Elephant Stone is a Montreal-based psych-rock quartet that was formed by bassist and sitar player Rishi Dhir back in 2008. I got into them pretty much right from the start because I loved Dhir’s work with The High Dials* and was more than a little sad when I heard he had left that group.
Elephant Stone’s 2009 debut album, “The seven seas”, had me sold immediately and had me trying to convince all of my other friends to give the band a go as well. I got to see them live at the now defunct Zaphod Beeblebrox here in Ottawa back in 2010 and then, three years later, I saw Dhir perform live onstage with Beck at Montreal’s Osheaga festival. Indeed, Dhir’s sitar work is well known and sought after in the psych rock circles and he’s collaborated, either live or in studio, with the likes of The Horrors, The Black Angels, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and the aforementioned Beck. He even created a psych-rock supergroup of sorts called MIEN and released one self-titled album in 2018, that included the work of The Black Angels’ Alex Maas, The Horrors’ Tom Furse, and The Earlies’ John-Mark Lapham.
But I’ve strayed off course a bit here. Rishi Dhir is the driving force behind Elephant Stone but he’s also always had a great team behind him. Each of the group’s five albums have been critically acclaimed, and each has told a different story. On their 2020 album, “Hollow”, Dhir and his band are reaching out to a dystopian world of disconnected and unhappy souls, one that was inspired by the impacts on our society by social media.
“We long to feel less empty inside our hollow world
These hollow days bring so much hurt”
These are words from the opening track, “Hollow world”, but if you weren’t paying attention, you could be forgiven for thinking the message more uplifting than that. The song is a dreamy and technicolour piece of paradise, one that refracts blinding shards of light in all directions. Much like the best of Elephant Stone, this smacks of what The Beatles might’ve been had George Harrison had more sway at the height of his Indian classical music fascination. It is bright pop and sounds young, joyful and hopeful, especially when Rishi brings out his daughter Meera Skye Dhir to join him on vocals to close things out. Genius.
*Another excellent Canadian indie rock outfit out of Montreal with a psych rock influenced sound.
For the rest of the Best tunes of 2020 list, click here.
This new list counting down my favourite thirty tunes of 2003 starts off with “Liezah”, a non-single to which I was partial from The Coral’s sophomore album, “Magic and medicine”.
I remember becoming super enamoured with the zaniness of these youngsters’ self-titled debut, especially the infectious hit single, “Dreaming of you”, which appeared at number three on my list for 2002. That album was free-wheeling and full of exuberance and definitely sounded like it had creativity and energy to spare. So it didn’t come as a surprise to me when I heard news of a follow up so soon after I discovered them. In fact, the band members first headed to the studio to work on their sophomore album a mere three months after the debut was released. The sessions were split into a few chunks and were wrapped up in the spring of 2003.
“Magc and medicine” was released on “The Coral”’s first year anniversary, give or take a day, and the difference between the two is remarkable. It’s definitely more polished and tame, something that might not seem like a good thing to all. Where the debut was a melange of everything that made psychedelia great, the scope of the sophomore was more narrow, focused on a bluesier psych-rock in the vein of The Animals. I still enjoyed much of the music and show of musicianship but the lustre was dimmed for me.
Track number three was the exception to all this for me. “Liezah” was even more toned down and scaled back than the rest of the record and yet it somehow managed to share the spark that I saw in “Dreaming of you”. It’s got a bopping baseline that can only come from an upright bass. It’s got a ticky tacky brushing on the high hat and the snare. It’s got a finger picking noodle that sounds timeless and idyllic and breezy. It’s got a restrained vocal turn by James Skelly, showing a gentleness and wistfulness not seen before.
“And every time I think of Liezah
I break down and I start crying
Although she tore me apart
There’s still a place for that girl in my heart”
It’s a song of heartbreak and heartache and bittersweet memory. And yet, “Liezah” never fails to bring a smile and get my toes a-tapping whenever I hear it.
For the rest of the Best tunes of 2003 list, click here.
I’m not sure if it was 1997 or 1998. I know it was one of the two because I was walking to class at York University from my apartment in the student slums just south of campus on Sentinel road. I remember being accosted while just strolling past the old Schulich school of business building on the way to my shortcut through Vari Hall. He was a long-haired grad student wearing retro framed glasses, the kind that were considered nerdy before becoming hipster cool again. He wanted me to know that he liked my t-shirt and that the band name printed on the back was probably influenced by some radical psychology therapy from the 60s (I think he said) but I wasn’t really listening as he droned on about it. Not only was I already late for class but I also got the impression that the t-shirt lead in was just an excuse to show off his esoteric knowledge. So I nodded politely several times and as soon as was humanly possible, interrupted him with thanks and a brief explanation about my destination. I promised him that I’d check out whatever was he was speaking of but as of yet, still haven’t gotten around to it.
