Graded on a Curve: Velcro Lewis Group, Open the Sky

The Velcro Lewis Group is a Chicago outfit devoted to blending psych-rock and deep soul into a potent and enticing brew, and their second LP Open the Sky finds them in strong form. The album’s six songs manage to recall top-flight ’60’s garage rock, Sly and the Family Stone, psychedelic Motown, and even a hint of The Chambers Brothers, but what’s most impressive is how it all shapes up into a distinctive and engaging musical personality.

The music of the Velcro Lewis Group, a wild and woolly blend of hard rock, psychedelia, ‘60s garage, blues and soul, is at least partially destined to actively encourage listeners to make comparisons to preexisting models, attracting new fans through word of mouth that zealously namedrops a bevy of worthy influences into an equation that’ll hopefully leave the unexposed positively salivating in anticipation.

However, having their fingers in so many different pies produces a sound that can be accurately described as fairly singular in its familiarity. While the territory the Velcro Lewis Group explore does share an affinity with a handful of contemporary acts, occasionally coming off like branch of the Daptone tree that’s determined to seek out and sustain a higher consciousness through bold genre crossbreeding, they also impact the ear differently than anything else I’ve heard that’s currently on the scene.

And if openly indebted to precedent, they actually do a much better job of combining psych-rock and heavy soul than the vast majority of those dedicated to the same pursuit did previously. This is in part due to those olden rockers, a bunch of cats with a collective and frequently dubious urge to articulate their soulful side, often producing results that were either uninspiring or downright horrific in nature.

Amongst the well-established high-profile examples of successful genre crosspollination (e.g. Sly and the Family Stone, Funkadelic, War with Eric Burdon, The Chambers Brothers circa-The Time Has Come) could be found numerous chops-flaunting hacks and groove-debasing dullards. While it’s true that most San Francisco bands were probably too intimidated by the hometown influence of Sly and company to attempt something comparable, by the end of the ‘60s sightings of hippies wielding horn charts became somewhat common and was largely indicative of underwhelming musical rewards.

The problem wasn’t that the impulse to merge the environments of rock and soul was somehow inappropriate. Rather, the vast majority of those involved simply lacked sensitivity over what made soul music great; not chops (though skill was certainly essential), but a disciplined understanding of what constituted the music’s feel. Otis Redding had it, of course. Blood, Sweat and Tears didn’t.

By contrast, the late-‘60s psychedelic soul movement as established by Motown was always extremely careful over what did and didn’t work within that specific pop context, which is why The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today)” holds up much better than does the rock-inclined recordings of San Fran’s Cold Blood or later Rhinoceros.

That the Velcro Lewis Group eschews horns is perhaps reflective of their smarts in this matter, but it mainly points to this five-piece band’s actuality as a rock unit. They notably cite Hawkwind as a major influence and as their music unfolds the truth of the association becomes easily tangible, as does ingredients of ‘60s garage rock and, particularly on their first album, the blues.

2010’s White Magick Summer was a solid debut that set the band’s agenda into motion pretty well, but it’s ultimately a launching pad for Open the Sky’s wider and more appealing stylistic spectrum. That inaugural LP’s ten selections were loaded with trippy rock burning leavened with just the right amount of soul grease, but its blues orientation, while surely possessive of firm roots, did result in a few of the songs being stronger than others.

Overall, White Magick Summer was an admirable first statement. Indeed, with the slide-guitar and electric washboard (!) rush of its opener “Steam Powered Man,” the bruising hard rock stomp of “Trouble Down Below,” the garage injected R&B (or vice versa) of “Fall to Pieces,” and the zonked blues hairiness of “Dog Catchin’ Woman,” the disc is a surefire keeper. Plus, I especially dig how “Yearn Me No More” manages to slyly bring a tune from the Soft Machine’s first record to mind, so slyly in fact that the connection might exist only in the folds of my own mind.

