With And Those Who Were Seen Dancing, Tess Parks Reimagines Psychedelia for the Present Day
Almost a decade after her debut, Parks draws from years' worth of material for a seamless sophomore album that reflects the richness of a whole lifetimeMusic Reviews Tess Parks
Perhaps more artists should draw from many years’ worth of material every time they set out to make an album. Then again, not all artists have Tess Parks’ knack for weaving together songs from different points in their lives. With And Those Who Were Seen Dancing, Parks makes an artistic statement that’s about as seamless as albums come—a rich, vibrant mosaic that benefits from the breadth of time and space it encompasses. Her sophomore solo effort, Dancing arrives almost a full decade after her debut, 2013’s Blood Hot. In the interim, Parks made three albums with Brian Jonestown Massacre leader Anton Newcombe.
Newcombe is, of course, most infamously remembered for his appearance in the 2004 rockumentary Dig!, where his obsessive, cult leader-like drive, appetite for drugs and general chaos-making were captured in all their glory. Parks pretty much represents the opposite temperament, and their opposing but complementary vibes lie at the heart of the music they made together. But as we can now see, Parks is more than capable of creating a zany musical universe of her own. And Those Who Were Seen Dancing is really the coming-out party of an artist the public knows best as a member of a duo.
Where Newcombe is nothing if not preoccupied with psychedelia as a channel to the past, Parks’ new songs convey a freedom from time, as if she were running carefree through her memory, led by the hand of her child-self and taking the listener along, too. The mood she creates on the album is positively delightful while also bittersweet, with the heavy shadow of leaving places and the fragility of attachment always lurking at the edges of the frame. Throughout the album, hazy analog synths give the impression they might just evaporate as they roll by, like clouds on a summer day. You can’t get your hands around the keyboard parts, but you remember the overall sensation—a reflection of how fleeting life is.
Oddly enough, though, it’s this ephemeral sense that gives And Those Who Were Seen Dancing a lived-in quality. Typically, albums represent a single chapter in an artist’s experience, which in turn goes on to mark a moment in time for the listener. In a way, the music we love becomes seasonal. Not so with Parks. By the second song—the pleasantly haunting, deliciously lazy “Suzy & Sally’s Eternal Return”—you get the sense that you’re stepping into a lifetime, that this is music that’s wider than a mere snapshot. Some of Parks’ lyrics, in fact, date back almost 15 years.
Named after a well-known Nietzche quote, And Those Who Were Seen Dancing follows a period in which an injured Parks was uncertain about her ability to continue making music. For that and other reasons, Parks lost interest in music for a year. And though so much of the album conveys an ease of spirit, it’s all the more convincing for being hard-won. The first words Parks sings on “Suzy & Sally’s Eternal Return,” for example, are, “I got something to say that will hurt you in the end.” And the song ends with the disturbing observation, “Everyone I see looks like a tombstone to me.”
Sonically speaking, the album is difficult to pin down to any one musical trend, and one gets the sense it could have been made at any point over the last two decades or so. On “Happy Birthday Forever,” a fluttering, flute-like hook recalls the cotton-candy soundscape of Black Moth Super Rainbow’s 2007 breakout album Dandelion Gum, while the spoken-word vehicle “Brexit at Tiffany’s” shares a kinship with artists ranging from PJ Harvey to Patti Smith. But by not dating itself, the music slots rather comfortably into the present.
In her work with Newcombe, analog gear and reverb function as stylized Tarantino-esque props in the music. By contrast, Parks and her supporting cast—guitarists Ruari Meehan and Mike Sutton, keyboardist Francesco Perini and drummer Rian O’Grady—have re-defined psychedelia by bringing it into the now. And Those Who Were Seen Dancing certainly isn’t the first album to put a fresh spin on the psych aesthetic, but by shrugging off its constraints, Parks has left her own definitive mark on it. Perhaps inadvertently, by letting these songs change over time, she’s also shown us that we sometimes reap the most reward from the past, paradoxically enough, when we don’t try so hard to capture it.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. You can find him on Twitter and Substack at feedbackdef.substack.com