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Chosen One: Amen Dunes

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Interview with Damon McMahon.

“If you’re listening to the ‘White Album’ or ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ by Big Star or you know, ‘Let It Be’ by The Replacements – that’s a kind of shitty example but has the ballad break on the middle of the record and there are some acoustic songs on it – those records are so diverse and that was what my brain was formatted with as a young kid. I think I always try and make diverse music because of those records.”

—Damon McMahon

Words: Mark Carry


Amen Dunes is the musical guise of Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Damon McMahon who has delivered one of 2014’s most affecting and infinitely special records in the form of ‘Love’, released on Sacred Bones Records earlier this year. A spiritual dimension permeates throughout ‘Love’s sprawling canvas of sound that captures the cosmic spirit of spiritual jazz greats such as Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders; ‘Astral Weeks’ era Van Morrison, the reverb-drenched guitar-pop odysseys of Galaxie 500 and the New York independent music scene. As ever, the latest Amen Dunes full-length forges an intimate and personal journey that lingers in the slipstream of one’s heart and mind long after the music has faded into memory’s past.

The solo project of McMahon’s Amen Dunes began with recordings made in Autumn 2006 in upstate New York. Those tapes were never intended for release but while living in Beijing for the next few years, McMahon would continue to write and record songs. Finally, 2009 saw the release of ‘DIA’ on Locust Music followed by the sublime ‘Murder Dull Mind’ (containing gorgeously sparse acoustic folk laments) on Sacred Bones Records in the summer of 2010. ‘Through Donkey Jaw’ would follow next, an album more fully-realized and a more band-oriented sound than previous works. ‘Love’ represents McMahon’s most compelling and accomplished batch of songs to date, where a cathartic energy is released with each tower of song.

In contrast to the largely improvisational first-take affairs of previous records, ‘Love’ is the product of close to a year and a half of continuous work. At the core of Amen Dunes’ sound lies a formidable trio of gifted musicians: McMahon (vocals, guitars) and his long-time collaborators Jordi Wheeler (guitar, piano) and Parker Kindred (drums). The recording sessions took place in Montreal with Dave Bryant and Efrim Menuck of God Speed You! Black Emperor and guest appearances from Colin Stetson (saxophone) and Iceage’s Elias Bender-Ronnen Felt (who duets on two tracks).

Some of the great hallmarks of ‘Love’ (and indeed the distinctive sound of Amen Dunes) is the album’s lo-fi production style, McMahon’s hypnotic voice (a powerful and healing force) and psychedelic guitar style. I like to see ‘Love’ as a vinyl LP in the classic sense, where a resolutely unique world unfolds as the needle is spun. Ten songs; ten visionary tales that encompasses an endless array of illuminating moments that in turn, shapes the world around you. Take ‘Rocket Flare’, for example (which opens part B of ‘Love’s fulfilling voyage).  This brooding opus exists in its own stratosphere; recalling the timeless spirit of ‘Zuma’ era Neil Young as Wheeler’s mesmerising guitars blends effortlessly with McMahon’s delicate vocals. ‘Sixteen’ takes you to someplace else. The tender piano ballad evokes a purity and innocence that could be taken from the cherished songbook of Daniel Johnston. Moments later, the Americana gem of ‘Lilac In Hand’ moves “like a shadow” into “the salty air”. The meditative lament exists in a separate time and place, somewhere familiar yet mysteriously unknown. One of the album’s defining moments arrives on the record’s closing song, the album’s title-track and all of its eight-and-a-half minutes of glorious redemptive qualities and healing power. Delicate percussion and soulful piano chords embrace the deeply honest song-writing prose of McMahon. A sense of pain, loss — and yet flickers of hope and solace shine forth like embers from a burning flame — exudes from the achingly beautiful harmonies that conjures up the sound of The Beach Boys, Dylan’s ‘Blood On The Tracks’ and ‘Beggar’s Banquet’-era Rolling Stones. ‘Love’ feels like a culmination.


‘Love’ is available now on Sacred Bones Records.



Interview with Damon McMahon.

I had the pleasure to see you live recently in Poland as part of the ATP show with Dean Wareham. It was amazing to witness your live performance, it was really special.

Damon McMahon: Oh thanks man. That was a special show for me, it was very cool to be there.


The reaction from the audience was lovely, where you could really sense the occasion.

DMcM: Yeah they were really amazing, they were very attentive.


I must congratulate you on the new album, ‘Love’, it’s a really amazing record.

DMcM: Thanks man. Thank you.


I was really interested to realize only recently how you took a lot of time on this album; it must have been really interesting for you to take your time with the songs this time around as opposed to doing it so quick and spontaneously?

DMcM: Yeah, it was a very different approach to things. The results were very different, you know. Instead of being impressionistic first-take kind of discovery of music, it was a real labour of love. And I worked on it for over a year which I’ve never done before. So yeah, it was a big shift.


I love too how – they’re your own songs of course – there is a lovely collaboration between you and the members in the band and you could really sense that seeing you live as well; that kind of connection between you all.

DMcM: Cool, that’s good man. I mean it’s very important to think like, the way we interact as a trio is very important to the band I think. Me and Jordi Wheeler, the guy on piano and guitar – and the guy you saw play with us is a kind of temporary drummer who was playing all the original drummer’s parts, this guy Parker [Parker Kindred] – it’s very much like a symbiotic relationship.


In terms of making the album then Damon, were they integral to the songs from the very start or is it a case you have them fully-formed in your head before you get to them?

DMcM: I have them fully written, I write all the songs – it’s all written when I bring them to the band – but they help give the songs a certain direction, I think. So Parker comes up with all the drum beats and Jordi will normally add a piano or a guitar part that’s strongly melodic and that part will really give the song a lot of character. I mean there are some songs where Jordi didn’t play on at all on the record. There are a handful of songs where it’s just me and Parker – I do all the overdubs and Parker plays the drums. Some songs like ‘Lonely Richard’, the slide guitar is Jordi and it’s a very definitive piece of the song. Or ‘Love’ for example, I wrote that on guitar but Jordi transcribed it to piano and that really changed things. And yeah, it’s just natural.


That sounds great. I’m always fascinated with any band and how the songs always mutate or change as you go along.

DMcM: Yeah, I love changing songs. I like playing them different you know, over the years. I do this like a kind of jazz operation, in a way in that I have these standards and I like to alter them over the years. I mean some of these songs have been out forever. The song called ‘Baba Yaga’ that was on ‘Through Donkey Jaw’ I wrote in 2006, so I’ve been playing it for eight years and it’s still so fresh because we can hone new shit out of it every time, you know.


Like any great album, it grows and grows but there’s a wonderful kind of spiritual element and sense of a journey on the album as a whole.

DMcM: Thanks man. Good, I’m happy that comes across. That was the objective.


I must say ‘Lilac In Hand’ is one of my favourite songs. Again, like any song-writing, I love how there are certain lyrics – it could be more like a phrase – I love how they really stick with you as well, like “move like a shadow” for example.

DMcM: That’s great man. I think words are so important. For that song, I wouldn’t say they’re the most poetic on the record – I wouldn’t say there’s the most substances – but I put a lot more thought into the lyrics of ‘Love’ as there’s tons there. ‘Lilac In Hand’ is more like a short poem or something and it’s a little abstractive. I still feel that even if it’s abstract, the lyrics should have weight, and stick. Yeah, that’s cool, I’m happy that that comes across.


I love too the range of styles you have on the album and the dynamic, you know as well. The lovely piano ballad ‘Sixteen’ and there’s the more band sounds. There’s that dynamic where it changes throughout.

DMcM: Cool, yeah it was really important for me. I’m a real LP obsessive. My whole life I’ve always studied the format of albums and the way people sequence and the way people balance albums out with productions. If you’re listening to the ‘White Album’ or ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ by Big Star or you know, ‘Let It Be’ by The Replacements – that’s a kind of shitty example but has the ballad break on the middle of the record and there are some acoustic songs on it – those records are so diverse and that was what my brain was formatted with as a young kid. I think I always try and make diverse music because of those records.


Well that really comes through because as you say even, as a vinyl too there is part A, B, C and D and you have all these different little worlds in the one overall album.

DMcM: That’s great man, I really care about that ‘cause I spend a lot of time figuring out the sequencing, the whole balance of it, you know. And I wanted this to be an album where you could listen to it on many levels. Let’s say ‘Lilac In Hand’ for example. My mom could like that song probably because it’s like a pleasant pop song but if you listen carefully, it has this kind of other mood to it. And even thematically, it sounds like nothing but even for ‘Lilac In Hand’, they’re all euphuisms for copping drugs in New York City. You wouldn’t necessarily know that but you know, all these songs have a second meaning and dimensions to them that are important to me.


I’d be interested to know would a lot of New York and living there come through the songs so, almost sub-consciously?

