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Delmonas and The Quincunx proves aesthetics all their own


The Delmonas

On Skyclad records



Written by Charles Palliser.

Ballantine Books.

788 pages, $25.



TWO BRITISH IMPORTS, both recalling earlier times, have occupied my leisure hours of late. When not reading Charles Palliser's cliff-hanging neo-Victorian mystery about an English youth who seems to be the victim of an unbelievably widespread and heinous conspiracy -- or maybe even two conspiracies -- to rob him of his inheritance and perhaps his life, I have been listening to remarkable neo-60s female vocals and f-hole guitar by The Delmonas.

The term "psyche-billy" has been coined to describe the everything-old-is-new-again niche occupied by the The Delmonas, along with their friends the Little Caesars (of "Bo Diddlius" fame) and the Milkshakes (whose dislike for John Lennon is exceeded in violence only by the Residents'). In the present case, this term seems particularly apt only for the song"Farmer John," which recalls the Seeds at their seediest with the addition of some charmingly dissolute girl-group singing. Through headphones, one can just hear the Guinness bottles clinking off to one side.

In general, though, the musical influences in Do the Uncle Willy cover a much wider span than that between psychedelia and rockabilly, running from Lesley Gore to Link Wray, with nods to more obscure sources like Ennio Morricone's spaghetti-Western themes, the Zombies, and the Easybeats (and a very close listen will disclose what might be Cramps and Dead Boys riffs). However, what most characterizes Uncle Willy is that it's a clean synthesis, not a pastiche; this is no self-conscious Dukes of Stratosphear "guess we ought to do one that sounds like Floyd now" recording. Thus, "Jealousy" isn't a Monkees rip-off, though the Monkees might have done a rather fair job with it. "Lie Detector," which the Milkshakes turned into a Lennon anti-tribute, is here played for straight blooze-crunge.

Released two dozen years earlier, Uncle Willy would probably have generated a few top-40 singles, would have contributed cuts to several numbers of the Nuggets series, and would today be getting exactly the same degree of airplay on WMBR. Such is its perfection.

It would be hard to be as sanguine about the prospects for Charles Palliser's The Quincunx, were it published in the last century. Mind you, it has all the right influences, and it's rather fun to watch Walter Scott in a stylistic slugfest with Dickens and James (and at least once, Laurence Sterne), but there is enough modern moral grayness here to befuddle the most progressive Victorian. Not merely the rich (or the poor, depending on which Victorian novels one prefers) are pictured as corrupt and dissolute -- everyone is self-serving and duplicitous. And this Victorian novel went to college and read too much Umberto Eco, judging by the maps, charts, Latin epigrams, and even typographic ornaments that encode clues of a sort through the 788 pages.

Oh, yes, 788 pages. Publishing-company publicity offices simply melt trying to figure out what to say about this book, describing Palliser as "a graduate of Oxford . . . [who] has spent the last 12 years scrupulously researching period detail. . . ." Apparently sheer scholarly bulk has an aesthetic all its own, as Palliser introduces the reader to thousands of minutely-observed characters, and rolls off thesis-quality descriptions of everything from turnpike-tollbooth architecture to 19th-century dishwashing techniques.

But having got all that off my chest, I have to say that I enjoyed The Quincunx thoroughly. To pick this book up is to surrender to its control, to neglect social and professional obligations for a few weeks, to ignore one's partner at breakfast in order to sneak in a few more pages. It's not even required that the reader be one of those who (as George F. Will once observed) dislike all modern conveniences except electric light, and tolerate that only because it enables reading Victorian novels in bed. Don't worry about the incessant use of coincidence as a plot device, and just let it all drag you away. Like the Delmonas. And that is an aesthetic all its own.