Graded on a Curve:
D. Charles Speer & the Helix, Doubled Exposure

Doubled Exposure is the new eight-song album from D. Charles Speer & the Helix. Mixing non-cornball psychedelia with legit country influence while tossing in a desire to experiment and the impulse to boogie, it produces a tidy and highly individual ride.  

Choogling, or if one prefers, chooglin’, is a concept that’s been roughly but not rigidly defined. Coined by John Fogerty, most famously in “Keep on Chooglin’” but also in “Born on the Bayou” (notable bookends on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s second LP Bayou Country), for a dirty-minded few the word refers to coitus, but many more understand it as continued motion in service of certain goals.

For Fogerty there were objectives fitting the action especially well, best expressed in his lyrical couplet “you got to ball and have a good time / and that’s what I call choogling.” But not all fun embodies the choogle; the essential factor is movement. Basically impossible to imagine is the presence of choogling not accompanied by some amount of perspiration.

Dancing obviously fits the bill, as does a game of pick-up hoops, Frisbee in the park with one’s pooch, baking a birthday cake for one’s grandma and delivering it on roller skates, and yes indeed, sexual kicks, either alone or with a well-chosen partner. But not all activity is included under the choogling umbrella. It does appear that some form of life-affirmation need be the aim, with the aura of choogle greatly elevated when rhythmic repetition is involved.

And so, music; it makes total sense that chooglin’, a slightly older sibling to the Grateful Dead’s comparable theme as offered in their famed composition “Truckin’,” blossomed from the counterculture optimism of the 1960s. R. Crumb’s one page “Keep on Truckin’” strip from the first issue of Zap Comix predates both, though it should be mentioned that the cartoonist was simply offering a visual riff upon the lyrics of Blind Boy Fuller’s classic “Truckin’ My Blues Away.” He most definitely wasn’t lending the hippies a mantra as iron-on t-shirt decal.

In connection to the above, the phrase choogling has come to be used as a musical descriptor, though one more related to an environment than a term denoting an actual genre. With this said, there does exist a rare breed, their prominence most deeply felt in the 1970s, that placed choogle on a pedestal. These groups almost always started with a bluesy foundation and folded-in varying levels of (though never too much) post-psych knowledge, and in the parlance of The Osmonds, most were a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.

This reads as a truly marvy blend of ingredients, but sadly the chooglin’ result was very often a debased form of boogie rock. A major problem in this state of affairs was a matter of degree; where bands once employed the choogle as but one weapon in a creative arsenal, by the mid-‘70s some outfits, particularly those making a significant living on the live stage, started choogling incessantly.

This was just dandy for folks blitzed out of their skulls in a field or amphitheater on whatever substance was handy, but not so cool for those electing to choogle in moderation. Though whether a person can in fact choose restraint in choogling is an open question, one this writer feels ill-equipped to answer. However, I do possess far more confidence in claiming the existence of a slim few contemporary acts utilizing choogle to decidedly non-crap ends.

Initially, I thought there was only one band in this scenario, namely New York City’s Endless Boogie, but boy howdy was I mistaken; D. Charles Speer & the Helix have also asserted themselves and bring this close-knit phenomenon a pleasing diversity. To elaborate on the differences, Endless Boogie (as their moniker implies) flaunt the choogle, placing it front and center in the attack as they retain heaviness and sidestep the errors of precedent. But for Speer & the Helix, choogling is but one element in a broader sonic equation.

If both groups could be reduced to olfactory sensations, Endless Boogie would waft like leather and a sweaty armpit as Speer and company conjured an intriguing blend of fragrances; a strong whiff of patchouli, a touch of tobacco smoke, the tartness of homemade apricot-flavored hooch, and a hint of the scent of Black Jack gum.

With “Wallwalker,” the opening track to Speer & the Helix’s latest LP Doubled Exposure, the choogle is certainly emphasized. But it also doesn’t obscure the smarts. The song is rife with associations; amongst them is Hans Chew’s piano, which cultivates the middle ground between Nicky Hopkins and first LP Stooges.

Additionally, there are abundant handclaps, the tight rhythm team of bassist Ted Robinson and drummer Steve McGuirl, and the grouchy guitar and deep-throated voice of Speer. Born Dave Charles Shuford and growing up in Georgia before eventually relocating to NYC, the bandleader soaked-up a potent stew of blues, old-time, country, and R&R as interrelated elements in a broad Southern landscape that continues to impact art and culture right up to this very instant.

Of which Doubled Exposure is a prime example. “Cretan Lords” combines an aura of torchy-blues with appealing psych elements (bouzouki and baglamas are part of the fabric) giving the tune a slight tinge of exotic surf, though Speer’s vocals remind me of Tony Joe White cutting a 45 for Smash Records a la mode of Lee Hazlewood.

But on “Bootlegging Blues” Speer’s singing is remindful of a certain Birthday Party/Bad Seeds frontman, though it’s a Nick the Stripper that actually spent his formative years in the American South instead of soaking up the ambiance via records and beat-up Faulkner and O’Connor paperbacks. The key distinction is Speer not overdoing the atmosphere. Instead of Southern Gothic, the vibe’s closer to the pulpy side of William Burroughs.

Due to the detectably literary and specifically post-Beat sensibility found in the lyrics, this comparison is apropos. This doesn’t mean Speer’s constantly emoting. Far from it actually; “Mandorla at Dawn” shapes-up as a nearly ten-minute instrumental. It’s Doubled Exposure’s psych centerpiece, though it also integrates Marc Orleans’ pedal steel for an early-‘70s San Fran effect.

“The Heated Hand” comes next, an outstanding number extending the sweet ‘70s gist of such acts as Asleep at the Wheel and Commander Cody. Offering a genuine slice of hippie country, the success of the cut again comes through deft restraint; laid-back yet mildly druggy, the choogle is present but never overbearing.

More traditionally country-rocking is “Red Clay Road.” A showcase for Orleans’ ample skill, the song also quickly (but subtly) brought “White House Blues,” that warhorse from Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers, to mind. If this smacks of the New Weird America, that’s not necessarily off base, since Speer/Shuford was/is a member of the excellent and insanely prolific experimental unit No Neck Blues Band.

Maybe due to those Southern ties the tone here is much closer to the descendants of the Old Weird than is the recent norm; brought to my mind was the Memphis intersection where Furry Lewis, Gus Cannon, Packy Axton, Jim Dickinson, Alex Chilton, and Tav Falco all met up. The title track retains this aspect while also serving as its most contempo selection, while closer “Tough Soup” raises the choogle level and to positive effect. It seems a total cinch that Fogerty would love this record. If it reads like it’s up your alley, the bet is safe that it is.

But Doubled Exposure is downright egalitarian, easily absorbed by chooglers and non-chooglers alike. Crumb would no doubt profess to hate it, but his list of dislikes is long. The curmudgeon just might take a mild fancy to “The Heated Hand,” though he’d obviously never fess up. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.


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