Saturday, January 14, 2012

January 14: Moby Grape, "Moby Grape"

Artist: Moby Grape
Album: Moby Grape
Year: 1967
Label: Columbia

While there are many cities around the world that have close and longstanding associations with certain styles of music, few are as synonymous as that of San Francisco, California and the psychedelic explosion of the late 1960's.  Though most people can rattle of a list of a number of bands that emerged from this scene, the reality is that in most cases, the quintessential "San Francisco psychedelic band" is left out of the conversation.  Perhaps due to the fact that they were seemingly plagued by bad luck in every sense of the word; or maybe because they did not fit the exact "image" of such a group, the band rarely receives the credit the deserve.  But even with these realities, the fact remains that there is no better a representation of the true essence of the psychedelic movement than what one can find in the music of Moby Grape.  Creating some of the most irresistible rock-based groove of their entire generation, the band showed very few flaws in terms of their music during the early years of their career; and one can easily argue that it was these first few years that was the finest for Moby Grape.  Bringing together elements of folk, jazz, r&b, and country all under the umbrella of a rock-based sound, there were few, if any other bands that could compare to their sound.  While there are no "bad" recordings from this time period, one can easily argue that to find the ultimate in "true" psychedelic rock, one need look no further than Moby Grape's brilliant 1967 self-titled debut.

Throughout Moby Grape, one can hear the bands' seemingly endless array of influences come though, as each song manages to be entirely musically unique, and yet fit together perfectly as a single cohesive musical work.  From slow, meandering passages deeply rooted in folk and soul to some of the earliest vestiges of what would be called "garage rock," the band shows just how much one can extract from the psychedelic sound, and it is this quest for diversity that set Moby Grape so far apart and above their peers.  In fact, there are many points on the album where one can argue that the band was well ahead of their time, most clearly during the places where they utilize a triple-guitar sound.  Most prominently during the song "Omaha," the way that the guitars of Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis and Skip Spence come together is nothing short of sheer musical brilliance.  Furthermore, throughout many of the songs, it is the attitude that one can feel within the guitars that show a bit more grit and grind than was "normal" for the time, and this can be seen as one of the connections from the psychedelic sound to the later formation of the hard rock genre.  However, it is also the unforgettable melodies that run through nearly every song that make Moby Grape such a fantastic musical achievement, and it is this ability to retain some elements of popular music that were often overlooked in many of the psychedelic bands.

Yet it is also the fact that while the band does an amazing job of layering the sounds of their instruments, it is the way that their voices work just as perfectly in harmony that vaults Moby Grape to such a highly revered status.  While Skip Spence handles the leads on a majority of the songs, it is the almost unexpected way that his voice blends so seamlessly with the instrumentation that makes many of these songs nothing short of blissful.  But through almost every word that is sung on the album, there is a vibrancy and energy that pulls the listener further into each track.  The fact that Spence and most of the other vocalists show an endless vocal range gives the songs even more depth, and in many ways, the vocals on the album highlight everything there was to love about the psychedelic and "surf" style harmonies.  It is also due to these factors that there is an almost communal feel to many of the songs, and even after hearing these songs only a single time, it is difficult to not sing along with each and every song.  Yet the most intriguing aspect of Moby Grape may be the fact that they show a greater lyrical diversity than nearly any band in history, proving that one can construct massive allusions alongside economic wordplay and never seem lost or jumbled.  It is in the latter of these elements where one can draw a connection to the punk style that would develop a decade later, and combined with the traces of hard rock, one can see just how important a band lived within Moby Grape.

Whether it is due to the more assertive, somewhat distorted guitars or the more easy flowing and melodic pieces that are clearly drawn from the folk movement, few bands have displayed as much sonic diversity as one finds in Moby Grape's debut record.  It is the fact that there is a dazzling swing and shake provided by the rhythm section on so many songs, and there is simply no escaping the allure that explodes from each of Moby Grape's classic songs.  In fact, it is the more hard-driven sound that comes through on many of these songs that might make one think the band came from the more rock-based New York City scene, and yet there is no denying that their sound is rooted in the psychedelic sound.  Though they may not present the stereotypes of that genre in as clear a manner as some of their peers, the reality is that they brought a style of rock and roll that was completely unique at the time, and the impact of their music can still be felt to this day.  Over the years, countless bands have recorded their own covers of many Moby Grape songs, and yet it is the original versions that easily reign supreme more than four decades later.  From the almost shockingly original and certainly ahead-of-its-time musical arrangements to absolutely mesmerizing vocal performances, there are few records that can compare to Moby Grape's flawless 1967 self-titled debut.

No comments: