Graded on a Curve: Brother JT,
The Svelteness of Boogietude

The first time I laid eyes on the pudgy and moon-faced Brother JT—aka John Terlesky, the Bethlehem, Pa., singer-songwriter who might just be the most undeservedly neglected figure in psychedelic rock today—he was rolling around a Philadelphia stage in a pair of black bikini underpants.

This was a long time ago, 1997 or thereabouts. A decade or so had passed since Terlesky’s first band, the Original Sins, had emerged from out-of-the-way Bethlehem to smack the Philadelphia music scene upside the head with a garage rock so ferociously fucked-up it even managed to win over the Farfisa-hating hardcore crowd. But by the time I saw him Terlesky—an intrepid psychonaut if ever there was one—had largely abandoned garage rock to play an unabashedly atavistic brand of free-form, acid grok rock guaranteed to conjure up images of Day-Glo hairies basking in the Summer of Love or cringing in the comedown morning that followed it. As for his albums, they varied; some were utterly deranged, while others were oddly domestic—I call these albums blotter gum—and at least one (1999’s Way to Go) boasted perhaps the most fuzzed-out guitar wank to come our way since the age of Hendrix.

What freaked everybody in that audience out was that this was no act; this Pillsbury Doughboy was obviously at least five stones from the sun, in keeping with the title of one of his better LPs, 2001’s Maybe We Should Take Some More? And he was testifying. To the power of mushrooms and the sheer unbridled joy of dosing yourself to a new way of being. Over the passing years I didn’t think he was capable of any more surprises, but I was wrong. 2007’s Third Eye Candy saw him make inroads into acid-fried funk and soul, and on 2013’s The Svelteness of Boogietude he continues to make forays in that direction, although he includes a fair number of songs (“Many Man Smoke,” “T. Rex Blues”) that would fit comfortably on his previous LPs.

He also incorporates the weird, cartoon-deep voice he used on Third Eye Candy to sing some of his tunes, especially the instant classic “Sweatpants” and the equally great “I Still Like Cassettes.” But he opens the LP with the LSD-opus “Celebrate Your Face,” which features lots of great guitar and a soul-infused chorus (“Loosen up your head/Let it spill out”) along with a reminder by the psychedelic wise man that this world isn’t ours, we just live here. A brief but shrieking guitar solo, some shaken percussion instrument, a few phrases from the Brother using his new deep voice, and lots of positive vibes (“Let’s make a plan/To do away with/Everyday”) all lead up to a fantastic Sly and the Family Stone-flavored ending that has Brother JT and some female vocalists repeating, “Celebrate your face/It’s the only one you’ve got” while Brother JT alternately shouts and plays some out-of-control spazz guitar. “Gliding” is one of the Brother’s pretty little domestic ditties; it has a sixties British vibe to it, with the Brother singing, “You are beautiful to me sometime” and talking about baking cakes to eat come evening time. It’s a minor thing, a lovely celebration of domesticity, and the perfect preface to the gargantuan guitar riffs of JT’s homage to Marc Bolan, “T. Rex Blues.” The vibe comes straight out of the T. Rex songbook, but that guitar! It’s primordial, a dinosaur crashing through the foliage of your mind to chow down on your cerebral cortex. It ends with Brother JT singing, “Let me put you on… like this here” as he turns his guitar inside out to extract noises never before heard by man.

“Muffintop” is a slow number featuring a very stoned sounding Brother JT, and the muffintop he’s singing about can’t be purchased at a bakery. His guitar playing is twisted and freaky, and the song is heavy, a bad trip, although his lyrics seem to belie the fact. As for “Be A,” it’s a fast-paced garage rock song that hearkens back to the Summer of Love, with Terlesky tossing off lines like, “Be a gypsy/And be tipsy/And even Nipsey Russell if you please.” (I could be wrong, but this is likely the only rock music reference to Nipsey Russell, frequent guest panelist on a long line of game shows, ever.) He slows down long enough to warn you about the pitfalls of being what you want to be, then plays a long and very cool guitar solo before reminding you to be kind to yourself, end of song. “Sweatpants” employs lots of synthesized blips and beeps and beats while Brother JT, singing like the deepest-voiced mofo you ever heard, extols the erotic virtues of comfort wear. In the middle he returns to his normal voice to deliver a rap about how life is hard and like a good pair of sweat pants should have some wriggle room in it. But before that he sings, “Sweatpants/That’s where we goin’/It’s what we’re knowin’/Do I see a camel toe?” It’s a great groove, this one, and hilarious, and it gets busier the closer it comes to the end, with Terlesky employing both his low (“Oh Jesus/Make this fuckin’ song a hit cuz I need money” and regular voices (“You can take your money/And put it in your sweatpants/And take it to the bank“) while playing some truly magnificent fuzz guitar.