DMcM: Definitely, yeah because Jordi, Parker and I are all from New York. Jordi was born in the city, Parker was born in Jersey and I was born in Philadelphia but we all grew up in New York and outside of New York so we’ve been here forever. Yeah, we’re very much New Yorkers and I think that this album is at once very organic and natural but also very New York and urban. I think of it as a New York album, for sure. I always wanted to make, you know as pretty as it gets it always has to be tough, it’s like a requirement. You can’t like, you can’t use them unless it has that toughness to it, it doesn’t work so I think that’s the way the New York thing comes across.


I love too, how on the surface of some songs, there’s the brightness and those beautiful melodies but there’s that dark undercurrent, you know the contrast between dark and light as well.

DMcM: Yeah I thrive to carry that through, you know. I never want it to be just one or the other.


Do you reckon Damon you will spend as long on your follow-up album or what the nature of the next record will be? I know it’s a bit early to say.

DMcM: I like every album to be very different. So my plan for the next album is for it to be relatively quick and clear and muscular so that’s the sort of idea I have for it, so far. So, more electric guitars and more volume and tight melodies, like that’s my idea. It’s coming out a year from now actually, it’s coming out in either September or October of next year. Actually I don’t really stop working I guess [laughs] I just got home from Europe a week ago so we were just on tour and I’ve been in the studio all week recording a new EP that’s coming out in January. So, last night I had this amazing recording experience because my friend Ben Greenberg who has a project called Hubble and he also played bass in The Men for a while; he lives upstairs and he came downstairs and he played on a song with me – which is a cover of a This Mortal Coil song, a Tim Buckley cover called ‘Song to the Siren’ and we did a version of it last night and it sounds really beautiful so I’m excited about it. And that’s going to be out in January.


Wow that sounds amazing. I love the art of cover songs, I’m always intrigued by that.

DMcM: Yeah me too. I love covers and the way you put your own stamp on things.


And speaking of electric guitars, I love the sound you get on ‘Rocket Flare’.

DMcM: That’s Jordi, the lead thing is Jordi, yeah. I love that part too.


For the recording sessions themselves, it must have been really fulfilling to record with the guys in Godspeed! You Black Emperor?

DMcM: Yeah it was man. It was cool. I love collaborating with people who are talented and to be able to witness and incorporate their abilities.


In terms of records that you think were important for you, you know as a musician and artist, I wonder are there certain albums you think of that you’re obsessed with?

DMcM: I sort of have my favourite albums of all time that informs me a musical human and then there’s the music that I listen to today which is very different. I mean today, the only new music is electronic music and instrumental music from Europe. But the albums that informed me as a kid you know, ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ by Big Star, ‘Forever Changes’ by Love, ‘Happy Sad’ by Tim Buckley, the ‘White Album’, ‘Exile On Main St’, ‘American Beauty’ by the Grateful Dead and the band The Las from Liverpool. Those are the albums I’ve been listening to since I was thirteen or fourteen. They’re like the bunch of records that are like my favourite of all time. But I’ve listened to so much over the years, it’s like a million different realms. At my core, I would say those are some of my favourite records.


It’s cool too I’m sure you find yourself coming back to them again and again?

DMcM: Oh yeah, I’ve listened to those records like thousands of times.


And with the touring recently Damon, I’d be curious to know if some of the songs have changed since you started touring a few months ago?

DMcM: They do change, you know. My favourite singers like Bob Dylan, Alex Chilton, Tim Buckley, people that change their own songs frequently you know, so I definitely like to do that as well. So, you know I’ll try to alter the lyrics and alter the melody line when I play live and Jordi does that too on guitar. It keeps it interesting.

It’s very exciting for me to be in Ireland because half of my family are of Irish descent; half of them are from Galway and half of them are from Belfast. So it’s going to be very meaningful for me to be there. So far, the Irish fans have been amazing. We met some Irish people in Manchester and they came to see us again in London, they were really awesome, very warm and generous.





‘Love’ is available now on Sacred Bones.

Amen Dunes performs at The Workmans Club, Dublin (Tuesday 23rd September), Dolans, Limerick (Wednesday 24th September) and The Black Mariah @ Triskel Christchurch, Cork on Thursday 25th September. For full US and EU tour dates, please see HERE.




Written by markcarry

September 8, 2014 at 10:49 am

Younger Than Yesterday: Forever Changes

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Words: Ben Edmonds, Illustration: Craig Carry

The following piece by Ben Edmonds is taken directly from the liner notes of the album ‘Forever Changes’ by Love (1987 & 2001 Elektra Entertainment Group) ‘Forever Changes’ was originally released in 1967, on Elektra.

