[Review] The Van Allen Belt – Meal Ticket To Purgatory

The Van Allen Belt - Meal Ticket To Purgatory

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I have fallen in love with the voice of a woman I’ve never met or even seen. This won’t end well; I have a wife and kids to think about, but I can’t help myself. The voice in question belongs to The Van Allen Belt’s Tamar Kamin who, along with B.K. Ferris, Tom Altes and Scott Taylor form one of the most talented bands out there today. These guys manage to conjur all manner of ideas with the power of their personalities and the combined unusualness of their musical path. I recently listened to their Meal Ticket to Purgatory album, and it’s hard to do justice to this thick slab of high quality choonz, but I’ll try. I’ll also try not to creep out Ms. Kamin by repeatedly referring to how great her voice is. Or not. We’ll see.

The first track was a hazy chant, designed to test the listener, I reckon. It eventually turned into “The Hills are Alive” which was like stepping into another world. Much of this song sounds like a lost Beatles hit, unearthed from an archaeological treasure trough in John Lennon’s back garden…with some Zappa and Residents thrown in for good measure. This is eclectic stuff, executed with as much confidence and ability as anything I’ve ever listened to. They’ve inspired a new word in me: Optimational, a kind of direct antithesis of a live Morrissey concert. Even stranger, I just checked their Twitter page and they only have 124 followers! Perhaps I should handle their social media efforts…

After “Hills” the next track is “The River Hive”. This one left me speechless. It hits you like an external belt of energy that literally envelopes and infuses star-borne particles that cause flowers to bloom in your heart, flowers that are absorbed into the bloodstream and supply a new kind of motion to the brain. I’m serious; this is amazing. The vocals carry warmth that is so utterly convincing I’m suspicious these guys are remote viewers or at least seasoned emotional manipulators. Don Draper’s famous “Carousel” description should have had this tune as a soundtrack. The tune switches to a musical roiling rhythm for the last minute or so that sounds like the Thirteenth Elevators and Sky Sunlight Saxon’s Masters of Psychedelia fused together in some superhuman genetic physics experiment. It worked. “The River Hive” explodes on the mind’s taste-buds like a picnic in a faraway sunsplashed hippie utopia. The mystery girl swears frequently, providing a realism to temper the dreamy quality of her powerful voice. I really need to find her number. Has anyone got it?

“So It Goes” comes next, like Dusty Springfield skipping along a busy 60s city sidewalk on some unknown designer drug that keeps swaying way out into the far spiral arms of what is possible with our monkey minds. The same optimism of “The River Hive” is present. There’s a sense of being on a journey. On foot. Feet, sorry.

“Way Up” bears the now familiar expert-sounding cohesion of all that flowed before it. Folksy and whimsical, again reminiscent of a top 60s diva, it sounds like Springfield reached her destination where she apparently works as a waitress (at least I hope she’s a waitress and not something filthier). One who says things like “I hide from you, and hope you die…” while sounding like the most wholesome girl in the tri-State area, especially when she signs off with “…I just…hope…you’re in time for dinner!”. Tasty stuff.

“Alaska Dreamin'” comes next. For some reason I see this song as a Van Allen Belt anthem in the same way that “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” is a Kinks anthem. The song bears reference to finding a job was “just a practical joke” and entails driving all night and sleeping all day. Ironically, the tune reminded me more of the daytime, a frenetic retro city, where Mad Men and secretaries thronged archaic sidewalks and slipped into incongruous revolving doors of pale green glass. But that’s just me. Ben Ferris from The Van Allen Belt puts it like this:

“People often ask “How did you make Meal Ticket…?” The answer: by borrowing money from friends and sponging off well intentioned people. And then eventually, I had to deliver pizzas again. When I was working, I kept the radio off. It was on the road that I wrote many of the lyrics. When we recorded ‘Alaska Dreamin’’ I really was a pizza guy.”

Driving all night, indeed. There’s a satire here, and everywhere else, that is not unlike that of cult 80s British band “Deaf School”. The same glittery smile that masks a million guffaws. The same nod to eras past as a way to avoid eye contact with today’s vacuous vipers who live to insult via the Web.

