When West Coast psych-rockers Comets
on Fire released Blue Cathedral, many fans were surprised to hear subdued
strains of jazz and acid folk creeping into their abnegating, bludgeoning guitar
swirl, and they immediately blamed new member Ben Chasny, well-known for playing
a mean acoustic guitar in Six Organs of Admittance. In a recent interview withPitchfork, however, Chasny directed listeners to the real culprit.
"People think that I have something to do with Comets mellowing out," he notes,
"but that's not true. The mellow jams on Blue Cathedral are mostly by
Utrillo, the drummer... I wish I could take credit for them."
After giving the public a foretaste of his personable, piano-based aesthetic in
Comets songs like "Pussy Foot the Duke," Utrillo Kushner took some of his
original compositions into the studio and recorded this album under the name
Colossal Yes. Though Acapulco Roughs was set to tape over the course of
2005, its songs date back to the early '00s, and Kushner has been home-recording
keyboard-based tunes for even longer. "I had been making CD-Rs for like ten
years," he told me. And while his contributions to Comets have channeled the
band's trippy absurdity through a friendlier outlet, Colossal Yes dispenses with
noise, bluster, and altered states of consciousness altogether. These are most
likely the kinds of songs that Kushner's bandmates "totally fucking rejected" during the Blue Cathedral sessions. Colossal Yes, like Comets, draws
heavily from the '60s and '70s, but here Kushner's touchstones are Judee Sill
and Randy Newman rather than Blue Cheer and The Stooges.
The shock of Kushner's stylistic change of tack wears off quickly, much like
that of Full House star Bob Saget's obscenity-laced stand-up routines.
More jarring and interesting is Colossal Yes's earnestness, as few bands
acknowledge their own ridiculousness as readily as Comets and still fewer cast
the entire business of being a rock band in such a nihilistic light. For
Kushner, Acapulco Roughs "is just simple songs to help me get by." Just
as he dusts off classic AM pop's timbres and attention to lavish-yet-intelligent
arrangements, he also recovers his own teenage love of immediate, conversational
pop music, the kind he once "obsessed about, romanticized, and fell in love
Life does its best to ensure that we quit thinking of pop music as a big
communal artist-audience love-in. We read T.S. Eliot's impersonal theory of art,
hear Merzbow, work the corporate 9-to-5, have children or younger relatives who
adore Kelly Clarkson, get divorced, quit going to church – detachment,
abandonment of the ideal, and regression into self grow more appealing and
sometimes even necessary as our emotional investments more frequently return
void. Acapulco Roughs sounds like it's lived through its share of similar
disappointments and severances, and its sincerity is all the more potent for it.
In "O'Crocus Shall Be Raised," Kushner transmits cannibalism and decay through
terse, precise phrases that Hemingway, whose For Whom the Bell Tolls he
cites as the song's inspiration, would appreciate. He lets the images fester
until their baseness causes the song to burst open, at which point a cranking
guitar lead (one of the only Comets-esque elements on the entire album) and
fever-pitch cymbals summon forth a bloody cry of affirmation: "Yes is the
answer, yes." The song's speaker sees the ugliness around him, finds it also in
himself, and then struggles to transcend with all his might. As dramatic as this
climactic last grasp is, though, it's baroque and stylized – and bloody – enough
that we don't feel pushed to follow along. Triumph seems like a machination when
it's accompanied by guitars that sound like the Fourth of July, but hearing a
human being truly struggle for a reason to affirm in the wake of excessive sin
and under the weight of excessive emotion can rouse our superior empathy in a
disarming way. The alchemy of songwriting, the wild interior life of this
catharsis communicates a hope that the song's words cannot.
This insistence on conversing through sound gives Acapulco Roughs much of
its power. Kushner might take cues from novels he's read, but his songs aren't
short fiction masquerading as pop; the album impresses most on a compositional
level. "A Fig for Misfortune" incorporates a knockout woozy horn section,
sounding like something Jeff Mangum would have written if he had learned more
chords and a little restraint, while "The Honeycreeper Smiles" soars highest
during its piano/flute/drums breakdown. At 11-minutes, "Poor Boy's Zodiac"
relies most heavily on instrumental intrigue, and Kushner and his accompanists
merit attention for the track's duration, piecing together a meditative
mini-epic that falls somewhere between the backside of Neil Young's On the
Beach and Archer Prewitt's solo material. A couple of songs feel a bit too
nebulously arranged for their own good, the most notable being closer "There's
Red Dirt in Wine," which denies the album the sterling cap-off it deserves.
The dim spots don't spoil the whole, though, and their infrequency is remarkable
considering that Kushner calls this a collection of "songs I wrote for myself."
In fact, perfection would be anathema to Kushner's prevailing belief that "it's
okay if you don't have super triumphs. Being a simple person is fine." And
Acapulco Roughs seems always aware of this, never trying to change
the world but always remaining imminently full of the stuff that just might