Sunbaked

Swaying beside me is a foot-high stack of records by young East Coast improv-rock mutants (Schleigho, the Slip, Disco Biscuits), all bands in whose company (Ominous Seapods, Miracle Orchestra, Ulu) I'd gladly waste a Wetlands evening in head-bobbing, ale-sipping, and glass-sucking communion (Jiggle the Handle, Lake Trout, F-hole). Question is, how much of these bands' studio-recorded output (i.e., not live tapes, no) would I actually spin for kith and kin with any degree of you-gotta-hear-this? For way too long the sad little answer has been: approximately zilch.

Oh, I might cue up an isolated jam— as much of moe.'s 46-minute "Meat" single as a curious friend will tolerate, say, or the Hosemobile's "Big Bird & the Pot Empty," if only to point out a refreshing Beefheart tinge (oops, they're from Tennessee)— but an entire album? Sorry. OK, maybe the Seapods' Jet Smooth Ride. Then again, probably not, just as I'd urge anyone away from Phish's pallid Story of the Ghost who hadn't already heard the magical Munich "Wolfman's Brother" from Slip Stitch and Pass. Blame, if you need to, the Dead, who released their ambitious Terrapin Station in 1977, then essentially kissed off the medium in gloriously slack resignation to the endless tour. And if the Grateful fucking Dead no longer gave a tinker's damn about making good records, why should any other hippie band?

Percy Hill's Color in Bloom, however, is simply the most tightly focused, addictively listenable, and downright accessible studio album made by and for the preppie-stoner cult to date. But the irony part of my enthusiasm for the New Hampshire quartet's excellent album lies in the negligible impression they've made on me— mainly a lingering piscine aroma on the few occasions I've encountered them onstage. Indeed the group's fourth self-produced record Color in Bloom (available via the Homegrown Music Network, www. versanet.com/homegrown/percyhill.htm) was released hard on the heels of the lackluster Double Feature, two CDs documenting Hill's prior six-member lineup. Four guys subsequently left the group, and two new musicians were added to fill out the current incarnation (still named, prosaically enough, after a long-gone band member's father).

Color in Bloom is a crunchy artificial paradise concerned with vision, growth, and decay. Songwriters Aaron Katz (newbie drummer) and Nathan Wilson (founding key-boardist) have created a complex Baudelairean scenario ("like flowers wilting slowly we are planted here") over the course of an album no less organically rooted in site-specific sociology than, say, American Beauty or Nevermind. In songs hinging on simultaneous recognition and horror of the romantic other, Color discovers grace and redemption amid decomposing lysergic nights and Ecstasy hangovers. Repeated images of the sun, moon, and stars suggest euphoric and frightening bemushroomed visions reinforced by cover illustrations of grossly dilated corneas.

Chaos and dementia rule a garden of earthly delights inhabited by some of the Gobi scene's sketchier chemical casualties. "Looking down from the trees," sings Katz in "Ammonium Maze," the album's brilliant centerpiece, "I see rays of blazing sun and I wonder what's gone wrong with the sky." The stalking suitor of "313" recalls the "sunny day I let this fever get the best of me," and the bliss ninny of "Sun Machine" doses himself at the door, loses his friends, yet feels "nothing but sunshine pouring over me" as he boogies the night away, seduced and abducted by the night, the music, the molecules.

And seductive it is. These white-light visions are mainly set to the beat of the sort of perky hippie disco that's been bubbling up in Phish, moe., and Disco Biscuits jams over the past couple years (hey, you won't even hear a guitar solo until five songs in). Percy Hill's version can be traced back to the fat thump, hyperfunk guitar, and assured keyboard swagger of Steely Dan. You might also hear the faux-jazz bluster of Sting beside choruses so catchy they might have been written by Paul Simon on 500 mics of liquid. But it's the Dan of "King of the World" (which the Hill sometimes covers) and "Deacon Blues" whose megalomanic afflictions recur on an everyday New Hampshire (rather than L.A. or Manhattan) scale in Color, although the "inner beast" lies right below the surface of the title track's long, darkening jam. A blithe sunshine daydream on its surface— and for a low-budget indie it sounds like a million bucks— Color in Bloom is ultimately a heliotropic nightmare. "Step into the sun," sings guitarist Joe Farrell in "Beneath the Cover," "feel the rays of heaven beat you to your knees." Who loves the sun indeed.

Percy Hill plays Wetlands February 20.

 
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