“Alaska” starts with a trademark ‘period piece’ effect. It feels like morning. Clonging (is that a word?), a rapid belltower peals out over a weird mid-60s “Winchester Cathedral” type quasi-English landscape, where everyone dresses in purple velvet with lacy ruffles at their necks. This song has a morphology of its own; Beatles a la “Yellow Submarine” cartoon, complete with elongated legs that terminate in comical Paul McCartneyesque bellbottoms that swish through multicolour leaves, fallen from alien trees at the end of what feels like a fantabulous summer in this secret valley city.

“The Revolution Will Be Merchandised”, possibly a play on “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, sees the VAB break out the brass instruments. Kamin unleashes more of those strong drawn-out vocals, comparable to Arthur Lee at his best. Along with the cursing comes reference to kids on the streets who are “murdered on a daily basis”, jarring and infinitely more energetic than political messages broadcast by lesser artists. Tamar Kamin’s voice truly sounds like that of someone who is very famous, and it’s a great injustice that needs putting to rights. This is followed by “How To Get Along Famously”, a tune has an old swing to it, with an orchestral quality. When Kamin talks of “everybody’s eyes all over me” and says “Let’s give this town a show” there’s no trace of the former hippiedom. They sound more like sophisticated conservative elitists, or more correctly, social chameleons climbing the status vine up to where the ruling lizards dwell.

In “Charity Sex” the seriousness peters out with a smashing echo trailing off the words, like a female version of that strange “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” song from 1966. Psychedelic diva Kamin sounds interested, ashamed and appalled by the phenomenon of charity sex, but it doesn’t stop her from singing about it. I just want to run away with her and live in one of her songs forever. My wife’ll kill me if she reads this.

“I can’t Believe You Murdered Me” has a drumbeat tambourine not unlike Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and a distinct tint of the 80s about it. Reminiscent of Plasticland’s sterling 1984 Color Appreciation album, It ends with the most beautiful little tune repeated several times that resembles a spectral dewdrop condensed from tears of radiant joy on a blade of mystic grass on a lawn that gyrates about some multiverse axis of oneness like a love boat in an ecstasy whirlpool. Too much? Nah. Well, maybe a bit. This little tune, like a lot of this album, either sounds like something else from the deep recesses of the subconscious or else induces dejas vu. Whichever one is true, they definitely know what they’re doing, and that to me is the true measure of a good band. Take The Who for instance; their early-60s catalogue is absolute dynamite, proper top stuff. But later that decade, and especially in the 70s, they lost control of their own sound. They didn’t know “who” they were anymore (God, I’m funny when I get going). Not the case with the Van Allen Belt. By which I mean they know who they are and what they’re doing, not that they’re not funny. They’re very funny, I can assure you, in a kind of a David Byrne sense.

“For the 20th Time” has a kind of Roaring 20s-meets-Sandy-Shaw-on-acid feel to it, and I’m now packing my bags and wondering what I’ll write in the letter I leave on the kitchen table for my wife to find…Kamin mentions “mind control” in this song, arousing more fears that these guys are actually part of the CIA’s Majestic 12 Group. Hmm, maybe I should just forget her. She sounds like trouble.

“Love With A Ten Foot Pole”, as uncomfortable and difficult to accommodate as I imagine that to be, is a virtual rocking gospel house in which the band express themselves as a blinkered yet enlightened flock of rabid disciples. There’s a couple of seconds where it almost sounds like the Doors’ “Light My Fire” but it disappears as fast as it emerges, which is very bloody fast indeed. Then comes the masterpiece, “Vancouver” (as opposed to The River Hive, which is an obscene assault on the heart and brain that causes one to spew liquid emotion from orifices one didn’t know one had). “Vancouver” swishes its bellbottoms across a floor made from Fraser Fir that was a Christmas trees in a public square in some sad little Pacific Northwestern town. “Get out of this ghetto and move to Vancouver with me” is the mantra here. I’m not sure which ghetto they’re talking about, but it sounds a f*ckload more optimistic than Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”, a song that deals with a similar plan, but on the opposite coast. “Vancouver” enters into a brief “Leaving on a Jet Plane” type corridor at times, before Kamin’s power opens up once more, like a faithful fertile volcano upon which magic mushrooms grow in abundance. The Van Allen Belt – the “real” Van Allen Belt, I mean – is a couple of electromagnetic conveyors of plasma that surround the Earth. By some coincidence (or is it?!?) I have always been interested in plasma cosmology, and it was the band’s name that first attracted me. These people have no gimmicks, no tricks, no bullshit. It’s raw talent in full flow, and oh Jesus I’m gonna miss my kids…