June 1967. Peace and love wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and nowhere was seen this more clearly than under the smog-orange skies of Los Angeles. The captains of the Hollywood dream industry mass-manufactured images for a living, and there was no cultural concept they couldn’t appropriate, neuter, and gold-plate. Consequently, serious artists who lived and worked in the shadow of that dream-making machinery tended to be wary of any cultural images that were too easily available. So while the media was dancing around San Francisco’s psychedelic maypole, the response of Los Angeles artists to the summer of 1967 was markedly different. Change the industry’s cynicism to a healthy scepticism and couple it with a willingness to seize every bit of the artistic freedom that image offered, and you get words like The Doors’ ‘Strange Days’, Captain Beefheart’s ‘Trust Us’, Tim Buckley’s ‘Goodbye and Hello’ and Frank Zappa’s The Mothers of Invention classic ‘We’re Only In It For The Money’. But none caught the strangeness of those days, or captured their combination of beauty and dread, quite like Love’s ‘Forever Changes.’

Arthur Lee could paint this picture from a unique perspective. A black man leading the hottest band in the white rock underground was only the most obvious among the multitudes of contradictions he embodied. Love had ruled the Sunset Strip rock ‘n’ roll scene for the previous two years, yet the streetwise Lee was seldom to be found on the streets himself. An outsider by birth and temperament, he was as removed from his subjects as Brian Wilson was from the beach. He’d used the spoils of his success to seclude himself in a fenced-in compound high in the hills above Hollywood, from which he gazed down upon his kingdom and wrote ‘Sitting on a hillside/Watching all the people die/I’ll feel much better on the other side.’ (‘The Red Telephone’ (Lee) 1968)
Arthur Lee: ‘By ‘Forever Changes’-when I did that album, I thought I was going to die at that particular time, so those were my last words. I was 26. I’d always had this thing about when I was going to die, man, or physically deteriorate, and I thought it would be about 26…something like that. I just had a funny feeling.’
Lee was really only 22 at the time, and his mind should have been on anything but death. His group’s punk-like streamlined take on Bacharach-David’s ‘My Little Red Book’ helped their debut album, ‘Love’ (recorded in 1965), sell over 100,000 copies and turned folk label Elektra Records into a rock ‘n’ roll player. The follow-up, 1967’s ‘Da Capo’, was similarly successful and attracted a substantial underground following in England. ‘7 And 7 Is’ was their highest Top 40 chart, placing at #33, and many consider its 2 minutes and 15 seconds of non-stop rush to be the group’s zenith. Despite Arthur’s obstinate refusal to perform too far outside Los Angeles, Love’s fortunes seemed solidly on the ascent as the group prepared for album three.

In truth, Lee’s kingdom was slipping away. Love had been the hippest thing on the Strip for the previous couple of years, but that was due in no small part to the absence of The Byrds, who were always jetting off somewhere to be the international rock stars Arthur’s crew would never quite become. This created a vacuum that Love happily filled, but the local gains made in the short-term by not touring were more than offset in the long run by stunted career growth. Worse still, without the focus of touring, which keeps the blood flowing and a band focused on something outside itself, Arthur felt his gang becoming complacent, sluggish, and, in at least a couple of cases, way too stoned. Meanwhile, The Doors-whom Arthur had strenuously recommended to Elektra president Jac Holzman-were positioning themselves for a turn on the national stage, and when ‘Light My Fire’ was released as a single in July, they’d vault ahead of Love altogether and forever.
Jac Holzman: ‘Arthur was, and perhaps still is, one of the smartest, most intelligent, and finest musicians I have ever met in my entire career of making records. As large as his talent, however, was his penchant for isolation and not doing what was necessary to bring his music to the audience. His isolation cost him a career. Which was a shame, because he was one of the few geniuses I have met-in all of rock ‘n’ rolldom.’

