The Golden Palominos

(formerly posted on the Yahoo! Music site)

Hardly a band at all, the Golden Palominos represent the singular vision of drummer/producer/casting director Anton Fier. Remarkably durable, the group has survived at least five separate incarnations, as Fier continues to swap both players and sounds in a restless search for new conceptual challenges.

Fier (ex-Feelies and Pere Ubu) first assembled the Palominos in the early '80s. The self-titled debut reflected the surrounding New York avant-funk scene, as local renegades scratched and scraped through a set of tuneless, abrasive grooves. Visions of Excess was another story, a thoroughly accessible burst of muscular rock featuring superstar vocals from Michael Stipe and John Lydon. Blast of Silence added some country twang to the mix, but couldn't match the flair and energy of its predecessor. A Dead Horse had a couple of pretty tracks, but elsewhere veered too close to generic journeyman rock. That vein exhausted, Fier changed labels for Drunk With Passion and transformed the band into a 4AD-style exercise in atmospherics. Stipe made another spectacular appearance, but otherwise the tracks were overlong and dreary. However, then came a major renaissance (along with a third label, Restless). Fier pruned the music down to a subtle funk murmur and recruited seductive songwriter Lori Carson, who gave the group its first strong lyrical identity. Her gripping internal dialogues made This Is How It Feels a surprising return to greatness. Pure was more of the same, but the playing was less colorful and Carson's overtly sexual croons began to feel like pandering. Following that, the band became a vehicle for Nicole Blackman's spoken-word pieces, yielding the provocative but ultimately tedious Dead Inside.

What will be the Palominos' next divergent chapter? Only Fier knows for sure. Uneven but never predictable, the group remains a fascinating work-in-progress.

1. Visions of Excess 1985
The band's collaborative peak, and a college-radio smash. An incredible array of name musicians (Stipe, Lydon, Richard Thompson, Syd Straw, Jack Bruce, Arto Lindsay, Chris Stamey, Henry Kaiser, Carla Bley...) power through anthems like "Boy (Go)," "Omaha" (an unforgettable Moby Grape cover), "The Animal Speaks" and "(Kind of) True."
Rating: 6

2. This Is How It Feels 1993
An inspired reinvention of the group, as Carson's hushed musings blend with the funky riffs of Fier, guitarist Bootsy Collins and organist Bernie Worrell. Easily the Palominos' best set of lyrics, supposedly based on Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair.
Rating: 5

3. Blast of Silence 1986
Country-rock becomes a new ingredient, as Straw, Sneaky Pete Kleinow and T-Bone Burnett step into the spotlight. Peter Blegvad, Bruce and a pre-fame Matthew Sweet also make fine contributions, but a few bland tracks weaken the overall impact.
Rating: 4

4. The Golden Palominos 1983
Radically unlike other Palominos releases, the group's debut is an experimental blend of funk, jazz and avant-garde noise. Instrumental beyond a sputtered vocal here and there, the record eventually grows tiresome, despite input from heavyweights like Lindsay, John Zorn, Fred Frith and recurrent members Bill Laswell and Nicky Skopelitis.
Rating: 4

5. Pure 1994
A step down from This Is How It Feels, the sequel has simpler rhythm tracks (blame the loss of Worrell and programmer Matt Stein) and too many breathy odes to bedroom ecstasy. Still, there are a few excellent songs ("No Skin," "Heaven," "Little Suicides").
Rating: 4

6. Drunk With Passion 1991
The Palominos jumped from Celluloid to Charisma with this one, but beyond the Stipe-led "Alive and Living Now," few of these lengthy tracks are interesting. Thompson and Bob Mould enliven "The Haunting" and "Dying from the Inside Out," but the dirgy, overproduced compositions of Amanda Kramer (ex-Information Society) are dull and often ruined by Fier's tasteless cannonball drumming.
Rating: 4

7. A Dead Horse 1989
With this album, the group stopped being as much of a guest-star showcase, instead coalescing around the Fier/Laswell/Skopelitis instrumental axis. Kramer and one Robert Kidney become the central songwriters, but their material just isn't up to scratch.
Rating: 4

8. Dead Inside 1996
Just as cheery as its title, Dead Inside is a gloomy coupling of morbid spoken-word and high-tech rhythm beds. "Victim" and "Holy" are undeniably harrowing, but the album's ponderousness makes for tough listening.
Rating: 3

Thundering Herd: The Best of the Golden Palominos 1991*
A History (1982-1985) 1992*
A History (1986-1989) 1992*
Prison of the Rhythm [EP] 1993
No Thought, No Breath,... [EP] 1995

--Eric Broome