An Electrical Storm on a Desert Island: Ed Kuepper’s Enduring Solo Debut



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For those of us rather maniacally afflicted with the drive to find new music that thrills us, the experience of discovering a debut album of such immediate magnitude that we know without doubt or hesitation that it’s going to be with us for the rest of our lives is a revelation, a gift handed down by providence, not a little manna-like.

I wasn’t expecting Electrical Storm in 1986, it happened upon me, me upon it. This was San Francisco, in UK-based Reckless Records on the corner of Haight and Masonic, and though such occurrences were more commonplace then – quaint as it seems now, the record store as a type of magnetized, pro forma public square for the music obsessive was, at the time, still a legitimate concept – this particular encounter nonetheless stood out. Wasn’t more than seven steps into the aisles when I stopped, arrested in my tracks. I listened to another few beats of “Car Headlights” going at its automotive gallop, that curiously flat-but-authoritative voice, then immediately hied my way to the nearest clerk and asked the most important question any of us ever ask (beating out ‘Would you like to go see a show some time?’, ‘Will you marry me?’ and even ‘Is there any more vodka left?’): “This is great, who’s this?”

“Ed Kuepper from The Saints, it’s his first solo album. Yeah, the whole thing’s excellent.” I nodded my head in agreement because it was already nodding anyway.

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Now, I knew The Saints, we all knew The Saints, and sure enough a certain ‘Saints-ness’ was evident – I’d heard this sound’s DNA before – but this was something different, there was intimacy and immediacy, an instant drive, hooks and melodies were jumping off the walls, tumbling over each other, chased and hounded and impelled by a drum track that was equal parts exuberant and relentless. There’s a guitar solo midway through “Car Headlights” that’s somehow both restrained and scything. I was in love, it was love at first sound and I bought it on faith before the next track had the chance to doubly prove the wisdom, in this case, of acting so impulsively (and if there’s a better type moment in the act of buying music I don’t know what it is).

Truism-bordering-on-hoary ol’ chestnut that it is, certain records do indeed happen to us at exactly the moment we need them, and that is what they do, happen to us, they’re an event, they hit like a verb, either because they act as liberators, bursting us out of our staid, comfortable, or sometimes just plain ignorant circumstances and into the thrilling rush of what’s possible – taking us, in short, from the monochromatic to the kaleidoscopic (think punk, Elvis, Dylan 65/66, Can, Patti Smith, I dunno, the list is long) – or because they embroider themselves into our life at a time of great upheaval and change, become integral soundtracks to those parts of our lives that might actually make the movie we think we’re living a watchable one.

Behind that scene in Reckless in the summer of 1986 is a great deal of the latter. Having finally passed the point in a marriage where the powerful persuasion and sense-of-burning kismet in which it had been forged six years before had, at last, been eroded past all redemption by the sad and punishing lash of reality, I’d jacked it in and was in a fresh relationship. I’d not done it gradually, nor gracefully, and in fact still carry a weight of remorse over that, but the fact was a place had been reached of accrued unhappiness and hopeless disrepair and I’d taken the leap. One can only tussle with The Fates for so long. I drove nights in a Yellow Cab and lived above the Haight on Buena Vista West. Life was messy and brilliant and complicated and everything seemed rearranged down to the molecular level. This little-known debut solo album with the inscrutable, dry-gothic cover, arriving unbidden in a modest burst of serendipity, became – and remains – a constant companion, always there when I need it. Like all albums that achieve this kind of deeply personal status, the reasons, beyond the obvious musical strengths, can be a bit elusive, a bit ephemeral. But there are, I think, a few reasons I can point to that ensure that Electrical Storm will be among the select few (137 at last count) going to that desert island with me.

 

Recorded in semi-clandestine overnight sessions when cheap studio time could be had [see interview for full details], Electrical Storm has a jumpy restlessness to it, the feel of the thing fringed with a raw, furtive edge. Even the song “Electrical Storm,” which comes on at first as a kind of confessional, late-night ballad, shimmering cascades of cymbal and all that, can’t contain the need to escape and transforms itself a mere third of the way in into a surging, propulsive romp, shackles thrown off, the groove utterly insistent, tripping madly forward. On an album permeated with a sense of the restless and unsettled, this second section of the title track takes the trophy, you can feel the jitter of escape percolating in the singer’s blood. The first lyric sung here – Well I had my reservation booked / on the first bus out of town – would certainly qualify as corroborative evidence were it not for the fact that the narrator doesn’t actually catch that ride, can’t bring himself to, instead transfixed by the exquisite violence juddering out the of the night sky. It’s as finely turned a metaphor for the dangerous pull and thrall of romantic attraction as I’ve heard, the (often well-reasoned) urge to run paralyzed by the powerful inducements to stay.

