By Diego Aguilar-Canabal
The Lickets are back!
It’s a rare treat to see the Berkeley ambient-folk duo release a new album less than two years before the previous one, but Raise the Red Lamp offers as many new directions for the storied outfit as they do songs. Whereas 2015’s Dolls in Color saw the Lickets venture into dark-ambient and musique-concrete territory, and Offering to Magnetic Mountain saw a return to classical and Americana vibes, Red Lamp splinters into different territories that suggest this is the group’s long-awaited—dare I say it—dance record.
It’s hard to believe this is the same group that made the lush, eternal dream-drone of Song of the Clouds, now churning out succinct, rhythmic folk meditations that I’d be tempted to pair with minimal techno club tracks, but here we are. In late 2010, as a college freshman, I ventured out in pajamas to see the Lickets perform their unique blend of ambient folk in a secluded grassy glade, at a tent that doubled as a promotion for a study abroad program in Germany. (The latter was an abject failure; the Lickets had more of an audience than the free beer and pretzels.) In the waning days of a misfit adolescence that was giving way to a brooding, ruminative and curious young adulthood, the Lickets proved a perfect gateway to an early 20s spent engrossed as much in Schopenhauer and Eliane Radigue as in Tim & Eric and Tinariwen.
The lilting synth and organ overtones on “Driven from Home” harken back to some of the more whimsical moments on the group’s first proper LP, Here (on Earth), but it’s the darker tracks like “Marvels of Modern Science” or “The Country of the Blind” that evince the group’s more exciting experiments with rhythm. On the other hand, “A Season Ending” brings back the, uh, classic Lickets method of a mellow, baroque ostinato swirling over a gradually complicating morass of ambient noise. It feels awkward to suggest a back-to-the-roots approach in any Lickets output, since there’s always progression, but all the same I can’t deny the continuity.
Perhaps the other significant development here, aside from the throbbing rhythmic pulses, is the poignant Terry Riley-esque organ floating through the record. The timbre feels as stately and archaic as a church organ while still mastering the late ‘60s psychedelic vibes that defined early ambient music. Really, though, every instrument seems to be finding new room to breathe through the rhythmic experiments. For once, the delicate nylon-string guitars embark on strummed galloping journeys, while the occasional glockenspiel, too, takes on an added role as ordinary percussion. I can’t think of a better way to describe “Modern Science” than a club remix of “A Rainbow in Curved Air” as envisioned by classical guitar students who skipped class to check out a generator rave.
Perhaps the best way I can understand the Lickets is through a duality of playfulness and gravitas. There’s either the crushing burden of seriousness, funeral dirges and spiritual dread, or the forbidden, frolicking fun of a lighthearted romp. Either way, one permeates the other. So even the haunting harmonica on “Country of the Blind” feels a bit mischievous, as though the sounds were winking at you. And so, too, do the plaintive guitar pluckings throughout the album flicker with just a hint of whimsy.
It’s the first Lickets album to be offered completely for free, but it’s certainly not the first that will free you. As always, it’s a process of freedom, retreat, reexamination, and constant transition.