Getting acclimated to the cult’s new Kool-aid


So, there was a time when I was sizing up Chris Schlarb for a left hook.  What are you even doing?  It’s all going to hell!!!  That would’ve been me shouting those words, right around the time I was giving Schlarb the beating he so richly deserved.  He had it coming.  He was fucking up my Psychic Temple ensemble.

Okay, if we’re going to be all technical about it, it was his ensemble.  But since I had the indelible impression that I knew better than he what was best for it, then, by default, that made it my ensemble.

The writings of a fanboy are a terribly embarrassing conceit.  A pathetic, unguarded display of feelings is a natural outcome of the proceedings, and a requisite lack of dignity in expressing them so unashamedly.  So, with that preamble out of the way…

The first Psychic Temple recording hits me like it was written for me.  No, it’s worse than that.  It’s as if actual parts of my psyche were transformed into coded music notation, and then channeled back at me in sonic form.  Hell, for all I know, I wrote the entire album and performed it all myself, and Chris Schlarb & Psychic Temple are simply my Tyler Durden… but, y’know, multi-instrumentalists instead of societal terrorists (though there’s only a slight difference between the two if you think about it while drunk).

A rotating cast of ensemble members and their diverse backgrounds in music meant there was no limit to what this album could sound like.  Its seamless blend of jazz, rock, classical, pop, ambient and anything else they found in the cupboard transcends the genres that influenced it, and it feels wrong to even attempt to itemize the album’s components, as if putting name to things dispels the magic that binds it all together into a transformative sonic masterpiece.  Something nameless possesses an inherent power, because if you can’t name it, you can’t control it.  I have listened to that first Psychic Temple recording an obscene amount of times since it first hit the shelves back in 2010, and I have never once not been at its mercy.  I cannot listen passively to the damn thing.  It’s never served the role of background music.  It commands my attention from first note to last, and if I had other things to do, well, that’s too bad… if productivity was my goal, I should’ve played something else.  Because Psychic Temple is a force of nature.  It’s elemental.

* * * * *

The more we feel connected to to a work of art, the greater the difficultly in running down the why.  I’ve rambled similarly about Bill Frisell’s 1996 album Quartet.  I’ve done the same about the soundtrack to the Thelonious Monk doc.  If I could find a way to fit in a discussion about David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and The Motion Picture into this site’s raison d’etre, it would get the same treatment.  This type of connection crosses between the conscious and sub-.  It doesn’t even know they’re separate.

Three years later, when word reached me that Psychic Temple’s sophomore release was forthcoming, I was expecting more of the same.  No pressure.  All they had to do was offer up another transcendental work that would become one of my all-time favorite recordings.  And, of no surprise to me, they came damn close to delivering it.

What did catch me off guard is how much it strayed from the debut.  In retrospect, that may be more of a measure of the form of expression than the spirit in which it was delivered.  They added some vocal tracks.  If Schlarb had sought my approval beforehand (as he damn well should have), I would’ve nixed the proposal in a heartbeat.  But this is a rare instance of me getting it wrong.  The vocal tracks resonate like mad.

And they lead right out with it.  The ethereal presence of Sarah Negahdari‘s voice on opening track “Seventh House” is as affecting as any Kris Tiner trumpet cry of melody.  Arlene Deradoorian takes the somber tone of “All I Want is Time” and makes it feel okay to exist in a somber state.  Even a left-field addition of the Aaron Roche take on Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” somehow fits into the flow of the album.  I’m not sure how exactly, but it does.  As a stand-alone, you’d think, nope, no way, and yet, I settle into it each time it comes around.  It’s the kind of thing that would be easy to analyze to death.  The thing is, it works, and sometimes that’s explanation enough.  The gem of the recording is a rendition of Brian Wilson’s “‘Til I Die.”  With Raymond RaposaNedelle Torrisi, and Sufjan Stevens combining on vocals, Psychic Temple owns this song.  It’s theirs now.  It’s like Aretha setting down roots on Otis Redding’s “Respect” or Johnny Cash hitting the unexplored vein on NIN’s “Hurt” or Hendrix doing the unthinkable with “All Along the Watchtower” and making everyone forget about the great Bob Dylan.  Psychic Temple gave life to the complex mix of wistful hope and sublime surrender that Wilson brought into the world with his song, but never made it breathe quite like Schlarb’s ensemble.  The Psychic Temple did all of that the second time around, and I was sure it was a creative arc that would never end.

