13th Floor Elevators – Bull of the Woods: Round 73 – Tom’s Selection

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Whilst playing Bull of the Woods at record club I postulated that, in this day and age, it is unlikely I would ever have got my grubby mitts on 13th Floor Elevators’ third and final album…not because acquiring music is any more difficult now than it was back in the late 80s – it’s not, it’s easier – but because information is so easily accessible (and because I am such a sucker for it) that I would have read one too many lukewarm reviews and dismissed the album as not worth owning. I would have also have been pushed into buying one of The Elevators’ first two albums, seeing as popular opinion would seem to suggest that these are far superior. Just in case any of you reading this have those first two albums and don’t really like them…well…don’t give up on Texas’ finest purveyors of acid fried psychedelia just yet as, to my ears, Bull of the Woods is by far the best record of the three and I enjoy it as much as pretty much anything else from that era.

Note that I haven’t made any grand claims for Bull of the Woods’ greatness as yet. And I’m not going to. After all, the record has all sorts of flaws that, to many, get in the way but to me makes the thing even more intriguing and captivating. I love the fact that the album sounds like it was recorded in a swamp, I love the fact that the vocals come and go in and out of the mix as if the singer (mainly Stacy Sutherland I believe) was moving from one room to the next. And I absolutely love the fact that Tommy Hall has ditched his bloody electronic jug in the canal! Listening to the ‘classic’ first album and then to this, I was struck at just how different the two records are. Whereas The Psychedelic Sounds Of…is all spiky, jangly and wobbly, Bull of the Woods is a true blues groove swamp monster. Obviously Roky Erickson’s lack of involvement in Bull of the Woods makes a big difference and the two tracks he had a hand in writing – Never Another and May The Circle Remain Unbroken – are probably the albums two most distinctive songs, the former veers all over the place in much the same way as, say, Love’s The Daily Planet and the latter is a weird mantra type coda, shimmering away like the sun setting as if on the bands’ very own career (seeing as it is the last song on their last album).

But surrounding these two cuts are nine songs that show a side of the guitar driven sound of late 60s US rock’n’roll like little else I’ve heard. I remember listening to Bull of the Woods for the first time having bought it on impulse, being vaguely aware of the name of the band from a Melody Maker interview with Spacemen 3 or Loop, and being held spellbound for the entire sitting; from the first murky blues riff of Livin’ On slithering into view to the last heartrendingly fragile vocal of May the Circle slipping out of reach. And for a while, Bull of the Woods was my favourite album, supplanting the House of Love’s eponymous (sort of) debut album and Spacemen 3’s Playing With Fire.

On the night Nick asked me if I still loved this record. I took a while to answer because I really wanted to take the time to differentiate between the love of nostalgia and the love of something you truly cherish for what it is, unencumbered by the warm glow of memories of times long gone. Well, it will come as no surprise to my fellow record club chums that in light of Graham’s theme for our next evening together I have been listening to another album I held in high regard from that time in my past and, inevitably, I have compared the two records. Nostalgia pah! I can now say Nick, with utmost confidence, that my love for Bull of the Woods is as strong as it ever has been (the other record sounded dated and somewhat adolescent in comparison). I think it’s a great, great record warts and all and I wonder just how many other ‘disappointing’ third albums I’ve let slip through my grasp over the years!

Rob listened: This is a great call by Tom. He and I, in our own very different ways, are constantly having our musical choices curated by taste-makers or, more often in this age of democratic star-ratings, the masses.

Tom is a student of discographic lists. Name any artist and he will be able to tell you which album is supposed to be their apogee. He has an extensive mental list of records he is looking out for, and these are always winnowed down to one or two from any particular artist. How many potential connections has he missed out on this way?

I, meanwhile, am just gullible and act under the constant sense that others know what’s good for me much more than I do. A score below 7.0 is enough to strike a record from my ‘listen-to’ list, whilst a negative review of a record I have already become pleasantly acquainted with is all that’s required for me to question my own response. If that guy says it’s bad, it must be bad. What do I know? How much great stuff do I miss out on by allowing others to act as arbiters for my own taste?

My musical journey never took me to the 13th Floor, and therefore I never got into the Elevators. I did come to feel great affection for Roky Erickson when I reviewed his 1995 album ‘All That May Do My Rhyme’, a sweet collection of naive universal folk boogie that was very hard to resist. In common with most bands I would have had no idea at all which of the 13th Floor Elevators records was supposed to be the best or worst, other than recognising the iconic cover of the first album. In general I guess this gives me slightly better odds of picking out the hidden gem in any particular band’s back-catalogue. I have a list of bands I fancy, but rarely specific records although this does sometimes lead to record-store paralysis (“Hey, I always meant to try The Byrds. I wonder if this record is one of the good ones or not? Perhaps i’ll just leave it…”).

On the night ‘Bull Of The Woods’ more or less passed me by, but listening back to it now on headphones, i’m loving it. Groovy, direct, sharper than i’d expected and packed with great tunes. It sounds more than a match for any of those other records by big names of the 60s that I have no idea I’m supposed to own. For this band at least, I now know which album i’m looking out for.

Graham Listened: Opening signs weren’t good for me and researching the construction of Electric Jugs (take care when googling) was a welcome distraction. After a while I began to get past the mess of production and recording and actually started to “hear” it! Although far more bluesy, I picked up on some notes of early Barrett era Floyd in its psychhier moments and by the end, quite enjoyed the groove.

Nick listened: I own the first two 13th Floor Elevators albums, but to be honest I’ve never got past the (really) tinny, uber-cheap late-60s garage production on them. Or the incessant wibble, which is, on first encounter, kind of like an awesome sampled loop that would be a great big irresistible insistent hook if it were in a piece of techno, or something. I do adore the original version of “Slip Inside This House”, though. This, shorn of so much wibble, and with slightly meatier sound, I thought probably was better. I’m not sold on the “Roky Eriksson is a genius” myth, though.

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