Alice Donut’s psych-pop swan song Pure Acid Park turns 25
There’s a certain type of album that I call the Eclectic Masterpiece.
Patient Zero for the format is the Beatles’ Revolver. Another perfect example is Doolittle by the Pixies. Each song is distinct in style, yet the production sound, band chemistry, time and place create an overall vibe, a spiritual cohesion. Both bands had the right sets of songs at the ideal moment in their careers.
And then there’s Alice Donut’s 1995 swan song Pure Acid Park, which was the perfect set of songs at the exact wrong time. Overripe for reconsideration, this record continues to reward listeners who bother to grapple with its accessible genius.
For those unfamiliar, Alice Donut is a psychedelic art-punk unit birthed from NYC’s Columbia University in the late ‘80s. Their very first recording found its way to a demo show on KUSF radio, which Klaus Fluoride taped and handed over to Jello Biafra. In short order the band was signed to Alternative Tentacles and kicked off a decade of album releases. Heavy touring coincided, with the band ultimately folding after playing their thousandth show. For a well-told long version of this story, check out the 2012 documentary Freaks In Love. I watched it on Youtube for $1.99 and definitely got my money’s worth.
VIDEO: Freaks In Love film trailer
My first Donut experience was picking up their third album, Mule (1990). I honestly can’t recall if I had heard of them, or just took a chance because they were on A.T. and had gigged with other bands I loved like Nomeansno. Either way the band name made me laugh. At the time I thought it might be a stab at another popular college rock band of the day, Mary’s Danish. A few years later I noticed an obscure liner note inside the gatefold of a 1971 Van Der Graaf Generator album in which the British prog band thanked “Alice for the doughnut.” Of course the truth behind the band name has its own story. See again the Freaks In Love documentary.
Alice Donut’s commercial peak came with 1992’s fantastic fifth album The Untidy Suicides of Your Degenerate Children. This was the first record to deeply incorporate their young gun guitarist Richard Marshall. He’d joined in time to play on the fourth record, but came into his own as a songwriter with Untidy Suicides. Marshall helped steer the Donut away from its spastic past and toward more muscular, almost metal, heaviness. Distorted guitars were so de rigeur in 1992 that many felt it was the moment that even a band as strange as Alice Donut might be swept up in the great major label devouring of all things indie.
Alas, it was not to be. Though they were wined and dined, no promises were made, no contracts signed. Perhaps it was a bullet dodged. We’ll never know. Regardless, several more years of hard touring commenced. By 1995 it was time to write album six. After a long game of musical chairs, all three of Alice Donut’s guitarists were on board simultaneously for the first time. The resulting Pure Acid Park reveals that too many cooks in the kitchen doesn’t have to spoil the dish, though it may leave a peculiar aftertaste.
“Millennium” kicks things off with ominous synth, a gentle cacophony of whistles and distant hand drums before building into a queasy, pre-Y2k anthem. Longtime fans complained about the seemingly simple arrangements on this album. But the band always had a penchant for big sing-along choruses.
As tuneful as Pure Acid Park is, it’s more a funhouse reflection of pop music than anything that could be considered a sellout move, especially in hindsight: the band didn’t sign to a major. The album didn’t lead to commercial success. The band even broke up soon afterward. The legacy is this strange gem that now seems the perfect gateway INTO Alice Donut’s bizarre rock and roll world.
Track two, “Dreaming In Cuban” nods to loveably unhinged vocalist Tomas Antona’s Cuban American heritage. He lapses in and out of Spanish throughout the song. The instrumental refrain gifts the listener with an earworm melody on some sort of strange synth device. Several of Antona’s family members, at least one an uncle, are photographed as a total non sequitur addition to the inner sleeve.
Though the band’s physical albums tend to lack printed info about who wrote which song, “Freaks In Love” is a Richard Marshall cut. He told me so in a phone conversation I used to research this article. The intro is a creepy guitar arpeggio that finally erupts into a massive riff comprised of three chromatic notes. Marshall told me how much he loves conjuring heaviness out of simplicity, and this song exemplifies the notion. The second half of “Freaks…” should have had stadiums full of loving weirdos waving their arms along to the beat.
