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The Parson Red Heads: Blurred Harmony
by George Graham
(Fluff and Gravy Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/19/2017)
The recent 50th anniversary of the Beatles Sgt. Peppers album was a good reminder of the influence of that album and the Beatles’ sonic experimentation, which led to so much that followed it from art rock, to psychedelia to the now ubiquitous concept of building an album in the studio, rather than the recording process being the capturing of a live performance.
Since then, after perhaps three or four musical generations, there are groups that who still look to the Fab Four for musical influence. And this week, we have one of the best bands on the scene today who draw on the Sgt. Pepper’s aura, along with quite a few other sonic ingredients to come up with an attractive and clever blend of retro melodic psychedelia. It’s The Parson Red Heads, who have just released their fourth full length album called Blurred Harmony.
The Parson Red Heads formed in 2004 in Eugene, Oregon, led by principal songwriter Evan Way. The band members were mainly in college at the time. When they decided to get more serious about their music, they packed up and moved to Los Angeles, where they all lived together in a small apartment below a freeway intersection. During the production of their second album Yearling, they decided to return to Oregon, settling in Portland, with that album being recorded in several locations, including North Carolina. With Evan Way and his wife drummer Brette Marie Way raising a family, it has been some three and a half years since their last recording, Orb Weaver, which we also featured on this review series. The band said that Orb Weaver was meant as a more live-sounding recording. For the new album Blurred Harmony, the group went to work in a home studio that the band lead guitarist and songwriting contributor Sam Fowles had set up. So instead of going for a more live sound, the process for this album was a lot of time spent in the basement studio, working hours at a time overdubbing guitar parts and vocal harmonies. In his web notes about the album, Evan Way spoke of setting up drums in the den after his young boys went to bed, and then working late on the guitar parts in the basement. The result is an album that can trace its sonic lineage back to the Sgt. Peppers with some parts that could be considered an homage to the Beatles. In fact, those with long memories can probably pick out the particular Beatles song that may have served as inspiration, such as the bass line from the Beatles Rain which turns up a couple of times, and there’s even a kind of long sustaining note like A Day in the Life. The craftsmanship on this album, and I mean than in the best way, is very apparent. They generally sweat the details while still sounding real.
Leading off is Please Come Save Me, which is an interesting pastiche with the melodic pop facet imbued with a country-sounding steel guitar. <<>>
Showing their Fab Four influence is Coming Down which has a kind of classic-sounding British Invasion psychedelic-era vibe, with that Beatles bass line. <<>>
A bit more mellow in sound is Sunday Song which can evoke early Pink Floyd, to which the band adds their own appealing musical personality, with some contemplative lyrics. <<>>
What Have I Become is probably the most introspective track on the album, both musically and lyrically, with its spacey sound again featuring the steel guitar. I think it’s one of the highlights of the album. <<>>
Time Is a Wheel again features the band’s combination of hummable retro melodies with somewhat philosophical lyrics. <<>>
Terrible Lie is the name of probably the most straight-out love song on the album. The arrangement nicely captures the mood of the words. <<>>
The last three named tunes on the album flow together in a kind of continuum, again showing echoes of the concept albums from the psychedelic era, Waiting for the Call, Out of Range, and In A Dream. The tracks embody the appeal of the band, absorbing 50-year-old influences and making it sound fresh. <<>>
The album ends with a long sound-effects sequence, called Nostalgia for the Lakefronts, inspired by a poem by Donald Justice that was printed in the CD. I can’t help but be reminded of the Beatles Revolution 9 on the White Album, with its sequence of seeming random sounds. The sound effects seem intended to evoke some of the lines in the poem which is printed in the CD package. <<>>
Blurred Harmony, the new release by the Portland, Oregon, band The Parson Red Heads is an enjoyable album evoking the melodic sound and sonic textures of the late 1960s era Beatles-inspired psychedelic scene. The band distills some of the best influences from that era while skipping some of the excesses. Although the source of their influence is not hard to guess, they provide a good deal of their own musical creativity and personality so that it does not come across as slavishly imitative. And there’s the spirit of good fun that was present 50 years ago that the Parson Red Heads capture on the new album.
Our grade for sound quality is an A Minus. The recording conjures the sound of the psychedelic era without so many of the sonic flaws. It seems like an analog recording, but it’s clean and the fact that it came from a home studio is notable. The dynamic range is not great with not a lot of difference between the loud parts and the soft parts. But it’s better than many albums being released these days.
There are quite a few retro bands on the scene, with many looking to the Beatles and the British Invasion for their influence. The Parson Red Heads are one of the best of the ilk, and their new album underscores that.
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