The United States of America - The United States Of America - Review
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critics' view

The United States of America was never immortalized by Pepsi commercials or Time-Life 20-disc retrospectives: The band barely lasted two years, released only one album (which Columbia's marketing department sat on its hands to promote), and ended up a cult favorite that would later be speculated as a phantom influence for the Krautrock sound. But 36 years after its release, USA's self-titled album still stands above the work of most of their Monterey-era, psych-rock peers, and this long-awaited reissue tacks on 10 tracks' worth of audition tapes, B-sides, and alternate takes.

The band's deft addition of electronic noise and modulation into what would otherwise be soundtracks for the Beach Boys' California or ham 'n' eggs Anglo-rock was several years ahead of its time. Former UCLA ethnomusicology instructor Joseph Byrd concocted miracles with musique concrete-style tape collages and white noise blurts that veered in and out of the songs like uninvited but still welcome guests. He also tackled a dub-like mixology of tape delays and ring-modulated fade-outs and, best of all, distorted and punch-drunk synthesizers that sound indistinguishable from electric guitars. This was a fresh approach to rock from a unique group of musicians: UCLA students who had studied Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen but, as Byrd's liner notes claim, were "ignorant" of rock roots. And, although the band does indulge a few moments of awestruck discovery of their instruments' capabilities, the noise generally works with the music rather than simply being fodder from badge-wearing freaks tying to spook the Organization Man.

If USA had an anthem, it was "The American Metaphysical Circus". The track opens with a pleasantly disorienting hodgepodge of sampled John Philip Souza marches and Byrd's faithful kiddie-baiting Ringling Bros. calliope melodies before chanteuse Dorothy Moskowitz arrives with her herbal tea-watered croon, carefully enunciating like a three-nights-of-sleep-deprived mother's lullaby. Meanwhile, electric violinist/ring modulator foreman Gordon Marron emits aurora borealis streaks of police siren wails and bassist Rand Forbes keeps the music resting its head on a bar table all night long.

Byrd's free-association lyrics throughout the album are generally LSD journal entries (e.g. "Lemonous petals, dissident play/ Tasting of ergot/ Dancing by night, dying by day"), satirical toasts to the Good Life ("I got a split level house with a wonderful view, sugar"), or phonetics intended for a jigsaw fit into the music (the Latin choral chant that opens "Where Is Yesterday"). "Hard Coming Love" is a conventional rave-up that would've faded into background at an all-night, acid test show were it not for the UFO-like synth that mysteriously flies through the song's intermissions.

That said, some of the album's synthesizer works haven't aged well and are stigmatized by the "B-flick sound effects" tag that magnifies the wrinkles on so many electro-acoustic pieces from the analog years. The tribal drum whomp that opens the go-go trance number "The Garden of Earthly Delights" is pockmarked by a laser-gun misfire that might've cued a Playboy bunny in Pocahontas drag to jump through a paper wall and shake it for the camera after Hugh Hefner announced his solidarity with the American Indian Movement on The Mike Douglas Show. The patchouli-sprayed ballads "Cloud Song" and "Love Song for the Dead Che" both bloom with rich, East Indian-inspired piano and string melodies, and still breathe without any electronic fingerprints. On the other hand, the pots 'n' pans-banging hootenanny "I Won't Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar" is relieved by its jump-edit to a New Orleans slapstick jazz coda.

The bonus tracks included on this reissue indicate that USA may have aspired to gain prominence in both the mainstream and the avant-garde. "Osamu"— with its drone-minimalism rooted in composer La Monte Young's Theater of Eternal Music and sparse, dribbling kabuki rhythms— is the band's most abstract, non-commercial moment. In stark contrast are the Fillmore East-goes-"American Bandstand" pop tune "No Love to Give" and the AOR-ready, organ-pop of "Perry Pier". These songs exhibit one of the reasons why USA broke up so quickly: Byrd wrote that he wanted the band to go "harder," while Moskowitz preferred the "softer" route. That yin and yang is uncannily blended in the band's magnum opus, "The American Way of Love". The three-part medley first thrashes out dirty psych-blues with Byrd advertising the wonders of being a John for cross-dressing prostitutes. Then the music bleeds into a radio station playing escapist Bacharach-pop or "California good-time music," before brilliantly concluding with a sputtering music machine randomly firing samples of the album's previous melodies and utterances. Sadly, too few heard this music when it was first released.

Cameron Macdonald
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