‘People are psychedelic to each other, under certain ideal conditions.’
I’d been in two minds about reading Jonathan Lethem’s You don’t love me yet. Mixed reviews suggested a drop in standard from The fortress of solitude; that the subject matter was music didn’t help – having spent so much time with pop groups (close up and at one remove), I wasn’t sure that I could cope with a fictional account. (See also: Toby Litt’s I play the drums in a band called Okay.) Add to this the fact that the British paperback cover is a shocker, a Battenberg chick-lit confection that’s particularly depressing coming after the fabulous and perfectly judged covers for The fortress of solitude and Men and cartoons, and it looked like I’d be waiting until Lethem’s next book to resume our acquaintance.
But then last year I came across the Bye Bye Blackbirds, and their wonderful, harmony-drenched recording of ‘Monster eyes’, a song they construed out of the few lyrical fragments relayed by Lethem in You don’t love me yet. As I discovered on reading the novel, in impersonating a fictional group, the Blackbirds had added another layer of appropriation on top of the story.
Certainly You don’t love me yet is much lighter than The fortress of solitude, Motherless Brooklyn or As she crawled across the table – but it’s precisely the heaviness of those books, their concentrated force, which might allow a reader to let Lethem to have some fun. The result is a colour-saturated but not inaccurate picture of how a group’s music comes together. It helps that the novel is set in the underbelly of LA – from this distance, as mysterious a place in its way as the celebrity topside is over-exposed. It’s not perfect – aspects of the story are not as satisfactorily fleshed-out as all has been in previous works, and the novel fizzles out in the way that groups often do, but it makes a bold attempt to get under the skin of a musician, giving us the feel of what it might be like to play the bass in a band which comes to be called Monster Eyes.
You don’t love me yet is in no way overpowered by musical nods obscure or otherwise, but a Flying Nun follower can’t help smiling at an explicit reference to the Verlaines when the question of band names used as song titles is discussed. My fondness for minutiae encouraged, I begin to wonder whether Lucinda, who leads the drive of the narrative, is so called for the A Certain Ratio song of that name. And might the novel’s depressed kangaroo be a salute to mid-eighties jazz-punk antagonists Big Flame, who featured one splayed on the cover of their first single, and thereafter always adorned their sleeves with a large marsupial? It would seem unlikely, but I can’t help hoping that Lethem has both Sextet and Rigour on his shelves.
The Blackbirds rustled up ‘Monster eyes’ for a slot supporting Jonathan Lethem reading in Berkeley, which set me wondering whether other groups in other cities brought their versions of the song to life when he read in them. Are there in fact a whole host of songs called ‘Monster eyes’ out there now? Not a whole host, but at least three or four; Lethem promotes such efforts via his ‘Promiscuous materials’ project. Eventually – possibly after he is dead – a group may take it all one stage further, decide to call themselves Monster Eyes, and construct their set out of the song titles that Lethem gives in the novel.
What I couldn’t work out from my rudimentary research is whether the same trick was also worked with The fortress of solitude, in which a part of the book is given over to a liner note account of the career of Barrett Rude Jr. and the Distinctions. Much harder to pull off, I suspect, but has anyone brought the fiction of their big hit ‘Bothered blue’ to life?
From Honeymoon to Houses and homes – The Bye Bye Blackbirds’ new album offers memorable songs and lyrically a heightened sense of place, not straying much beyond the edge of town, but alive to the ghosts who have walked the same streets and leant against the same bars. The set leads off with the song that encapsulates this, ‘The ghosts are alright’. At first it seems too busy for its own good but with listening makes ever-increasing musical sense. Its near euphoric harmonising is characteristic of the BBBs, as is the excess of ideas. It motors to its conclusion, with the bass not so much buzzing as fizzing; the ghosts are alive (and after the day before yesterday, these being Left Coast ghosts, no doubt they’re celebrating too).
The whole recording hums with life. On ‘In stereo’ cymbals sound like waves breaking on the shore while with ‘Leave a light on’, the Blackbirds come as close as anyone has to achieving the aura of the magically authentic analogue recording that Lee Mavers apparently always felt eluded the La’s. The guitar crackles with gritty energy that contrasts beautifully with the harmonising above it. And the group do this without being slaves to tradition or the limitations of past recording techniques. Even when anachronistically choosing to cover the Everly Brothers’ ‘It only costs a dime’ – ‘it’s a song that makes absolutely no sense in an age where nothing costs a dime and pay phones no longer exist’ – they find a fit with their own contemporary sound and song writing, really attacking the song, as say the Jayhawks might have done.
Neither are they afraid to experiment, giving over running time to music which defies four piece categorisation. ‘Next door’ allows us some moments of melancholy guitar minimalism heard through a wall, while the album closing ‘Murray Morgan’s last dream’ recalls ‘I see the sun’ from Biff Bang Pow!’s 1987 Creation LP Oblivion both in its stretched-out psychedelic ambience, and in the contrast it strikes with what the group is more usually about.
At nine tracks, it’s perhaps one or two songs light of the classic forty minute album mark, but that’s to remain captive in the mindset of someone who grew up on albums; in the download age a complete artwork can be any length it needs or desires to be. I’m left wanting more – the BBBs have opened up a number of mineral-filled seams and I hope they keep on mining them.
‘The type of pop band that the great John Peel would have championed’ says label American Dust of the Bye Bye Blackbirds. Possibly not, for on occasion John’s ears were resolutely cloth; he failed to pick up on any number of great groups who chose to major on the song rather than on sound and/or attitude; take Flying Nun – although he favoured the Chills with sessions, I don’t recall him ever playing the Verlaines or Sneaky Feelings. The Bye Bye Blackbirds acknowledge their affection for the out-of-time, out-of-place songcraft of the Sneakys, and for the kind of harmonic soaking that you get when listening to the Everly Brothers (it’s well worth reading what Bradley from the BBBs has to say about Don and Phil). And if you hear the Byrds, well then, that’s because the Blackbirds are the genuine West Coast article, and their harmonies and that Rickenbacker psychedelia are in the blood, just as the Scouse veins of the Coral and Shack are shot through with the melodic surprise and transcendent guitar of the Beatles (if you’ll forgive me for using that particular metaphor about Michael Head).
Their 2006 debut Honeymoon has these ingredients, plus the interplay of two tones of guitar, a deeper growl and a lighter jangle. There are sixties sunshine melodies straight out of the Brill Building, or perhaps an office close by, and in ‘How I knew it wasn’t love’ and ‘Quiet confusion’ perfectly pitched songs whose blue shades beg for and get the pedal steel guitar they crave. The Blackbirds are also expert in varying the mood of a song, giving the saccharine sweet and prairie bright ‘Needle-in-a-haystack girls’ a darkly brooding Byrdsian coda, while ‘After work’ is perhaps their take on the Sneaky Feelings’ ‘Better than before’, with vocal lines exchanged much as the Jasmine Minks did on their Creation garage classic ‘What’s gone wrong’.
Freely available for download is the Apology accepted EP, featuring an impressively robust reading of the Go-Betweens song that I much prefer over the one by Kelman which appears on Love goes on: a tribute to Grant McLennan, and on ‘Monster eyes’, a melodically excellent setting of lyrics by Jonathan Lethem (from his novel You don’t love me yet, as yet unread by this admirer of The fortress of solitude) together with acoustic versions of songs which appear on Honeymoon and Houses and homes, their recently released album, which is winging its way to me from the States as I post.