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The first time I laid eyes on Brother JT—aka John Terlesky, the Bethlehem, Pa., singer-songwriter who might just be the most undeservedly neglected figure in rock music today—he was rolling around a Philadelphia stage in a pair of black bikini underpants.
This was in 1997 or thereabouts. A decade or so had passed since Terlesky’s first band, the Original Sins, had emerged from out-of-the-way Bethlehem to smack the Philadelphia music scene upside the head with a garage rock so ferociously fucked-up it even managed to win over the Farfisa-hating hardcore crowd. Combining the brutal simplicity of punk with a groove copped straight from the Velvet Underground, the Sins seemed poised to go places. But their releases were indifferently received, and deals weren’t made—nothing was delivered, as Bobby Dylan used to say. Commercially, the Original Sins went nowhere.
Terlesky had gone on—or so I’d heard—to drop the garage rock, change his name to Brother JT, and rocket off on a most likely chemically induced musical/spiritual tangent so twisted that nobody seemed to be able to make head or tail of it. So I knew I was in for something different that night in Philly. But I certainly didn’t expect…this: Johnny’s backing band, Vibrolux, was obviously winging it, playing an unabashedly atavistic brand of free-form, bad-trip grok rock guaranteed to conjure up images of Day-Glo hairies cringing in the comedown morning that marked the end of the Summer of Love. And Terlesky? Aside from the facts that he was nearly naked and acting as if he were out of his gourd on LSD, the pudgy, moonfaced fellow onstage could have been your computer-support guy. He was so, well, vulnerable up there that it was all some of us could do not to flee the room.
Except that we couldn’t, because Brother JT had us spellbound. It’s not every day you get to hear a kaleidoscope-eyed spiel from the Pillsbury Doughboy. But what really kept us there—what really kept our feet glued to that beer-sticky barroom floor—was that this guy was not making believe. This was not an act. This was something far more powerful, honest, and frightening. It’s no wonder some folks have been tempted to dismiss the Brother as a latter-day Syd Barrett, another psychedelic pilgrim who took a wrong turn on the golden road to unlimited devotion.
However, interviews reveal Terlesky to be a thoughtful and articulate guy whose interests just happen to include LSD, God, and LSD, though not necessarily in that order. And Spirituals, his new album with the lineup that calls itself Brother JT3, reveals him to be a songwriter working at the top of his form. Brother JT’s mind is all there, thank you very much.
Indeed, Terlesky’s metamorphosis to Brother JT seems to have allowed him to explore musical directions that would have been forever denied him within the constraints of a garage-rock band, even one as good as the Original Sins. From the improvisational forays of Vibrolux (best captured on 1997’s creepy, sci-fi-inspired Doomsday Rock and 1998’s Dosed and Confused), to the hook-happy (yet still definitely twisted) pop of his solo albums, to the straightforward guitar rock of power trio Brother JT3 (whose debut long-player, 1999’s Way to Go, was a slab of fuzz-heavy guitar wank guaranteed to make any unrepentant J Mascis or R. Trower junkie’s heart go pitter-patter), Terlesky has proved that you don’t have to be schizophrenic to go your own ways.
And so what if his latest shows that those ways are rapidly becoming the Way? On Spirituals, Brother JT3 gets in touch with its pop side, and the result is a sunnier, more carefree sound, one that’s closer to the blotter-gum of Brother JT’s solo work than to the heavy-duty psychedelia of the band’s debut. Indeed, Terlesky occasionally trades in his guitar for keyboards, sax, and—on “Mellow,” an impossibly friendly pop ditty whose title seems to sum up the CD’s overall vibe—even a hippy-dippy recorder.
Which is not to say that the Brother eschews guitar heroics altogether. “Lord You Are the Wine” is pure proto-stomp, a Sunday-school singalong for lushes and Lutherans alike propelled by a six-string as fuzzy as a head full of God and rotgut. And the band goes positively Zeppelinesque on the traditional “Mole in the Ground,” adding earthmover drumming, spade-sharp slide guitar, and a bass sound the size of a plow to let you know that’s one bigass mole we’re talking about. (“Mole in the Ground” is an apt choice for a cover given the hermitic Terlesky’s predilection for staying at home and watching television. “I’m glad we have cable,” he sings in “This Is the Life” on Brother JT’s Rainy Day Fun album—”It keeps me so stable/The remote’s on the table/Go get it if you are able.” On another tune, he proposes to enjoy a sunny day by taking the television outside.)
But for the most part, this time out Brother JT3 seems less inclined to blow you away than to just let you enjoy the trip. Only on the spooky and doleful “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” the folk number that opens the album, does the sun stray behind the clouds. Backed by a reverberating synth and what sounds like a jew’s-harp, Terlesky sings about dropping the “cross of self-denial” and crossing over to the other side. But lest we think death has won the battle, Brother JT follows up the track with the bouncy “Be With Us,” which opens with the question “Oh mighty death, where is thy sting?” With its impossibly pretty guitar strumming, lovely little ascending guitar solo, and cheery-making flute accompaniment, “Be With Us” is like some unbearably happy memory from your elementary school days, and almost as groovy a tune as the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” which the Original Sins used to do a kickass version of back in the day.
Speaking of back in the day, the snaky guitar lines of “Praise Be” are so damned portentously Doorslike that it’s all I can do not to go into my slo-mo, room-clearing Martin Sheen-jujitsuing-his-own-reflection-in-a-Saigon-flophouse dance every time I hear it. “Praise the Lord and pass the bottle/Get those spirits flowing,” sings Terlesky over a sinister, Manzarek-worthy keyboard line and a napalm-fiery guitar riff. On “Right There,” by contrast, Terlesky employs a vintage-y-sounding wah-pedal and some fab synths to produce a dreamy pop nugget that is closer in spirit to current Britpop than to any of the Brother’s usual musical forbears. “It’s right there/Where you want it,” intones Terlesky, although if the spacy keybs riffs and his blessed-out vocals are any indication, you’re going to need either NASA or a whole lotta blotter to get it.
The only problem I have with Spirituals is its inexplicable brevity. If there’s one sin the usually prolific Terlesky cannot be accused of, it’s sloth. He keeps a busy schedule, continuing to play and record on an on-and-off basis with Vibrolux, Brother JT3, and even the back-from-the-dead Original Sins, while also releasing a steady stream of solo albums. So Spirituals’ approximately 33 minutes of music left me feeling a little shortchanged.
Don’t get me wrong, though. A small dose of Brother JT3 is hell of a lot better than a large dose of just about anything else. I’m no pinwheel-eyed advocate for better living through chemicals, but no matter where your stand on lysergic acid diethylamide—and hey, it’s supposed to be a free country—you could do much worse than to give Spirituals a listen. You just might find yourself wanting to take some more. CP