The United States Of America are not a rock group, at least not in the conventional sense. In reality they're more of an abstract intellectual exercise, an academic project that happens to use rock music as the basis for its avant garde explorations.
Joseph Byrd spent some time in New York devoting himself to artistic pursuits and studies, assimilating and absorbing disparate influences to cultivate his own creative identity. Subsequently he assumed a position at UCLA to disseminate everything he'd learned in the Big Apple to a new generation of artists and scholars. Through his teachings he discovered four artistically compatible students, and he decided to band together with these kindred spirits and produce a rock album.
Why rock and roll was Byrd's medium of choice for this project is anyone's guess, but then again in the midst of the counterculture movement that was sweeping the nation, rock music had become a very powerful tool for mass communication and self-expression. While Byrd's ambitions extended far beyond promoting flower-power ideologies, he doubtless perceived rock music as the artistic touchstone for the new generation, and an apt and eminently permeable canvas for his avant garde interests and tendencies.
Given this information, one would assume that the band's one and only album would be a sterile and clinical affair, featuring perfunctory melodies intended to be little more than vessels for a more intellectual, calculated agenda. Surprisingly, this couldn't be further from the truth.
The band's self-titled album is filled with stellar melodies and irresistible hooks. Each song is a fully fleshed-out composition, and there are no points at which The United States Of America doesn't sound like a rock album created by a rock group.
Granted, this is a decidedly unorthodox and inaccessible rock album, but even at its most challenging and abrasive the material takes the form of 'music.' There are myriad obstacles to overcome if one is to enjoy the album. For its time The United States Of America was a trailblazing album, a cutting-edge product filled with revolutionary musical ideas. It's ambiguous whether the album was influential, as it sold so poorly that it was consigned to irrevocable obscurity, but there's no question that Byrd and company were far ahead of their time.
In the process of ushering in a new era of music the band brought in many elements that had yet to be refined and better adapted to rock and roll. This results in frequent dissonance, avant garde excesses and self-indulgent sonic trickery. Nearly every track features an electric onslaught that one needs to acclimate himself to before he can even begin to enjoy the album. There are literally no guitars to be found on the album, but in the liner notes nearly every instrument is preceded by the word 'electric,' which alone is rather telling about the sound of this product.
In addition to a plethora of 'electric' instruments, from harpsichord to organ, Byrd is also credited with 'electronic music,' and much of the difficulty of the album can be attributed to that particular element. A cacophonous buzz of interlocking electric instruments and careening electronic flatulence pervades much of the album, and while with time one can grow used to this aural phenomena it does make one's initial impression of the album rather negative.
If one perseveres, however, he'll find a remarkably well-written selection of music. Each track has something worthwhile to offer, so if one can overlook the album's innately discordant nature one is bound to have an eminently enjoyable listening experience.
I'm not implying that all of the electric and electronic noise should be ignored, however, nor am I insinuating that the album's innovation is confined to headache inducing sonic chaos. The electric instruments and electronic effects are also amongst the album's greatest assets, as they're brilliantly adapted to the genre of rock, molded to structure impressive melodies while adding a whole new dimension to the music. There is a lot of aural excess that coats this music, but one shouldn't confuse these sonic explosions with the very real and highly compelling music that this radical machinery is producing.
As I've alluded to, what really makes the album is its brilliant songwriting. The LP opens with an array of intersecting, overlapping circus tunes before the song resolves itself into the moody, somewhat menacing verses of The American Metaphysical Circus. The track contains a superb vocal melody, deftly provided by chief vocalist Dorothy Moskowitz. Her voice has a certain stately strictness that recalls Nico (but with a bit more humanity than the legendary Germanic songstress), and these stern intonations complement the song perfectly.
Hard Coming Love showcases a rather different side of the band, as it's a catchy pop rocker that manages to rock convincingly without a guitar in sight. Needless to say it's a rather unusual take on pop rock, but at its core the track contains some exceptional hooks that transcend the quirkiness of the presentation.
Next comes Cloud Song, a sedate, beautiful and relaxing track featuring warm ethereal vocals from Moskowitz. The song is something of a reprieve from the otherwise ubiquitous layers of electronic mayhem. The track still contains these electric embellishments, but they're at least used relatively sparingly.
The Garden Of Earthly Delights is yet another terrific pop rocker, and the chorus of 'in her eyes, in her eyes' is an amazing hook that any band would be proud of. Where Is Yesterday, complete with some effective and unexpected chanting sections, is almost moving, an impressive achievement for a group that eschews sincerity or emotional commitment as a rule of thumb. Even without an emotional attachment the song is brilliant, with more clever vocal melodies and impeccable instrumentation.
I Won't Leave My Wooden Life For You, Sugar is a delightful pop song with idiosyncratic lyrics (including allusions to S&M). Byrd provides genial vocals that suit the song perfectly, resulting in a track that's catchy and charming if somewhat insubstantial.
Coming Down is an irresistible pop song with its infectious chorus of 'I think it's over now, I think it's ending' and an ample supply of additional hooks to boot. Love Song For The Dead Che is very pretty, sufficiently so that I don't mind the enervated pace of the song that causes some to dismiss it as tedious or boring. Stranded In Time is almost a slice of Britpop, another testament to the eclectic musical interests of the band-members.
The final track is a risky experiment that, for the most part, works. Few listeners of this generation will be awed by the way The American Way Of Love samples fragments from previous songs, but at the time such a practice was unheard of, and as a result this technique is one of the most radical, revolutionary ideas on the album. The song also boasts some excellent melodies in its earlier portions, and while the final sound collage features the usual drawbacks associated with experiments of this nature the band was tasteful enough not to abuse the technique for very long.
Thus The United States Of America is not only a fascinating artifact from a prescient ensemble who were far ahead of their time but also a stupendous collection of first-rate rock songs. One will have to contend with omnipresent abrasive electronic chatter, and this will invariably mar the overall experience for at least the first few listens, but if one can brave this headache inducing cacophony he'll find a truly unique, impressive album that sounded like nothing else at the time and retains much of its daring freshness today.