Craft Recordings’ new compilation brings psychedelia’s inaugural era back to life
Artist: Various Artists
Album: Poppies: Assorted Finery From The First Psychedelic Age.
Label: Craft Recordings
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Tie dye, acid tabs, a copy of Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience—you don’t have to have any of these items on hand while listening to Craft Recordings’ new psychedelic compilation, but they certainly pop to the top of one’s mind once the music begins playing.
The opening riff of the Farfisa organ in Southwest F.O.B.’s “Smell of Incense” acts like a trigger, catapulting listeners back in time to the rose-tinted 1960s when the generational divide was wider than ever and social politics hadn’t yet heated to a boil over civil rights and the war in Vietnam. It was the golden age of music, a time when bands with real cultural currency had the ability to introduce sitars and tablas to previously unexposed music fans and veiled references to drug use and sexual experimentation suddenly became part of the norm among the young.
Fifty years on, Craft Recordings has brought samples from this important era in music out of the archives with an important question attached: Is it oversimplifying the psychedelic genre to say its prominence ended with the 1960s?
The full title of this 13-track compilation is Poppies: Assorted Finery from the First Psychedelic Age. That last part referencing psychedelia’s “first” era is important. The biggest misconception about psychedelic music is probably that it remains frozen in time. Though the flower children heyday of the 1960s and ’70s was certainly when psychedelic music bloomed, a significant amount of today’s music has roots of its own in that inaugural era. Bands like Tame Impala, of Montreal, Animal Collective and Mystic Braves share the kinds of lulling tempos and repetitive refrains common in music that’s officially categorized as “psychedelic.” These kinds of telltale sounds are instantly recognizable: The instrumental distortion and meandering structure of a song like Tame Impala’s 2015 single “Let it Happen” and the hypnotic delay loops of “Trippin’ Like I Do” from Mystic Braves’ 2012 album Mystic Braves mark both songs as part of the psychedelic genre, with the shared lyrical theme of letting go and embracing experience making each song’s candidacy for inclusion even stronger. Bands like these are operating 50 years after the psychedelic wave washed over American audiences—perhaps with less fanfare than acid rock classics like Jefferson Airplane, but with just as much commitment to the musical execution of psychedelic expression.
The sounds of the early psychedelic era may have sifted through the decades to remain part of today’s music scene, but the lifestyle that was tied so closely to the genre didn’t make it through as clean. As Grammy-nominated writer and producer Alec Palao suggests in the Poppies liner notes, “A half-century later, the vintage clichés of mind expansion are less of an issue, and psychedelic influences are widely identified in most aspects of culture: film, television, literature, the visual arts and beyond.” The ideas behind psychedelia are easy to find in the 21st century’s cultural landscape, but the act of putting Timothy Leary’s famous “turn on, tune in and drop out” mantra in motion isn’t as essential to modern psychedelic artists as it was during the 1960s. While many psychedelic musicians these days claim to create within the genre for the joy of the sound, those included on Poppies represent a congregation of artists whose success hinged on the extent to which their music complemented the psychedelic experience their listeners were searching for. And boy did they deliver.
Poppies opens with its title track by Buffy Sainte-Marie, a song from her 1969 album Illuminations that sets a mind-expanding tone with strong reverb and surrealist visual imagery. “Smell of Incense” comes in next to distance the listener from the intensity of “Poppies,” its upbeat organ refrains and vocal harmonies a pleasing palate cleanser and fitting introduction to Jefferson Lee’s short rocker “Sorcerella” and Gospel’s hazy “Redeemer.” The songs that follow have offerings for rock and folk fans alike, with the five-minute instrumental jam in The Frost’s “Stand in the Shadows” serving as an admirable mid-song digression for guitar slingers and the rhythmically-driven “Why Come Another Day” by Erik providing an energy balance as it closes out the album. Entirely new to listeners is The Human Jungle’s “When Will You Happen to Me,” a previously unreleased up-tempo song that Craft Recordings included on the album’s vinyl pressings, CDs and digital streams.
Aside from the introduction of “When Will You Happen to Me,” Poppies is made special by its thorough liner notes, all of which Palao wrote for the compilation. For each song, Palao touches upon its band’s history and explains the reasons behind its selection, occasionally expanding his discussion to contextualize how these samples fit as representations of psychedelic music’s early era. Those who read the detailed notes will learn how the members of Circus Maximus came together, why “Poppies” and “Smell of Incense” were such significant successes at the time of their releases in the late ’60s and how some bands sprinkled unusual elements into their music to avoid sounding too predictable, as The Honey Jug liked to do. The collection as a whole is enjoyable for listening—it’s truly like leaping back in time, despite the songs’ relevance to music today—but the liner notes are what make this compilation a statement on psychedelic music, a historical document of sorts with depth, context and intention.
Craft Recordings released Poppies on vinyl for Record Store Day and launched a worldwide release digitally and on CD on April 19. The uptick in vinyl collectors isn’t the only reason to check out the hard copies: this particular collection was pressed on translucent red vinyl, and it’s much easier to read the liner notes when they’re printed in a booklet on your lap than to track them down digitally. Either way, have them within reach when it comes time to tune in—not all parts of the classic psychedelic experience are important to listeners these days, but the benefits of mind expansion and learning by listening are still very much in style.