Given my circumstances at the the time it’s no surprise that this kind of stay-or-go tension appealed to me on a visceral level but in truth that’s something that’s only become apparent in retrospect. Listening to it now some twenty-seven years later, that particular resonating sonic aspect of Electrical Storm is instantly obvious just in those first few seconds, and indeed there are indications everywhere. “Master Of Two Servants” couldn’t sit still if you hit it with a cricket bat. If I ever hear it without hopping up and down – even if I’m sitting – then chuck me in the meat wagon as I’ve most certainly tumbled off the porch.

The badda-la-bap ramalam tom-tom that leaps out at you immediately at the beginning of “When The Sweet Turns Sour” pulls you perforce into the proceedings before the critical center of your brain has had an opportunity to offer the least assessment (bit of an ambush, actually, it never had a chance) and that sense of catch-up breathlessness is only quickened by first the hyper beach-strummed acoustic and then the mic’ed one that picks up the melody then hands it to the piano. Yes it has a jaunty swing to it but the thing’s also carried by a shiftily askew, slip-jointed rhythmic structure that’s mildly perplexing, disorienting even – it is a rock song, isn’t it? Initially the jolt would seem to come from its quasar compactness, the track has the compressed energy of a be-bop outtake circa 1954, a thought that quickly takes on its own life when it’s realized that throughout, behind and under Kuepper’s somewhat petulant vocal and his melodious and precisely-picked acoustic solo (arriving as a mid-song break then joyfully outstaying its welcome), Louis Tillet has been counterpointing the whole shebang by pounding out a kind of barroom barrelheaded jazz stride, a flavoring enhanced by the brief unhinged solo he takes as “..Sweet Turns Sour” falls toward the exit.

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Though not explicitly present via either challenging time signatures nor, say, long extended bass solos (and there’s not much brushed cymbal action to speak of), jazzy intimations nevertheless hang like village smoke over much of the record. The slightly offbeat drum pattern and minor chording of “A Trick Or Two,” its sinuous solo with its improvisational feel. The clash of rhythmic elements that dash against each other inside “Another Story” while a timeless chorus rises and glides above like stardust. Neither song – nor others I could cite – departs significantly from the raging templates of rock ‘n’ roll, but in spirit there’s a warmth and abstraction to the tonalities and an overall intuitive abandon that’s just obliquely off enough to mark the songs and the sounds in which they’re encased as uniquely their own in a way I’d not heard before or since (well, except for Laughing Clowns, it should be noted, whom I caught up to subsequent to discovering Electrical Storm). The slide guitar track wandering around behind the verses on “One Small Town” has an alto sax’s emotionality about it, layering on a plangent tolling of regret to what’s already the most regret-soaked song on the album.

At least as central to Electrical Storm‘s inimitable and lasting charm, however, is the timbre of Kuepper’s voice, an imperfect instrument that couldn’t have been better designed to capture the somewhat anxious air of displacement-slash-dislocation inhabiting the album entire. An odd mix of weathered maturity and still defiant youth, there’s something both vaguely corrugated and soothing about it. As a singer Kuepper has never been one for punkish snottiness or aggro (it’s almost impossible to imagine him affecting Bailey’s dismissive growl in The Saints) but there is at times a stroppy undertone to the vocal on Electrical Storm. On the slight outlaw tremble of “Car Headlights,” the promise-broken “Another Story” and “Told Myself,” a rather scathing post-relationship self-assessment, there’s a sandy-throated, age-belying (he was 29) world-weariness in Ed’s voice, notes of contrition mixed with a simmering irritation mixed with a fatalistic shrug or two. Due, perhaps, to his Germanic descent (his family moved to Oz from Bremen when he was six), Kuepper’s voice here tends to stay in a temperate range between achingly matter-of-fact and mildly vituperative and as such is imbued with a rough, native vulnerability. No artifice, no embellishment, never any belting, the voice instead conveys a simple, powerful believability. It’s stable, even as it’s rather teetering in places, a no-bullshit voice that sometimes almost cracks and no wonder it struck an unalloyed chord in that just-turned-30 cabdriver standing in a San Francisco record store, standing on some wobbly fulcrum separating a fleeting youth marred by failed – if noble – stabs at adulthood, from the oncoming rush of the actual one that was built upon little more than an exciting but tremulous uncertainty, girded only by the presumed rightness of his course (Hate was just behind me, goes a line in “Master Of Two Servants,” love directly in front of me,” a nail-head hit on the place I’d put myself). Electrical Storm spoke, and still speaks, to that flux and does so with an unvarnished eloquence, it occupies that same slippery emotional terrain, filled with a feeling of freedom that’s fraught with itself. 

