14 May 2015
King Pelican "Matador Surfer"
Reviewed by Hills Snyder
I love the way King Pelican's original music hangs in front of sixties Surf like a sign that points the way, but suggests you stop right here, in the present, where they are. Even these twin signals, pointer and stop sign, call to mind Walk, Don't Run.
They played last Saturday night at The Brick in San Antonio, a huge, empty, minimally appointed space with white couches scattered here and there. Ernest Hernandez III, principal songwriter and one of three accomplished guitar players in the band, mimicked the scatter with a few copies of their latest album, Matador Surfer, by casually leaving them on the floor --- "just pick one up if you want and leave a ten." He and Dennis Fallon switched off on lead and rhythm all night, with Lloyd Walsh on electric bass and Darren Kuper on drums. The Fender guitars and amps; the red sparkle drums with cymbals mounted horizontally as if straight out of a 1964 Ludwig catalog; all this was just more levels of completion to a very well thought-out setup, which each member contributed to, including the one choreographed moment when all the guitar players had to bow-crouch together to get the stuff they wanted to give.
The space was lit such that the four players appeared as silhouettes against a massive white wall, with the rest of the room shrouded in darkness, the cool kind. These shadow selves appeared as ghosts of Surf past, portals to another time and place, access to the back story behind the music. Half way through the set I sauntered over, folded a bill in the shape of a hut roof, left it on the floor and picked up a CD which I promptly stashed without looking at it. Only the next morning did I get it out to play --- and to view as it turns out, the package being a perfect work of art. Robert Tatum's matador hanging ten on the front cover signals that the tide is perfect for surfing, medium, but the production values of the album are high. The figure is even a silhouette -- how could anyone have known how that aspect would play out with Saturday night's performance? Just unconscious and out there!--- as is the intelligently nuanced music inside the package.
The back cover, once again with a spot on set of references, points to a few Venture's albums in particular --- Let's Go, Knock Me Out, Wild Things and Hawaii Five-O, while Kim Hubbeling's band logo design seals the deal in Tatum's art direction. Even Walsh's photo of the band on the inside cover says Don, Mel, Nokie, and Bob, but without the pre-psychedelic what's-shakin'-daddio factor, and the guitar strap in Hernandez' hand could just as well be a camera strap. But, make no mistake, this band is building on all Surf precedents, not just The Ventures --- think Fender, not Mosrite, a wider and wiser point of view. And if I have not already made it clear, they have a contribution that is theirs alone.
It was the song El Gallo that spurred me to get the album. It looks out to the southwestern spaces of Apache, but contributes its own significant variations on the chord structure and then stands confidently beside it. You can stand with it on a cliff and hear it, but you might also hear somewhere down below a few strains that take you to Lonely Bull, unless there is a high wind. Other song titles and musical twists are chosen with the same wit and contextual awareness --- Cricket raves with Buddy Holly; Western Satellite doesn't really sound like Telstar, but offers that same feeling of open-eyed optimism that abounded in the very early sixties, even though the sound is hipper, more like '66, but even more modern given the accumulated lickdom of guitar these guys have absorbed; In With The Out Crowd begins with laughter, perhaps that of the swingin' chick on the back cover and is perfect music for shuffle skipping your way to the bar for a fresh drink, even with a little Berryism thrown into the middle. Fresh asides abound --- listen for The Marketts riffs in Morocco, then hang on and be grateful for the lead break that is all garage.
I could go on --- this is detailed, thoughtfully constructed music. The CD and the performance dovetail into each other so well that it could not have happened in two places at once --- but it did!
I'll shut up now, just get the album.
Available digitally here (US), or here (UK), or on CD at their live shows.