (WCPAEB) refers to its “soon-to-be-famous” songs and proclaims, “This could be the album of the year!”
Alas, it was not to be. Neither that record nor any of its three predecessors made it onto Billboard’s Top 200 list. Two subsequent albums and several singles also failed to dent the charts, and about the time the ’60s ended, so did this band.
Listening to a new four-CD anthology from WCPAEB, you can understand why: it’s difficult to market an outfit that lacks a reasonably consistent sound and style, and this group’s music was all over the place. It’s appropriate that its name included the word “experimental,” because, man, did it experiment. One minute its members would offer a catchy, highly accessible folk-rocker by P.F. Sloan; the next they would dip into Frank Zappa’s song bag to deliver “Help, I’m a Rock,” a decidedly uncommercial novelty from the Mothers’ debut LP, Freak Out! In addition, they recorded a bubblegum ditty that they called “Our Drummer Always Plays in the Nude,” a sitar-spiced psychedelic number dubbed “Smell of Incense,” and an avant-garde electronica excursion titled “Suppose They Gave a War and No One Comes.” Speaking of war, they also offered a track called “Anniversary of World War III” that consists in its entirety of nearly two minutes of total silence.
Not everything the WCPAEB did was noteworthy; in fact, this is exactly the sort of band that makes you appreciate how much easier it is to skip subpar selections when playing digital media than you could when playing vinyl. The band certainly had its moments, though, and you’ll find virtually all of them on A Door Inside Your Mind: The Complete Reprise Recordings 1966–68. The anthology, which comes with a 40-page booklet, collects remastered stereo and mono versions of the three studio LPs the group made for the label,plus 18 bonus tracks. (Not included are a debut LP and two subsequent records, all issued by small companies.)
The best numbers are mostly on the first disc, which features a 1967 album called Part One. Though it would be an understatement to call this LP uneven, it contains several addictively hooked folk-rock standouts: the midtempo “Transparent Day” and the exuberant “’Scuse Me, Miss Rose,” both of which allude to psychedelics; and “Here’s Where You Belong,” a Sloan composition that the Grass Roots also recorded.
The box’s second and third CDs, which feature 1967’s Vol. 2, and 1968’s Volume 3: A Child’s Guide to Good and Evil, are at least as musically schizophrenic and not quite as good, but they also have their strengths, including the latter album’s dreamy title cut and several pop tunes that would fit well alongside tracks by pop groups like the Critters, the Association, and the Cyrkle, such as “Eighteen Is Over the Hill.” A dispensable fourth disc offers alternate mixes of all the songs on Volume 3 plus several other alternate versions and single edits, as well as the above-mentioned radio spot.
A Door Inside Your Mind provides a comprehensive look at an idiosyncratic band that endured its share of stumbles but was rarely dull and occasionally first-rate.
Hardwicke Circus, Fly the Flag. Stiff Records cofounder and former Island Records president David Robinson came out of semi-retirement to manage and produce this young band, and one listen to the original material on this sophomore studio album will explain why. The quintet, which hails from Carlisle in the U.K., is bursting with ambition and has the talent to match. Its rhythmic, consistently thrilling, frequently anthemic music, which features superlative vocal work and liberal use of brass instruments, recalls Motown and Bruce Springsteen as well as the Clash and English Beat. The Borderland, the group’s 2022 debut LP, and At Her Majesty’s Pleasure, a blistering live set recorded at prisons around the U.K., marked Hardwicke Circus as one of the most auspicious rock bands to emerge in recent years. Fly the Flag does nothing to change that assessment.
The Baseball Project, Grand Salami Time!. This fourth studio album from the Baseball Project, its first release in nine years, lives up to the large reputations of its luminous participants. The band features the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills along with two other players, Scott McCaughey and Linda Pitmon. Mitch Easter (R.E.M., Let’s Active, the dB’s) produced the set and plays guitar on the album, which also features Los Lobos’s Steve Berlin. The frequently lighthearted lyrics, like the group’s name, virtually all reflect a passion for America’s so-called national pastime and its players. Fans of the sport will have fun with the verse, but you don’t have to be a baseball lover to fall for the garage-rock-influenced power pop on this record, which is brimming over with catchy melodies, lovable jingle-jangle guitar, and major-league vocal work.
Monster Mike Welch, Nothing but Time. Boston-based blues guitarist Monster Mike Welch—whose three-decade career has included solo albums as well as work with artists like Johnny Winter, Duke Robillard, and Ronnie Earl—packs a powerful punch on this label debut, which features 10 originals, plus potent covers of George Harrison’s “I Me Mine,” Buddy Guy’s “Ten Years Ago,” and Robert Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” and “Kind Hearted Woman Blues.” Blues guitarist Kid Andersen, who produced, plays bass, organ, and other keyboards on the album, which emphasizes a fiery brass section. Welch’s scorching guitar work garners the spotlight throughout.
Elliott Murphy, Wonder-Full. This EP delivers three outtakes from last year’s excellent Wonder, Elliott Murphy’s first studio album of new self-penned rock songs since 2017’s Prodigal Son. They include “Where Are We Going Now,” which features a lap steel solo by Murphy’s son and producer Gaspard; “Metaphysical Moments,” a rocker that references figures ranging from Ronald Reagan and Elvis Presley to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen; and a fine cover of Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
Various artists, I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100. The word “legendary” is overused, but probably not when applied to singer and fingerpicking and flatpicking guitarist Doc Watson, whose folk, country, bluegrass, and blues music influenced generations of artists. Watson, who died in 2012, garners a fine and well-deserved tribute on the 100th anniversary of his birth with this 15-song collection of mostly traditional songs that have come to be associated with him. Highlights include “Shady Grove,” performed by dobro and lap steel guitar player Jerry Douglas; Tom Paxton’s classic “The Last Thing on My Mind,” sung by Dolly Parton; the title cut, delivered by Rosanne Cash and her husband, producer and songwriter John Leventhal; and “Make Me a Pallet,” in a version by the great Steve Earle.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.