Ian Hough

Michael Knight – Youth Is Wasted On The Young (2005)

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Dublin collective Michael Knight released their debut with a minimum of fanfare. They also appeared out of the blue from a country that is adept at uncovering troubadours yet has a slightly anaemic record in producing exciting new bands. That may be about to change, however, if Michael Knight achieve what their music ultimately deserves. With a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah net savvy they could soon be the sensations of the underground because hidden inside their shiny armoury are bundles of sonic joy. There are justifiable Belle & Sebastian comparisons but their influences also span the several degrees of separation between the Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach. With such a varied game plan it seems entirely appropriate that they decided to call themselves after a 1980’s TV character. What the bright red shorts wearing, million record selling crooner thinks of it all is another matter altogether.

It’s that early Belle & Sebastian energetic quirkiness that hits you first. ‘Waves To The Shore’ is a superb piece of affecting kitsch with attendant vintage keyboards, Richard Murphy’s warm vocals and glorious background harmonies from Edel Coffey and Lynn Millar. The piece is perfectly off-kilter yet exuberantly innocent. The bands most successful efforts are based around a lavish chorus where the boy/girl interplay is perfectly executed. ‘Leaving Town’ is a ravishing example; the piano interlude at the beginning barely reveals the sweetness about to be unveiled. There is a children’s daytime programme feel about the way Murphy delivers his lines, one half jolly the other fabulously silly. That’s not to detract from the joy of it but it’s only when the trio combine to furnish a multi-layered chorus that the magic occurs. The result is otherworldly, completely timeless, effortlessly dispatched yet utterly compelling. This is a certifiable modern day classic. The title track is almost as good, for once Patrick Freyne takes over the lead and his near santa like voice provides the perfectly foil to the gentle ahh’s of Richard and the girls. The music that sits in the foreground is playful, understated and the tinkling piano is the only thing that steals the limelight from the singers.

The quality is evenly spread throughout the album but some tracks take a bit more time to reveal themselves. ‘Bright Eye’ showboats quirky structures and unveils offbeat melody at every turn so it’s easy to overlook it initially. By letting it mature slowly, however, it grows into a multi-faceted pop entity. ‘The Lights Go On And Off’ is frenetic and as dispassionate as the record gets. Murphy pulls a note perfect Stuart Murdoch impression while the guitars sound like they have just returned from an enjoyable eastern escapade. ‘Lead Me Down’ is a lot gentler, the piano sounds comfortably familiar, the strumming is campfire friendly and the tiered vocals gel so seamlessly together you may find yourself singing along in an unrehearsed shower moment. ‘Crown Of Thorns’ has a Wilsonesque feel to it and even finds time to include a whistling solo into proceedings. What takes this fine debut out of the classic category is the presence of a couple of disappointing numbers. If they had been culled then we’d be looking at one of the most flawless introductions since Tigermilk. ‘Success!’ is inexplicably dour and out of sync with the rest of the happy go lucky fare. The vocals are tired, off key and the instrumentation would suit the moment the funeral cortege enters the graveyard. ‘No Second Best’ is slightly better yet slight nonetheless. Perhaps it could work ok as a b-side but it struggles to find any meaning throughout its stunted life. But, disappointments are certainly in the minority and a couple of seconds in the company of tracks like ‘Seasons’ draws a colourful crayon smile in your psyche. ‘Foals’ was the albums first single and is perfectly pitched indie folk that you can dance to. If Arthur Lee had had Richard Murphy’s voice this perfect ditty would have made it onto the ‘Forever Changes’ masterpiece without much ado. The guitars even have a country twang that is semi Morricone in nature.

