Ris Paul Ric

Purple Haze

(Academy Fight Song; 2006)

By Conrad Amenta | 28 February 2008

Chris Paul Richards spent the entire performance on top of his amp, itself perched on the edge of the same stage his now-defunct band had thrashed across just over a year earlier. The microphone stand was to its maximum extension to reach his lips; his hair periodically brushed the club ceiling; timely stomping caused the amplifier beneath his feet to spit crackles in time to the threadbare strum of his acoustic guitar. The three girls front row-centre, carefully replete in Blood Brothers t-shirts and sleeves cut from separate garments, hair calculatedly akimbo, took a step back at the eight-foot tall figure this arrangement cut against the stage backdrop. They may have been expecting mania, nonsensical chanting, beeps and feedback, but probably not the faraway echoes and thumbed-rhythms of an acoustic tapped through a delay pedal (“Up in My Window”) or naked funk (“Run Up Wild On Me”), or even a set consisting almost entirely of one guitar and Richards’ persistent falsetto, a fragile balancing act. Embarrassingly intimate, simultaneously absurd, the performance engrossed some attendees while distancing others in equal measure. That kid who shook a maraca at Richards’ behest turned a splotched red in the face.

Richards better get used to the reaction. Watching a full band, even one with members who used to write on their faces with marker and dance off the stage, out of the room, is usually a semi-normalized process. After three solid Dischord releases and an amicable split with D.C. spazz-punk outfit Q and Not U, returning with an album that will undoubtedly be described as spare and stripped-down (in addition to “faraway” and “naked”) is bound to confuse at best, render a meaningless one-off at worst. But once one gets over the aesthetic contrast between Richards’ current and former vehicles, the truth of the matter is that Purple Blaze is an accomplished, if unessential, collection of what may as well be acoustic renditions of Power A-sides.

The album peaks early with its title song, a cyclical, breath-straining wonder. It’s only two minutes, it’s only three parts, and it’s on the outside track to becoming one of this listener’s favorite singles of the year. Ottawa-based noise-pioneer Tim Hecker (album engineer, mixer, provider of ambient noise) here recruits Four Tet-like chimes and warm buzzes that distinguish the song and give it momentum. Though Hecker’s contributions are subtle, they’re what elevate the track from being an idea for a song to an actual one. In fact, Hecker’s involvement proves quite welcome throughout. His outro to “Run Up Wild On Me” competes with the song’s initial catchiness, and the sleepy Bibio interludes of “D y C n” and “P l B z” are interesting (if somewhat dispensable) contributions to what could have been a much weaker album. As a whole, Purple Blaze does have trouble sustaining itself, even over its scanty 35 minutes, but the Richards-Hecker duo is an exciting, promising one.

The similarities between Power and Purple Blaze can be seen as both defining strengths and weaknesses. “The Sleeparound” aspires to the same sex-party politics as Power’s “Wetworks,” interspersing bodies that “were made to sleep around” amid a landscape of cop cars, jail cells and graveyards – and all that behind a “Tropicalia” guitar line. Album-closer “Daft Young Cannibals” echoes Power closer “Tag-Tag,” minus John Davis’ frenetic drumming. Are these more obvious similarities between Q and Not U and Richards’ acoustic outings a disappointment or a catalyst of interest? The answer to that largely determines one’s enjoyment of Purple Blaze. But to solely acknowledge the similarities is to ignore the real songwriting developments, like “Hanging From the Grapevines,” which is delicate and heavily strummed, from one second to the next, and it grows into a gorgeous vocal refrain. Or the experimental fuzz of “Up in My Window,” a lo-fi bricolage of hums, whispers and bird sounds that’s more restrained and atmospheric than any of Richards’ previous work.

Listeners holding their hands in the air, waiting for the cue to a frenzied clap-along and shout/chant, will likely be left in the dark by Purple Blaze, and they’re probably better off buying records from the dance-punk committed. The problem with those acts, enjoyable and immediate as it may be, is that they don’t lend themselves to much development without some level of alienation from their still-developing fan base (can you picture Hot Hot Heat releasing an eighth album?) As both a labor of love and a step ahead of the genre from one of its progenitors, Richards’ effort shouldn’t be overlooked, if not overloved.