Your new favourite californian cult. By John Mulvey
What would an La band sound like whose ranks have included terry Reid, Mike Watt, Spooner Oldham and David hood, a clutch of minor indie-rock luminaries led by avi Buffalo, a drummer who’s figured in Pharoah Sanders’ band, a member of Philip Glass’ ensemble, and a bassist, Max Bennett, whose CV includes Joni Mitchell’s stellar run of mid-’70s albums?
Confusing, would be the most sensible answer. On paper, Psychic temple suggest a record store nerd has gone crazy with a vintage a&R Rolodex. In practice, their low-key run of LPs these past few years have been remarkably cohesive, even as their frontman and networking maestro, Chris Schlarb, dips into as many genres as he has contacts. Jazz, country-rock, folk-soul, improv and ambient all play key parts on Psychic Temple IV, but what binds them together is a certain beatific take on SoCal pop. It’s the sound of a fantasy La made flesh; one of those rare LPs where its maker can cite Brian Wilson’s “teenage symphonies to God” ambition and be more or less justified in his presumption. the heaviest Beach Boys reference comes at the end of Psychic Temple IV, as the instrumental “Isabella Ocean Blue” takes a similar measured path into the sunset as “Pet Sounds”, down to the sighing horn charts and a persistent twitch of Latin percussion deep in the mix. For all the formal grandeur, though, there’s also a sense of free spirits being allowed the space to manoeuvre, most notably when Schlarb himself lets rip a 12-string guitar solo, a splattery action painting of notes that’s closer to Sonny Sharrock than Jerry Cole, but which still doesn’t undermine the prevailing calm.
It’s an indication of how Schlarb’s vision for his band has evolved from relatively avant-garde beginnings into the nuanced, classical songforms that grace …IV and last year’s Psychic Temple III, without losing that experimental imperative. a Long Beach studio owner and composer for video games, Schlarb embarked on the first Psychic temple project wanting “to hear an ambient record with two jazz drummers on it”. Gradually, the songs came into focus, via covers (the Beach Boys’ “’til I Die”, Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” on 2013’s Psychic Temple II), sessions at FaME in Muscle Shoals, and those auspicious guest players.
Psychic Temple IV was born in the same 2016 sessions that produced another terrific album, Psychic Temple Plays Music For Airports, in which Eno’s ambient meditation was reimagined by a large band of jazz improvisers, and came out sounding akin to In A Silent Way. that same air of concentrated nonchalance provides the backdrop for the 10 lovely songs on …IV; a cool space in which Schlarb can display his increasingly finessed songwriting.
again, it’s hard to pay full attention to Schlarb’s skill when one is constantly distracted by the discreet virtuosity he encourages from his guests. Most notably, terry Reid (who Schlarb met when recording one of Superlungs’ live shows) drops by to add wavering harmonies to “Dream Dictionary”, “turn Off the Lights” and “If I Don’t Leave, they’ll take Me away”. Reid is a little more ragged than in his youth, but there are some tantalising moments, especially in “Dream Dictionary”, when he jousts with and seems about to soar away from the gentler, unassuming tones of Schlarb. Such small tensions add shade to the mellowness.
Even Reid is upstaged on “turn Off the Lights”, as Dave Easley coaxes an uncanny sitar effect out of his pedal steel, a rare example of Pt living up to the psychedelic exoticism of their name. Inevitably with musicians so historically aware, comparisons keep presenting themselves – a minimalist Steely Dan, perhaps, on “SOS” and its ravishing sequence of micro-solos; the jazz-club sadcore of early sides by another undervalued La band, Spain. But the dexterity with which Schlarb conducts his affairs, and the craftsmanship and spontaneity underpinning all these bewitchingly hazy progressions, make Psychic temple a lot more than the sum of their considerable parts. Better than the average cult band, for sure.