Over several decades now, Seattle’s Green Pajamas have quietly built a body of work equal to any under the broad banner of psychedelic rock. Stalwarts Jeff Kelly (singing, most of the songs, a multitude of instruments) and Joe Ross (bass, enough songs to be the Colin Moulding to Kelly’s Andy Partridge) keep the genre alive not through revivalism, but by updating and adapting the sounds they love. They carry the experimental and melodic ideals of the ’60s into the present with bountiful intelligence, strong melodic skills and a ferocious attention to craft. If that sounds like the paisley underground, the PJs did start around the same time, but have long since outlasted and escaped any particular scene or movement by virtue of keeping to their own path, regardless of outside influence. Their timeless music has made stops at Celtic folk, electronica and gothic (not goth) literature and art without ever succumbing to cliché. Kelly’s consistently excellent writing (including a classic penchant for using women’s names in song titles) certainly helps.
Recorded with a pair of drummers aiding Kelly and Ross, Summer of Lust lays the band’s inspirations as bare as a turtle outside its shell. Kelly and Ross delve deep into ’60s psych, casting as broad a net as the genre affords. Nearly all of its permutations are represented here, from acid folk (“Mad Kitty”) and garage pop (“I Feel That Way All the Time”) to epic jams (“With a Flower in Her Hair”), tripped-out drones (“Lost in a World”) and various manner of catchy pop (“Katie Lied,” “Mike Brown,” “Green Pajamas”). Throughout, the band sprinkles melodic and production quotes from a variety of sources, well-known and obscure, as a whimsical nod to history. Rough around the edges but creatively recorded on a 4-track, this deliberately derivative, highly enjoyable debut served notice that a major new talent had arrived.
After the ’60s-centric sound of Summer, Book of Hours may have caught newly minted fans by surprise. Jumping ahead a couple of decades, Kelly and Ross (joined by new bandmates Steve Lawrence on vocals, guitar, bass and sitar and Bruce Haedt on vocals, keyboards and oboe) take on the new wave, though a psychedelic aura still colors the songs in unexpected shades (e.g., the sitar-driven break in “A Murder of Crows”). Kelly and Ross are already such distinctive songwriters that any perceived differences are more the result of production and arrangement than any serious aesthetic shift. But Lawrence and Haedt tunes like “Ain’t So Bad,” “Higher Than I’ve Been” and “Stand in the Light,” delightful as they are, sound like a different band. While still within the boundaries of the evolving Green Pajamas sound and containing several strong tracks (“Men in Your Life,” “Bang, Bang You’re Dead,” “Ten Thousand Words”), Book of Hours is at odds with the rest of the catalog.
The Green Pajamas vision as we know it first coalesced on Ghosts of Love. As the sole songwriter here, Kelly lets a folk undercurrent flow lushly through the album; many of the melodies sound like the first generation of American music, when Scotch-Irish and British song were still fresh in the cultural memory. Combining olde worlde tunes with Kelly’s newfound skill at storytelling, “Wedding Day,” “Surfacing” and “The Death of Molly Bernard” wander the record’s landscape like ghosts from which you can’t look away, even as their fingers caress your cheek. He lightens the tone, if not exactly the mood, with the catchy pop cuts “Walking in the Rain” and “The Thousand Days,” the gnarly rocker “End of Love,” the moody swoonfest “Angles of Passion” and the epic folk rock meditation “The Ghost of Love.” (The Get Hip edition appends the mesmerizing single “Emily Grace.”) Throughout, the group’s love of ’60s psychedelia informs the music without dominating it. With a graceful balance of modern production values, carefully wrought arrangements and consistently strong songwriting, Ghosts of Love stands as one of Green Pajamas’ masterpieces.
Following that triumph, the PJs took a few years’ break, filling the gap with a live album, Lust Never Sleeps, and the winning singles compilation Indian Winter, which includes the iconic poptune “Kim the Waitress” (later covered by Material Issue), “Song for Christina” (Rosetti, the 19th-century poet and a frequent Kelly muse), “If I Lived in a Picture” and other gems. When the band returned to active duty, it was with Strung Behind the Sun. Joined by keyboardist Eric Lichter (soon to supplant Ross as secondary songsmith), Kelly, Ross and drummer Karl Wilhelm took a step back from the integrated magnificence of Ghosts of Love with a more overt acknowledgement of their psychedelic roots. That’s not to say the band morphed into a revival act: the experimental bent and improved songwriting make Strung another step forward. A certain jazziness subtly creeps into “Sandy,” “Tomorrow Will Bring Rain” and “When the Summer Said Goodbye,” three of Kelly’s loveliest tunes; “Tumbledown Tess” finds its groove in a Balkan accordion riff. “Three Way Conversation” and “Graduation Day” rock harder than the band’s norm; “Secret Day,” “Dying for Love” and the Lichter contributions “Glass Tambourine” and “Scarlet Song” are all superb psych/pop songs. “Doctor Dragonfly,” “We’re Flying” and “Song for Andrew and Paul/The Brain I Realize” may sound like exercises in nostalgia, but Kelly’s skill saves them from going through the retro motions. Though a trifle lengthy, this is a strong album that kicked off an incredibly prolific period. Released three years later, Strung Out offers outtakes and remixes from the same sessions.
All Clues Lead to Meagan’s Bed continues in the same musical vein, but with more prominence given to Kelly’s interest in gothic literature. “The Secret of Her Smile” spins the vampire-as-sexual-messiah myth into magnificent psychedelic pop; “The Laughing Horseman” (which uses gothic imagery to describe heroin addiction) and “Death by Poisoning” follow suit. Far from the gloomy and monochromatic death obsessions favored by those that sit proudly under the goth rock umbrella, Kelly digs deeper and richer, marrying the sensibilities of Byron, Flannery O’Connor and Wuthering Heights to the kind of memorable melodies associated with various ’60s (and ’80s) greats. “All blues turn to pagan red / All clues lead to Meagan’s bed,” he sings in the winsome “Shock of Blonde,” putting almost too fine a point on it. Elsewhere the band cranks up the guitars (“Rattlesnake Kiss”), combines folk strum with industrial skronk (“Dear Jane”), essays a version of music hall (“Waiting for the Night to Fall”) and hits its usual acid pop sweet spot (“Queen of Sunshine,” “Deep Blue Afternoon,” “Happy Again,” “Pastel Summer”). Another excellent record.
Adding singer/guitarist Laura Weller to the lineup and hooking up with the Bevis Frond’s Woronzow label, the Green Pajamas eased up on the intensity a bit with Seven Fathoms Down and Falling. Kelly seems to be taking a page from Lichter’s more pop-oriented book, letting catchy, even uplifting melodies carry sterling tracks like “She’s Still Bewitching Me,” “High Waving Heather” and “Planet Love,” which sounds like a tribute to the mid-’80s British psych rock revival. “Still Never Away,” “Brontë Moon” (which pays tribute to a key literary influence) and the title track navigate familiarly trippy, mysterious seas. Seven Fathoms Down and Falling is one of Green Pajamas’ most accessible albums, though it feels a bit lightweight in the context of the rest of their catalog.
In 2001, the band released a pair of conceptual EPs in preparation for to their next full-length. The five songs on In a Glass Darkly are a tribute to the stories of 19th-century author J.S. Le Fanu, whose most famous work (adapted here) is the lesbian vampire tale “Carmilla.” The atmosphere is unrelentingly gothic, though it’s in the literary style of Nick Cave rather than Batcave/death rock silliness. Weller steps up here, singing “Green Tea” and contributing her own composition, the lovely, folk-popping “Laura Silver Bell.” The Carolers’ Song takes the Christmas season as its theme — although only the title track and a sonorous take on the traditional “Abbots Bromley” sound overtly connected to the Yuletide season, the high quality of songwriting (“Felicity Cross,” “Orchid Sunshine”) renders notions of conceptual purity moot.
Adding buzzing electronics to the psychedelic stew, the title track of This Is Where We Disappear is one of the band’s catchiest (and best) songs. The rest of the album, though, keeps the gothic atmosphere flowing, with songs based on ghost stories (“The Moorland Ghost”), paintings (“Spinning Away”) and Matthew Lewis’ story “The Monk” (“Matilda”). Kelly makes good use of waltz tempos on several numbers, and his murky, claustrophobic production suits the tunes’ mood. As usual, a couple of rockers (“Wild Desire,” “Something’s Gone Wrong”) and Licther’s more straightforward pop tunes (“Would You Even Say Hello,” “French to Japanese”) let in enough fresh air to keep the LP from feeling hermetic. The PJs continue to move from strength to strength.
Narcotic Kisses is a compilation of non-album singles, outtakes and compilation tracks. Despite myriad sources and time periods and the lack of thematic unity, the uniformly melodic songs hold together nicely to form one of the PJs’ strongest and most accessible albums. (Don’t miss Kelly’s cut-by-cut notes.)
Decks thus cleared, Green Pajamas launched a major opus with Northern Gothic, their best album since Ghosts of Love. With Kelly playing most of the instruments, the group cranks up the intensity here; the music is more gothic, psychedelic, folky, spooky and gorgeous than ever before. Moody but melodic, “The Cruel Night,” “Blue Halloween Moon” and “In the Darkness” set a tone of haunted twilight; “First Love” (based on a Joyce Carol Oates book) and “Lost Girls Song” (inspired by Andrew Pyper’s horrifying novel) dive fearlessly into the pit. But the atmosphere is more mystery and melancholy than threat and despair — these songs are more about catharsis than gloom. Licther’s usual mood lighteners (“Wild Wild Reeds,” the lovely “Coyotes and Comets”) and Weller’s spectacular “Christine Crystalline” feel simultaneously like welcome diversions and part of the grand scheme. Though not a concept album per se, Northern Gothic sets and sustains a more consistent mood than anything in the Green Pajamas’ past. A remarkable album of confident vision and dark beauty.
If She Only Knew contains three lighter tunes that wouldn’t have fit on the preceding two albums and a 10-minute radio performance of “Autumn Leaves,” a song from the repertoire of Kelly and Weller’s Goblin Market side project. The similarly brief Essence of Carol collects a half-dozen outtakes, compilation contributions and a live cut; it’s a strong disk highlighted by the title cut, “Dreams of Rhonda” and “Missing Miss MacColl,” a sweet tribute to the late Kirsty MacColl. While not truly a best-of due to the limited time period from which it draws, Through Glass Colored Roses presents an excellent introduction with tunes from Strung Behind the Sun through Narcotic Kisses. Bonuses: lyrics and a new recording of “Kim the Waitress.”
The Green Pajamas don’t tour, but they do play out on a regular basis in Seattle and are a fine live band. That prowess comes into play on Ten White Stones, a live-in-the-studio (with a few minimal overdubs) collection of new tunes and fresh versions of some classics. Away from Kelly’s recent one-man-band approach, the PJs sound tight in arrangement but relaxed in delivery, with the leader better able to show off his oft-searing lead guitar. Love, desire and the consequences thereof dominate the writing here, as attested by a slowed-down take on “She’s Still Bewitching Me,” the brooding, obsessive “Gazelle” and the loving yet despairing “Blue Eyes to Haunt Me.” Weller sings an ode to a literary hero in “Holden Caulfield,” Lichter woos “Mrs. Cafferty” and Kelly expresses nearly 12 shimmering minutes of devotion in “For S.” On the gothic front, new versions of “Lost Girls Song” and “The Cruel Night” strip away the bloody gauze but retain the songs’ intrinsic darkness. The band also displays a rare bit of black humor in “If You Love Me (You’ll Do It)” and delivers an odd but sincere take (sung by Ross, MIA at the vocal mike for several years by now) of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You).” Breathing some fresh air into the PJs’ musky world, Ten White Stones manages the strange trick of feeling like a side trip and the main destination at the same time.
Thus rejuvenated, the Pajamas got back down to business as usual with 21st Century Séance. The sound is as clear as it was on the last record, but the band strides determinedly into the foggy darkness that seems to be its natural home. As befits the title, voices in the ether and ghosts from beyond waft from the metaphorical grooves here. Kelly bookends the record with “The Secret of Bethany’s Mouth” and “Mostly Alice,” two of his creepy/luscious best, paying tribute to past lovers with “Salome,” “Like a Memory (Blue Eyes)” and the anthemic “All the Lost Kisses” along the way. Lichter is on fire here, with a brace of effortlessly enjoyable pop tunes (“Claire,” “Jenny V.,” the witty “Chip Chop”) and a lovely ballad (“Alibi”). Weller’s contribution, the pretty and mysterious “True Lover,” comes with a libretto from poet A.E. Houseman. Perhaps the record’s crowning achievement is a soaring recasting of the last album’s “Gazelle” that puts the PJs on a new, cinematic plane.
In what seems to be a tradition for this astonishingly prolific bunch, the band followed that killer with The Night Races Into Anna, another collection of unreleased or rare tracks. As with previous comps, the song selection is ace, bringing the group’s pop side to the fore on “The 4 Mistakes of Life,” “The Memory of You” and “Darkness,” which are among the band’s most accessible. “Beautiful Deadly” and the sunshine pop confection “Shame” (both Lichter tunes) were co-produced by Ken Stringfellow of the Posies — the band’s first outside collaborator in many a moon.