“Green Curtain” is yet another slow and reflective turn back to the Swinging Sixties. It’s lovely and simple, although the lyrics are deceptively dark, and it seems to be over long before its 3:16 length. But Brother JT immediately ups the tempo with the vaguely funky “Things I Like,” on which he basically, you know, tells you what he likes. Wawa’s are included, as is “Sister Ray” and the Everly Brothers. The percussion is great, and like “T. Rex Blues” you can hear the spirit of Marc Bolan hovering over the song. Brother JT plays a fluid guitar, and ends the song with lots of nonsense syllables, like he’s channeling the Jackson 5 or the Archies. Great tune, as is “Somebody Down There,” an echo chamber of a song that with a great melody that has Brother JT asking, “What is the use” and announcing, “We’re all on the same boat baby/Heading for the other side,” before concluding “Somebody down there likes me.” His guitar solo is pure purple paisley, and there’s some nice stop and start, and a gaggle of female vocalists repeat “Somebody.” And I don’t know if he’s in with the Devil or the Devil’s in with him, although given Brother JT’s friendly attitude towards most things lead me to believe it’s the latter.

“Many Man Smoke” is a hard rocker that gradually comes into focus, with the Brother’s guitar playing some far-out distortion while he sings about lost souls seeking the light. This one comes from the dark side, a bad trip, with Brother JT singing, “I’m Pontius Pilate/I punched the pilot” and name-dropping poor fucked Job before raising his voice on the chorus, something he rarely does. And then he launches into one of the most distorted solos, even by his standards, that I’ve ever heard, and it will carry you along to whatever dark place the Brother was inhabiting when he wrote this. Next up is the great and funky “I Still Like Cassettes,” which features lots of synthesizers and the Brother singing, “I still like cassettes/That is where I am at/I still like cassettes/They are by far my favorite format.” To the slinky beat he sings, “These digital days/I still misssss/The hisssss” before the song goes totally New Wave, and if somebody had told me Brother JT had this song in him I’d have written them off as acid casualties. All his favorite songs, he adds, “Have dropouts in them/From where the tape got eaten,” but he “cherishes the ways/They go in and out of phase.” And on he goes, into a great melodic chorus, which is followed by handclaps and some free-form rapping, before the Brother repeats, like they’re the greatest thing in the world, “Here come the dropouts.” A classic.

“Mourning Dove” is a quiet and lovely little number with strings of all things, with Brother JT singing, “Still you warble and you coo/It’s a job you do/Just to see us through” and it’s Sunday morning and the dove is mourning for us all. It’s followed by one great cacophonous freak-out, “Flotsam and Jetsam.” It opens quietly but quickly picks up tempo, and this time the Brother employs a soprano saxophone to ride the beat. His lyrics are trippy as the sound, which explodes when he tosses off one miraculously distorted guitar solo that’ll rip your mind to shreds. “Keep flowing,” he sings as the guitar and saxophone join forces in a frenzied jam that will blow your mind. Then it ends, and he sings, “Good good night,” before adding, “My fine feathered friends,” after which the guitar and soprano sax return and take the song out Helter-Skelter style.

Brother JT is, as I said at the beginning of this review, an unacknowledged national treasure, and his numerous great albums remain largely unheard except by a rapt cult audience. It’s a miracle The Svelteness of Boogietude was released by prestige label Thrill Jockey, but I doubt the honor will change things much. As for the Brother, he seems content to distance himself from the scene by tripping balls and watching TV in Bethlehem—I don’t think he’s ever traveled even so far as Washington, DC—take his medicine, and record one intriguingly cool LP after another. If you haven’t heard him, do yourself a favor and check out The Svelteness of Boogietude. Or the brilliant “Warm’s the New Cool (Newer)” off Third Eye Candy. They’ll flip your wig. And who doesn’t want his wig flipped?


This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text