Review Summary: Very experimental psychedelia, one of the first bands to mix electronic and psychedelic music...
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The United States of America’s 1968 self-titled album was one of the first bands to mix electronic music with psychedelic pop. Released around the same time as Silver Apples
’ more electronic orientated self-titled debut which created a sound similar to 70’s krautrock and even 90’s dance music, and a year before White Noise
’s An Electric Storm
which is arguably even more extreme and ahead-of-it‘s-time, The United States of America
stands as one of the most influential and experimental albums of the 1960’s.
Created by John Cage
and World music inspired avant-garde musicians, including an African drum specialist and a classical bassist, The USA was created with very little knowledge of rock music, but instead of hindering them this adds to the experimental nature of the music that has made it age so well over the years. While Silver Apples
created a tense robotic sound, The USA used their early electronic influences to create much smoother and natural sounding melodies, mixing this unique style with influences like Country Joe and the Fish
, Jefferson Airplane
and proto-metal band Blue Cheer
, this especially giving many of the songs a harder rock sound.
Instead of having a guitar, The United States of America used an electric violin plugged into a ring modulator to give it a Hendrix-style fuzz. The drums and vocals too were distorted and electrified, with electronic sounds were created using three variable wave shape generators as early Moog synthesisers cost over $20,000 at the time. Musically, at first the band may sound little different from other quirky psychedelic groups of the time like early Pink Floyd
, but there is a lot more going on that soon becomes apparent. The psychedelic melodies are usually densely layered and seem to spin off in different directions, with electronic sounds flowing through the album, seemingly appearing at random points. While some of these effects can sound cheesy and dated now, it dies not really harm the music that much and is easily ignorable, in fact adding somewhat to the album’s trippy feel and weirdness that makes it so enjoyable to listen to.
All of this chaos is grounded by Dorothy Moskowitz’s beautiful vocals. While she denies that she was influenced by Jefferson Airplane
’s Grace Slick, there is definitely a noticeable resemblance, though Moskowitz sings in a clear tone without as much vibrato. The singing is almost always melodic, following catchy vocal lines, but at certain points such as the end of ‘The American Metaphysical Circus’ it becomes so distorted it becomes almost impossible to understand what she is singing.
As well as the harder rock songs like ‘Hard Coming Love’ and ‘Coming Down’, which feature energetic bouncy bass-lines, heavy drumming and frantic violin playing, there are mellower calm songs, ‘Cloud Song’ and ‘Love Song for the Dead Ché’. While these songs really highlight Moskowitz’s amazing vocals, they sound slightly more dated than the others, lacking the incredible energy and focusing more on sparser melodies. They still work quite well though, creating a relaxing mood and adding another dimension to the band’s music. The best moments on the album are usually the more energetic songs though, which often manage to be just as haunting, such as in ‘The American Metaphysical Circus’ where eerie electronic effects swirl around Moskowitz’s distorted vocals.
The lyrics, written mainly by band leader Joe Byrd are another strong point. A Communist at the time, his lyrics are poetic but also very critical of the US government. Usually these criticisms are subtle, with the only real weakness being the Frank Zappa
-esque (though he claims he hated Zappa, and Zappa hated him) track ‘I Won't Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar’, sung by Boyd, which is far more obvious in it‘s satire. The lyrics on the whole are very negative though. Byrd claimed that they were ‘puncturing the balloons of the Summer of Love’. Despite this anti-hippie sentiment though, there are some very psychedelic lyrics here.
Unfortunately, like many experimental psychedelic albums, The United States of America
was unfairly ignored on release, getting very little promotion from executives who hated the band name, didn’t understand the music and considered the band’s politics to be treasonous. However, due to the quality of the music, it has since gone on to become a cult classic and a very influential album.