Since their inception in 1998 as heavy, sharp-angled desert rockers on Fugazi bassist Joe Lally’s Tolotta Records, Washington DC’s Dead Meadow have gone through some understandable changes. Psychedleia was always about transformation, the journey, from the departure of original drummer Mark Laughlin through to guitarist/vocalist Jason Simon’s personal, solo reinvention as a country troubadour the balance, over five ‘proper’ studio albums (their Peel Sessions are well worth a listen outside of this) they’ve certainly shifted somewhat.
Laughlin is back on Warble Womb and it’s his first appearance on a Dead Meadow in more than a decade. That his work doesn’t leap out is a surprise – what’s more eyebrow raising is just how far away from the metal these guys have strayed. This is a mostly placid if confused, softly cushioned trip away from their earlier toughness, often a world away from Kyuss-like doom riffing or Sleep-esque sonic sludge.
Early on there are the likes of the lengthy ‘I’m Cured’ which feels not unlike the sound you get in your brain when you abuse solvents (apparently) and takes a Jason Pierce kinda vibrating guitar line then swirls it like a long dress over a largely hidden, honey-melody vocal. As relentlessly repetitive and defiantly sluggish is ‘Six To Let The Light Shine Through’, which finds a fuzzing blues riff lolloping from speaker to speaker, snaking notes around snapping snare sounds, the title refrain chanted out as the guitar rolls out into the distance.
This is lysergic stuff, lengthy as a dream and hard to piece together. Yet the album’s length ultimately betrays it (it’s long) – what could be magic trailing into blessed out slush. This is pricked later on by a couple of heavier notions such as those displayed on ‘Copper Is Restless (Til It Turns To Gold)’ a Crazy Horse style nodding twister that may not pick up the pace but certainly jacks the volume as it dives into the realms of harder-edged drone. As on the rest of the record Simon’s vocal is sidelined – perhaps no huge loss, lacking as it does the brash character of, say, Anton Newcombe or the heart-stung feel of someone like a Bill Doss.
Though speaking of Mr Doss, this record isn’t a million miles removed from his former collaborator Julian Koster’s recent output as The Music Tapes. In fact if Koster harboured a sneaky love of ragged guitar solos and an occasional penchant for Jefferson Airplane (‘In The Thicket’s cabaret pop is an unpleasant anomaly here) you’d think he might be responsible for a record similar to this.
At it’s most simple and reduced, on ‘One More Toll Taker’ we get a near-solo song from Simon and it’s a quietly heartfelt acoustic amble. We’re firmly entrenched in stoned folk, Simon’s bleary-eyed mutterings occasionally crisping into a discernible line (“Every day they want more”, ”I used to call you a good friend”). This feels much less an exercise than a true moment of expression.
Of course that’s a huge part of the problem with modern psychedelia, however hefty or gentle you want it; pastiche, parody and tribute are nearly unavoidable. It’s hard to know where bands seemingly tied to this genre fit; whether they should chug away at their death-slow copped riffs forever or, like Dead Meadow, become more and more entranced by a gentle kind of weirdness – there are surprising and pleasing nods to both David Lynch’s most recent music and Tom Waits’ ‘90s output on the lovely ‘All Torn Up’ – and drift, high and gentle, off into their own universe.
While psych may offer an altered experience, a shifted perception, a rarified reality, Dead Meadow’s take on it this time around is an occasionally wonderful, momentarily beautiful, but largely confused and confusing experience. Perhaps next time around they’ll have either fully transcended their roots and become something utterly special or be back to the reliable riffola – either would be preferable.