I had bought that very t-shirt a few years before when I saw Primal Scream open for Depeche Mode at the Kingswood Music Theatre at Canada’s Wonderland. I went to the merch stand hoping to find the t-shirt I had seen a cute girl wearing earlier that summer at an alternative music bar in Waterloo called Phil’s Grandson’s Place. And wouldn’t you know, there it was, tucked in the corner reserved for the support acts, greatly outnumbered by the Mode concert tees (of which, I bought one too). It was bright red with the telltale sun, the one that appeared to be drawn by a child*, the same one from the “Screamadelica” album cover shown above, and the band’s name, Primal Scream, in yellow script on the back. I wore that t-shirt everywhere and had it for years, finally getting rid of it sometime in the 2000s when my wife convinced me to rid my wardrobe of all the “holey and ratty” concert shirts. Sigh.
“Screamadelica” was a revelation to me, a masterpiece album right up there with some of my all-time faves. And it was a game-changer for Primal Scream too. Bobby Gillespie had put together the band almost a decade prior to the album’s release, but they were really only a live outfit until the Reid brothers put to him the ultimatum of dropping this “second” band or leaving his post as drummer for The Jesus and Mary Chain. He chose the latter in 1986. Some early Primal Scream singles drew buzz but their first two records were mostly panned by critics. Then, after a few years of being plied and peer pressured by Gillespie’s schoolboy chum, Creation founder Alan McGee, the Primals succumbed to the wiles of the acid house scene.
“Screamadelica” is a direct result of the band’s adventures and misadventures while deeply immersed in club and drug culture. In fact, the album could almost be said to be the story of a trip, riding the arc from dance explosion to psychedelic wonder to ecstatic freakout and finally, to its calm and low deflating denouement. It mixes samples and beats with gospel and soul inflections and oft features the inimitable vocals of Manchester singer Denise Johnson. As I said earlier, the album changed everything for Primal Scream, selling tons of copies, winning them the first ever Mercury Prize in 1992, as well as legions of new fans, and started them off on a long and storied career that continues to this day.
Chances are you’ve heard of Primal Scream or at least would recognize this iconic album cover on sight, but if you’ve never listened to “Screamadelica”’s contents, you should not delay and at the very least, have a taste of my three picks for you below.
”Movin’ on up”: Very recently, Swedish indie folk duo First Aid Kit covered this very track (you can find that version here), which I think highlights what a classic track this is, being covered yet again, 30 years after its original release. It is just shy of four minutes and way too short at that. It’s gospel blended with drugged out psychedelics and Mick Jagger swagger. Yeah, that’s a thing. The guitars wail, the hands clap, the keys shuffle, the bongos get you dancin’, and the choirs get you singin’: hallelujah! It is miraculous and ecstatic and a hell of a good time. How else do you open a brilliant album but with an instant adrenaline punch like this? Sing it, Bobby! “I was blind, now I can see. You made a believer out of me.” We’re all believers now.
”Come together”: This was the second single to be released from the album, and much like the tune to follow, was an advance single. The version of the track that I know and love is eight minutes of funky piano, gospel choirs, bongos mixed with drum machines, roaring guitars, and Bobby Gillespie’s slippery and smooth vocals flitting and flirting with horn flourishes. “It’s beautiful. It’s really beautiful.” This is the Terry Farley mix of the track that appeared on the version of the album that was released in North America and that I bought on CD and listened to ad nauseam. However, the original version of the track (check it out here) was mixed by Andrew Weatherall, was two minutes longer, appeared on the British release of the album, and lacked any of Gillespie’s vocals. I prefer the Farley version. In fact, I almost feel like if my copy of the album had Weatherall’s mix, I might have had an entirely different experience with it. But let’s not go there.
”Loaded”: Track number seven on the album was literally the template from which this album was borne. “Loaded” is in fact a remix by DJ Andrew Weatherall (RIP) of a single from the band’s previous, self-titled record called, “I’m losing more than I’ll ever have”. Weatherall took a wicked riff that finishes off an otherwise mellow track, threw in a bunch of samples, drum loops, vocal rips, and some dialogue from a Peter Fonda flick called “The wild bunch”. And yeah, “we wanna get loaded and we wanna have a good time”. The original single was released in 1990, a full 18 months before “Screamadelica” was released, became a massive club hit, and turned everyone’s previous perceptions of band (including their own) on their heads. This funky, seven minute groove was my introduction to the band and having nothing else from which to judge them, fell for them immediately, and it is still my favourite tune by the band today**. I can still see Gillespie dancing, eyes closed, and hands clapping to this track on the Kingswood Music Theatre stage, in a memory, amongst many that are tied to this tune. And that always brings smiles.
*Legend has it that Paul Cannell’s inspiration for the cover art was a water spot on the walls of Creation Records’ offices that he zoned out on while tripping on acid.
**”Loaded” appeared at number three on my Best tunes of 1991 list.
Check back two Thursdays from today for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list: