ALIENS: ASTRONOMY FOR DOGS (2007)
Among the founding fathers of The Beta Band one used to find musician and composer Gordon Anderson, a fully active member right until the recording of the first of the band's three EPs, upon which he left the band due to health conditions. Upon recovery, it was already too late to come back, so he bitterly rechristened himself «The Lone Pigeon» and began recording critically acclaimed and publicly unknown self-produced and self-released solo albums. Most probably, he would still be as lone as ever, if not for The Beta Band's eventual dissipation — upon which two unemployed members, keyboardist John Maclean and drummer Robin Jones, not wishing to till the earth or sell car polish for the rest of their lives, suggested a reunion with Anderson in order to explore their destiny a bit further.
Calling themselves The Aliens was perhaps a little too far-fetched, because the music they set out to create is even less whacked out than The Beta Band's. Had Astronomy For Dogs come out in the era of Sgt. Pepper and The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, they might have succeeded in blowing everybody's minds to the same degree. As it is, it merely feels like a tribute — a sincere memento, dedicated to the 40th jubilee of both these albums; and the name of «The Aliens» feels like a carnival gesture, much like XTC's alter-ego of «Dukes Of Stratosphear» in their own time. When the carnival is over, everyone just goes home.
However, as a tribute, Astronomy For Dogs is a perfect success. Except for the final psychojam of 'Caravan', stretching well over twelve minutes, the tunes are big, jangly, shimmering slabs of psychedelic pop, drawing upon the juices of not only early Pink Floyd and the Beatles, but also the Moody Blues, the Byrds, Love, and various other minor British and American art-rock bands of the era. No fan of those styles will be disappointed, or, at least, feel entitled to say that these guys do not know how to recreate those vibes with perfect precision.
But at the same time, Astronomy is a difficult record. It is skilfully bookmarked by two lively rockers — the ecstatic 'Setting Sun', steeped in screeching guitars and garage rhythms, and the psycho-bop of 'The Happy Song', whose '1-2-3-4' count at the beginning is clearly an homage to 'I Saw Her Standing There' but whose happy-happy-happy melody surely implies a reverence for substances that began to influence music a few years after 1963. These two songs are immediately memorable and good proof of
The stuff in between, however, is far less trivial. Most of the songs are long, ranging from five to eight minutes, and there is a lot going on there. Arrangements are dense, mostly guitars and keyboards with few extraneous instruments, but lots of those; sections are generally multiple, with time signature changes all over the place and constant recurring motives (such as chants of "we are The Aliens..." and "I am the robot man...") — and it does not trouble them at all to go from Western to Eastern modalities within one song, or to incorporate some very modern electronica-based parts when they feel the need ('Rox' — all of that and more). A song may start out in a music-hall Ray Davies style, transform into a barrage of 'Astronomy Domine'-type noises in the middle, and fizzle out as a madhouse mantra at the end ('Glover'). And, as 'Caravan' shows, they do not use song length as a tool for solidifying their grooves; they use it as a pretext to string together a cartload of half-finished ideas.
All this means is that a serious judgement of Astronomy For Dogs (is it just a tribute? is it entirely derivative? if yes, does this mean it is not a classic? if no, what is the real depth of its artistic vision?..) cannot be pronounced quickly. It has so much going for it, so many disparate elements synthesized in one barrel that is bursting at the seams, that it might be necessary to memorize all of it before one can answer if all of these elements really deserved being put in that one barrel — at which point, most likely, the answer will already be bound to be positive. Maybe «The Lone Pigeon» is simply indulging in nostalgia rather than continuing the naïve explorations of his Sixties' idols; that is not for me to decide. But even if he is, he swarms us so much with all the side products of this nostalgia that the very process of arranging them on your own brain shelves will keep you up for a long, long time. And what is wrong with music that stimulates brain activity? Thumbs up, says the brain to the entire experience — and the heart, having been properly bribed with the effervescence of 'The Happy Song', is too confused to object.