As with some of the bands who inspired them by laying down fussy grooves three decades earlier, Lilys prefer obscurity to publicity.
How does a revival stay fresh? Kurt Heasley spent over 15 years answering this. As the center of whomever worked with him as Lilys, he began the ‘90s as a shoegazer. Something about fellow East Coast pop purveyors Velvet Crush on their sprightly In the Presence of Greatness must have rankled Heasley, its ‘60s-esque perfect pop curdling into the title of Lilys debut LP In the Presence of Nothing. Instead of catchy melodies and sunny harmonies, riffs lumbered and pitched.
That and album number two, the oddly titled Eccsame the Photon Band, delved deeply into drone. Textures wash over the listener with immensity and sonic depths rise and fall impressively. However, coming well after Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, the first two Lilys albums displayed Heasley and crew’s technical savvy at re-creating durable models rather than sculpting subtler contours. But a couple of tracks on Eccsame presaged the next phase of Heasley’s evocation of what fans of the ‘60s sonic ideal sought. In other words, this pair of cuts echoed those of Velvet Crush itself.
Better Can’t Make Your Life Better upended neo-psychedelic imitators across indie rock. Skillfully, Lilys’ mimicry gave way to mastery. Lilys twisted their structured songs to twirl and pivot into surprising directions. Heasley’s ability to plot and play out ideas about what represented the spirit of the later stages of the British Invasion worked well.
As suits were doffed for caftans, ties for scarves, bespoke tailoring for paisley prints, so Lilys craft tributes to that flamboyant, edgy and innovative era. On a timeline, narrowed to the patchouli-scented atmosphere out of which bounced Rubber Soul and “Eight Miles High,” this superimposes Lilys where the Who released their subversive singles “Pictures of Lily” and “Happy Jack,” and where the Move began their witty and deft take on not only ‘60s but ‘50s influences. It pins Better to its successor, The 3 Way.
A fluke hit in Britain after Roman Coppola used “A Nanny in Manhattan” to score a Levi’s ad had led to Better being remixed for a sudden fan base. But the band’s fame proved as fleeting as for many aspirants in an earlier Invasion, and Sire Records opted to distribute The 3 Way only in America. In retrospect, a foolish act, for an album which was lost in the shuffle as Y2K loomed captured the timing of a jittery, woozy and unpredictable assembly of musicians, ready again to back up Heasley’s inventiveness.
The results might not have pleased all. Echoes of Ray Davies’ voice reverberate with its warbles and lilt in Kurt Heasley’s delivery. Combined with a knack for reproducing the classic Kinks sound of the Invasion into the Summer of Love (and beyond), Lilys’ insistence on replicating their forebears so accurately may unsettle the uninitiated. “Dimes Make Dollars” opens the album with an organ pumping and Heasley chortling. “Socs Hip” opts for surprising dance moves. It starts with soul, verges to tango, steps aside to a beat combo and then returns to funk. Its seven minutes sum up the album’s restive mood.
No longer limited to the efficient brevity of the songs that kept Better racing by, although The 3 Way is about the same running time, its 35-odd minutes slow the pace. This time around, Lilys want to show off their other discs in their record collections, filtering primitive disco, sitar-ish forays, sax and harpsichord. Strings enhance the feel of jazz, R&B and cheesy Italian pop singers which flit by in “Accepting Applications at University,” “And One (on One)” and the longwinded (pun intended) cryptic shadows swirling around “Leo Ryan (Our Pharoah’s Slave.” Titled after the doomed Congressman shot by Jim Jones’ henchmen after he visited to report on Jonestown, these kinds of references may either mock those similarly drawn on by Lilys’ predecessors in concept albums and erudite narratives, or pay homage to the range and ambition therein.
If this album was played while one meditated in an immersion chamber, no access to timekeeping, it might seem as if hours pass. “Solar Is Here,” “The Spirits Merchant” and “The Generator” flash by, contrasting to the album’s two extended set-pieces. Yet, the variety and density of The 3 Way convince the listener by Lilys’ determination to dazzle. “A Tab for the Holiday” comments perhaps on this whirlwind excursion as it winds down. Banjo, toy piano, bubblegum vocals and all that jazz, again, pile up until they slam shut. A door cuts off the sounds, as if one’s left in that dark chamber, wondering what’s up.
Lilys continued with a somewhat stripped-down, gloomier Precollection and a peppier Everything Wrong Is Imaginary, the latter with faux-Maoist poster art. What this all means, Heasley and recruits do not let on. As with some of the bands who inspired them by laying down fussy grooves three decades earlier, Lilys prefer obscurity to publicity.