Graded on a Curve:
The Smoking Trees,
TST

The Smoking Trees are a duo of decidedly psychedelic disposition hailing from the West Coast berg of Los Angeles. Formed in 2001 and whittled down from a five piece, over a decade elapsed before the arrival of their full-length debut. Thankfully its follow-up required a shorter gestation period; druggy but approachable and sunshiny with undercurrents of strangeness, TST improves substantially on its predecessor. It’s out on LP/CD/digital July 10 via Ample Play.

Martin Nunez and Al Rivera are the two halves comprising The Smoking Trees. Their bio portrays Nunez as something of a mastermind, which is appropriate considering his nickname is Sir Psych; producer and home recorder, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, psychedelia expert and professed record collector, it’s all discernible upon soaking up their 2012’s Acetates.

On the other side of this yin-yang is an ex-punk. Rivera aka L.A.AL was part of the burgeoning East L.A. punk scene, cutting albums in the late-‘90s with groups Dial 69 and Homesick. L.A.AL underwent a musical transformation after meeting Sir Psych, and it shouldn’t be a bit difficult to suss out the new direction; mention of The Left Banke, The Zombies, and “Defecting Grey” by The Pretty Things should clarify the scenario, however.

At an earlier point named Velvet Tuesday & the Good Smells, The Smoking Trees initially functioned as a pleasurable sideline, Al continuing to play in his prior band as Sir Psych worked as a hip-hop producer and as part of his own crew Forensics. But recording persisted, Nunez credited with production, drums, vocals, keys, bass, and psychedelics as Rivera lent guitar, bass, percussion, and vocals.

Families and jobs nearly spelled the end of The Smoking Trees before they began, though Sir Psych quitting his full-time job instigated an about-face that culminated in Acetates, released on CD in late-’12 by the Colour Tree label. In the spring of ’13 Ample Play stepped in to widen the profile and distribution as a run of cassettes was duped by those tape nuts at Burger Records.

Acetates displayed tangible potential, but while only a little over an hour-long, it’s also a tad sprawling. Additionally observable are stabs at humor that if admirable in their distinctiveness don’t really withstand repeated listening (akin to so many previous examples in the crossroads of music and mirth). Far from fatal flaws, Acetates is largely cohesive.

TST opens with audio craftiness reminiscent of moments on Acetates, little time elapsing as “Good Morning” shifts into hazy down-tempo drift, the transition beginning with laid back flute as the track ends with chimes and a music box in operation. Echo-laden billows of voice are found in between, the singing underpinned by crisp drumming.

The tidy “Home in the Morning” is taken at a brisker, more pop-oriented tempo as the sunshine avoids the sugary; it’s a recurring maneuver throughout the LP as The Smoking Trees generally eschew the neighborhood of the twee. Along the way Sir Psych’s studio acumen remains evident but with appealing restraint that blends well with raised melodic objectives.

If the Trees don’t inhabit the twee they do kinda flirt with it during “Best Friend,” which ups the poppy brightness and inches closer to preciousness and fragility. All the while its effervescent instrumentation features harpsichord (or at least sounds resembling the renaissance instrument). Ultimately it’s nearer to slightly-warped baroque, underlining the namedropping of Left Banke.

As said, TST flaunts increased concentration to the pop side of their equation, though not at the expense of range. Launching with folky strum, the aptly named “Trips” is all cascades of canned harp and sitars, hand drums and reverb, incense and hash pipes, and with a nifty underwater solo to boot, the whole promoting an impression that’s more early-‘90s than late-‘60s.

Sticklers might deride it as being ersatz-psychedelia, but that actually seems to be the intention; it’s like soundwaves wafting from a deluxe hi-fi inside a ritzy bachelor pad in a movie out of the mi(d)st of Russ Meyer’s 20th Century Fox-period. Except with heightened attention to detail, which is basically where the ‘90s figure in.

The sunshiny temperament of the concise “It’s Only Natural” is a fitting counterpart to “Best Friend,” its buoyancy injecting trace elements of indie pop, and if the drugginess lacks danger it’s built on a strong foundation. Following is the airy but propulsive “Awake in Your Dreams,” the number a smidge suggestive of post-punk descended guitar-pop with psych touches, natch. And while The Smoking Trees’ existence as a duo can still be detected if the ear seeks it out, it’s not as obvious as on Acetates.

“She Takes Flight in Me” is nicely infused with springy/backwards audio fuckery and glistening riffs. Even the appearance of lilting flute is attractive, and like “Trips” it effectively lands them in a tangibly neo-psych zone. Indeed, some listeners will choose to focus on similarities to the ‘90s Elephant 6 contingent, particularly in regard to “Island of Adventure.” I won’t deny it’s extant, but through sturdy songwriting and delivery The Smoking Trees stand somewhat apart.

But frankly those who dig Robert Schneider would be dropping the ball if they didn’t check out TST. “Rose Flower Lilac” is another succinct and quite pretty tune thriving on the simplicity of direct rhythm and catchiness amidst reverse tape effects, an old standby handled herein with subtlety and less humor than on Acetates.

The lengthier glide of standout “California Air” opens with the sound of beach fowl and waves and elevates into an excellent weave of electric guitar and vocals. The seaside ambiance returns and leads into “Victoria’s Garden,” a terse number redolent of ’67 Brit psych-pop. And it might just be the use of vibes, but the cut seems to be lingering on the outskirts of Toytown. That brings us to “Through Your Reflection,” a closing nugget of vitamin-C ache, bent melodiousness, a killer bass line, off-kilter snare, more flute, and even faux-symphonic flashes.

Together with amplified pop awareness is a tighter running-time, the duo benefiting from pithiness as they make a stronger impression. These dozen tracks undoubtedly gush from a well-primed pump, but the songs are inspired, the atmosphere is well-judged and it coasts along with impressive adroitness for a sophomore effort, though maybe not so surprising given the pair’s extended relationship. With TST The Smoking Trees achieve a fine and hopefully sustainable balance.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • TheGrowlersArchive

    Thanks for this great review! Can’t wait to hold the vinyl in my hands.

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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