“Big Cars & Blow Jobs” both mocks and romanticizes American excess. “Champagne and Cigars / Fifth Avenue” sings Antona. “Revenge and passion / Oil wells in flames / Diamonds and stallions…” the diptychs go on like an overbudget episode of Dallas until the song breaks down into a trombone solo from polymath drummer Stephen Moses. The song resumes with Austrian-born bassist Sissi Schulmeister plucking the banjo over a swinging riff. Antonas completes the song by chanting, “Hey batter batter batter, hey batter batter batter, swing!” All that’s missing is a slice of apple pie coated in shellac, lit with bottle rocket candles.
Roky Erickson’s timeless “I Walked With a Zombie” gets Donut-ized next, with a rare lead vocal from Sissi. A ham-fisted Casio gets key-mashed in boogie-piano mode, sounding like the kind of clock radio alarm you want to smash against the wall on Monday morning. Overall this is a glorious and loving homage to a wonderful song. I still DJ it all the time since it goes over well in almost any situation.
“The Senator and the Cabin Boy” follows with another big, hooky riff. Antonas sings, “I know!” just as he did on “Bottom of the Chain” back on the Mule album. I’m going to assume he is a keeper of much secret knowledge as evidenced by his far-beyond-eccentric lyrics that more than hint at the dark side of humanity. There’s a breakdown in the middle of “…Cabin Boy” that weaves in huge crowd noise, just as their pseudo-live album Dry Humping the Cash Cow did since someone allegedly forgot to hit record at one of the concerts intended for inclusion. But it’s the late song build up and break down to a church organ that makes “…Cabin Boy” another bizarre classic.
Many pieces of Pure Acid Park were recorded on a home cassette 8-track machine then brought into Bisi’s B.C. studio to be bounced off 24-track analog tape. Short experiments like “Mummenschantz Pachinko” show just what a bent mind and a bag of weed can conjure in a studio apartment.
“Insane” is another classic Richard Marshall song based on a single massive riff. I assumed the high-pitched sound effect at the beginning of the tune was digitally derived but he corrected me–it’s actually two wine glasses filled with water. Marshall even sings lead on this one. I’d never noticed it wasn’t Antonas’ voice over the twenty-five years I’ve been enjoying this album. Ace work, Richard.
“The Shining Path” derives its name from the Communist Party of Peru–widely deemed a terrorist organization–but also noteworthy because 50 percent of its combatants and 40 percent of its commanders were women. Regardless the song is a razor-sharp rocker with a buoyant chorus and a liberal dose of sweeping flange.
“The Unspeakable Pleasure of Being Me” is another brief, joyful home recording that found its way into Pure Acid Park as a the only instrumental.
In the boneyard position comes “Lost In Place.” This gorgeous tune is another reminder that had Pure Acid Park been released on 4AD as a debut in 1995, it might be rightly hailed as the classic that it is. Swirling guitar effects and a vocal round about an apparent murder describe a set of rooms and weapons that wouldn’t be out of place in a drunken game of Clue.
The album finale “Cain” is a creepy backwoods tale of murder. The riff was another contribution from Marshall who exited the band immediately following this recording. He did not return when the band ultimately reformed on its own terms in 2001. In “Cain” Sissi once more employs her Classical Guitar & Composition degree from the University of Performing Arts in Vienna to give the song an appropriately Deliverance-style banjo intro. Antonas’ lyric was inspired by an encounter with a man on the street in Niagra. “Out by Nag’s Head / Diamond Marsh / They say the body / Was found in parts.”
Too few albums meld the heaviness of metal without being metal. The infectiousness of pop music without being vapid. The sophistication of Pet Sounds without becoming overwrought or burdened by nostalgia.
If there’s any other album that sounds like Pure Acid Park, it’s Surfer Rosa. Like The Pixies and The Beatles, Alice Donut’s creativity never lagged. Their concepts were sound. The production stands up today. But many of their fans in the mid-90s somehow wanted the band to stagnate instead of continuing to warp and evolve.
The rest of the world simply never knew what they were missing.