monday, march 20, 2006
The Golden PalominosThe Golden Palominos begin and end with drummer Anton Fier. But what makes them great is everyone else you meet in between.
Looking back, probably what is probably most amazing is not that this incredible strange menagerie of musicians was able to produce something so transcendent but how they were able to put that much fucking talent in a room and have the result be so completely better than the sum of the parts.
Fier got his start with one of the greatest of the 80s college indie bands – The Feelies. But that band eventually ended up with two percussionists for their landmark The Good Earth album and a third with the prodigious talents Fier possessed was probably a bit much.
So he hit the burgeoning indie circuit handling the sticks for a who’s who of critical darlings of the time including Pere Ubu and The Lounge Lizards. But it wasn’t until he returned to New York and started pulling sessions musicians together for almost hootanany-style jam sessions that the glory of the Golden Palominos was born. Their first recorded effort in 1983 leaned toward experimentalism and sounds woefully dated today but much greater things were to come.
Nobody was really ready in 1985 when Fier unleashed Visions of Excess on an unsuspecting world.
I had just really gotten into R.E.M. and picked it up because Michael Stipe was on it. What I didn’t realize at the time I had stumbled onto a unique musical vision, the likes of which the world may never see again. The revered folks over at Trouser Press described it as, “Essentially a revue of 1985's semi-underground stars and sounds, Visions of Excess is one disc everyone should own.”
Visions boasts an astounding array of talent that simply made college DJ’s of the time shiver with anticipation as they pulled the pristine piece of vinyl out of the sleeve for the first time. In addition to Stipe it included ex-Raybeat Jody, Cream's Jack Bruce, PIL's John Lydon, the dB’s Chris Stamey, P-Funk’s Bernie Worrell and Mike Hampton as well as guitar greats Richard Thompson and Henry Kaiser.
With a lineup like that, just looking at the sleeve gave you indie cred.
And the really scary part was the album more than made up for it when you slapped the needle down on the platter. This is a pitch perfect mix of pop, country, rock, blues and folk filtered through a stouthearted indie sensibility pulled off without a hitch.
This record swaggers and sways. It bellows and belches. It has rock solid drums, shimmering guitars and is saturated with a joy you sometimes, just sometimes, find when a group of extremely talented musicians get together and produce something sublime. You listen to each track wondering what the hell these guys are going to do next and then are dumfounded and amazed when they go somewhere completely unexpected and drag you happily along.
Careen from the booming cover of Moby Grape's "Omaha" to the paranoid guilt of "Silver Bullet" to the punk vitriol of "The Animal Speaks." Pop masterpieces "Buenos Aires" and "(Kind of) True" are as perfectly written songs as you will ever find anywhere.
The real discovery here is vocalist Syd Straw whose main claim to fame prior was as a backup for Pat Benetar. Her powerful voice is as much the hallmark of the Paliminos as Fier’s rock solid drum work. The mournful ring of her voice will stay with you long, long after you have forgotten the words she has sung.
With a work like that, it is gonna’ be damned hard to top and the follow-up Blast of Silence just doesn’t reach the empyrean heights of it’s predecessor. But it is still a divine piece of work and, in its own way, just as haunting and powerful. Blast trades the eclectic power of Visons for a more firm foundation of blues and country but then, like the prior effort, relies on the power of the musicians for it all to work.
Lydon and Stipe are absent here but new additions including guitarist T-Bone Burnett, Don Dixon, Peter Blegvad, and Sneaky Pete Kleinow more than take up the slack. Matthew Sweet's effort on "Something Becomes Nothing" is one of the most haunting and sweet songs in the Palomino canon and probably the most memorable. Bill Laswell's heavy blues offering, "Something Else is Working Harder," explains exactly why everything in the world keeps going to shit.
And the incomparable Syd Straw (one of the most sorely under appreciated vocalists of this era) takes over the proceedings and puts a unique stamp on the album that elevates it beyond any level you thought it could reach. She not only NAILS the Peter Hollsapple penned "Diamond" but her take on Little Feat's "I've Been The One" is the most perfect breakup song ever performed - turn the lights out and hold your still beating heart freshly ripped from your chest in your hands.
Fier formed a few other versions of the band after that for follow ups A Dead Horse and This is How it Feels that are impeccable from a musician’s standpoint but seem lag behind the glory of the previous two records. Personally, I feel the later efforts sound like a bunch of polished studio musicians putting out a pristine product. The raging heart of the Palominos that beats through Visions and Blast simply isn’t there.
Today, the Palominos are little more than a footnote to the alternative music scene that thrived across the U.S. prior to the rise of Nirvana. The records have be released, dropped out of print, re-released as CD’s and dropped back out of print again. I recently discovered you can find Visions of Excess on iTunes but under the artist name Bill Laswell who played bass on the effort.
I have seen more than a dozen Palominos in shows across the years (including Fier) as I attended shows of different bands and I always wondered what would have happened if this was a normal band and had a normal band’s life. But I wouldn't change a thing if it would cost the world these two records.
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