The Society of Rockets
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The Society of Rockets

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The best kept secret in music

Press


"The Rolling Stones made a decent new album last year, toured all over the world, and played at the Super Bowl. But according to music critic Steve Hochman, the best Stones music of recent times just may have come out of San Francisco. And it's not by the Rolling Stones."

".. blaring horns, blazing guitars and percolating piano could easily have slided alongside the Stones' essential 1972 album Exile on Main Street.. also calls to mind country rock pioneer Gram Parsons, as interpreted by 90's British haze merchants Spiritualized. A great listen from start to finish." - KQED, Steve Hochman, LA Times


Imagine the Gris Gris ground up and reconstituted as an acid-washed boogie-woogie band. Then add a heaping cup of Stax-Volt horns and pop hooks - only somewhat discernable beneath wall-of-chicken-fat grooves (courtesy of these ex-Shimmer Kids Underpop Associates) - and you got one highly delectable, blackened, handcrafted-in-SF link to those not-so-tight blues-rock brudders from way back. (Chun) - San Francisco Bay Guardian


West Coast space rock collective the Society of Rockets mined the depths of Psychocandy-era Jesus and Mary Chain on their murky 2004 debut, Sunset Homes, and while they retain much of that offering's psychedelic grandeur on their sophomore effort, Where the Grass Grows Back, the Bay Area stargazers have traded in their late-night pontification for ass-shaking anthems of 20-something splendor. From the inaugural Southern-fried boogie of "Tangerines & Cigarettes" to the whiskey-soaked lamentation "Suicide Summer," the Society have found a nice balance between the sleepy, introspective atmospherics of Galaxie 500 and the raunchy swagger of Kings of Leon. It's a testament to their unbridled passion that amid the cacophony of dirty guitars, brass, strings, organ, and harmonica what rings truest on Where the Grass Grows Back are the vocals. Joshua Babcock can barely contain himself, and while that kind of attack often runs the risk of coming off as desperate, he manages to keep his chin up while his feet remain squarely in the flames. - James Christopher Monger - allmusic


Here's Society Of Rockets sophomore album, and on it they've taken a turn into quite a different musical terrain. The ol' psych-pop 'shimmer' that used to be the core of these Bay Area musicians' sound has all but vanished. The only thing remotely still in that realm is the cool curvy lettering on the cd's packaging. Whereas their debut album Sunset Homes was steeped in earthy moodiness with lots of dusky atmosphere that still possessed some trippiness, this time they've opted for more straightforward rock'n'roll. Yep, these former members of Shimmer Kids Underpop Association deliver a rockin' kick in the pants on Where The Grass Grows Black. - Aquarius Records


The Society of Rockets used to be known as the Shimmer Kids Underpop Association, and beneath that banner this California ensemble produced an impressively expansionist take on woozy homemade psych-pop. Unfortunately, the Shimmer Kids timed their arrival a couple of years too late to climb aboard the Elephant 6 and Terrastock gravy train, and though records like 2002's The Natural Riot showed great promise, by that point it seemed most listeners were too Olivia Tremor Controlled-out for the group to really enter their audience's collective forebrain.

In 2003, after the Shimmer Kids' accomplished The Book of Mirrors EP sank with barely a ripple, the group again assembled in the recording studio, but this time they found their new material to be such a drastic change from their previous work that the result was a reconfigured line-up with the new Society of Rockets name. Gone are the Shimmer Kids' grandiose paisley epics, stuffed to the rafters with dense layers of oddball instrumentation. Instead Sunset Homes reveals a much more sober, pared-back vision of the group as waylaid cosmic cowboys singing around the campfire in a Greyhound station parking lot.

An about-face this severe is obviously not made without some risk. Aside from the crystalline vocals of Joshua Babcock, there's virtually nothing here that even the most eagle-eared listener will recognize from the group's former incarnation. And by scaling their arrangements down so significantly, they've placed much more importance upon the quality of their playing and songwriting. Thankfully, however, the songs here are strong enough bear up under the harsh light of day, and on Sunset Homes the Society of Rockets sound as though they've finally staked claim to a sound they can truly make their own.

The opening "O, Sing Transformer" attempts to make the segue to the new land as comfortable as possible, as Babcock's voice and piano are carried skyward by a lysergic haze of squeezebox and organ. But that gentle reverie ends abruptly with the ramshackle On the Beach stomp of the following "Untitled", on which drummer Mike Evans provides the mule kick necessary to fully introduce the group's revamped sound.

In another break with the band's lo-fi history, Sunset Homes benefits from an extremely crisp analog production job by Mark Erickson. In the past, the band's predilection for exotic instrumentation would sometimes result in stray accordions or sleigh bells getting completely buried in an amorphous mash. Here instead, every element is rationed more judiciously, and in Erickson's pristine mix each musician's contribution is made that much more potent. The addition of Lorelei David's theremin to the Stones-y "Too Many Thorns In Your Bed of Roses" gives the song a satisfyingly precarious wobble, while the inclusion of ingredients like cello, melodica or various spacey sound effects help keep tracks like "The Flood" or the lovely "Never No Fences" from ever descending into rote alt-country traditionalism.