Despite the isolation, Arthur Lee had obviously been blessed with a hothouse imagination. Each of the first three Love albums shows advancement in thought and execution, and (not coincidentally) each involved personnel changes. the first album, a knifepoint marriage of Byrds jangle and Stones aggro, featured singer/songwriter/guitarist Lee, lead guitarist Johnny Echols, rhythm guitarist (and sublimely gifted composer/vocalist) Bryan MacLean, bassist Ken Forssi, and drummer Alban ‘Snoopy’ Pfisterer. To get the artier jazz, Latin, and classical tinges that coloured ‘Da Capo’, Arthur added sax/flutist Tjay Cantrelli and drummer Michael Stuart, moving Snoopy to harpsichord. For the album that would be called ‘Forever Changes’, the sound was pared down by the subtraction of Cantrelli and Pfisterer. Further simplifying things, the music was basically no electric. The orchestrated final product might have seemed designed for classical concert halls, but at its heart the album could be performed in your living room on a couple of acoustic guitars.
Bryan MacLean: ‘Arthur and I hung out every day. We lived near each other, and I would walk up the hill and over a vacant llot and down a little road. Me and my dog, and he and his dog. We would sit in the window of his house, which overlooked the city from Lookout Mountain. There would be an acoustic guitar, and he would be teaching me and showing me what he had in mind. So I figured I knew everything, but actually he had some ideas that he needed to work out with us, and I didnít realize it. I just thought we were rehearsing because he there’s an album to be made, and Arthur wants to rehearse because he thinks it’s the thing to do, but I knew all the parts to my songs.’

The sessions for Love’s third album took place the same summer that the debut of Arthur’s old pal Jimi Hendrix was taking electric guitar noise into another dimension entirely-a dimension that Love anticipated in its own way with ‘7 And 7 Is.’ Variety reporter Phil Gallo, who annotated Rhino’s 1995 Love Story anthology, remembers Arthur saying that he knew he couldn’t compete in that arena with Hendrix, so he went the other way. He’d always known that his band didn’t have an instrumentalist who could compete at the level of the emerging guitar gods, so Love had been about the song, the arrangement, and pumping maximum energy into minimal frameworks. Which is why, though Love couldn’t claim a drummer with the explosive drive of Keith Moon or a guitarist with the firepower of Pete Townsend, ‘7 And 7 Is’ has every it of energy The Who marshalled a year later in ‘I Can See For Miles’. By then, Arthur and crew were headed in the opposite direction.
Though ‘Forever Changes’ is perceived as expansive because of its orchestration, it is actually the most stripped-down of Love albums. Everything boils down to acoustic guitars accompanied by bass and drums,a format they’d employed to great effect on ‘Que Vida!’ from Da Capo. Electric guitar and keyboard overdubs were applied sparingly and strategically. But if the sound Arthur was aiming for was Love simplified (though a deceptive simplicity it would prove to be),that didn’t mean it would come easily.

Bruce Botnick: ‘Forever Changes started out as a project that Neil Young and I were going to produce. The Buffalo Springfield were a bit shaky, and I thought Neil could use a new direction and perhaps play some guitar on the LP. When the time came to start, Neil was unable to fulfill his role because of his obligation to the Springfield. He was going through some changes, and he wasn’t physically well at the time. So he dropped out, and it was me. [The final credit reads ‘Produced by Arthur Lee with Bruce Botnick.’] Love was going through a terrible time. There were lots of personal problems, and the band hadn’t played live for a while. The band was so untogether and playing so badly that I thought it would be a good idea to get in good rock studio musicians-Hal Blaine, Don Randi, and Billy Strannge (and most likely Carol Kaye). I was prepared to record the album with Arthur singing and playing on his songs, with backing by studio musicians. Arthur played the guitar, and we worked out the guitar parts and the arrangements there and recorded two songs in three hours, ‘The Daily Planet’ and ‘Andmoreagain’. The group was present too. I remember them physically crying at this session. The band was so shocked, so put out, so hurt that it caused them to forget about their problems and become a band again. We kept the two tracks because they’re good, but we did some overdubs to make it sound more like the band. It was a psychological ploy that worked.’
Arthur Lee: ‘We used to work every night. After we started making money, the more we made, the less we worked, the less we were a unit, and Love deteriorated. People’s personal habits started to come before the music. Initially they would listen to me, because I wrote 90% of the songs. After we became successful, they got big heads-everybody had a house, a car, a flash Cadillac. They didnít need me. Money spoiled them-it spoiled me too. It was a strange time. I thought I was gonna kick the bucket. But you still gotta keep on.’

Ken Forssi: ‘I distinctly remember on ‘The Daily Planet’ this girl was trying to get a bass part down and couldn’t do it, because the song had so many changes. So I said, ‘Here, I’ll do it’ and took over from her on bass. This happened with a couple of other songs too, because they just didn’t write the song and didn’t know how it felt. You know, these people are used to reading charts, and you can’t put some of the stuff we played on a chart. Period. So, the ‘wake-up call’ was it scared all of us half to death that the group was not gonna be around much longer. We decided, ‘Alright, let’s straighten out here and pull together’. We suddenly realized what we’d had and were going to lose if we didn’t wake up. So we got together, finally. The first couple of tracks, I don’t know which ones, got us that old feeling back again. It took a lot out of us, but like I said, we were really happy with the way it was starting to come back, and we were almost on the track to going back like we were at first. We had that magic again, and we had that feeling we had as a group when we first started.’

