Acid Test

Getting a story out of Linus Pauling Quartet on the occasion of the release of their positively stellar new album, C6H8O6, is one of the hardest things I have ever undertaken in this business. The band's a lot like Pigpen off Peanuts, only the cloud around it is not one of dirt but of confusion. You enter the LP4's world at your peril -- you get sucked into a vortex of muddled and at times brilliant chaos.

First off, it's almost impossible to describe its music in some kind of pithy rock-crit manner. Psychedelic space metal for the Mensa set is about the best we could come up with, and it doesn't quite encompass all that the LP4 does. It's not quite a stoner rock band, nor pure psych rock. Some songs could be likened to the spacey Britpop of Super Furry Animals and Spiritualized, or even early Pink Floyd, but members also bust out with a little hardcore here and there and even occasionally cloak themselves in the black garb of a death metal band. In short, they sound like a pretty large swath of the totally unique Houston rock scene all rolled into a single group.

"I don't know if it's a Houston curse or a Houston blessing, but [like a lot of local bands] they're not enough of one thing, they're a little bit different, they're a little bit off," says Sound Exchange owner-manager Kurt Brennan, who has released some of their material in the past on his Fleece label. "They're not quite heavy enough to be a stoner rock band. They'll do some punk stuff that may not fit in with the psychedelic crowd. They're like the Mike Gunn -- they appeal to people who like their music unusual and unique, but if you're looking for a CD where every song sounds the same, they're probably not the place to look."

The Linus Pauling Quartet, which is actually a sextet, is pretty much the last band standing on a mostly dormant Houston psych rock scene that at one time or another included the Mike Gunn and its offshoots the Dunlavy and Project Grimm, Dry Nod and Charalambides. It's a tangled web -- some of the guys in the LP4 played in bands with some of the other musicians in other bands, and the Mike Gunn-Project Grimm-Dunlavy guitarist John Cramer contributes a memorable guest shot on C6.

All those bands have a few things in common, as half of the members of the LP4 admitted recently at a local bar. "We're self-deprecating," says the martini-sipping Ramon Medina, one of the LP4's three guitarists.

"We have no talent," adds Clinton Hyder, another guitarist, right on cue.

"We refuse to tour, thus guaranteeing that we'll be completely ignored," Medina continues.

"And none of our songs are under 17 minutes long," finishes Hyder.

"Well, we always do our obligatory garage rock song on every album," Medina says. "People are like, 'What is this? I can't smoke pot to this!' "

"Unless you smoke it really fast," Hyder allows.

In keeping with what Brennan said about their other albums, C6 is definitely not the place to look for people seeking homogeneity. There's the obligatory pot-unfriendly tune in the proto-punk "Cannonball." The Sabbath-heads in the psych rock world will dig "Switzer," and the Blue Cheer subset of that same esoteric group will favor "Drunkest Man," which has a sort of fuzz-laden, Middle Easternish dual guitar intro. Death metal rears its goat-horned and fiery visage, complete with a monsterlike vocal credited to Satan on "La Tapatia," their salute to the recently overhauled Montrose taqueria.

Meanwhile, there's a whole galaxy of the spacey stuff in the spiffed-up rereleases of both "Cole Porter" and "Brain," which manage to be as jangly as mid-'80s Athens rock while simultaneously having a menacing and humorous feel. "Cole Porter" also has a Tenacious D-like barked command of "Rock out now!" and one of the better choruses I've heard in a while: "Steeeeeve, put that bong away / I said Steeeve, put that bong away / I know that it's the best / It's better than the rest / But I've got a drug test!" (The plodding, Floyd-like "Airplanes," another rerelease, is the closest thing to a dud on the album -- over eight minutes long, the flight arrives at its final destination a little too late.)

The band's two covers, "Thorn" (written by Mike Switzer) and Kraftwerk's "Hall of Mirrors," strive for and achieve positively epic grandeur. Riffs slowly build into crescendos of crashing cymbals and swirling guitars, all overarched by spacy electronics, theremins and, on "Hall of Mirrors," a singing saw, cello and viola. It's easily one of the best local releases of 2003, as well as one of the most enjoyable and chill-bump-inducing rock CDs of the year.

That the band both recorded a song by Mike Switzer and another about him -- in which they also name-check Almeron by their old friends the Mike Gunn -- comes as no surprise to Brennan. "That whole early-'90s heavy psych scene is so self- referential," he says. "Between them and the Mike Gunn and Project Grimm and the Dunlavy, they're constantly putting out songs that refer to other bands." LP4 has "an old song where they name-check Sybil from Rusted Shut and Byron from Poor Dumb Bastards."

Another thing that doesn't surprise Brennan is the (mostly self-imposed) difficulty the band had in releasing C6. Members began recording in 2001 and finished in December 2002. Steve Finley, LP4's bassist and engineer, owns Digital Warehouse studio, so they could take their time fussing over the songs. As a result, mixing and mastering took six full months. ("Typical," Brennan notes dryly.) Which is a blessing for some bands, but not these guys.

"We would change little things after little things and never realize the overall picture was getting worse," says Medina. "We started in September and it went on for months and months. And finally Steve was like, 'Okay, I'm just gonna give y'all a bunch of mixes and let you see which one you like the best.' And of course the ones we all liked were the ones from September."

At last, members were all on the same page. They could start thinking about a release date. Not so fast. "And the thing was at that point Steve had gotten a whole bunch of fancy new mikes and all this other equipment, and someone was like, 'Now that you have all this cool new stuff, let's just start from scratch," Medina remembers. "Steve was ready to grab his Lone Star and start pounding on this person."

The band's still divided on the issue.

"That was a miserable idea, but it would have sounded a lot better," contends singer-guitarist Charlie Naked.

"No," disagrees Hyder. "That deserved a beating for sure."

Eventually the album did get done. It was released in October, and now, more than two months later, we have the CD release party. ("That's just how we do shit here in Texas," notes the band's Web site.) And still, the disorder continues. Brennan says that an excited Medina recently came into the store carrying a tall stack of flyers for the release party at Rudz. "He's got this big thing that says, 'Distributed by Parasol Music,' and I'm like, 'Ramon, it's not Parasol -- it's Carrot Top.' "

Then there was our "interview," which ended up being one of the most rambling conversations I've ever had. I'd ask Medina, Hyder and Naked a direct question about how they wound up on the September Gurls label, which is based in Nürnberg, Germany, and seconds later we would be talking about a certain part of Carmen Electra's anatomy that rhymes with "naughty bits." We also discussed the sad fact that most of the heaviest rock you hear on the radio turns out to be stealth-Christian music, and the various merits of Prince's flames, former and current, including Mayte, Appollonia and Vanity. But as far as making any headway on the Linus Pauling Quartet and their new album, next to nothing was accomplished.

Brennan says to expect more chaos at the CD release party. "Seeing them live is much like everything else with them. Long sound-check, then they go into the first song, and Clinton's amp isn't working. So they stop, and after they start again, Ramon will break a string and they'll stop again. It's one thing after the other with those guys."

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax