November 28, 2013

Notes from the Paisley Underground: True West - Hollywood Holiday Revisited (2007)

Along with bands such as The Dream Syndicate, Game Theory, and Thin White Rope, True West originally hailed from the small but very influential music scene that thrived in the college town of Davis, CA. during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and like those other bands, they ended up gravitating to the paisley underground scene based in L.A. in order to find a wider audience and a record deal. True West's sound was a fertile blend of psych-tinged roots-rock, jangle-pop, and a touch of the dark, spidery dual-guitar interplay of Television, a combination of influences that made them quite unique among the paisley crowd. After a brilliant self-released EP (which would eventually be grouped with additional tracks and released as the even more brilliant Hollywood Holiday), the band was invited by EMI to record some demos at the legendary Bearsville studio in New York with none other than former Television visionary Tom Verlaine; however, the sessions didn't go well, and EMI passed on them. Russ Tolman: "What about Verlaine? Well, he seemed real strict and stern. We jokingly called him 'the schoolmaster.' I think he got along better with other people in the band than me, and I was the big Verlaine fan, which was kinda funny. But I was real worried about things getting over-produced so I was kinda playing the sullen adversary sort of role, so he and I never really hit it off until the recording was over and we gave him a ride back to New York in our van  and at that point he turned into plain old Tom Miller, a pretty nice guy from Delaware, instead of Tom Verlaine, the artiste [....] I asked him all the questions I always wanted to know about Television and about Richard Lloyd, and it was a lot of fun."  By the time True West finally released their first proper LP, the slightly less brilliant but still quite enjoyable Drifters, they were beginning to undergo personnel changes that would eventually rob the band of much of their momentum.

Though a third album appeared a few years later, True West were never again able to hit the significant heights of their earliest recordings. Because these recordings remained out of print for more than twenty years, Hollywood Holiday is very much one of the forgotten masterpieces of the paisley scene. While its production sounds a bit thin in places, the austerity serves True West's aesthetic well, as their later recordings tended to polish the dark post-punk grime out of their sound, thus making them seem, at times, like just another jangle-pop outfit. A perfect example of what made True West so distinctive is their cover of "Lucifer Sam" from Pink Floyd's psychedelic masterpiece, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which manages to capture both the twisted whimsey of the original and to inject it with a little early-eighties paranoia courtesy of lead vocalist Gavin Blair, whose voice possesses none of the child-like naivete of Syd Barrett's. Coupled with the intertwining guitars of Russ Tolman and Richard McGrath, the song traverses new-found depths of acid-drenched darkness. "And Then the Rain," True West's signature song and easily one of the best things to come out of the paisley scene, is a tense piece of jangly melancholia that wallows beautifully in its doom-filled verses. My personal True West favorite is "Look Around," the lead track on Drifters, which features a devastating power-pop-style hook and some memorable, inspired vocals from Blair. Although the phrase "lost classic" is used far too often by music reviewers, Hollywood Holiday and Drifters exemplify this notion. Eerily similar to the fate of Big Star ten years earlier, True West was as talented as any neo-psych band of the era, but commercial success would prove frustratingly elusive and, as is so often the case, an early demise soon followed.

Hollywood Holiday Revisited (2007)

Hollywood Holiday-
 1. Steps to the Door 
 2. I'm Not There
 3. And Then the Rain
 4. Hollywood Holiday
 5. Lucifer Sam
 6. It's About Time
 7. Throw Away the Key
 8. You

 9.  Look Around
10. At Night They Speak
11. Speak Easy
12. Shot You Down
13. What About You
14. Hold On
15. And Then the Rain
16. Backroad Bridge Song (What Could I Say) 
17. Ain't No Hangman
18. Morning Light
The Verlaine Demos-
19. Burn the Roses
20. Look Around
21. Throw Away the Key

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  2. Really glad to see this blog working again. Love for music should be shared.

  3. Cool !!! Never heard this band so i guess now is the right time and this is the right place. Thanks.

  4. Glad to see you up and running again. Fortunate to see True West back in 85. Great live band. Sadly overlooked except in these parts of the world.

  5. I'm here for the first time . It looks great ! Thanks for these True West gems.