After that disastrous June session, the band didn’t reconvene at the Sunset Sound studios until August 11. The weeks had obviously been well spent, as there was no further talk of studio musicians. And though this acoustic music bore little resemblance, at least superficially, to the rock ’em sock ’em Love that had lorded over the L.A. club scene, the tracks on ‘Forever Changes’ nevertheless represent some of their finest performances as a band. With more breathing room, it’s easier to appreciate the contribution of the rhythm section. Ken Forssi’s supple bass playing had always been key to the group’s flexibility. But it is Michael Stuart, whose drumming had been criticized in some quarters as too stiff and martial, who truly rises to the occasion. He’s not the least bit flashy, driving these tracks in a way that never overpowers the acoustic guitars yet gives no ground to the onslaught if the orchestration. His use of cymbals as punctuation is superb.

The album seems of a piece but was actually recorded piecemeal. They’d come in for a day or two, work on two or three songs, then disappear. There were only a handful of sessions-at a total cost of $2,257 by Bruce Botnick’s reckoning-but they were spread out over four months. Two orchestral sweetening sessions at the end of September completed the sonic concept David Anderle later termed “punk with strings”.
Arthur Lee: “And as far as even conducting…those classical musicians on ‘Forever Changes’. The funny thing about that album-there’s a full orchestra [when] I walk in. With the way I looked [and] the way I dressed, I was sitting there for about an hour before they figured out who I was! It was quite amusing, ‘cos I wasn’t going to tell them anything. They said, ‘Ah, we’re going to have to leave because the guy didn’t show up.’ And the next five minutes: ‘Hey, I’m here!’ Oh, they couldn’t believe that one, you know. Part of it is, being the nationality that I am, I was the only kid in my neighborhood that liked The Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, The Rolling Stones-those were my heroes! And Love was different, we were the first racially mixed rock group.”
The employment of strings in rock ‘n’ roll was hardly a novelty. Most bands on either side of the Beatles/Stones divide had featured the occasional orchestrated ballad, and the Beatles famously used an orchestra to frame their ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ album. New York band The Left Banke were being promoted as “baroque pop”. But where rock could often sound subjected to strings, Arthur the master synthesist made the concept reflective of his uniquely cloudy vision. David Angel, an arranger with considerable experience in both “serious” and pop music, met with Arthur and Bryan to get input on their songs, with Lee singing his basic ideas to the orchestrator.

Arthur Lee: “David Angel’s great-he’s on the whole record! I told him what to do; I helped orchestrate. There was part of the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra on there, with those horns. We tried everything on that album. We had so many different musicians on there. At that time symphony types did only symphony music. I told him what to do, but he ad-libbed on what I told him to do. Except for Bryan; he did what he had to do with ‘Alone Again Or’. But there was an eeriness to the rest of it. The album ‘Forever Changes’ was to be my last words to this life. And it’s like death is in there, so it’s definitely forever changes.”
The finished album was quite unlike anything Love had done before, even for those who recognized its musical antecedents on ‘Da Capo’. In fact, it was quite unlike anything any rock band had done before, for its blanket deployment of acoustic guitars and orchestration. Either would have been noteworthy, but put them together and you have, to use a clichÈ that for once the music fully justifies, a timeless classic. It announces all of this in the very first track, ‘Alone Again Or.’
Bryan MacLean: “‘Alone Again Or’ was a milestone. I still believe that song has yet to be recognized to the extent that it is going to be. It’s still an underground song. I still believe that somebody is going to do that song right, and it’s going to come out the way that I’ve heard it. One thing about the ‘Forever Changes’ album: Arthur wasn’t confident in my singing. So the harmony is actually the melody you’re hearing. You’re not really hearing the song the way it was written. You’re hearing the harmony part from Arthur, but I singing lead. They mixed Arthur’s harmony over my lead vocals. So what you hear, after it bleeds in on the mix, is actually Arthur’s harmony, which is mistaken for the lead vocal. . . I understand why he did it, because I knew I wasn’t that great of a singer at that point. I think it would bother me now, because now I can hit the notes. He probably did it out of necessity, and I probably knew that in my heart.”

