The Psychomodo (1974) ****1/2
A dash more rock and a new ingredient of Doors-y swirling carnival keyboards: the rock'n'roll circus is in town. It's ever so slightly superior to the debut (and I can easily see others switching my ratings between the two) due to the songs being somewhat more straightforward and more immediately hooky - a year's span had apparently given Harley time to sharpen the soft focus of The Human Menagerie into more consistent songwriting. It comes down to a battle between the debut and the followup's pair of twin epics. The ridiculously over-phased, repetitive "Ritz," almost sounds like a parody of glam psychedelia, the sort of goof that Ween might have written if they'd ever tackled a mock of that genre - but wait, when's the last time you ever heard any glam psychedelia? Todd Rundgren? Aladdin Sane? It may be meaningless, but it's a gas - man. Perhaps it wasn't the brightest of ideas to sandwich that one and "Cavaliers," back to back - these two plodding Big Statements take up nearly sixteen minutes between the two of them, nearly sucking the life out of the record. Not that either are bad, but a pair of draggy, druggy epics in a row? I do see that on the original vinyl that they weren't back to back, actually - one closes side one and the other opens side two. Nevermind - "Cavaliers," is even better (though, again, I do see how another person might switch the preference for "Ritz"), with jumbo-sale '67 Dylanisms rousing up to the gospel, "Testify, testify, testify" chorus.
But as if a photo negative of the debut, it's not the overblown epics that dominate the record, but rather the shorter, snappier tunes. The title track swings propulsively (contradictory as that may sound) on rinky keyboards lifted from the puppet show, as Harley sings agitatedly and affectedly (another contrast!) about Quasimodo, George Orwell, ex-Beatles, and suicidal streets. "Mr. Soft," the lead single, is mighty odd material for a hit A-side: a dark and stern yet baby-bouncy Kurt Weill-ish waltz-march that oomphs and chugs along with a sinisterly creepy circus clown's grin. It conveys the funhouse-mirror dark side of the carnival better than almost anything the Doors ever did. The bright'n'raffishly charming sleaze-pop of "Bed in the Corner," might have made a better choice as single, with its irresistible melodic lilt and identifiable failed-rake lyrics; but it's inextricably intertwined with the electric violin-fest of "Sling It!" that buzzes in the ears like a thousand mosquitoes in tune - the way the initial mid-tempo pop tune meshes into the high-energy dance stomper makes for one of the most startling track-to-track mash-ups ever. And then the album crashes down on its final and mightiest (?) tune, "Tumbling Down," which could be called yet a third epic or just another pretty pop tune: it begins as a standard, meandering Elton John-ish piano pop song, as Harley winds his way around typically enigmatic poeticisms concerning the Titanic, the Hemingway stacatto, and suchlike. It's all a pleasant enough stroll down the long and winding road, until it slowly builds up to the, "Oh dear, look what they've done to the blues, blues, blues?" closing chorus - and then it's sheer magnificence.
P.S. The reissue appends two bonus tracks, the single "Big Big Deal," which is rather unexceptional. It's bit baffling as to why this was chosen as an A-side when it sounds like a slightly inferior outtake from the accompanying album. The B-side "Such a Dream," is a novelty track that stretches two minutes' worth of one-trick pony shock tactics for over five minutes. Offbeat novelties that weren't quite worth the musical meat to graduate to LPs are the reason why B-sides were invented.