* * * * *

Schlarb has this thing where he calls his Psychic Temple a cult.  It’s pretty funny, and there’s no doubt that Schlarb finds it as funny, too, even as he relates this belief deadpan calm.  And I’m sure nobody would get a bigger laugh if it ever came about that Psychic Temple truly became a full-fledged cult.  And the way Schlarb excitedly goes about constructing the myth of his cult, I’m certain he believes there’s a chance it could happen.  And, honestly, I wouldn’t bet money against him.

Hell, after those first two albums, I was a card-carrying member.

But then things began to change.

The second Psychic Temple album signaled a move away from the sprawling, epic pieces that embraced both unbound improvisations and ingenious editing techniques, and, instead, became more song-like.  But it still had the spirit of the debut, in both form and substance.  However, the third album (as an ode to consistency, titled III) marked a sea change.  It was a recording of (dammit!) actual songs.  Like you hear on the radio.

The intro teases with more of the good stuff on “Overture,” a moody instrumental piece that cries out with huge melodic statements that float gently to the ground before lifting off yet again.  I remember thinking, oh hell yeah, the Psychic Temple has come back home, baby.  But after that, everything changed.  I remember checking several times if I’d accidentally mislabeled tracks with the wrong metadata.  I deleted the album from my iTunes library and immediately re-added it… watching as the individual tracks populated the screen, one after the other.  But it was clearly the third Psychic Temple album, and when I played that first song (SONG!) “When I know,” there was no denying that the cult I had joined so enthusiastically was suddenly preaching an entirely new doctrine.

Look, I enjoy plenty of country rock, and the more it brushes up against other genres and parallel influences, the better.  I have memories of driving over Colorado’s Wolf Creek pass, covered with the dust of an overnight backpacking trip that will forever be associated with Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere blasting over the car stereo.  Richmond Fontaine’s Post to Wire was my companion on a dangerous night in Chicago when a potent mix of exhaustion, loneliness and despair were transformed into the first pages of a new writing project and a new reason for happiness and hope.  Hell, that last call drink is the best thing ever when the jukebox sends you off with “Tuesday’s Gone.”  But when I joined this cult, that’s not what I signed up for.  This was not my Psychic Temple.

I suppose I should have seen it coming.  The signs were there all along.  And it wasn’t just that the sophomore release had some songs where the first didn’t.  It ran deeper than that.  It was the songs Schlarb was choosing.  The dead giveaway was his choice of that dumb Joe Jackson tune.  It has such a compelling surge of melody that hits at just the right time, and makes me forget every time how much I really don’t like the dumb song.  You don’t perform a cover of that song if you’ve got plans on long instrumental pieces for your next recording.

But the less obvious and infinitely more damning evidence of the upcoming sea change on the third recording was that lovely, soul-crushing rendition of “‘Til I Die.”  If it could be said to have a sibling, it would be Gram Parsons’ “Codine.”  Those songs share the same dark-despair-in-bright-sunshine dichotomy that sometimes leaves me strangely hopeful and sometimes pushes me inexplicably close to tears.  You put your heart into a tune like that if you’ve got plans for your next album to hit some Flying Burrito Brothers territory, and I should have recognized it for what it was.  A fucking portent.

And if I didn’t know then, it sure as hell got drilled home when Schlarb released the fourth Psychic Temple one year later.  It not only doubled-down on the III‘s song structure foundation, but carried it through even better than the previous effort.  That’s when I knew this was how it was going to be from now on.  I was in a cult that had stopped serving my favorite Kool-aid.

But then, one quiet evening in Lexington, Kentucky, things changed.  The sub-title to this column, I suppose, could have been How live music made me like my favorite band again.  Or something like that.  Better, hopefully.

* * * * *

There is a simple joy to just going out to see a show for no particular reason.  Maybe you heard a track from some unknown band’s new album and that was enough to get you through the doors.  Maybe the reason you purchased a ticket was because you really dig a particular venue, and it doesn’t really matter what band plays there because the surroundings make it special.  Or maybe it’s just because it’s a Friday night and that’s the way you want to celebrate it.

The uplifting experience of living life as it’s meant to be lived isn’t something that often visits us.  Or, perhaps it does but we’re not always receptive to those signals to recognize it’s happening.  Whatever.  Going out to see a show just because, for me, is a source of that particular euphoria.  And on a quiet August night in Lexington, Kentucky, it’s what triggered my personal evolution of perspective on those third and fourth Psychic Temple recordings.

