Thursday, April 21, 2005

CD Review - Love Tractor: Black Hole

Love Tractor

Why do people keep buying Paul McCartney albums? You know that each new one will be a pale shade of the greatness of years before, but still you plunk down your hard earned cash hoping to find a little spark of the glory of before. Not that it’s fair to single out Sir Paul exclusively; it’s the same for lots of artists, especially ones with long careers. The other side of this is when an artist that has been out of the game for awhile decides to give it another try, which brings us to the 21st Century version of Love Tractor.

Love Tractor was part of the great wave of ‘80’s bands from Athens, Georgia. I’m sure you’ve heard of a few of them such as The B-52’s, R.E.M., Oh-OK, Pylon, Dreams So Real, The Method Actors, The Now Explosion (now, “Nappy” that was a song), and The Side Effects. Rodger Lyle Brown’s book Party Out Of Bounds and the film Athens, GA, Inside-Out are both great sources if you want to learn the history of the scene. I lived up the road quite a piece, Nashville, but it was still close enough to go ape for everything Athens, GA. The Athens music fanzine, Tasty World, was distributed at the local record stores and Athens bands were always playing in Nashville. Love Tractor were one of the standouts with their combination of surfboard waxed instrumentals that seemed to emanate from some off planet surf spot mixed with pristine pop and the local Athens version of funk. They were known for throwing in Gap Band covers, but it was the pop masterpiece “Beatle Boots” off of This Ain’t No Outer Space Ship that forever endeared them to me. They made an album in 2001 called The Sky At Night(their first since 1989), but hadn’t been heard from since.

So when I heard that principal Tractor, Mike Richmond, had gotten Love Tractor started again I got that McCartney type feeling. I knew I’d have to get the record, but I was also sure it would stink when compared to the halcyon days. What drives a music fan to keep coming back for more when it is probably going to be bad? I suppose it’s the twin edged cut of memory and desire that usually leaves a spirit bleeding and sad. It’s the memory of the former greatness and that potential to once more be great and the desire to feel those same emotions that elated you in the past, a chance to recharge cells desperately needing a jolt. Journeying into the past is a perilous thing, but once I saw that the new Love Tractor album, Black Hole, was coming out on Fundamental Records I knew I was going to get it for good or bad. Fundamental Records has the Shockabilly connection to my heart, another great artist from the past. My memories were stoked and ready to hear Black Hole hoping Love Tractor weren’t going to lead me into one.

The blurb accompanying the album said that Richmond wanted the album to be “a kind of surreal, somewhat nonsensical, little bit scary trip” and I think he succeeded very finely. That’s right, Love Tractor have succeeded finely. Meet the new model, just as good as the old model, albeit different. Richmond had to recruit a new band since the other original members didn’t want to do anything anymore. Some of the best Athens players are on board; Tom Lewis (Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule, VOL), Billy Holmes (Uncle Tupelo, VOL), Ben Holst (Avenues, Velure) and Darren Staley (Squat). It’s a ride into some harder edged grooves than the ‘80’s band ever recorded with a copious dose of psychedelia also thrown in.

The tougher sound is right from the start on “Georgia Rain’ with the new heaviness lightened by some deft Rhodes organ flourishes. Billy Holmes brings out something called worm guitar for the prog rock “Another One” while “Epidemic” recalls the old Love Tractor style well. There may be no pristine pop on this CD, but “Knives And Guns” reminds me of mid-period Meat Puppets with its muscular swagger. “Black Hole” boasts FMM flavor; flute, mellotron, and moog. The real psychedelic standout is “Electric Chair”; it has soundtrack overtones along with electric ambient crackles like a shorted wire – truly weird and spooky. Richmond cops a Robert Pollard vocal sound for “Queen Of The Cesspool” that would impress the most cynical Guided By Voices fan. The only real misstep is on the musically tame, “Wizards In The Sky” due to lyrics that sound like they written after too many Dungeons & Dragons games. It has stone age demons, wizards, demons dropping bombs, dragons, and labyrinths. I expected a miniature Stonehenge monument to descend from the sky at any moment. Maybe the dropping bombs line is a sly reference to “You Dropped A Bomb On Me” by The Gap Band.

So memory and desire collided with Love Tractor and a bumper crop was harvested. Black Hole was a pleasant surprise and proof that an old group can learn new tricks without losing any of the inventiveness and artistic bravery of the past. Now I can’t wait for the next McCartney album.


Lance said...

That sounds very interesting. I was in a band that opened for LT and Tomorrow's World at the Cannery in 1986. If memory serves, Mike Mills and 1 or 2 other REMers were there. I believe they were recording the follow up to Life's Rich Pageant (or maybe they were recording LRP). Great blog BTW.

Wally Bangs said...

Were you playing with Jet Black Factory by then? REM would have been following up LRP (it was recorded in Indiana at John Cougar Mellencamp's Belmont Studio with Don Gehman producing) since Document was recorded at the Sound Emporium in Nash Vegas with Scott Litt behind the soundboard. Enough of my useless REM trivia, glad you enjoyed the blog.

Lance said...

It was the 1st version of a band called Deacon Fields. Jeff Sparks was the singer. Really good songs that (for the most part) never got recorded. What I wouldn't give to have a copy of some of that stuff.