October 10, 2002

Ed's Underground

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Originally released in 1968, this is the sole album by this strange psychedelic collective. The guitar-less arrangements on the USA’s self-titled long-player suggest the wide-eyed lunacy of Pink Floyd, the silliness of Yes, and the druggy ambience of Jefferson Airplane.

But in terms of experimentation, this band had these contemporaries beat. This was long before ’70s prog introduced synthesizers into rock music, and in 1968 almost nobody even knew what a synth was, so avant-garde composer Joe Byrd’s crazed carnival swoops and robot beeps must have sounded like they came from outer space, and Dorothy Moskowitz’s vocals — distorted by a primitive device called a ring modulator — were equally shocking.

“The Garden of Earthly Delights” is a Jefferson Airplane-style rocker, alternating pastoral sections of restrained tension with explosive choruses spiked with abrasive electronic effects. “Stranded In Time” is a charmingly American “Eleanor Rigby” rewrite that actually betters its influence.

Not all of the record is even that straightforward, though. The strangely titled “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar” has silly sound effects, satirical lyrics, and a folk-by-way-of-Looney-Tunes banjo line. Even more out-there is the closer “The American Way Of Love,” which incorporates all the album’s themes and styles into one piece, verging from fast-paced psychedelia to all-out noise, and topping it all off with a montage of chopped-up vocal samples taken from the rest of the album.

If there’s any definitive work of the psychedelic era, it’s this one. Though overlooked, this album is the epitome of the experimental ideas that marked that time period. Byrd later went on to do one more USA-type album as Joe Byrd & the Field Hippies, then a series of avant-garde solo albums, but no one else in the band ever appeared in music again. A true shame, but at least they left this superb document behind.

Archived article by Ed Howard