Centered around core duo Tres Warren (vocals, guitar) and Elizabeth Hart (bass), the acclaimed New York-based psych rock act Psychic Ills over the past decade or so have developed a reputation for following wherever their muses and instincts have taken them, frequently experimenting and changing up their sound and songwriting approach — seemingly at will.
The band’s fifth album, 2016’s Inner Journey Out was the culmination of three years of touring, writing and recording that found the band expanding upon the sound and aesthetic that won the attention of the blogosphere with the material incorporating subtle bits of honky tonk country, blues, gospel and jazz to their 60s psych rock-inspired sound. Whereas much of their previous material found Warren overdubbing his guitar to create a massive sound, the album’s material focused on Warren’s and Hart’s collaborations with a who’s who list of acclaimed artists including Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions and Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, their touring keyboardist Brent Cordero, Chris Millstein, Endless Boogie’s Harry Druzd, The Entrance Band’s Derek James, Charles Burst and a host of friends and associates, who also provide pedal steel guitar, horns, strings and backing vocals.
Thematically, Inner Journey Out may arguably be the most introspective of their catalog, as the material explored the interior and exterior lives of its narrators, and the difficult and uneasy pathways that unite them. Much of the material is centered around a lonely and plaintive ache for connection to something or something — but with the underlying recognition that moments of true connection are not just extremely rare, but fleeting and impermanent.
Earlier this month, Psychic Ills’ Tres Warren tragically died at the age of 41. Before his death, Warren had been busy writing new material and along with Hart and a cast of collaborators was gearing up to head to the studio to record what was supposed to be their sixth album, slated for release later this year. Sadly, that material was never recorded; however, the band did record two covers — a cover of The Beach Boys’ “Never Learn to Not Love” and a cover of Charles Manson’s “Cease to Exist,” which Sacred Bones Records will release both digitally and on vinyl.
Originally appearing on The Beach Boys’ 1969 album 20/20, credited to Dennis Wilson and with changes to the arrangement and lyrics, “Never Learn Not To Love,” was originally written as “Cease to Exist” by a then-unknown singer/songwriter named Charles Manson. The following year, Manson’s version would appear his album Live: The Love and Terror Cult — and by that time, he was already incarcerated for the Tate-LaBlanca murders.
How the members of The Beach Boys came across the song and then have a version of it appear on an album is equal parts apocryphal and legendary — and Manson’s disappointment with the lyrical and structural changes to the song have been well documented. Considering The Beach Boys’ place in American culture, their simultaneous adherence to and departure from the original has long been a point of fascination for many music buffs, but for Warren, it was something less tangible that kept him coming back to both songs through the years. “The soulfulness is what has always spoken to me in those songs,” Warren explained, “I gravitate towards that(soul) in music, and both of these songs have it in spades. I almost shed a tear every time I hear Dennis Wilson sing.”
The Psychic Ills’ version of “Never Learn Not To Love” finds the band echoing the arrangement and feel of the The Beach Boys recording but the female gospel-like backing vocalists nod at Phil Spector and Motown. “We wanted to honor the originals, but we didn’t want to cover them note for note,” Warren said in press notes. “We wanted to bring them to where we are.” Interestingly, the end result is a cover that sounds as though it could have appeared on Inner Journey Out.
The Psychic Ills version of “Cease to Exist” is centered around an intimate and seemingly improvised performance with very few takes. It begins with Warren asking engineer Iván Díaz Mathè, “Ivi is it rolling?” And Warren starts playing, the band falls behind him, adhering to their own intuitive cues and those of the collective whole. Reportedly, this version which brings the performance directly to the listener, is similar in fashion to the Manson original. Yes, these covers are the last bit of material Warren recorded — and as a result, they’ve taken on an eerie and spectral quality while remaining hauntingly beautiful.