There is a higher power at work around us, an energy that can inspire and guide us in the most clandestine of fashions. It can happen in a religious context, but often enough this higher power comes through the most godless of places: the car stereo. Several years ago, late at night, I was scanning the dial of my car radio and stopped on a country-&-western station when Brooks & Dunn's update of the soft-rock classic "Missing You" caught my ears. The version was satisfactory, but it left me hungry for the original. Sure enough, as I scanned the dial, John Waite's superior original version played on the classic-rock station. Fate, I was sure, was on my side. Elated, I continued down the FM dial, resting on the soft-rock frequency only to hear the first verse of Waite's "Missing You" coming through yet again.
Was it a mere coincidence? Was it an object lesson in the banality and predictability of modern radio? Or was it something else, some spirit guiding three different stations to play this one '80s gem in near-unison? Was that spirit guiding my fingers along the seek/scan buttons of the radio with expert precision? I can't say that this event caused a religious conversion, but it emphasized the power of late-night radio -- the way it can inspire, or paraphrase, or recontextualize our dreams.
For the two principals of the psychedelic pop band All Night Radio, the spirit and promise of late-night listening is at the center of their mission. Even the genesis of the band is rooted in radio. Dave Scher was a DJ at Los Angeles station KXLU when Jimi Hey would make numerous calls requesting Six Finger Satellite and Ready for the World. The two became friends, and Hey eventually got his own show on the station. Later on, Scher and Hey helped found the celebrated cosmic-country outfit the Beachwood Sparks. Since leaving the Sparks in 2001, the duo has spent the better part of the past year tuning and tweaking All Night Radio.
The conceit for All Night Radio is, to say the least, an odd one. According to the band's press release for its debut, Spirit Stereo Frequency, "The boys tuned into the Spirit Stereo Frequency...[a]n Omnichronistic Music Source coming in non-stop, on bandwidth signals from the sun, in a collision of displaced sound styles from the present, past and future." So yes, the band listened to the sun and made a record of what they picked up from this "frequency." But lest you think that some PR flack is pulling a fast one the both of us, Scher explains All Night Radio's inspiration further.
"It's something a little extra, a little more supernatural coming out of your radio. It would involve a blending of sound sources and time periods, even the imaginary things," says Scher. According to him, this energy is all around us, broadcasting in a steady stream 24 hours a day; it is up to the listener to tune in and harness the energy.
For Scher and Hey, All Night Radio is the culmination of the experiences and sounds collected as the two jumped from band to band over the past few years. Few full-size bands have as impressive a rap sheet as this duo; aside from the Beachwood Sparks, Scher and Hey have, individually or collectively, spent time in such impressive bands as Tristeza, Strictly Ballroom, the Tyde, Lilys and the Rapture.
Scher realizes that this "Omnichronistic Music Source" business is a bit hard to swallow. "We're going off of a different paradigm than most groups," Scher says. "We wanted to make a sound coming through that would pick up a bit of everything. It would come through us. Jimi and I try to dial it in."
Hearing Scher talk about the band's inspiration, one might think he and Hey are mere vessels of sound, automatons acting on executive orders. But, Scher explains, "It's an act of creation. We are weaving from the fabric of this romantic space and time. It's an idea that we record."
Whether this concept strikes you as inspired genius or drug-addled bullshit, it's hard to argue with the results. Though we're less than three months into 2004, Spirit Stereo Frequency may end up as one of year's best. Few bands can switch stylistic gears so effortlessly and, clocking in just shy of 45 minutes, the album makes grand leaps in little space. There has always been a strong psychedelic strain in the Beachwood Sparks, but All Night Radio eradicates the country leanings; distills the ethereal, trippy qualities of the old band; and turns out ten tracks of echo-laden, creamy, bewildering psych-pop.
It sounds as if All Night Radio set out to amalgamate all the best qualities of California pop, touching on the sweetness, the depth and the mystery of the Golden State. The opening track, "Daylight Till Dawn," is a blast of Partridge Family-like pop with its staccato harpsichords and expertly layered "bom-bom-bom" background vocals. It sets the playful, optimistic view that sustains the whole record.
A cursory scan through the album reveals many other sounds and influences; some are smashed together, others juxtaposed with seemingly incongruous sonic partners. The soft harmonies of Seals & Crofts get tossed into George Harrison's guitar flanger. Some crazy Spanglish lyrics are accented by a soulful horn section. Much of Spirit Stereo Frequency sounds like it was recorded in the depths of an echo chamber instead of in Scher's living room, and the deep, dizzying reverberations evoke the Jamaican dub culture. In short, this is the record that Beck would have killed to make.
For all of its disparate influences, this record has a remarkable coherence; if all borders are taken down, nothing seems out of place. It sounds like a time warp, a lovingly re-created time in pop history when hippie idealism meshed with advanced recording techniques. But, as disciples of the Stereo Spirit, All Night Radio did not set out to pay homage to any one sound or style.
"There wasn't any more conscious classification of era, but you'd like to have a well-rounded whole, so that would instigate the need for variety. We would hope that this is a well-rounded program," says Scher.
Which raises the question: Can we tune into this Spirit Stereo Frequency, or does it only broadcast over the sunniest parts of California? Scher enthusiastically says that the frequency is open to all ears. "It will have a bit of context reflected into stylistic choices. If we could sit you down in a studio lab, you'd have different influences, but you'd still have the Spirit Stereo."
Hearing the suggestion that Scher and Hey open up this kind of "sound boutique," Scher comments that, while intriguing, it would be prohibitively expensive. He also warns that results may differ from user to user. "The signal content will vary on who listens, your context, what your condition is that morning." So if you just heard John Waite's "Missing You" three times in a row, your output might sound an awful lot like John Waite. While both Scher and Hey have moved from band to band over the past few years, it looks like All Night Radio holds the most promise and excitement, and Scher says he and Hey don't have any plans to rejoin their old acts. "The Beachwood Sparks is probably going to continue without us as well. Everything is well, but we are not participating in any of those groups."
As for the future, All Night Radio will tour in support of the new record, picking up fans and Spirit Stereo transmissions along the way. "The plans are just to start touring, around the Western world at least, and accumulate our new ideas and make a new record," says Scher. "We're going to develop our sound and have the freedom to explore. [We want] to try to harness and translate the forces of nature."