In some ways ‘I Did It Biff’s Way’ is an altogether separate direction for the band but as a closing track there’s no denying its genius in capping a marvellous record. It reminds most of something that the underrated Swedish band South Ambulance can conjure. Right from the off the pulsating riffs set the momentum with Murphy’s vocal riding the entourage with graceful dexterity. You can picture the end of gig antics as the band decide its time to ditch the balanced harmonies in favour of a sublime feast of chugging noise. This is indie rock at its most ebullient and its greatest achievement is the way it reveals hidden nuances with repeated listens. The circular disposition is shattered toward the end when the roof blows to reveal the sun, moon and the stars. Michael Knight are quite likely the most essential thing to come out of Ireland since Damien Rice decided America was for him. Up to now their sales likely only run into the thousands but if there is justice Murphy et al will need to look for extra wall space to accommodate lots of round platinum things. ‘Youth Is Wasted On The Young’ is the only musical kitt you’ll need for your home, portable or, of course, your car stereo.

Rating: 8/10

In Motion – The Language Of Everyday Life (1994)

In Motion - The Language of Everyday Life

You can now buy the remastered ‘The Language of Everyday Life’ from Indiecater!

Signed to the imperious Dead Elvis label, In Motion left a small yet indelible impression on the local Dublin scene with their one and only album ‘The Language Of Everyday Life’. The production was raw at best, decidedly creaky at worst, yet the abiding feeling of joyfulness on listening to this album of technicolor melodies is one to savour repeatedly. In Motion first appeared out of the blue on ‘No Disco’, Ireland’s much loved but sadly defunct foray into alternative music. The scattered images of ‘Hollow Blow’ portraying an ordinary ramble though Dublin City Centre were soundtracked by a haze of fuzzy guitars and a rollercoaster collage of mouth-watering vocals. Imagine standing in the Gobi in the midst of a snowfall; the effect is mesmerising, emotional even.

‘The Language Of Everyday Life’ is in essence a distillation of the jangle pop genre, where the chords lightly shimmer in unison with vocals that effortlessly spin pretty patterns. ‘Until My Dreams Come True’ is the stunning opener where the rampaging guitars melt into the sucrose vocals. The seamless playing is orchestrated by lyrics as unsullied as ‘In the corner of your heart, is there a place I can hide?’ Alan Kelly applies such integrity to his singing you’ll likely retreat to your cuff at every available opportunity. ‘Splitting The Seams’ and ‘Honey Sweet Soul’ sit side by side on a wave of Slowdive machinations. The pace is close to static, the chopping guitars resembling waves on a calm day. Why bother with that whales sound cassette when artificiality is as good as this, who needs a soother when you have the aural equivalent?

The second part of the album is where In Motion’s inner fireworks finally ignite. ‘Hollow Blow’ is machine gun pop with gum drops for bullets. ‘In Daylight’ is possessed by frenetic jangling guitars while Liam Ryan (Drums) keeps them in line. In an album of aerobatic vocals the swooping volleys by Kelly are heart wrenching. The albums soul comes in the form of ‘Five And Twenty Thousand Days’. The bass bumble (John Duff), the chugging riffs, the affecting singing and the heavenly trumpet as 20th century Scaramouche create an intoxicating mix so that by the time ‘Filter’ appears your heart will have already surrendered. And what a way to say goodbye. Right down to the gorgeous synth foray this is the sound of a broken heart saying goodbye. And at just 30 minutes this will be one of the shortest yet most enduring relationships you will ever have with a collection of songs.

‘The Language Of Everyday Life ‘is not a conventional album. Only 1,000 copies were ever shipped from the Dead Elvis’ offices. The production values alone make it sound like a demo recorded in a damp garage. It would be easy to dismiss but the ideas and warmth are of a band so special it is upsetting to realise that the world never even noticed. The only other release of note from the band was the ‘For An Evening’s Velvet Ending’ single (Mucksavage Records) which included ‘Hollow Blow’. In Motion members are still making music in projects as diverse as electronic Decal (Alan O’Boyle) and slowcore The Last Post (Alan Kelly). Whether either can ever reach such sonic heights is doubtful but having a pop sphere like ‘The Language Of Everyday Life’ in their back catalogue must be as comforting as a particularly downy duvet set. Seek this album out with the intensity of a mislaid winning lottery ticket.

Rating: 9.5/10