MacLean’s song-which has its origins as a tribute to his mother’s flamenco dancing and predates the band-is the perfect album opener. ‘Alone Again Or’ gives Arthur a come-on with which to lure the suckers in off the sidewalk that is both forceful and light: “I think that people are the greatest fun”, backed by a folk melodic, flamenco-swinging sweetness. Bruce Botnick has somewhat sheepishly admitted responsibility for the Tijuana Brass influence in the trumpet solo-he was also working with Herb Alpert at the time-but its warm familiarity works beautifully. The musical surface is so beguiling that you don’t really notice that the protagonist and the person “who could be in love with almost everyone” are not the same, and that the singer’s contemplation is occasioned by the frustrating absence of this free-loving spirit: “And I will be alone again tonight my dear.” Not exactly a walk in Elysian Park, is it?
Following the album’s superficially brightest song, ‘A House Is Not A Motel’ takes us straight into the heart of Arthur’s darkness. This time it’s the words that seem reassuring-“the streets are paved with gold/and if someone asks you, you can call my name”-yet they’re set to folk-rock of the most ominous sort, the impatient drums itching to make some point the lyric has only danced around. Lee finally gets to it in the third verse: “By the time that I’m through singing/the bells from the school of war will be ringing/more confusions, blood transfusions/the news today will be the movies for tomorrow/and the water’s turned to blood and if you don’t think so, go turn on your tub.”

Arthur had contemplated holocaust on the first two Love albums, but here it was on his doorstep. Whether the war is taking place in Southeast Asia, down on the Sunset Strip, or between his ears is something Mr. Lee chooses not to get terribly specific about. The larger point is that it ain’t gold the streets are paved with; it’s rotting meat. At the end of this verse the drums finally get their way in an unadorned break, followed by double-tracked lead guitar that splits and dissolves in a furious firefight. One of the few songs that does not feature orchestration, and one of only two that feature electric lead guitar, this is about as blunt as ‘Forever Changes’ gets. The rest will be more subtle, and insidious.
‘Andmoreagain’ one of the loveliest melodies Arthur ever conceived, appears to offer reassurance after the onslaught of the previous track. But he’s not saying that it will be all right; only that there will be more and more after that. In ‘The Daily Planet’ (the arrangement for which is said to bear only traces of Neil Young’s brief involvement) we’re shown the everyday consequences of ‘Andmoreagain’ repetition, tedium, stasis, plastic, all made somehow sinister by the song’s shifting musical setting. Into this void tiptoes Bryan Maclean’s gentle ‘Old Man’ (based on the “Troika” movement from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite) to act as romantic relief. But then ‘Red Telephone’ opens with an image so darkly powerful-“Sitting on a hillside watching all the die”-that it renders romance trivial.

This is the strange beauty of ‘Forever Changes’. Though its stylistic consistency creates an aural flow, each song contains something that clouds and confuses what preceeded it and will itself be clouded by what follows. Arthur Lee reveled in duality and contradiction; it was natural territory for a mulatto who couldn’t fit fully into any of his assigned skins. Here the angle shifts slightly with each song, sometimes within a song, other times within a line. In ‘The Daily Planet’ he even records the contradictory words directly on top of each other. So while the music of ‘Forever Changes’ flows with an almost narcotic consistency and deceptive prettiness, the words can be like an itch that you can never quite put your finger on. The combination is thoroughly captivating and slightly unsettling-psychedelic in the truest sense.
Bryan MacLean: You have to understand that Arthur’s lyrics and music were all stream-of-consciousness. I worked on my songs, I constructed them, but he didn’t write that way. “The snot has caked against my pants” came out…and stayed! [laughs] He had a brilliant mind, but his biggest problem was trying to be hip. He was too hip for words. He talked like a 1940s jazz musician.”
One suspects that Lee labored over his lyrics more than MacLean allows. If these were to be Arthur’s last words, he clearly wanted us to linger over them. With only a couple of exeptions, for example, the song titles don’t appear anywhere in the songs, causing us to find-or assign-meaning on our own. Lee’s approach to how these words were presented vocally was also distinctive. Many rock singers routinely double-track their lead vocals for extra presence, but here Arthur tracked strategically, for dramatic emphasis, to highlight-or distort-aspects of meaning. Sometimes he’ll be duetting with himself, at other times commenting on the lead vocal. His voices interact in ways that wouldn’t be more fully explored until Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’.
By ‘Red Telephone’ the simmering alienation and dislocation are in full roil. This track, which closed side one of the original vinyl, is a masterpiece of the macabre, a bit of Edgar Allan Poe under the palms. (The title refers to the Cold War crisis hotline between the American president and Soviet premier.) The harpsichord and strings, normally vessels of warmth in California pop music, instead carry an undertow of menace. “They’re locking them up today, they’re throwing away the key,” goes the deadpan chant in the tag, “I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?” This may read like standard-issue hippie paranoia, but it’s only making blatant the seed planted by the track itself. The voice repeating the 60’s mantra “freedom” makes the concept sound sound like the babbling of a fool.

