If you’re Baby Woodrose frontman and principle songwriter Lorenzo Woodrose, the only place to go at this point is further out. On the band’s sixth album, Third Eye Surgery (Bad Afro Records), they do precisely that, pushing the established heavy psychedelic pop into more ethereal realms without sacrificing the structures and strong sense of composition that always makes the Copenhagen band’s work so memorable. Woodrose, also of Dragontears and once of the defunct On Trial, is the steering figure guiding the band down their path of lysergic enlightenment, and one can only assume from the title Third Eye Surgery, which connotes some willful act undertaken to open or repair one’s own metaphysical awareness, that he’s conscious of the shifts in sound he’s made over the course of these nine tracks. In conjunction with engineer Anders Onsberg, Woodrose also produced the record, so that goes even more toward proving the argument. But what stands out most about Third Eye Surgery, despite the periodic bursts of sitar on songs like “Nothing is Real” or the duet with vocalist Emma Acs on “Dandelion,” is what always stands out most about Baby Woodrose, and that’s the quality of the songwriting. Woodrose is a master of classic psych, and as he’s been doing it with Baby Woodrose now for over a decade since 2001’s Blows Your Mind! – most recently, he revisited the demos from which that album was birthed on 2011’s Mindblowing Seeds and Disconnected Flowers (review here) – his approach is well honed and his methods provide results that are varied sonically but unwavering in their superiority of execution. That is, Woodrose and his bandmates, bassist Riky “The Moody Guru” Woodrose and drummer Rocco “Fuzz Daddy” Woodrose, aren’t necessarily the first to be doing what they do, but they’re unquestionably among the best out there currently doing it, and by the time Third Eye Surgery winds down to the spacious closer “Honalee,” on which the drums drop out to let the guitar and vocals culminate the album’s unceasing swirl, Woodrose has long since shown that Baby Woodrose is beholden to no one so much as their own creative will.
Eastern influences permeate several of Third Eye Surgery’s highlights, from the aforementioned “Nothing is Real” to the slower march of the lyrically darker centerpiece, “Bullshit Detector,” which also closes side A if you’re listening to the vinyl, but the record launches with a strong trio of under-three-minute cuts that reaffirm Baby Woodrose’s pop dominance. Opener “Down to the Bottom” wastes no time in getting to one of the collection’s strongest choruses, but never comes off rushed or relinquishes its suitably dreamy feel, Woodrose keeping his characteristic early-Dave Wyndorfian vocal patterns intact as organs and guitars comingle. The album as a whole sounds bright but lyrics like, “Down to the bottom, where I belong” and indeed the whole of “Waiting for the War,” which follows, are darker and add complexity to the Baby Woodrose aesthetic. You can’t say it’s all upbeat, all the time, no matter what the tempo might be. “Waiting for the War” is near-industrial in its sound, and it’s not until the verse opens to the chorus that the song provides any hint of hope, and even that seems dashed by the cynical title lyric, “There’s a new game in town and it’s called waiting for the war.” As ever, Woodrose’s lyrical sensibility is writ large all over Third Eye Surgery, and “Waiting for the War” works best in the context of the album because it shifts the focus early on, does so quickly (at 2:27, it is the shortest track), and then promptly gives way to “Dandelion,” on which Woodrose is joined in a call and response by Acs, whose voice complements well the late-‘60s tonal luster and Woodrose’s own druggy vibes. The song has no chorus to speak of, and so represents a structural shift from the first two songs, though the lines, “You could show me how you feel, I could show you how I feel” is repeated several times, serving a roughly similar function despite a less-perceptible musical change than “Waiting for the War” or “Down to the Bottom.” The lyrics mark a turn too from the musically-contrasting depression or socially-conscious nihilism. They are sweet and more pointedly emotional.
It’s the breadth of these three initial cuts, however, that most impresses. In under eight minutes, Baby Woodrose has established a deceptively long stride from one cut to the next while keeping hold of a flow as well, and though “It’s Just a Ride” and “Bullshit Detector” maintain the spaced-out mood that’s so far presented itself on Third Eye Surgery musically, they also begin to expand on the straightforwardness of structure. “It’s Just a Ride” opens with tandem organ and fuzz guitar and moves into distant, echoing leads and a bouncing verse and catchy chorus that’s a highlight in terms of bass performance. The extra time between “It’s Just a Ride” (4:07) and, say, “Dandelion” (2:31) before it, is given largely to a more extended, mostly-instrumental ending, but that also works to set up “Bullshit Detector,” the longest song on the album at 5:48. Woodrose is able to quickly entrance listeners, and the end of “It’s Just a Ride” does exactly that, so when it gives way to the (once more) organ intro of “Bullshit Detector,” the change is subtle and smooth, and when “Bullshit Detector” is unfolding, it does so without a sense of indulgence, but with one of grandeur. Perhaps it’s the pointedly grounded lyrics that offsets some of the psychedelic exploring – similar to the opener in that way – but “Bullshit Detector,” as far out as it goes, never feels like it’s gone too far. Instead, it closes side A with a heady groove and an engaging section led by (appropriately enough) layers of lead guitar that add a naturalistic, jam-based feel. Third Eye Surgery is especially rich compared to some of Baby Woodrose’s more garage-sounding past outings, but as side B commences with “Nothing is Real” and the sitar shows up for the first time, it’s clear there’s still territory Lorenzo and company are looking to cover that they haven’t yet.
Again, what never flinches is the songwriting. “Nothing is Real” has a chorus that takes two lines and surgically implants them in your prefrontal cortex, and Woodrose’s anti-modernity lyrical stance shines through the verses excellently, the melody of both the music and the vocals making the song one of the album’s best. There are only three tracks left to Third Eye Surgery, and each of them pushes the limits of Baby Woodrose’s space influence. As “Nothing is Real” caps with fading and deconstructed swirls and loops, “Love Like a Flower” seeks once more to balance the sitar-laden grooving off a chorus that acts like a trail cut through some kind of cosmic forest. Once more, Woodrose urges us to turn off our televisions (how did he know?) and espouses a more naturalistic point of view. This in itself is a social stance, although perhaps not one as directly political as “Waiting for the War,” but it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed, and the music behind, which incorporates mellotron amid the mash of fuzz and organ as the album’s title line is delivered for the first time, is a Euro-psych fan’s dream come true. The song remains loyal to the alternately British and Californian roots of its genre, but is neither fully retro nor without its own personality. Both the title-track and finale “Honalee” top five minutes, and “Third Eye Surgery” is bled into from “Love Like a Flower,” gradually picking up its own momentum with space-rocking patience and fitting melodic culmination of Third Eye Surgery’s musical thematic. It’s “Psychotropic lollipop/Goody goody gumdrop” for a bridge before the mellotron kicks in on the chorus, costing nothing of the song’s pointed-forward momentum, and as they have all along, the undulating layers of effects provide satisfying depth to the song that pushes it beyond what its structure might convey on paper were its progression to be fully sketched out.
Another bleed brings the bigger-feeling open riff of “Honalee,” which earns significance immediately just for its lack of drums. Without percussion, Baby Woodrose seems to have been completely subsumed into the cosmic vacuum they’ve created. It’s a ballad, strictly speaking, but the slower pace and vocal layers in the chorus only serve the overall largess. In several ways, it’s the most experimental of the songs on Third Eye Surgery, but even here, Woodrose knows what he’s best at and keeps the focus on working verses and choruses off each other in a dynamic exchange of energies that’s denser even than the wash it might appear to be on the surface. The last minute of the song maximizes that feel until the song cuts quickly to the album’s finish. One might have expected a long fadeout, but then, that could be exactly why Baby Woodrose chose another route. Either way, “Honalee” caps a fascinating collection that at times has more in common with Lorenzo’s work in Dragontears than Baby Woodrose, but it’s still his own and very much a personal-seeming album as regards both its lyrical and musical perspective. That he’s able to carry across such an individualized sensibility in the well-trod paths of verse/chorus structures should say something as well in terms of his songwriting prowess, but really, that’s been the story all along. Third Eye Surgery is the careful work of a specialist, and like a meticulously detailed engraving or a chiseled statue, it comes across all the more lifelike for the work that went into its construction.
Tags: Baby Woodrose, Bad Afro, Copenhagen, Denmark