I first read about this band/album in the excellent book The Mojo Collection: The Greatest Albums of All Time, and indeed it sounds every bit like the psychedelic cult classic I had hoped for. If you’re going to choose a band name so pretentiously over-the-top you’d better be good, and indeed this one-off project (multi-instrumentalist and primary songwriter Joseph Byrd, vocalist/lyricist Dorothy Moskowitz, bassist Rand Forbes, electric violinist Gordon Marron, and drummer Craig Woodson) delivers the goods. Arguably the first “electronica” album, every sound here is distorted/treated/phased/manipulated in some way. And though sometimes they go overboard with the effects, this also always makes the band completely original, and this quirky album’s stature continues to grow as more people become aware of it. It certainly wouldn’t shock me if bands like Stereolab were influenced by these guys/gal, but The United States Of America remain uniquely their own entity, in part because the “hippy” factor marks this as a (somewhat dated) late ‘60s relic. True, “The American Metaphysical Circus” wouldn’t exist without songs like The Beatles’ “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite,” but musically its marching band intro segueing into dreamy psychedelia is certainly unique. Not that they’re not influenced by other bands; “Hard Coming Love” and “The Garden Of Earthly Delights” (two personal favorites, in part because I’m a fan of the Hieronymus Bosch painting, which decorated one of my walls for many a year) are intense rockers that The Velvet Underground would’ve been proud to call their own (I make that comparison in part because the hardest rocking instrument on the album is an electric violin - there are no guitars!), while “I Won't Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar” is a whimsical satire worthy of Ray Davies or Roy Wood. On the gentler side, the melody of “Cloud Song” does indeed float cloud-like in its loveliness, while “Love Song For The Dead Che” is almost Carpenters-ish in its mellow prettiness. “Where Is Yesterday” is a choir-like duet between Byrd and Moskowitz (whose voice is oddly striking even when buried under torrents of electronic effects), while “Coming Down” is comparatively straightforward (though that’s relatively speaking on an album as strange as this) and hard rocking. Not everything here completely works, but even the band’s lesser ideas are usually interesting, and “The American Way Of Love” brilliantly ends this flawed-yet-fascinating one-of-a-kind album by reprising snippets from previous songs. For fans of Sgt. Pepper's and other such psychedelic era classics, this album is a must-own.
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