The late, great British character actor Alec Guinness had a career of two separate halves. In his earlier films such as the Ealing comedies in which he was initially mainly associated with, and until he was about 40, he was a frenetic, gesticulative actor. After 1954, however, and when he undertook the role of G.K. Chesterton’s scholarly detective priest in ‘Father Brown’, Guinness’ style of acting completely changed. His latter performances, such as the stiff-mannered Colonel Nicholson in ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, the sagacious Ben Kenobi in ‘Star Wars’ and the enigmatic master spy George Smiley in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy’, while at one level very different from one each other, were all notable for their restraint and understatement.
Pete Weiss is a producer, engineer and mixer, who, originally based in Boston, has for the last five years run his own studio Verdant in rural Vermont. In a career that has run nearly 25 years, he has worked with international artists such as the Willard Grant Conspiracy, Chris Brokaw, former Velvet Underground members Doug Yule and Moe Tucker, Levon Helm from the Band and Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, as well as local “indie” acts such as Magic 12, Paula Kelley, Charlie Chesterman,Seks Bomba and One Happy Island.
Weiss is also a multi-instrumentalist and the veteran of nine albums of his own. After a spell as a solo artist, he has spent the last decade playing in two groups, fronting instrumental five-piece the Weisstronauts, with whom he has released four albums, and as a member of Sool, a more sporadic and experimental pop act who have put out a further two CDs.
There has never been any doubt that Weiss and both his bands have musical agility. Impossible to put into a category, the Weisstronauts have elements of surf, twang, psychedelia, pop, garage and lounge in their music, while the equally kaleidoscopic Sool have also spent their career hopping from genre to genre.
In the past Weiss has always interjected both acts with surrealist Goons-style humour and gimmicks. The Weisstronauts’s first three albums, ‘Featuring “Jaunty” ‘(2001), ‘Featuring “Spritely”’ (2003) and ‘Featuring “Perky”’ (2005), each featured a stuffed monkey (with a man inside) on the cover, hanging out in a variety of bizarre locations including a diner and a dinosaur theme park. They have meanwhile interspersed their music with wacky sound effects and sudden abrupt changes of key. Sool are even more oddball still. One concert found guitarist Neal Spaulding, who was living six hundred miles away in North Carolina at the time from Weiss and the group’s other member bassist Kevin Quinn, playing the gig by live video satellite. Their second album, 2004’s ‘Sooltime’, was a diverse concept album that featured 52 songs that lasted a minute.
Weiss has just had simultaneously released two new EPs on Sool’s label Sool Recordings, one with each band. Both EPs, ‘The Weisstronauts in Memphis’ and ‘A Touch of Sool’, finds Weiss who is now in his early 40s, like Guinness, turning away from the frenzied humour of his previous work and towards something which is at one level more refined and contained.
‘The Weisstronauts in Memphis’ was recorded live on a night off during a Weisstronauts tour at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis, where acts such as Big Star, the White Stripes, R.E.M., B.B. King and the Replacements have all also cut records. Weiss then did a few patch-ups at Verdant before returning it to Jeff Powell, Ardent’s in-house producer and engineer, to put it through his studio’s infamous echo chamber.
Each of the Weisstronauts’ three lead guitarists has composed a track for ‘The Weisstronauts in Memphis’. Weiss’ own composition, ‘Cat Burglar’, is a slinky Henry Mancini-style jazz number of spiralling guitar effects. Kenny Lafler’s ‘Last Train to Shartlesville’ is a jangling rock ‘n’ roll piece that levers up from gear to gear and through a series of haemorrhaging bangs accelerates to a fiery conclusion. Ex-Seks Bomba guitarist George Hall’s ‘Exit Sandman’ is in contrast a melancholic and reflective swing track that through the use of a vibraphone also has an element of a twisted Spaghetti Western soundtrack. The other track on the four track EP is a cover of Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ which has been splendidly reworked as a lounge number.
The inner sleeve shows Kevin Quinn, who is also the Weisstronauts’ regular bassist and was unable to make the recording and the tour, but who the others wanted to appear in some way on the EP, dressed in drag in spoof of Dusty Springfield on the cover of her 1969 ‘Dusty in Memphis’ album. Without a joke or gimmick however this time otherwise in sight,‘The Weisstronauts in Memphis’ is an EP that packs both great force and is also at points surprisingly moving.
On first appearances Sool are up to all their old pranks on ‘A Touch of Sool’. One track, ‘Pot Of Mussels’,a mock Delta blues number sung by Weiss, at one point erupts briefly into a ‘Greensleeves’ type melody and has what sounds like a frog choir as it backing chorus. Another song, ‘A Product of Mine’, merges heavy metal guitar riffs with human beatbox noises. The final song on the five song, ‘Katherine’, however, breaks with all tradition for Sool and is more serious. A sublime piece of Scott Walker-esque mournful pop, this break-up ballad merges shimmering ripples of piano, suitably lavish lyrics and a soaring, yet world-weary vocal from Quinn to impressive effect.
It remains to be seen whether Pete Weiss' shift into more serious territory with both the Weisstronauts and Sool is temporary or a more permanent move. With both ‘The Weisstronauts in Memphis’ and ‘A Touch of Sool’ he has produced convincing EPs that, while involving less of the surreal humour of before, continue to be enjoyable and entertaining.