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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1746

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The Parson Red Heads: Orb Weaver
by George Graham

(Fiesta Red Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/23/2013)

I guess that when one reaches a certain age, one can excused for having a degree of enthusiasm for retro music -- taking pleasure in hearing younger musicians drawing on some of the same influences as were popular back in one's own long memory. While I get bored silly by the media's repetition of so-called classic rock -- the stuff that I grew up with -- I admit that I definitely find myself drawn to newer bands who mine the influences of forty or so years ago, but apply a degree of creativity, and keep it from being only a nostalgia revival show.

So this week I have another very good example of such a band who sometimes sounds as if they fell out of a time warp from about 1969, and yet add their own musical creativity to come up with music that embodies their own character. The group is called the Parson Red Heads, and their new, third CD is named Orb Weaver, a title which shows a little retro influence right there.

The Parson Red Heads were formed in Portland, Oregon, nine years ago by principle songwriter and vocalist Evan Way and his wife, drummer Brette Marie Way, along with other guitarist Sam Fowles and bassist Charlie Hester. They moved to Los Angeles for about six years where they became popular on the club scene there, but then recently returned to Portland.

The group makes no secret of their influence by the Byrds, Crosby, Still and Nash, the Buffalo Springfield and the Sixties band called Love. They draw on the ringing guitar sounds, high vocal harmonies, hummable melodies with an undercurrent of folk influence and a style of composition and arrangements that captures the mood that era without being too derivative.

Their previous album, Yearling involved some of the more studio- and arrangement-intensive sound that was characteristic of the psychedelic era, but the band's live shows are a lot more energetic and less buttoned-down. So only a few months after the release of a deluxe edition of Yearling, the Parson Red Heads are out with Orb Weaver, on which this time, the band intended to present themselves more like their live shows, and with a much speedier recording process. They brought in producer Scott McCaughey, known for his work the Minus 5. McCaughey providing suggestions for the musical direction and song selection, to emphasize the more live atmosphere. But the recording and the band still have the kind of 1960s polish that the best vocals groups of the day showed consistently. The songs on Orb Weaver also can get into jam sections which also evoke the music of the 1960s, when there were long versions of tunes by the bands of the day. The Parson Red Heads also have some atmospheric sonic psychedelia here and there.

Evan Way has the perfect voice for this kind of style, high and a bit nasal, recalling Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. The group provides harmonies that also reflect the style of music from back in the day, sometimes a bit quavery but with a degree of charm.

The CD leads off with one of its best tracks, To the Sky which cleverly embodies a lot of the musical personality of the psychedelic era. <<>> It's a fairly lengthy piece that goes right into a kind of archetypical rock jam at the end. <<>>

The folkier side of the band, lyrically, comes out on the following piece Every Mile. There is a kind of cheerful optimism in the song. <<>>

Borrow My Car is one of two pieces written by Sam Fowles who does the lead vocal. It reflects the rockier side of the album. <<>>

Lost Again is one of the tunes that producer Scott McCaughey urged the band not to discard, and indeed to record the it without a lot of preparation. The falsetto vocal with Brette Marie Way on harmonies gives it a distinctive sound. <<>>

A track called Small Change is one of the more interesting. Though it's the shortest of the regular songs, it goes through two distinct parts including one section in a rather un-rock like 9-beat rhythm <<>> before breaking temporarily into something like a British-invasion pop tune. <<>>

The folky side of the group again comes out on the track Beginning. The Parson Red Heads show a little of their Crosby Still and Nash influence on the prominent harmonies throughout the song. <<>>

Being of the age where one well remembers the music from which groups like the Parson Read Heads draw their influence, one can occasionally catch them in the act of musical borrowing. The Zombies' hit Time of the Season is fairly obviously the source for the drum line on the Red Heads' song Times. But that's about the only thing the band lifts, and instead they provide their own creativity for what is a very nice song. <<>> The drum line provides an excellent backdrop for a jam at the end of the tune. <<>>

The CD concludes with Give Yourself Away a kind of ballad that has its moments but is not the strongest on the record. <<>>

The Parson Red Heads new CD Orb Weaver is a happy mixture of nicely authentic retro ingredients -- influences that the band gets right -- along with a good deal of their own musical personality. Their music has some occasionally obvious sources of influence but it never reaches the point of being a rip-off or a nostalgia trip. The band has a lot of charm on the CD, with the imperfections and quirks of past eras finding their way into the music in a rather natural way, rather than specifically forcing those into the style, as I had heard done with other retro-styled groups. They are really quite good at what they do and hit the right balance between evoking a previous era with provding their own ideas.

For our sound quality grade, we'll give the CD close to an "A". Though the music can sound retro at times, the recording was not intentionally degraded to evoke the crummy sound quality of some records from the 1960s. It's not exactly an audiophile recording, but it is not the typical in-your-face sonic onslaught of commercial pop. It has some subtlety to it and it was not too heavily compressed.

There are a lot of retro bands on the scene, with probably the greatest number going for a 1960s sound. The Parson Red Heads have been doing this kind of thing on the West Coast for nine years now, and their new CD Orb Weaver shows that they are in great form, making original music that can be appreciated by two or maybe three generations of rock fans.

(c) Copyright 2013 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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