Perhaps the biggest departure for the group is in their lyrics. Where Shimmer Kids' lyrics were a day-glo pastiche of imagery from comic books and the paranoid sci-fi of William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, here their words are concerned with the resolutely earthbound themes of road weariness, hangovers, and broken friendships. Though at times this newfound realism finds the group nestling uncomfortably close to cliche (particularly on the skimpy album-closing piano pop of "Let's Make a Scene") it does force Babcock and company to find new, more honest ways to personalize their voice. In a manner reminiscent of such albums as Wilco's Being There or My Morning Jacket's The Tennessee Fire, Sunset Homes contains the sound of a band just beginning to tap into their full potential, as well as the realization that any attempt to map out this group's future possible destinations will likely prove futile.
- Matthew Murphy - Pitchfork


Who knew so much rural melancholy could be brewing in a sweltering basement at 16th Street and Mission? Former members of the Shimmer Kids Underpop Association reorganized in June 2003 in a Mission District studio called "the Hole" to become the Society of Rockets, and far from being a formality, the name change signifies a move toward a more lucid and relaxed – albeit folky – sound on their debut, Sunset Homes. Though at times they sound like For Stars playing alt-country, as the album progresses you can feel SoR honing in on their own unique sound that doesn't fit comfortably into any category. This is partly due to engineer Mark Erickson, who allows us to hear the future sound of the band in the present with his halcyon analog recording that captures the rustic outdoors in every instrument. The combination of Erickson's console prowess and vocalist Joshua Babcock's expertly executed falsetto make songs like "Never No Fences" – "I wanna see my true love's face / Make it to the end of the race / But where is the finish line?" – seem powerful and evocative rather than corny or played-out. The achingly understated piano and slide guitar under Babcock's earnest croon, on "Friends and Enemies," force-feed you loss and heartbreak so lovingly that you never want them to stop, while more upbeat moments, like the almost Silkworm-esque "Untitled," just seem out of place. These hiccups are easily forgiven in light of the brilliant slow drones on which SoR seem most comfortable. Though potentially dangerous if played after a breakup, Sunset Homes is filled with late-night cross-country road trips and Arcadian memories too masterfully arrested on pristine recordings to go unheard. (Keith Axline) - San Francisco Bay Guardian


An outgrowth of the late, occasionally great Shimmer Kids Underpop Association, the Bay Area's Society of Rockets plows much the same acid-rich earth on Sunset Homes. Reigning in the Kids' edgy chaos just a bit, the Society puts more emphasis on melodies that, yes, shimmer brightly in tunes like "Untitled." There's a lush folk undercurrent to many of the tracks here, giving "Cure For Cancer" and "Never No Fences" a glistening beauty that reflects sunlight and illuminates darkness. When the band combines its assets, as on "Too Many Thorns in Your Bed of Roses," watch out. The album ends on an even more diverse note; "Let's Make a Scene" puts Cole Porter-style tuneage into a psychedelic context without compromising either approach. Whimsical and beautiful. - Michael Toland - High Bias


Sunset Homes represents an unusual brand of alt-country. While the band steers clear of the clichéd, maudlin singer/songwriter twang that has come to characterize the genre, they don't completely abandon its common themes of unrequited love, failed relationships, and regretful pasts. There's also a spacy, somewhat psychedelic component to The Society of Rockets' sound -- no doubt an extension of the band's previous incarnation as the Shimmer Kids Underpop Association, an experimental, lo-fi San Franciscan collective during the late '90s. This blend of ethereal but straightforward melodies and carefully construed lyrics makes for a fairly compelling record.

The undeniably catchy "Untitled" is the album's standout track. Its buoyant jangle and soaring Beach Boys-style harmonies are deceptively shimmery; beneath the glitter, it makes disturbing references to alcoholism and arson. "You took some gasoline and set fire to his house / 'This is your fault' I heard him shout," lead singer Joshua Babcock sweetly coos. With its melodic exterior and ominous undertones, "Untitled" wouldn't sound out of place on Wilco's Summerteeth. In one regard, however, it's an exception: the group's backing arrangements generally accentuate rather than detract from the tone of their lyrics. Justin Walsh's stomping trumpet-work on "Too Many Thorns In Your Bed of Roses" adds a commanding sense of urgency to already urgent lyrics about the perils of an abusive marriage. With forebodingly literate lines like "The reverend rambled on about sin and blood and the holy trust / When you said 'I do' your dreams all bit the dust," the song is both sonically and thematically enthralling. Elsewhere, the sweeping string section on "Never No Fences" is bleakly emotive but never maudlin, and the jazzy, piano-driven closer "Let's Make a Scene" is so infectious, it'll make you want to waltz across your kitchen table.

