Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Secret Machines - The Road Leads Where It's Led

Secret Machines
The Road Leads Where It's Led

Released 2005 on Reprise
Reviewed by Jasonaparkes, 27/05/2007ce

1. The Road Leads Where It's Led (4:38)
2. Better Bring Your Friends (3:09)
3. Astral Weeks (5:53)
4. Money (That's What I Want) (7:06)
5. Girl from the North Country (9:00)
6. (De Luxe) Immer Wieder (8:00)

Secret Machines:

Brandon Curtis - vocals, bass, keyboard
Josh Garza - drums, percussion
Benjamin Curtis - guitar, vocals

Produced and Performed by Secret Machines

To date, Secret Machines have released 2 1/2 albums, both of which I quite like, but can't say I truly adore. The band had some degree of hipness about them around the point of debut LP 'Now Here is Nowhere' (2004) - which pretty much vanished after the failed attempt at commercial breakthrough that was 'Ten Silver Drops' (2006). The latter seemed to have a lot of record company $$$$£££ behind it, from the nicely designed marketing campaign to the right kind of support slots (Chemical Brothers, Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon, Muse, Oasis, U2), and one of the most painful Top of the Pops performances in living memory (where the band trudged through a version of 'Lightning Blue Eyes' that underlined the point there wasn't actually much of a song there!). The record company may have wanted the band to do a Coldplay or Killers, but there was just something about that record that didn't appeal to the masses. I don't think either album is bad, but they feel a bit like Ride, the way Creation pushed that band to be songwriters and retro alluders, losing what was great about them and underlining their drawbacks. Secret Machines have since gone through line up changes, Benjamin leaving the band, and a reported expansion to a four-piece. Whether Reprise will stick with them and hope for a Flaming Lips style eventual breakthrough, who knows - the new material apparently nods back to the debut and this release, the band sounding like they are going back to the start.

'Now Here is Nowhere' and this six track e.p. clearly show the potential Secret Machines have, lots of people coming up with suitable namedrops: Pink Floyd, Neu!, The Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev, Spiritualized, Soundtrack of Our Lives...while they have often been cited in relation to the so-called shoegaze acts of the early 90s: My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride etc - it's strange how that "genre" known in the UK music press as 'the scene that celebrates itself' seems to be more widely regarded in the rest of the world (in some places it was known as 'dream pop'). This e.p. is interesting as it's largely comprised of cover versions, some of which surfaced over various UK singles from the debut LP (the UK versions of various formats of 'The Road...' and also on part 1 of the UK 'Sad and Lonely' single). It demonstrates Secret Machines potential, they have to decide what kind of band they want to be - I don't think they could be the next Killers, or even Wilco, if they wanted to - like Ride, a lot of their appeals in the spacey grooves and shoegaze inflected prog. These are the directions they'll probably make a truly great record from, though they might grow facial hair, get Tim Burton to direct a video, and try and imitate Chris Martin imitating Ocean Rain or The Unforgettable Fire. Let's hope not though...

The opening title track stems from the debut LP and is probably one of the band's catchiest songs, though it doesn't sound like a natural pop song being based on a spacey keyboard groove (which could be mistaken for something like 'Discotheque' or 'Lemon' by U2, which might put off some). The huge Zep-sounding drums come in, reminding you of the band's potency live (when not stoned or in a downbeat mood) - though the line "we communicate by semaphore/no language, we've got flags of our own" is as appalling as most lyrics by Interpol. The b side 'Better Bring Your Friends' opens badly, with a sound somewhere like Kings of Leon/U2 and "woman"-style lyrics that make me think of Star Sailor trying to imitate 'Star Sailor.' After a minute or so the song begins to mutate, with some hypnotic percussion and droning bass, and then some psyched out guitar - at the two minute point the song suddenly becomes very groovy and very reminiscent of the Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev style of their debut mini album 'September 000' (2002).

Secret Machines own songs aren't quite there yet, though I quite like both albums and play them from time to time...but the cover versions found here are probably more interesting and show where they're coming from and where they could go to. Despite trying over the years, I just can't get into Van Morrison, having picked up several albums that I've failed to get into. It's probably not Van's fault, possibly more those corporate singer songwriters who namedrop him, the way all his new records have sounded the same since 1988, the lifestyle factor (a bit like people who listen to soul to try and demonstrate they have soul...), and the prescence of certain Van records in those endless lists. Maybe I'll get him one day, I have tried '...It's Too Late to Stop Now...' but it does nothing, same for 'Tupelo Honey', 'Into the Music', 'Veedon Fleece'...and list fave 'Astral Weeks.' In fact, I like two of his songs - 'TB Sheets' and 'Astral Weeks' - for some reason I love the title track, but can't get through the album proper. Maybe it was Jeff Buckley's comedy version of 'The Way Young Lovers Do' that put me off, or those folk who always go on about 'Madame George', it all seems so rhetorical...The great Lester Bangs piece on 'Astral Weeks' probably helped and I think it's a perfect song. It pretty much drains me to the point I can't take the rest of the record - odd as I quite like the similar sounding 'Happy Sad' by Tim Buckley. Secret Machines take on 'Astral Weeks' is pretty faithful, the band rooting it around a feedback dirge and the drums - as with the odd cover of 'Money (That's What I Want)' they seem to want to reduce carefully crafted songs to their own grooves (so odd that the record company wanted their groove type songs to metamorphose into carefully crafted songs?). The version of 'Astral Weeks' is interesting, you imagine them playing it between two of their own epic Hawkwind/Zep/'Leave Them All Behind' style songs - the version of 'Money' sounds like a tryout for 'Alone, Jealous and Stoned' and can't match the greatness of the celebrated cover by the Flying Lizards.

Translating other people's songs into Secret Machines language is kind of interesting, it's strange that I play this import e.p. more often than either of the 2 1/2 albums - at 37:22 long, it is easier to take in than either of the albums proper. Secret Machines' take on Dylan's 'Girl from the North Country' is quite odd, having a drone that sounds like 'Playing with Fire'-Spacemen 3, piano recalling 'Music for Airports', and a vocal that reminds me of...Bill Janovitz from Buffalo Tom! The band extend the 'Freewheelin' original, which I still think is one of Dylan's best moments, towards a nine-minute epic - after about six minutes the feedback begins to rise and the piano becomes very 'In C' - setting the tone for the final cover version here.

Though everyone gets compared to Krautrock these days, it's not hard to detect it in the drum style of Secret Machines, particulaly on 'Nowhere Again.' The link is made clearer with their cover of Harmonia's 'De Luxe (Immer Wieder)', which Michael Rother has also played with them live ("really big fun" Rother stated in a small interview in The Independent last year when played several acts that nod towards Neu! and his other work). As cover versions go, it sounds very much like the original, while having enough differences to remind you that they're not one of those acts who just completely rip off (see Primal Scream - the intro to 'Burning Wheel' just appears to be 'Future Days', while Neu!'s 'Hero' got madeover into their 'Shoot Speed Kill/Light'). The wonderful keyboard riff from Moebius, Roedelius & Rother remains, though stretched out with odd keyboard drones and a huge Bonham sounding like drum pulse. It sounds like a shoegaze act attempting to play Krautrock versions of the more interesting side of Led Zep (say parts of 'Physical Graffitti' or 'Presence').

This e.p. (or mini LP if you choose another definition) demonstrates the potential of Secret Machines, something they haven't yet delivered on. The rumoured return of their sound to that of the debut suggests that their third album might be the one. A collection well worth tracking down for the interesting cover versions and the interesting cover, if not the Machines own compositions.

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