These Curious Thoughts
Viaduct Records, 2014
Review by Kent Manthie
The new album by These Curious Thoughts is now out and available for your listening pleasure. Inventing Dr. Sutherland and His Traveling Hospital is a real gem. TCT is made up of two collaborators: Jim Radford and Sean Dunlop; Jim lives in the outskirts of London while Sean resides in or around Detroit, MI. The two collaborate via email – Radford comes up with the colorful, almost conceptual, lyrics while Sean writes the music end of the songs, although the two both contribute vocals to the finished product. The way it normally works is that Jim will write up inspired lyrics and email them to Dunlop, who then, will envelop them with his musical writing skills.
Thinking back to the last album I reviewed by TCT, Building Mountains from the Ground, I’ve noticed that the general style hasn’t changed too much. Not that they’ve stayed static, quite the opposite: they seem to have reached and attained an even better product with Inventing Dr. Sutherland… From the time I began listening to this album, all the way through it, I found it to be a real groovy treat. Through the first five songs, I was quite impressed but I also found that the music reminded me of something, but what, I just couldn’t put a finger on. It has this particular quality of something that, I think, comes from certain progressive, “alternative” bands that were active and at their peak in the 1970s. Now, I don’t mean that in a bad or negative way, there is a lot of great music that came out in that decade. But, I still couldn’t think of a particular band to whom I could compare These Curious Thoughts. I wanted to say it was like a “white Funkadelic” (but not Parliament- Funkadelic had this extra heavy quality to it, what with the brilliance of the late Eddie Hazel’s guitar playing), something about the synergy that the group, as a whole, put out. But the more I thought about it, the more I sensed that that description just wasn’t quite right. One band from that era that finally came to mind was the little-known (or remembered?), Captain Beyond, whose first two albums, Captain Beyond and Sufficiently Breathless were (and still are) great; they had great musicians that made great music together: their singer was Rod Evans, who was Deep Purple’s first lead singer (Evans is the one who sang vocals on one of Deep Purple’s first hits, “Hush” and their Neil Diamond cover, “Kentucky Woman”) and another name that popped up later, but in a completely different light, was the excellent drummer – and lyricist – Bobby Caldwell (does anyone remember that laid-back, white-soul hit of his, from around ’78 or so, “What You Won’t Do For Love”?) Anyway, for those interested, check out either of those two albums by Captain Beyond, you may agree that there is a similarity. One song on Inventing Dr. Sutherland… that really evokes Captain Beyond is “Sirens”. But as for the other tunes, they all have great energy that seems to come from a source much bigger than just these two guys – they sure did a great job recording the finished songs, producing and mixing – the result is an album full of big sounds- the drums sound like they could be real drums or they may be using a really great synthesizer drum machine, definitely not a drum machine like that Roland drum machine which just celebrated its 30th anniversary (I forget the exact model number).
The album, clocking in at 55 minutes, doesn’t ever get to a point where they seem to be filling time, no, each tune definitely has a place on here. The penultimate tune, “Ashes”, is just as fresh and vibrant as the earlier cuts on here, like the opener, “The Dark Room”, “Jupiter’s Baby”, “Purple Godzilla”. The track “Inventing Dr. Sutherland” is an interesting, spaced-out anthem which sort of sets the stage for what could be thought of a “concept”. The song right after “Inventing Dr. Sutherland”, “Diagnosis”, continues the medical, psychological journey. In “Diagnosis” Radford writes, in a first-person narrative, about one who is wondering aloud if he’s crazy. He’s wondering what the Dr. (no-doubt, the titular character, Dr. Sutherland) has come up with for his diagnosis; he then muses to himself, musically, “Maybe I’m schizophrenic/Maybe…[I read a lot?-sorry, but I couldn’t quite make this lyric out]/Maybe it’s genetic/Since it fits me like a glove”… Those two songs seem to be a kind of theme or anthem, for this album, with songs of madness, feelings, psychological situations and other mysterious themes; “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is another one that comes to mind.
I’m not quite sure how, but there is a thread that runs through the whole of Inventing Dr. Sutherland and his Traveling Hospital – a thread besides the exceptional musicianship that is so addicting: you just can’t stop listening. Each new tune brings more and more groovy jams that you can feel throughout your body.
As I was still thinking of what it was that this album reminded me of, a thought popped into my head: PHISH. That is a comparison that aptly fits. Of course, the make-up of the two bands are quite different, the sonic output is a bit similar: both bands have that ethereal, neo-psychedelic, jam sound going on – the guitars and keyboards and other sounds, with These Curious Thoughts, coincide, somewhat, with the presence of the five-piece set-up of Phish, who can really rock the house down, live, which is why they’ve amassed such a big following. That, and the way a lot of their fans have seeped over from the masses of Deadheads who used to follow the Grateful Dead around and would dance around, grooving to the LOOOOONG jams they’d be playing. So, somehow, when Phish got more widely known, there was this association they seemed to have with the Dead; I guess it was kind of an apt comparison, as both bands would play these extended tunes in their live shows and, like the Dead, Phish seemed to be at their best on stage. But besides that, the Phish-Dead association came from their legions of fans who were also Deadheads and also, after August of 1995, the fans became exiled Deadheads: fans without an idol to follow, so they gravitated towards Phish. But the more time went on, the more it became evident that Phish was their own band. They didn’t do covers of Dead tunes or try to be other than who they were. I myself, haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Phish live, although I did get the great experience of seeing several Grateful Dead concerts in the late 80s and the early 90s.
Anyway, getting back on track, These Curious Thoughts are not that new of a combo, Dr. Sutherland is actually their seventh album. Unfortunately, for me, I haven’t heard any of their early stuff, so I can’t say what this album is like compared to their first few albums. But I really do recommend it and it’s one that will stay in my Windows Media Player so I can keep it close by and listen to it over and over. That is what you will do as well if you get a copy. Enjoy!! -KM.