Donovan’s Brain – “Convolutions of The Brain” (2018) review
Essential career retrospective, “Convolutions” spans 25 years, 49 tracks, and four hours of inspired insanity from the Montana mindmelters, buoyed by a bevy of unreleased tracks, film scores (!), rare compilation tracks, and live goodies (where the Brains are arguably heard to best advantage), including their rehearsals for their Terrastock 4 performance in Seattle, Washington in 2000. The Brain were always an organic, catch-as-catch-can collection of members who popped in to God’s Little Ear Acre studios in Bozeman to regroup, swap reunion stories and lay down tunes left abandoned the last time they were in town. But main Brain Ron Sanchez is also a brilliant editor who’s managed to seamlessly combine segments sometimes separated by 25 years, which also accounts for the multiple versions of old favourites.
The roster is jawdroppingly impressive, and includes over two dozen musicians from around the world and around the musical spectrum, from Australian Deniz Tek (Radio Birdman, and Sanchez’s Career business partner) to Brit legends Dave Walker (Idle Race, Savoy Brown, Fleetwood Mac, Black Sabbath), Ric Parnell (Atomic Rooster) and Malcolm Morley, Richard Treece, and Ken Whaley (Help Yourself, Man) to local gunslingers Bobby Sutliff (ex-Windbreakers), Scott Sutherland, and Colter Langan and paisley undergrounders Tom Stevens (Long Riders) and Matt Piucci (Rain Parade). In fact, every one of the approximately 6 different MKs/lineups is represented, as are selections from (or originally earmarked for) their nearly dozen albums. Sanchez’s detailed liners (as detailed as any annotations can be from someone who doesn’t remember recording a few of the contents!) and Morley’s touching eulogy to friend and bandmate Richard Treece, who passed away from cancer three years ago fill in most of the historical background. The set is dedicated to him and the foldout, 8-panel package features his glorious artwork. (His bandmate Ken Whaley also passed away five years ago.)
If there are any immediate pet peeves, it’s that the tracks are not compiled chronologically, making it extremely difficult to match the track annotations with the actual songs. Dor example, the set opens with Brain Mk 3 playing ‘My Favorite Record’, a Colter Langan gem from 1998 that’s full of Pepperesque harmonies and production flashes. Appetites duly whetted, the first of four versions of perennial favourite-cum-bugaboo ‘Perky Pat’ is lifted from one of the Terrastock Rehearsal sets recorded in anticipation of their appearance at Terrastock 2 in San Francisco in 1998. This one features stunning West Coast-style guitar jamming from Treece.
Dave Walker’s ‘Say Farewell’ (in a previously unissued “fast” version) features a veritable supergroup, with Sanchez trading solos with Radio Birdman guitarist Deniz Tek, Atomic Rooster skinponder Ric Parnell holding down the bottom with Man/Helps’ bassist Ken Whaley and his old bandmate Malcolm Morley supplying a groovy organ backing. ‘Arnold 4 Souls’ is a leftover mashup from Sanchez’s Tiny Crustacean Lightshow remix attempt, but it still feels like it needs work – a little too many anarchic Zappaesque touches seems to have overwhelmed the results. ‘Sincerely’, their contribution to a Dwight Twilley tribute album [Twilley Won’t Mind (Zero Hour, 2014)] rescues the day with one of their finest psychedelic accomplishments spearheaded by Sanchez’s headswirling backwards guitar. Ditto to Richard Treece’s immaculate solo backending ‘Oh, Lorelei’ from the tribute album assembled to help defray guitarist Bobby Sutliff’s medical costs following a serious car accident [Skrang: Sounds like Bobby Sutliff (Career, 2013)]. The band also recorded an unreleased Man track (‘Single #2’] for the Man We’re Glad We Know You tribute featuring Dave Walker on vocals and early members Kels Koch and Seth Lyon along for the fun.
The mammoth original 15-minute take of guitarist Jeff Arntsen’s ‘Control’ (accurately subtitled “Long Mix”!) will please completists, but the rest of us will settle for the Defeat of Echoes edit. It’s just too rambling and sounds like a bunch of druggies nodding off in the studio. Halfway through, I was reaching for the skip button. The skronking desert instro ‘No Cops Haul Ass’ features a tasty string duel between Career honchos Sanchez and Tek and inserts a gnarly sorbet into the proceedings.
Additional dreamy instrumentals ‘Hurry Curry’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Snows’ are sourced from a ski film project (The Bridger Bowl Ski Film Of The Day), ca. 2009-2010. Disc 1 ends with the motorific krautrocker, ‘EKR’, which grooves along in the style of Eno, Neu!, and Bowie’s Low/Heroes period.
Disc 2 opens with their Terrastock Rehearsals from October 30, 1998. If you were there, this is a rare treat to hear them put the finishing touches on the songs they selected for their set; if not, it’s a great introduction to the band’s modus operandi, capped by a 16-minute medley that revisits ‘Perky Pat’ and ‘Central Services’ heard earlier on Disc 1. Favourites include a languid, bluesy take on ‘Tad’s New Cymbal Stand’ complete with full-throttle Neil & Crazy Horse jamming between the three-guitar army of Sanchez, Treece, and Langan, a fuzz-filled garage rockin’ ‘Tiny Crustacean Lightshow’, and the original slow-blues version of Dave Walker’s ‘Say Farewell’. Other highlights include Treece’s mesmerizing string work on ‘Bok The Beer Elf’ and yet another stab at ‘Days Playing Perky Pat’, which should probably be retitled ‘Years Playing Perky Pat’ considering the myriad iterations its gone through over the decades!
The final disc is a bit more eclectic, with a lot of cover tunes, including Deniz Tek/Radio Birdman’s garagey ‘More Fun’ and their contributions to Records and Micky Jones (Man) tribute albums, and more variations on ‘Joey’s In The Pouch’ (with stunning Treece slide guitar) and another Terrastock rehearsal of ‘Perky Pat’ and ‘Central Services’ (these from the earlier October 24 date so you can compare / contrast with the later rehearsals on Discs 1 and 2). The Brain stretch out and explore their psychedelic side with ‘To One Still Waiting’, but I could’ve done without Sanchez’s experimental synth noodlings (‘Big Days’, ‘Funding Cut’, ‘PCH’, ‘Squishy’).
While vocals have never been a Brain strongsuit (some of the examples here are cringeworthy), you’re not really here for the voices, rather the tight-as-a-monkey’s-bum jamming and improvisational detours into unchartered waters that will constantly amaze and reward repeat listens. Word is that the Brain are concurrently working on two new releases, so while we await what hatches out of their collective brains, this is a welcome catchup on past glories, often heard in a new and exciting light.
– Jeff Penczak
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