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The Parson Red Heads: Lifetime of Comedy
by George Graham
(Fluff & Gravy Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/18/2020)
The neo-psychedelic movement seems to be very much alive these days as part of a general retro scene that encompasses various stylistic facets of the 1960s, including soul and blues-rock. These days, there are quite a few younger bands are taking up the quirky, but melodic rock and pop that was in part inspired by the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers album, which set the benchmark for what would become the psychedelic scene more than 50 years ago. Earlier this year, we featured a fun band from California called Hello Forever, who also turned to the Beach Boys Pet Sounds era music for influence. This week, we have the latest album by a long-running group from Portland, Oregon, the Parson Red Heads, who have been doing this kind of thing since college in 2004. Their new release, their first since 2017 is called Lifetime of Comedy.
This album represents something of a change for the group. With co-founders and spouses lead vocalist and guitarist Evan Way and drummer Brette Marie Way raising a family, the band has not been a constant presence. There was another three year gap before their previous album Blurred Harmony in 2017.
Since then, founding guitarist and co-producer and Sam Fowles departed. It was in his studio where the band did most of their work. For the new album, they recruited Jake Smith, who had been touring with the band on live gigs as replacement guitar, and multi-instrumentalist Raymond Richards moved into the co-producer and studio operator position. The album was also complicated by the COVID pandemic, with the shutdown happening just when production was about to begin. Eventually sessions with limited personnel resumed, with the band members presumably recording their parts separately.
But the result is another excellent album, with high quality writing, both musically and lyrically, and a melodic sound that can range from sunny to slightly melancholy. There are some psychedelic-style jams with the kind of droniness that was so much a part of that scene, and also following the tradition, several tracks especially on the latter part of the album segue into one another in a continuous trippy sequence. A notable addition to the new album is the increased presence of a steel guitar, played by Raymond Richards, which brings a hint of country twang, but also has a vaguely hippy quality. Evan Way’s vocals are perfect for the genre, a bit quirky and nasal, but good at bringing out the tuneful quality of the songs. The somewhat ethereal sound of the recording gives him additional charm.
Opening is a short introductory piece called Heaven Knows I’m Trying in which the steel guitar is prominent. <<>>
That leads into All I Wanted which continues the romantic thought of the opening piece. The track epitomizes the retro melodic sound of the album. Again, Raymond Richards’ steel guitar plays a prominent role, making it an eclectic departure from the usual psychedelic instrumental lineup. But it’s quite appealing. <<>>
The title track Lifetime of Comedy continues with the tuneful retro sound. <<>> It’s also a lengthier piece that allows for a kind of psychedelic jam. <<>>
That segues into another longer jammy tune, Coming Along which I think is one of the highlights of the album. <<>>
More rock oriented in direction is I Never Would Have Changed, but the group maintains their basically easy-going sound. <<>>
On their website, the Parson Red Heads describe themselves as a folk influenced group. Some of that quality is apparent on the song Turn Around, though in a more electric context, tempered by the spacey aura. <<>>
Probably the height of the Parson Red Heads’ psychedelic jam approach comes on Dreaming Of Another Place. But it’s a well-written tune and not just an excuse for a jam. <<>>
The album closes with its most contemplative track, Falling, Fading, though it builds to another hummable song that can get stuck in your head. <<>>
Lifetime of Comedy, the new fifth album by the Oregon-based Parson Red Heads is a great example of a band drawing on a retro style, in this case some of the melodic aspects of the psychedelic era and some British Invasion sounds, and applies their own ingredients to come up with a pleasing blend that is as intelligent as it is appealing. Composer Evan Way knows his way around a tune that can stick with you, and with the interesting addition of a steel guitar, the band brings it to fruition in good helping of ear candy.
Our grade for sound quality is no better than a “B.” The sometimes milky sound of the mix can add to the appeal, but it can also go too far and sound murky. And the lead vocals are not cleanly recorded with noticeable saturation that sounds like a somewhat overloaded analog recording. I don’t believe that doing music that is stylistically retro is any excuse for emulating the shortcomings of old analog recordings.
Retro music can be a way to bridge generations of music fans. Especially when it is done as well and as smartly as the Parson Red Heads.
(c) Copyright 2020 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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