But in pointing to the Velcro Lewis Group’s impressive cohesiveness, the album did kinda register as a calling card for an act whose well-oiled assurance would very likely set a tightly-packed club ablaze. And that’s what makes Open the Sky such a striking follow-up. If White Magick Summer presented a band with a firm handle on their sound, the gains in both songwriting and studio ingenuity found on this trim new LP are a surprising and very welcome turn of events.

Opener “Bernadette” does a few things extremely well. For starters, it blends elements of that aforementioned Motown psych-soul activity (though the cut’s shared title with the ’67 pop smash by The Four Tops is a tangential similarity at best) with a deep-groove aura suggestive of the early Family Stone.

Secondly, it manages this combination in a manner that’s seamlessly tasteful; in no way can the Velcro Lewis Group be accused of genre insensitivity. And last and maybe most importantly, their intelligence in execution never falters into mere propriety or slavish reverence, with the sweat-inducing vibe of their first release still very much in evidence.

On “Bernadette” and Open the Sky as a whole, their intensity has just been broadened significantly. I’ll add that their prior tendency toward the blues hasn’t been redirected so much as simply internalized. In this regard the album’s opener is mildly suggestive of The Staple Singers’ later strides onto the pop charts.

But this record’s best quality might be its sheer variety. For instance, the first half of “Eagle Momma” adds some terrific Nuggets-esque fuzz guitar to what would otherwise be a likeably minor soul-mover. But it’s in the second half of the track that Travers Gauntt’s six-string really steps to the fore, the tune shifting into a slow and dare I say sludgy blast of hard rock power.

This isn’t to downplay the doom-laden atmosphere conjured from Halden Spoonwood’s bass and the rising weirdness delivered by front-man Lewis’ highly effective employment of the Theremin, the use of said instrument being another easy tipoff to this bunch’s far from generic approach in cooking up a rock ‘n’ soul stew. But in utilizing the Theremin, Lewis also exhibits restraint.

For that Russian electronic device’s tones are also part of “No Dream”’s sonic strategy, though in this case they wisely serve as accenting, never overriding the track’s thrust as a tightly-conceived hunk of garagey rhythm and blues throttle. With this said, Lawrence Peters’ electric washboard does bring a current of eclecticism to the table. On White Magick Summer his playing mostly brought an air of wacked-out junkyard blues, but here it shapes up as a distant relative to Tommy Hall’s electric jug in the 13th Floor Elevators.

Furthermore, Peters’ bass voice, as elsewhere on the record, is a worthy additive to the Daptone-meets-Family Stone motif of the muscular workout “We’re Having a Party.” And on the subject of vocals, co-lead singers Lewis and Hawk Colman (who also fills the band’s drum spot with aplomb throughout) are more than capable of delivering the goods, with neither falling into one-dimensional belting or overwrought “I’ve got something to prove” emotionalism, with this diversity being readily apparent during the soaring psych-rock of “Inside My Cloud.”

But Open the Sky’s finest moments are saved for its fifteen minute closer “The Occulus of the Winged Man.” Its extended ambiance finds them exploring some increasingly heady terrain, but they do so without ever really relinquishing the rhythmic pulse that helps to focus the rest of their material. And instead of driving one half-baked idea into the ground, the piece is a multi-tiered expression of linked passages, each one building upon the last and deflecting the dangers of potential boredom.

Along the way Gauntt’s guitar gets ample room to burn, Lewis’ synthesizer burbles and spurts, and at one point everything drops out except for Peters’ washboard, an occurrence that couldn’t help but bring to mind the extended version of The Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today,” though I should add that the two songs are otherwise quite different. “The Occulus of the Winged Man” stands as an excellent dish of contempo psych-rock, a bold gesture of growth that caps a very good sophomore effort.

The Velcro Lewis Group is surely a band to watch. If they continue to hone these developments a masterful third LP is almost certain. With Open the Sky, they’ve already exceeded expectations.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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