Some rock bands are born of the rustbelts and heartlands; the members of Radial Spangle, however, had either the misfortune or the good grace (take your pick) to be stuck in Norman, Oklahoma. Unlike fellow Normans the Flaming Lips (an early influence), Radial Spangle opted not to tour, instead digging in and writing songs that reflected both an isolationist naïveté‚ and a warped, mind-expansionist aesthetic. As with America’s small-town homegrown psychedelic warriors of the ’60s, geographical limitations bred grand stylistic permutations. Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue took a liking to the band; he put in a good word to his English label, and Radial Spangle — which had never played outside Norman — found itself with a recording contract in 1992, just months after forming.
Ice Cream Headache was engineered by Rev’s David Fridmann but essentially self-produced by the band, whose creative core consists of guitarist Alan Laird and bassist April Tippens (Richard English, ex-Flaming Lips, did the drumming but was replaced shortly after the album’s release by Kelsey Kennedy). Imperfect but entertaining, the record is equal parts abrasive, assaultive skronk (the opening “Raze” features neo-metallic guitar distorto-riffing and a pounding drum pattern, while “Drip” owes an obvious debt to the Lips), dreamily atmospheric pop-swoon (“Canopy and Shoe,” “Snow”) and experimental weirdness (a disjointed, nine-minute, psychedelic jam called “Copper”). One connecting feature throughout is Laird and Tippens’ quirky, sweet-but-sour boy/girl harmonies. Another is Laird’s wah-wah and effects box fetish, which he rarely fails to put on display, even during the quieter songs.
After Birthday, which includes three songs from a John Peel session, Laird and Fridmann again teamed up to produce Syrup Macrame. While less in-your-face, the album displays a lighter touch that suggests a songwriting talent eager to branch out. Each tune is enigmatically designated as either “countrysong” or “citysong,” and there does seem to be a stylistic division. “Marble” is gentle and pastoral, with shimmery/echoey guitar lines and a contemplative Laird vocal; it’s a countrysong. “Special Love” is more spasmodic, serving up clipped, dissonant guitar notes over a martial beat; this citysong sounds a lot like Wire or the Fall. Several lapses in musical judgment mar the disc’s overall quality: “Busy Hole” is a pointless percussion/vocal rant, while “Patio Furniture” inexplicably attempts country banjo/singalong hoedown shtick. Also, the album doesn’t employ the Laird/Tippens harmonies prominently enough. Still, the band’s knack for gorgeous melodies is profound, and the Radial Spangle pop-psych sensibility, while in transition, remains rooted in the anything-goes ideal that has always fueled small-town rockers.
After Radial Spangle ended, Laird formed the Charm Pops, and released a debut album in 1998.