“What is happening and how have you been?” the singer inquires in ‘Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark and Hilldale’ at the beginning of side two, as if the visions of ‘The Red Telephone’ had been but a bad dream he’d awakened from. “Between Clark and Hilldale” refers to the block of Sunset Boulevard containing the Whisky A Go Go and serves as Arthur’s microcosmic Los Angeles, the place where “they always play my songs”. It’s a breezy evocation of life on the Strip, yet the very first line of the next song, “Live And Let Live”-“oh the snot has caked against my pants”-shoots us back through the mirror to that airless room with the red telephone. “We were in the studio,” Arthur told Phil Gallo about this shocking (at least for a pop song) image. “I passed out, slobbered on my pants, and woke up. It had crystallized. I wrote about it.”
“The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This” bounces us back again, to a place where images of pigtails and flowers are so normal they now seem positively creepy. By “Bummer In The Summer” he seems to ready to wash his hands of the whole game. The album culminates with “You Set The Scene”, a large canvas apparently stitched together from orphaned song fragments. The agitated unease of the first section, with its ominous bass line and low strings, makes it seem like Lee is sailing over the edge. But with the entrance of the horns, the tide turns yet again, and this time for good. “This is the time and life that I am living/and I’ll face each day with a smile/for the time that I’ve been given’s such a little while/and the things that I must do consist of more than style.”
This is Arthur Lee’s skywritten statement of redemption. But despite its triumph in the face of all that’s come before, and the anthemic conviction of the horns and strings it rides out on, its deliverance was purely personal. Facing what he thought was his demise (wrongly, it turned out), he resolved to seize whatever time was left him. The rest of us were on our own. Arthur’s vindication was issued like a challenge, tossed back over his shoulder as he headed for parts unknown. The simple message of this complex album was the most valuable thing we could have heard in the aftermath of that summer’s psychedelic cattle call: Think for yourself.

Heralded by a billboard on the Sunset Strip proclaiming “the third coming of Love,” ‘Forever Changes’ was released in November 1967. The album artwork by Bob Pepper-who’d designed many covers for Nonesuch, Elektra’s classical label rendered the quintet’s faces in colours that, like the album itself, are bright and bold without succumbing to psychedelic cliché.
The album was not a hit, peaking at a disappointing #154 on the album chart. The single ‘Alone Again Or’ bubbled under the “Hot 100”, never cracking the main list. (It would make the lower reaches of the chart in 1970 when Elektra issued the ‘Love Revisited’ compilation.) It sold a respectable number of copies, but the bottom line was that, without a group out there aggressively making its case, each successive Love album had sold a few less copies. Over the years ‘Forever Changes’ has surpassed the first two, largely because it was the only one that stayed consistently in print. It has even been suggested that the accumulated sales might qualify it for a gold record.
The one place Arthur’s reluctance worked to Love’s advantage was England, where distance and unavailability conspired to create the desired aura of mystery. In a direct reversal of the American situation, each Love album did better than the last, an underground momentum that culminated in ‘Forever Changes’ climbing to #24. Some overseas appearances might have spread this success to Europe and then through the back door to America, as Jimi had done, but this too was not to be. Back in L.A. the idle band quickly slid back into the lethargy that had gripped it before the album’s wake-up call. There was a recording session on January 30, 1968, for a new single, but by the time of its release in June the band existed only on plastic. MacLean was the first to float off, and Arthur soon encouraged the others to follow. there would continue to be bands called Love fronted by Lee, but it was never the same.
Arthur Lee had been haunted by premonitions that he would die that year, but it was Love that did not survive. The high placing of ‘Forever Changes’ on all-time best lists of such publications as Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q reflects the critical regard in which the album has always been held. A few discerning members of each successive generation have found their way to the music of ‘Forever Changes’ and have in turn shared it with enough like-minded souls to keep its legacy alive. Rhino founders Harold Bronson and Richard Foos were two such people along before the label was founded, as was your present note scribbler.Now you’re part of the chain. Pass it along.

-Ben Edmonds

The above piece by Ben Edmonds is taken directly from the liner notes of the album ‘Forever Changes’ by Love (1987 & 2001 Elektra Entertainment Group) ‘Forever Changes’ was originally released in 1967, on Elektra.


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August 23, 2012 at 5:51 pm