Fecklessly eclectic, eternally youthful
Thollem Electric's Keyngdrum Overdrive
Seemingly unstoppable, the spontaneous keyboardist Thollem McDonas constantly travels the world, developing musical collaborations with both experienced veterans and up-and-coming rookies and releasing literally dozens of albums along the way.
It may be daunting to navigate his catalog, which features team-ups with notables including Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, Half Japanese front man Jad Fair, free-jazz double-bassist William Parker and members of groups such as The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Deerhoof and Wilco, and it might be easy for his new album to get lost in the shuffle, considering that it’s only available as a “name your price” digital download. However, fans shouldn’t overlook it, particularly those drawn to free-flowing yet intense jazz-rock fusion styles.
The album at hand, WITH!, arrives under the “Thollem Electric” moniker and further “Keyngdrum Overdrive” specification, designating duo configurations with drummers—ten of them, in all. This writer didn’t recognize any of the drummers’ names, and clearly, there are different skill levels involved, from the professional to relatively unseasoned players.
Upon first listen, the flat-out rocking moments are the ones that stick out prominently, evoking early ’70s “Electric Miles”-type fusion, as if creating the logical extension of Miles Davis’ chaotic evil “Rated X” using only two musicians or some dirtied-up Mr. Hyde version of Silver Apples.
McDonas plays Fender Rhodes and ElkaPiano 88 keyboards, and there is something intrinsically pleasing about the sound of electric pianos, particularly with a little distortion to bring grittiness and darkness to the proceedings; here, his improvisations typically use left-hand vamping and right-hand soloing, with a determined, path-forging attitude.
WITH! also offers a bit of variation, with irregular beats and some more scattered approaches, including some dramatic timpani rolls, heavy free-jazz maelstrom and even a hip-hop-leaning rhythm for the final track. The album works more often than it doesn’t, and being a stimulating, wandering and fearlessly eclectic album, we’d expect no less from McDonas.
Was It Just a Dream?
The British band Talulah Gosh, active between 1986 and 1988, proved that it was possible to be simultaneously tough and sweet, smushing together unabashedly cute jangle-twee-pop with charged, fast punk outbursts.
It’s in the spirit of forebears Dolly Mixture and Altered Images, the latter of which inspired the band name Talulah Gosh (it was lead singer Clare Grogan’s would-be stage name), with an occasional punk edge, bringing to mind the leather-jacket-hug of punk softies-at-heart Ramones with Buzzcocks-style tight, swift, driving beats, thanks to drummer Mathew (sic) Fletcher.
Although lumped in with C86 British indie-pop, it has aged much better than many of its contemporaries, and the new compilation Was It Just a Dream? neatly assembles the group’s entire output on one CD, combining the now out-of-print anthology Backwash with the 4-song EP of demos unearthed in 2011.
Even with a relatively small catalog, it makes this writer’s British indie-pop shortlist (alongside the aforementioned, plus The Field Mice, Saint Etienne and Belle and Sebastian), so why is this music so enduring? It’s concentrated and concise, the vocal harmonies from singers Amelia Fletcher and Elizabeth Price stick with you, and it’s just eternally youthful and utterly charming.
While adorable, the band doesn’t have a sheltered view of the world, offering references to ambitious jazz odysseys (“Escalator Over the Hill”) or screwball comedies (“Bringing Up Baby”), and threatening either affection or violence, peppered with sung “la la la”s and “ba ba ba”s.
Perhaps the quintessential track is “Talulah Gosh,” featuring an exhilarating chorus which quickly accelerates to breakneck speed, and the whirlwind song “In Love for the Very First Time” is a testament to what can be done in a mere 68 seconds, cramming in two verses and three call-and-response/chorus sections, plus a manic guitar solo.
The most unhinged moment comes in “Testcard Girl,” with sonic chaos and screaming, while “Just a Dream,” with a reverberating “Be My Baby” drumbeat, is soft, tender and blissful. Most members of Talulah Gosh went on to form the group Heavenly—newcomers should start with The Decline and Fall of Heavenly —with the edges rounded off, but with its jagged bits of hard candy, Talulah Gosh enjoyed a short, perfect career.