– FEBRUARY 20, 2014
(ARIZONA) I had the pleasure of first catching The Cherry Bluestorms during last years International Pop Overthrow at The Sail Inn and I was immediately hooked on their psychedelic retro sound. They harken back to the mid to late 1960s in no uncertain terms and absolutely by design, right down to their entire look and dress–each of their albums has included a cover from that era as well. This is definitely my bailiwick and I guess I’m proving this by writing about them as the first band that is not local to get a full feature here, but I love their music and their style and they will be here this Friday. The Cherry Bluestorms are from Los Angeles and they consist of three musical vets who produce a set of song out of a labor of love for the sound itself. Deborah Gee is the leading chanteuse, Glenn Laughlin (The Dickies) is the multi-instrumental genius behind guitar, vocals, bass and keyboards and Mark Francis White (The Furys) is the drummer. Together they are The Cherry Bluestorms and they will be at Long Wong’s this Friday as special guests of Fairy Bones during the third installment of their FBOM residency.
While it is rumored that The Cherry Bluestorms are working on their third release, their most current record is the brilliant Bad Penny Opera released on Roundhouse Recording in 2012. Upon a single listen it’s not difficult to understand why the legendary David Bash heartily recommends this band and raved about their debut Transit Of Venus. I would have to completely agree without apology. Bad Penny Opera is a concept album, a song cycle that chronicles “Penny’s” journey South in search of herself–across thirteen tracks and 52 minutes the story is told with knowing nods to all of their influences and yet the great thing is, barring a cover that they make their own, you’d be hard pressed to say that any of it was derivative or plagiaristic. They simply have a knack for taking the influences of the mod, mod, mod world they adore and make it their own–hell, they even step into the 70s for a few moments. For anyone that digs mod-rock, Britpop and retro angl(o)ed outfits, I have a feeling that The Cherry Bluestorms may be your new favorite jam.
First of all it’s been a long, long time since I heard a band start an album with an overture. I was raised on Tommy, so I think that more albums should begin this way anyway. “Bad Penny Overture” is absolutely delightful if for no other reason than Laughlin’s brilliant groovy bassline and hypnotic guitar surrounded by swirling keyboards–rarely do you hear a song where The Who meets ELO, but here you have it. It borders a bit on prog rock honestly and here The Cherry Bluestorms are dipping their toes in the 70s swimming pool, but it builds your anticipation for whats to follow in no uncertain terms. The heartbreaking duet between Gee and Laughlin “By Your Leave” really starts things off brilliantly, I’m not sure styling like this has existed since the 60s, but it feels current and authentic. “Penny” is leaving her past and her lover who stayed to long, this sets the stage for what is to follow. One thing I have to hand to them is that this is humanly realistic, because the next song “A Better Place” is about “Penny” sleeping with her former lover one last time and after it was already over, coming to peace with the division. I am certain that many can relate: “It’s alright, you spent the night, and I like to think your grace has left us in a better place.” Artfully brilliant, it’s always hard to start at the end. This also has an amazing horn section going for it as well, a great jaunty number that is the happiest tune about dissolution I have heard
Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” was never really a “rock” song, until now and once more an amazing horn section that brilliantly highlights everything. I love everything Donovan has ever done and this cover is absolutely amazing because they make it their own–they take it like a mod rock band of the era would have and make it rock. In “Penny’s” story I imagine it is the start if her journey. “A True Heart Wears A Thorny Crown” is the first song on the album where Laughlin takes the vocal lead. It speaks of the vulnerability one places oneself in when you search for yourself in travel and experience–open to life, open to love, open to everything including a great amount of pain, hurt and the willingness to stay afloat despite such damages. Gee is back on vocals for “Sunday Driving South” and the song sounds literally like a Sunday driving South as you leave your life behind, think about all that you are shedding, both in emotional wait an the pain that was holding you down. There are also beautiful references to Piper At The Gates of Dawn, “Arnold Layne”, Mr. Toad and Ken Kesey. It all ends beautifully with a kaleidoscope guitar outro that makes my heart swoon. Laughlin takes the vocal lead on “The Country Man” and it seems to me that this is where “Penny” has reached the outlands in the drive to escape her former reality, it is a world of witch drownings, abject poverty, a place where they “Yield a hearty crop of pathos and fear.” Here again The Cherry Bluestorms take an incredibly bleak topic and turn it into a downright jaunty pop tune. But that’s how they used to do it–the music wasn’t sad when it spoke of social discomfort, it was upbeat, tight and right–it used that catchy hook heavy as hell technique to deliver devastating words to their listeners. I wish that ethos would return.
“World Going Mad” is another song in that vein. With a riff that seems very reminiscent of The Police, with flower power flourishes (no one does that), talks of the madness that “Penny” encounters now on her own. Her past behind her she discovers that the world is drenched in insanity everywhere she turns. In trying to find herself, perhaps to ease her own state of mind, she discovers society is far more unstable than what she imagined. Laughlins maudlin delivery of this sentiment is brilliant in every way. The driving rhythm and guitar of “As Above So Below” is enough to get you going and with Gee on lead, this is pure single material. Easily one of my favorite songs on the album not only musically, but lyrically as well. “Penny” seems to have gone down the rabbit hole at this point with references to magic and the lore way, visions of hanging on a cloud and understanding the difference between the self and other with a brilliant backmasked ending. “London Bridge” with Laughlin on lead is not the same old song that you would think it was. I’m not sure where it falls into place with the song cycle, except for a psychedelic perception that no matter where you go, you’re still there and that you can change the scenery, but the faces are the same. It’s like the the musical equivalent of saying that the only common link to all of your failed relationships is you. Brilliant.
While most of the album sticks to a 60s ideology “To Love You Is A Crime” explodes with the ferocity of My Bloody Valentine and the Creation artists that surrounded them. Another Laughlin lead, there is a brilliant musical complexity here structurally and I love it. One of the fiercest tracks on the album by far and by far the furthest removed from their roots. It is a tale of loving someone that feels should not be loved and “Penny” does indeed love this new lead in her life, despite all resistance. “Start Again” is exactly what it says it is in the realm if the concept and its probably Laughlin’s best lead on the entire album. It definitely verges on Beatles/Oasis territory, but with darker chords, and it’s that, the darkness that makes it unique, save for the chorus: “Let it all in, let it all out again, let it in your heart, then you can start to let it all in, let it in and out, never have the heart, if you have the heart to start again.” Beautiful. In a peculiar turn and a bit of striking realism in turn, the opera ends with “Bad”, a tale of regret and sorrow for having been so open. You may easily recognize the funky bass line from the overture at the start as everything comes full circle. It’s unclear that “Penny” is reminiscing about the love that drove her away in search of herself or the love she just found, but the ambiguity is wonderfully amazing and it doesn’t matter in the least, because love cycles are like that. If anything the song echos the echos that are repeated patterns in our lives with love and relationships. Was it the new beau or was it the old? Is there a difference? Isn’t the loss exactly the same.
I don’t know if my interpretation of these songs is even remotely close to what The Cherry Bluestorms intended and I truly invite you to listen to the album and draw your own perceptions. No matter what Bad Penny Opera is an amazing album that has me mesmerized. I encourage everyone that reads this to head to Long Wong’s on Friday night to catch them in action. Hell, I want to go to pick up a copy of Venus In Transit because I can’t wait to hear their cover of The Beatles “Baby You’re A Rich Man.” That night you’ll also have Fairy Bones of course, as well as Stereoblind, Sister Lip and The Haymarket Squares! What a great fucking night! Seriously, get there early and stay late.