The languid "Cure for Cancer", the somber "Friends and Enemies" and "The Flood" veer a bit closer to alt-country traditionalism. Sparser arrangements and lyrics like "All the things that I've done wrong, do I have to tell them all?" are the rule here, but even these tracks make for great listening on a sleepy summer day. Overall, Sunset Homes adheres to the conventions of its genre while testing the limits of those conventions -- and turns out all the better for it.
- Jessica Gentile - Splendid Magazine


The Society of Rockets’ debut album, Sunset Homes, was a refreshing indie-rock exploration of a number of American pop genres, held together by a distinct honky-tonky flavor and ranging from the ramshackle hoedown “Too Many Thorns in Your Bed of Roses” to the Pavement-invoking brilliance of “(Untitled)”. It was also no preparation for the San Francisco band’s explosive follow-up, Where the Grass Grows Black. It’s all there in the first 30 seconds of “Tangerines & Cigarettes”, where a gooey trumpet and fanfare instantly blasts the record off into violently loud power-pop territory that would shame the New Pornographers. It’s a moment that is as thrilling as it is unsettling, almost suggesting that the Society of Rockets has traded its modest charms for a descent into the desolate streets of Elephant 6-ville?

Thankfully, the Society’s sonic makeover has done little to obscure the band’s core sound. Yes, there are more loud guitar solos, ear-bleeding horn sections, and straight-up rock and roll excesses on Where the Grass Grows Black, but, stripped away from the impressive wall of sound (which the liner notes claim was somehow created using only a 24-track), the band has kept the same songwriting style that did it well on its debut. These are songs from the dusty outskirts of town, when the unreality of the evening’s events is dissipated by the painful reality of the rising sun.

Too often the term “alt-country” is used for music that is hardly an alternative version of country, but is rather a resurrection of an older version of country music, or even a rehash of what was once simply called “country rock” way back in the ‘70s. The Society of Rockets, at least on this new album, creates what truly could be considered alternative country, finding the essence of the genre and translating it across a variety of other pop forms. It doesn’t matter whether one of its songs is a Nashville-via-Beale Street twang fest ("Ballroom Kicks"), or a rampaging garage rock stomper ("Dr. X”, “I’m Gonna Smile"), they all seem to be sprung from the same well.

At its best, Where the Grass Glows Black makes all such distinctions of genre and style meaningless, creating a music that is pure in and of itself. “Out in the Evening”, the Society of Rockets’ best song to date, is one of those songs that, upon one’s first hearing it, seems to have been around forever, hidden somewhere in the American subconscious and waiting for Society front-man Joshua Babcock to dig it out. In it, the singer, in a transcendent state of intoxication, “lying on your doorstep”, desperately tries to “tell the sinners from the saints”, reaching towards some odd type of almost-epiphany that is dressed in the plainest language possible. The Sunset Homes throwback “Suicide Summer” is almost as good, perfecting the band’s old, occasionally soporific sound by incorporating dynamic changes that allow the song to build rather than merely hold steady. “Suicide Summer” starts off slow and uneasy, before quietly simmering, and then boiling over into a chorus of joyful nihilism: “You know it don’t matter”.

The Society of Rockets still has room to grow. Where the Grass Grows Black ends with “Old Glory”, an epic war story that is a little bit beyond the band’s grasp. To the Society’s credit, “Old Glory“‘s 11 minutes never drag, as the band amploys all the sonic tricks it has learned in creating this almost embarrassingly lush album. Still, despite a few powerful passages, this dead serious anthem feels like a half-finished jumble attempting to be the band’s final word. The fact that “Old Glory” fails to wrap up Where the Grass Grows Black is as heartening as it is disappointing. The Society of Rockets still have more they need to accomplish, and whether or not they need a Brian Wilson funbox of instruments and sounds to accomplish this, or just a few acoustic guitars and a microphone, I look forward to hearing whatever the band’s next stage will be.
- Hunter Felt - PopMatters


Looking at the cover of Where the Grass Grows Black, I dunno, somehow someway I imagined that this was a rock ‘n’ roll band that parlayed SF psychedelia, garage and Stones blues rock into a dirty raucous gumbo. And I was right! Making no apologies whatsoever, the Society of Rockets, with their brash guitars and lusty horns, act as if the 70s never ever ended. I mean, spot the inspiration – Free, Jefferson Airplane, Mott the Hoople, Gram Parsons, CCR, Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones etc – there’s lots to rock out to here. Best of all, is the presence of a rustic ballad that sweetens the deal - the tragic “Suicide Summer” that splits this album in half. You want more? How about the 11-minute epic that is “Old Glory”? With echoes of Neil Young and Crazy Horse ringing from the speakers, “Old Glory” is classic roots rook at its best, ragged and fuzzy, with its heart on its sleeve. Here's a band that is so confident in its ability to excite and thrill and never stops to consider the artistic statement it may or may not be making except for how it all feels…
- Kevin Mathews - Pop Culture Press


Discography

Where the Grass Grows Black cd – Underpop (2006), we’ve got it streaming in from the outer reaches, publicity by AAM Promo
Sunset Homes cd – Underpop (2005)

Photos

Feeling a bit camera shy

Bio

Second-skin reincarnation of the Shimmer Kids Underpop Association - done grown old on weeds and vibrational corruption, moving into new frontiers live from San Francisco rattling windows and dilating pupils. resistance is useless, acceptance is the final step.