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Shiva Burlesque - Mercury Blues + Skullduggery/The Ophelias - Bare Bodkin/Alison Clancy - Mutant Gifts EP (Independent Project)

25 February 2022

Last year, music fans of a certain taste (and, let’s be honest, age) were thrilled to note the resurrection of Independent Project Records, the label founded by Savage Republic and Scenic leader Bruce Lichter. Known as much for its uniquely gorgeous letterpress packaging as for its discerning taste in artists (For Against, Half-String, Fourwaycross, Alison’s Halo, the aforementioned Scenic and Savage Republic), IPR seemed to be in hibernation for the last several years, but Licher’s beautiful repackaging of the catalog of psychedelic shamans Red Temple Spirits back in 2013 showed signs of life. As of 2021, the label is back at full functionality, releasing deluxe versions of Scenic’s debut Incident at Cima, Half-String’s first album A Fascination With Heights and the sampler/singles comp The Source last year. The first quarter of 2022 brings a new trio of releases that both dig into the history of eighties college/alternative rock and look towards the future.

Though it got some acclaim during its brief late eighties existence, L.A.’s Shiva Burlesque is probably best known as the incubator for epic rock band Grant Lee Buffalo, all three of whose members served in Shiva at the time of the album at hand. Mercury Blues, the quintet’s second and final recording, makes one wonder why the band wasn’t more popular than it was. The marriage of singer Jeffrey Clark’s abstract poetry and charismatic baritone to guitarist Grant Lee Phillips’ shimmering acoustic 12-string seems made in Paisley Underground heaven, especially when supported by the adroit rhythm work from bassist Paul Kimble and drummer Joey Peters and quasi-ambient soundscapes from cellist Greg Adamson. The fivesome performs these songs as if they’re all extensions of one creative mind, whether it’s on blasting rockers like “Chester the Chimp” and “Sick Friends,” smoky fever dreams like “Who is the Mona Lisa?” and “Nez Percé,” playful cheekiness like “Do the Pony” or an awesome anthem like “Chrome Halo.” The one exception to this visionary focus is the magnificent “Cherry Orchard,” a Phillips-written slice of acid folk that sounds like the blueprint for Grant Lee Buffalo stands as just one more slice of wonder on a wonderful record. Unfortunately, the band split just a few months after the LP came out, which is the only rational explanation as to why Mercury Blues didn’t become a sleeper hit in the burgeoning alternative rock world, instead of a once tragically lost but now happily found classic.

Besides coming wrapped in typically excellent graphics and packaging including a postcard and a booklet with liner notes by David Fricke, this reissued edition comes with a second disk of demos entitled Skullduggery. Besides early versions of six Mercury Blues tunes, the collection also contains four songs that never made it past the demo stage, including the luminous “Moonchild,” the droning “Paul is Dead” and “Stoves!,” a Grant Lee Buffalo song in all but name, if a particularly psychedelic one. The set ends with the gorgeous “Mink Emeralds Play,” a dreamy bit of wide-eyed psych folk that was the last song the band created together.

As with Shiva Burlesque, San Francisco’s Ophelias seems like a natural fit within the Paisley Underground world, and indeed, bandleader Leslie Medford had hardcore fans in scene leaders like Game Theory’s Scott Miller and the Three O’Clock’s Michael Quercio. But, aside from some 120 Minutes airplay for the silly, unrepresentative romp “Lawrence of Euphoria” (a tune pointedly not in this collection), the quartet never really caught on outside of a few aficionados. Still, Bare Bodkin, which compiles many of the band’s best songs and unreleased nuggets, makes a good case for the long-defunct outfit’s relevance. Deeply soaked in the work of William Shakespeare (no surprise, given that both the band’s name and this comp’s title come from Hamlet) and with a seemingly direct connection to the same ethereal spirit powering such late sixties/early seventies icons as Syd Barrett and Peter Hammill, Medford wrote songs that sound channeled from another, more mystical dimension – but one that still allows for basic needs to be met. “The guy was dynamite/He was a god,” declares Medford on the appropriately exciting “The Golden Calf Played Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a tune that satisfies the urge to rock even as it skewers its practitioners.

Joined midway through their career by expert axeman David Immerglück, who would later anchor the equally eccentric Monks of Doom and do long-term work with John Hiatt, Camper Van Beethoven and Counting Crows, the band finally had the virtuoso musicianship needed to really put Medford’s whimsies over the top. From the widescreen psychedelia of “Glory Hog” and the previously unreleased “Sleepy Hamlet” (co-written by Shiva Burlesque’s Jeffrey Clark and Grant Lee Phillips) to the capricious acid crackpop of “Pretty Green Ice-Box Eyes” and “This is My Advice to You” and the outright absurdity of “Mister Rabbit” (an adaptation of an old children’s rhyme) and “Overture to Anaconda,” the Ophelias combine restless impulse with musicianly craft in ways not then heard since The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Medford even has the temerity to adapt passages from Hamlet directly into rock with “Nocturnal Blonde” and make it work.

But IPR isn’t concerned only with the past, but also looks toward the future. Following the self-release of the cassette Psycho Tyko and some Bandcamp downloads, enigmatic singer/songwriter/dancer/choregrapher Alison Clancy makes her label debut with the Mutant Gifts EP. Accompanied by cellist Brent Arnold, guitarist Clancy essays a pair of songs that serve as an introduction to her worldview. The title track, which was recorded live and appears in two mixes, features her ghostly croon over an atmospheric swoon of a tune that manages to hold attention over the course of eight minutes. “Dreamland Tokyo” drops the singing for a distorted wash of guitar and cello that perfectly follows its title. The EP is more of a teaser than a fully realized statement, but as an introduction (especially with the classy postcards included) it works just fine.

With these and the label’s other recent releases, the IPR relaunch is off to a great start, releasing records that not only feed nostalgia for a certain era of alternative rock, but also argue for their importance as more than mere college rock footnotes.