In the mid to late 80s, Love Tractor was one of the Athens, GA bands that was playing alongside other Athens notables such as the B-52s, Pylon, Dreams So Real, and R.E.M. in the now-infamous 40 Watt Club. Their sound was kind of like R.E.M. on hallucinogens; there were lots of jangly guitars, but there was also a very dreamlike quality to their songs that was enhanced by the otherworldly falsetto of singer Mike Richmond. They were a very southern band, and not southern rock like Alabama or Skynyrd or anything like that. Their sonic landscape is one of slow, languid summer days when it's just too hot to move. But in a good way.
When they formed in the early 80s, Love Tractor couldn't afford microphones, so they wrote only instrumental songs; they liked that kind of songwriting so much that their first three albums were all instrumentals. "This Ain't No Outerspace Ship", released in 1986, was their first record with vocals on most of the tracks, although it did feature a few of their trademark instrumentals for good measure. Their next album, 1989's "Themes from Venus", mined from a similar vein, and the band seemed on their way to becoming decently well-known on the heels of R.E.M.'s success the the subsequent explosion of the Athen music scene (kind of like Seattle circa 1993 after Nirvana broke out).
But then they just sort of faded from sight. They played shows off and on for a couple of years, but eventually they even stopped touring. There were no new records, no shows, no nothingthey just vanished. The only blip on the musical radar was Armistead Wellford, the bassist, who went on to play with Gutterball, the indie supergroup including Steve Wynn, both members of House of Freaks, Bob Rupe of the Silos, and a guitarist from the Long Ryders.
"The Sky at Night" reunites all of the original members except for the drummer (although there is a cameo percussion appearance by Bill Berry, the band's first drummer of manyhe left very early on in the band's career to devote himself full time to R.E.M.). The album is the result of years of slow fermentation and on-and-off recording sessions. The band claims that it never really broke up, all the members just took time off to explore other projects, including playing in other bands, studying art history, and learning foreign languages.
So how do they sound after a 12 year break? Well, in a word, incredible. You know when an established brand redoes its logo, and you look at it and go, "Yeah, that's still the same logo, but it just feels so much fresher now"? That's what this album is to the Love Tractor brand: it is unmistakably a Love Tractor record, but it sounds as new and unique as it did 15 years ago.
The first four songs are simply amazing. "Tree" is a laid-back midtempo number that lets you know right away that Love Tractor haven't abandoned their original style; it could be the music playing in your head as you drift off to sleep at night, dreaming of trips to the moon. "Christ Among the Children" is a laid back piece whose vocal track is mostly there to add to the melody, as if it were simply another instrument; the only recognizable words are "That's pretty cool". "Bright", the third track, starts out with a snaky bass line which is gradually overlaid with several subtle keyboard parts; it is nearly two minutes before the lyrics kick in, but it feels just right. All in all it lasts for over six minutes, but you don't notice the time passing at allthe track feels like a 3 minute single. "The Palace of Illusion", the fourth track, is probably the best track on the disc. It is more uptempo than the previous numbers, with a complex but subtle interplay between the bass and the two guitars and more hooks than you can shake a stick at.
The rest of the album features songs that alternate between one of these styles or another without feeling like the band is using the same idea over and over. Listening to the album all the way through is like sitting in the shade a giant old tree, and watching through the overhanging Spanish moss as the river moves lazily past; occassionally you get distracted by a dragonfly's buzz or the sound of a turtle rolling off of his sunny perch on a log back into the cool water. The only real weak moment is the closing track, "The Red Balloon", a minute of random synth chords that doesn't really seem to have a purpose. But even that somehow makes sense the in the lush and verdant world of sound that Love Tractor creates on this record.
Original fans of the band will definitely want to pick up this disc (and maybe reaquaint themselves with Love Tractor's earlier work; the seminal "This Ain't No Outerspace Ship" was recently reissued on CD). This would also be worth picking up if you haven't heard them before, but are a fan of early R,E.M., or you just want something new and different to listen to. Let's hope it doesn't take another 12 years for the next release; in the swamp of rock-rap and boy-band hell that listeners must slog through in today's musical world, bands like Love Tractor are a welcome haven of green that can restore your faith in music.