Though billed as “season two” of Northern Gothic, Box of Secrets is somewhat lighter. The subject matter is serious — see “Addiction,” “Eyes of a Stranger” and “The Coroner’s Hotel” for Kelly and Lichter’s continued update of the gothic literary tradition — but the production is opened up with horns and forceful rock rhythms, allowing stray sunlight through the clouds to illuminate the forest floor. With the melodies front and center, the grim but appealing “When You’re Good to Me,” “Katie’s Gone” and “I Just Want to Be Your Friend” gracefully balance the band’s catchy pop and brooding storyteller sides. That said, a new version of “Blue Eyes to Haunt Me” strips the song down to bare bones, the sound of pure agony (a neat trick for an already dark track), and “Into the Woods” ends the album on a classically atmospheric folk rock note. Less foreboding than melancholy, Box of Secrets mines gothic mystery for pop glory.
The digital-only collection If You Knew What I Dreamed returns to the Ten White Stones well: live-in-the-studio versions of songs from Kelly’s solo albums as well as a few of the band’s oldies and two new songs. The stripped-down production emphasizes the power of Kelly’s melodies, making this an album of understated beauty. Hidden Minutes, another download-only LP, compiles various digital singles and an EP under one banner. Without the singular drive of past records, the album is simply another batch of superb songs: the pop nuggets “Valerie Rose” and “Watching Jaime Dance,” the brooding beauty “The Mystery,” the naked plea “Please Come Home,” the folk-rock confection “Lady of Spain.” Great stuff.
Jeff Kelly’s solo albums are, unsurprisingly, of a piece with his band’s work. There may be a touch more experimentation, perhaps a tad more emphasis on his singer-songwriter sensitivity, but you could slap “Green Pajamas” on the label and no one would know the difference. Instead, his records are simply new batches of songs, mostly created at home, without as much polish or interference from pesky bandmates. Issued only on cassette, Baroquen Hearts, like Book of Hours, the PJs album that followed it, betrays as much influence of ’80s new wave (especially the electro side) as ’60s psychedelia, not to mention the nod toward whimsical folk. Some of the tracks are as well-crafted as anything by the main band, but others are obvious toss-offs. Coffee in Nepal, made with assistance from Kelly’s wife Susanne, is a far more focused and assured collection of acoustic-oriented pop/folk tunes that couldn’t be any more winsome or appealing. Portugal follows suit, in both style and quality, with a dose of Celtic lilt and sea chantey singalong added to the mix. Private Electrical Storm uses more prominent keyboards and electric guitars to give the tunes a lush backdrop. The Melancholy Sun box collects those last three impossibly rare releases and adds a previously unissued fourth, the carefully constructed and unusually jazzy concept album The Rosary and the House of Jade.
Ash Wednesday Rain blends Kelly’s Dylan/Beatles-influenced writing into an occasionally discordant but mostly well-woven blend of acid folk jangle and keyboard-heavy plushness. “A Year and a Day” sets to music words from 19th-century poet/artist Elizabeth Siddal, another key Kelly icon. Indiscretion is better, a more overtly rockist (meaning prominent electric guitars) LP that dwells heavily on fairy tales and gothic themes. Best examples of the album’s exceptionally strong songsmithery include the ripping “Mrs. Newton,” the whimsical “Balthus, King of Cats,” the gorgeous multi-part “The Ghosts of Holy Rosary” and the enigmatic title track. For the swan in the hallway continues in much the same vein, with similarly enticing results — especially “Afterimage,” inspired by Helen Humphreys’ novel, the unnerving “Ever So Lightly” and the brightly popwise “Oxford Street.”
As Goblin Market, the duo of Kelly and Weller further explores the gothic side of the Green Pajamas’ personality. Ghostland is aptly named; the two principals’ alternating voices float like wraiths over sturdy, minor-key melodies that exist in perpetual twilight. Lyrics adapted from the works of Emily Brontë, Christina Rosetti, Elizabeth Siddal and Edgar Allen Poe avoid pretentiousness and enhance the melancholy atmosphere. The songs on the superior Haunted were inspired by the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates. The album benefits from the drive that comes from conceptual unity and Kelly’s usual sterling contributions, but Weller really comes into her own here, as both singer and writer. Haunted epitomizes gothic rock, drawing on classic literary archetypes without a tube of black eyeliner in sight.
Unsurprisingly in the context of such a close-knit band, Lichter’s solo album reflects not so much artistic differences as it does a surfeit of songs not included in the main group’s catalog. (Indeed, Kelly appears on nearly every track, and “Broomstones” includes nearly the whole band.) That’s not to say there aren’t some differences between Lichter’s solo works and his contributions to the band — it’s hard to imagine the upbeat anthem “Papa Quale” appearing on a PJs record. But Palm Wine Sunday Blue is essentially a collection of the same kind of melodic, wistful pop tunes that Lichter has long provided, and with excellent cuts like “Cloth of Time,” the violin-enhanced “Singled Out,” “Homely Ghost” and the title track on hand, that ain’t a bad thing in the slightest.