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Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the whole stirring bundle comes as a tightly-wrapped burst of songcraft, flush with the type of unforced hooks you would have thought had been used before but hadn’t (indeed you get the sense that Kuepper was eager to get to them before someone else did), matched by playing that is impeccably intuitive. As endowed with invincible melody as any album I own, there isn’t a moment on this record that isn’t irresistible.

One strains to think of another musician from a seminal band – and The Saints were that, Laughing Clowns only a tick less so – that stepped into a solo career with such a thorough, articulate, unassailable debut. Verlaine couldn’t manage it, Strummer and Jones didn’t even try, and frankly neither Lennon nor McCartney hit quite the consistent paydirt on their first outing as Kuepper does here, which you may well consider extravagant hyperbole until you hear the album. It’s a feat all the more remarkable given the budget (lack thereof), tepid-at-best label support, and the skeleton-crew personnel. Save Nick Fisher’s precision drumming – classic accenting, epic restraint – and the aforementioned Louis Tillett, everything else – the multi-tracked acoustic and electric guitars, the bass, the mandolin – are credited to Ed, who also produced with Bruce Calloway. Equally remarkable, in light of the overall threadbareness and catch-as-catch-can nature of the recording process, is how cohesive and of-a-piece the end product is. From the catapulting adrenaline of “Car Headlights” that announces its arrival, through the vaulting melody of “A Trick Or Two”‘s chorus to “Rainy Night”s brief slice of the dry and wry that ends the ride on an agreeably appropriate note of irreverence (I killed my sacred cow…for money), Electrical Storm presents  as a contiguous, whole, singular effort. Had I not discovered via interview the circumstances of its making, I would have presumed, as I had for years, that it was laid down in something like a fevered three-day session with little sleep and much zeal, an impression strengthened by the one-take feel retained throughtout. “Palace Of Sin” alone, with its wild Segovian acoustic runs, the underlay of electric rhythm, Fisher’s manic somersaulting drum assault, the bass dancing in between like a puppet on a string, gives every indication of a full-out, tour-tested band taking well-worn cues from each other as they bang out a true monster of a take, one for the ages, engineer you better have had the tape rolling that time. One can scarcely believe this wasn’t the case. It’s a storming gem of ensemble playing and yet, with no piano on the track, it’s but an ensemble of two. Necessity may be the crazy uncle of invention but there’s little to no guarantee that what’s invented will end up touching genius. That Electrical Storm, created under such slapdash conditions, manages to do just that is really quite astonishing, and is at the very least a testament to what can be accomplished through dogged determination and an unwavering sense of purpose. A truly great record, it also comes with a free download of inspiration.

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By definition, a desert island disc is one you never tire of hearing. I’d heard Electrical Storm close to a hundred times before beginning this piece and have now spent an accumulation of many weeks over the past year dissecting, rewinding, listening again and again, squinting into the blank middle distance trying to figure out its spell over me. When I pip the last period on the final sentence here, I feel I’ll owe myself the favor of playing it all the way through front to back one more time, unfettered by a hovering pen or a dangling participle or the taunt of a more perfect adjective. I will, of course, be hearing it again for the first time, a youngish man just above the Haight, hanging in tacit understanding with the gentleman shading a tad more elderly a few miles south of Portland. I only hope, between the two of us, we can figure out a way keep the sand out of the grooves.

  • Gurbs

    NIce words Dave….ES hit me in a similar way as a 20-year-old in England.

  • Vaughn Abbott

    I was turned on to this in DC when it first came out and immediately fell in love. Ed’s solo output now has a nifty spot in my collection and every time I listen to him or expose others to his music I still can’t believe what a well-kept secret he is.

  • rubbersoul1991

    I really enjoyed this review. Thank you so much. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Ed perform songs from this album many times. I agree with you in that it is an album that I continue to love after nearly 30 years.