It was a warm Tuesday night in Lexington’s Distillery Distrinct when Chris Schlarb, Leeann Skoda and Philip Glenn performed at The Burl.  They were touring in support of the fourth album.

The Burl is a neat venue.  It’s got the feel of a renovated barn, all signs of farm life swept out the door and replaced with the immaculate rustic ambiance of a high-end Smoky Mountains cabin.  Lots of wood in a shotgun building, stage and stained glass at one end, bar along its length, and plenty of spots to stand and listen.  Lexington’s Distillery District is a relatively new thing.  Located northeast of downtown (and the Rupp Arena), it sits along an intriguing stretch of Manchester Avenue, where old lofts and abandoned buildings and empty fields and installation art and crazy murals are embedded near railroad tracks and a neighborhood of aging bungalows and shacks.  The Burl is part of the neighborhood’s refocus, and one of a handful of bars, restaurants and music venues to join the existing distilleries.  The ‘hood still has that beauty of decay and sprouting of art that made it so magnetic to walk through in the first place.  It’s a good place to go catch a show and hang afterwards.  I was thrilled for the opportunity to see Psychic Temple in that very spot.

Lexington didn’t see the wisdom in joining me.  It was a sparse crowd that evening.  Schlarb, Skoda and Glenn took it in stride, got on stage and began playing songs from their fourth album.  And, yes, even though I was face to face with the stage and the musicians on it, and even though I knew they were touring in support of the fourth Psychic Temple recording, I still had a hope in my heart that they’d perform pieces from the first two albums.  As I alluded previously, when it comes to those recordings, I am pathetic.

I also went unrewarded.

However, by the third song, I stopped caring.  By the fifth, it all became clear to me.  Looking back on it now, I’m not entirely sure what exactly became clear, but that thought is still embedded in my memory as I recall the night.  But it was the moment I began liking the third and fourth recordings.

This isn’t going to become some bait-and-switch column where I ultimately reveal a turn of events where surprise! Psychic Temple albums III & IV are now my favorite recordings ever.  Because I’m not and they’re not.  But those chronicles of the Psychic Temple bible speak to me where previously they hadn’t.  The ringing clarity of music experienced live creates a line of communication that speaks with a different voice, and resonates at an entirely different frequency.  I recognized many of the songs the trio performed that evening, but there was an unmissable sensation of hearing them for the first time, as if my ears and memories had been rebooted.  As if the chant of the cult had found a new way in.

I was out to see a show.  That was my world at that moment, and it allowed me to detach myself from all of the memories and opinions that bound me to the first two Psychic Temple recordings.  The melodies of “Paper Tiger” and “Dream Dictionary” walked up to my ears with a warm hello, and my ears returned the greeting in kind.  The hazy harmonic presence of “Spanish Beach” and “Nazarene Dream” shined bright and clear from the stage that evening.  Everything felt new, and it was exhilarating to undergo the transformation of genuinely liking songs that I had previously tried so hard, and failed, to like.  Live music had overcome the massive obstinacy of a cult member whose belief system had been shaken to the core.  Instead, I had a fun night.  I drank some whiskey, listened to some music, bought some CDs.  I chatted with Chris after the show.  It was a good night.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m still hoping Psychic Temple returns to the territory I so greatly adore, and that this whole song thing is a momentary diversion (and, yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds… please refer to Paragraph 3 inre: pathetic fanboy musings).  Besides, things did get better.  Schlarb got the cult back together again for a cover of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, which is one of the most ingenious things lately to hit the shelves.  Somehow he traverses the distance between ambient minimalism and modern post-bop, and devises a strategy to make every step along the way a logical series of simple connections.  It’s brilliant as much as it is beautiful.  It’s different from those first two recordings, and yet still bird-of-a-feather.  It makes me happy just thinking about it as I type this.  So, there’s reason for hope.

There’s also faith, an essential component to any religion.  And so when the fifth Psychic Temple album (inevitably titled V) finally sees the light of day, if my hope for its sound isn’t rewarded, I’ll have faith that hearing it live will reveal the majesty the recorded medium kept hidden.

Go explore, listen, and purchase, the music of Chris Schlarb and Psychic Temple on their Bandcamp page.  However, there’s also Amazon if that’s your preference.