When New York State's Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams issued its self-titled debut album in 1998, the outré rocking folk ensemble (or is it the other way around?) merely hinted at what they would get up to as they continued to play out in small clubs and tour coffeehouses around the East Coast near and far from their Hudson River Valley home. They grew not only in their ability to command the craft of songwriting, they learned to be entertainers, a show band that could deliver musically, stretching itself to the limit and branching out musically and lyrically. As evidenced by their sophomore offering, Flapjacks from the Sky, Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams is simply one of the finest American bands out there on the road.
The reason many haven't heard of this rootsy, warm, adventurously playful psychedelic group is because they've been doing the entire thing their own way. Sure, the name may sound gimmicky, but the music is anything but. Inside that smile are teeth. Songwriter Joziah Longo has spent a lot of time listening to everything from the Band and Bob Dylan to Tom Petty and Tony Joe White, from Iggy Pop to Pink Floyd. There are electric, folk, and swamp blues here, acid-drenched roots and garage band rock, and country-drenched pop, and that's just the beginning. 20 songs (21 actually, there's a hidden bonus track) spread out over two discs may be more than some listeners are willing to bite off on an initial listen, but it'd be a mistake to let this one slide by. Time flies by in a series of allegories, fables, and morality tales that engage in a particular, wry brand of longing, laughter, and loss that have their origins in big cities and villages, in your cousin's anti-depressant-scrambled brain, or in your own, they contain the secret codes and symbols of the American highway while residing next door and setting out on the porch in the evening.
Longo's deep, dry voice resembles Petty's but his songs are far better. One listen to the slowly unfolding "Sunday in the Rain," finds multi-instrumentalist Tink Lloyd's accordion and Sharkey McEwen's electric slide painting the backdrop as Tony Zuzulo's kit work brings it all to Longo's voice and he goes deep, bringing out a freshly painted portrait from the wrong side of the screen door. Another standout on disc one (though there isn't a weak cut in the whole mess), "A Kiss from Eve" is a ringing, rootsy pop song where accordion, keyboards, and acoustic and electric guitars join in a midtempo rock & roll ballad that celebrates everything possible in moments of doubt. The popping snares and cymbals accent every line. "Baby Jane," is a spooky ditty where acoustic guitars and a single, sparse electric line introduce a first-person narrative about watchfulness in the moments of life's passage, Tink's cello lines add a gorgeous bottom into Longo's lyric that is as much a platitude about not getting stuck to anything that's not worth one's time as anything else. Life can knock the wind out of you, but there's no reason not to suck in a fresh breath. The texture of entwining guitars, cello lines, and a brushed snare bring an airy flow to the lyric, not allowing it to become glued to its seriousness for very long. "I Wish," is a country rocker with a breezy, shuffling beat, and jangling guitars that walks on the outside of its poetic lyric. One of the album's true high points is "Talking with the Buddha," a sprawling psychedelic folk-rock jam that sticks it in the eye of the freak folk and neo-psych crews without even trying. The slow tempo and straightforward narrative about personal responsibility are only the beginning of a true album rock nugget. McEwen's guitar break takes nothing for granted and he lets his lead lines out of the cage and lets space, taste, and a guitar hero's chops push it to the margin and break it into the outer atmosphere.
Disc two begins where the first one left off. "Jump Rope" is a 2-stepper that weaves accordion, acoustic guitars, and drum kit with gorgeous harmony vocals. It's a love song from the side of the river, outside the hustle and craziness that is the workaday world. The band rocks it up a bit on "Bike," where Horselips, Jethro Tull, and prog rock meet early Pink Floyd. The riff is more than memorable, and the well-placed, understated flute by Tink sets the whole thing off center and winding around itself. When Longo wryly sings: "He spoke at God/and he heard God answer/'Holy Mackerel'..." we hear the place of irony as allegory and allegory as an inside joke exposed to the open air. The sheer texture in the psych-weirdness of "Gonna Get Up" melds the Delta blues to dreamy ELO-cum-Flaming Lips-style pop. With all this artiness it's amazing that straight-ahead rock tunes like "Glide" and "In Her Own World" could be played on virtually any radio station from Triple A to modern rock, and the reason is simple: hooks, production, and the immediacy with which Longo's voice engages the listener. "Call to the Mystic," with its Celtic intro, is the single that Adam Duritz and Counting Crows would kill to have cut, but it feels like even the Band missed it. It seems that Longo listens carefully to the hum in the power lines as they whisper to him that the songs are ready to fall out of the sky; he snatches them, and refashions them in Gandalf Murphy's image. How else do you get a balls-out rocker riff like the one that introduces "Look Ma No Hands," to line up next to the fear-drenched ballad that makes up its verse? The sheer musicality of Gandalf Murphy is exactly what's missing from American rock at the moment. It's a shock to think that this group, besides playing the festival circuit, is making its living in acoustic music venues when it can burn up a stage and exchange chops with anybody out there.
McEwen is a bloody natural lead guitarist who never overplays, he loves the warm high tones that David Gilmour patented, but he's just as deeply rooted in the blues as they reach from the earth to the stratosphere inhabited by Jimi Hendrix. (Check his fills and solo in the aforementioned track for proof.) And then, of course, there's Tink Lloyd, whose multi-instrumentalist duties are the heart of Gandalf Murphy's sound. She's a musician's musician whether she's playing cello, piccolo, flute, or her treasured accordion. And while it's true that Longo seems to gather the songs from the wind, the music is firmly rooted in the earth, making a case for Robbie Robertson's claim that the music comes out of the soil. The dirt in the ground of upstate New York is rich with influences from many cultures, and Lloyd seems to understand them all. Zuzulo's kit work is in the pocket. He's interested not so much in keeping time but stretching it, decorating it with a commoner's crown and making it less intimidating. This is no mean feat and he makes something very difficult seem like child's play. The closing cut on the official album is the title track, a skeletal little figure that evolves into a full-blown folk song that in turn becomes a spacious rocker that eventually blows up into a full orchestral romp, ominous and strange, and becomes a majestic romp through a sonic funhouse. It almost seems a shame that Gandalf Murphy included "Nighttime," a very early tune that has a space at the end of it for two full minutes before it careens into the sort of zaniness that can be captured during their live show.
The amazing thing is that this is a second album. It's sophisticated, mature, poetic, and yes, funny in a tasteful, non zany -- or obvious -- way. If ever there were a band that transcended the limits of their very long (and wacky) name, this is it. Flapjacks from the Sky is not only a grand surprise as an ambitious (and fully realized) album, it's a record that opens up American folk, pop, and rock languages, creating an inner dialogue that is not only translatable and accessible to anyone, but is also delightful and free of cluttered ambitions. Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams have the requisite skill and taste to inspire actual awe in even the most jaded of listeners.