Archive for October, 2011

Comus “First Utterance”

Quite reasonably described in recent reviews as “acoustic death metal” and “too weird for folkies, too folky for weirdos”, it would be hard to identify any album from the sixties/seventies cusp that was more wilfully intended to alienate the mainstream record-buying public than this totally unique progressive folk effort by Comus. First Utterance was, and still is, “difficult”. Fortunately today an appreciative audience exists for “difficult” stuff like this.

Kent-based art students Roger Wootton and Glenn Goring had played acoustic covers of Velvet Underground numbers in London folk clubs, thereby alienating the contemporary folk audience as early as 1968. Enlisting several classically-trained players, they became Comus, after the seventeenth-century masque (musical drama) by John Milton, and debuted at the Beckenham Arts Lab, the southeast London pub session hosted by a young David Bowie. The stage act now centred round Wootton’s lyrically-disturbing songs which drew from the themes of the original Comus – sorcery and attempted rape – and other similarly cheerful topics: murder, mutilation and mental illness. The accompaniment was fully acoustic apart from Andy Hellaby’s Fender bass, with Wootton on 6-string, Goring on 12-string and slide, Colin Pearson on violin and viola, Rob Young on flute and oboe and Bobbie Watson’s homespun vocals. There was no drummer but various band members contributed enthusiastic hand percussion when not soloing. Indeed, apart from Wootton’s lyrics the band’s other distinctive feature was the intensity and variety of sounds they conjured from their acoustic toolkit, matched by Wootton’s astonishing vocal variations which ranged from a demented Bolan warble via a Roger Chapman bleat to a John Lydon shriek.

A support slot with Bowie at London’s prestigious Festival Hall led to Comus’s signing with Pye’s adventurous progressive arm, Dawn, and a tortuous series of recording sessions. On its 1970 release the album received reasonable support, including a pre-release maxi-single comprising leadoff track “Diana” and two non-album songs plus a slot on the fondly-remembered Dawn Penny Concerts college tour. Despite this the album never appealed to other than a few wigged-out diehards, and it died an appropriate slow death, the band folding. In 1974, at the request of the nascent Virgin Records, Wootton, Watson and Hellaby reconvened as Comus with guest musicians to produce a more conventional folk-prog album To Keep From Crying, but this also stiffed and marked the end of the band until, thirty-four years later, the entire original outfit sans Young was enticed back together by a Swedish cult following for a live appearance at a Stockholm festival.

“Diana” conjures up the darkest of Dionysian images, operating around a disconcerting riff set off by cacophonous goblin voices and sweet atonal strings. “The Herald” is a serenely beautiful twelve-minute suite in three sections with allegorical day/night lyrics, lush woodwinds and a shimmering acoustic guitar centre section. By contrast the eleven-minute “Drip Drip” with its chilling references to nudity, bloody death and forest burial builds to a thunderous jam with howling strings and rattling percussion. “The Bite” chronicles the tortured nightmares of a condemned man’s final night of sleep to an inappropriately cheery guitar and flute backing reminiscent of Jethro Tull. The closing “The Prisoner” is a desperate cry for help from an inmate of a lunatic asylum which starts innocuously enough but progresses to a fractured, crazed finale. Subject matter notwithstanding, the quality of the music itself throughout makes it possible to appreciate the album without delving too deeply into the words, which suits me just fine.

First Utterance was reissued as a single CD by Phantom Sound & Vision in 2004, and is currently available as part of a comprehensive 2CD set Song To Comus on Castle that includes the whole of both albums and the maxi-single, both sides of a late Wootton solo single and an unreleased outtake plus an excellent historical booklet. All the Comus you could conceivably want, frankly. If you really need to digest the lyrics, visit Comus’s website.

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“The Prisoner”

:) Original |  1970 | Dawn | search ebay ]
😀 Reissue | 2005 | Castle | buy here ]

Tranquility (S/T)

If you ever wondered what the love child of the Bee Gees and Crosby, Stills and Nash would sound like, wonder no more – the pointy-headed creature would sound like Tranquility.

The story of short-lived career of Tranquility is a difficult one to track; now largely forgotten, the band has neither a biography at AllMusic or a Wikipedia page. A fairly short history of the band’s 1971-1974 duration can be found on a page dedicated to Vanity Fare, but aside from that, little exists on the Internet about Tranquility.

The dichotomy of a band that references the Bee Gees and CSN in equal measure is not surprising, considering the band’s origins. According to the Vanity Fare page:

“The band was formed in 1971 by Ashley Kozak, formerly Donovan’s manager, and built around the song writing abilities of Terry Shaddick. Kozak had long wished for a “…gentle tranquil band that could create it own hybrid of pop, rock and English folk music” (CBS Inner Sleeve Issue III, 1973), and in Shaddick, he saw the focal point for creation of just such a band.”

From the meager info provided by AllMusic, it appears that Shaddick had a hand in all of the songs featured on Tranquility, and satisfied the intent of Kozak’s wishes, if not the spirit; Shaddick and company rarely hybridize pop, rock and English folk, but hit each of the points individually, song-by-song.

The best songs on Tranquility lean more toward folk; album opener “Try Again” is all innocuous confessional lyrics married to acoustic guitars and tight harmonies. Likewise, “Look at the Time, It’s Late” mimics the best of the Bee Gees’ late-60s-early 70s pop. Just as many times, the album aims for CSN or the Bee Gees and misses; “Lady of the Lake,” “Ride Upon the Sun,” and “Walk Along the Road” are pleasant but forgettable.

“Oyster Catcher” and “Black Current Betty” are almost jarringly out-of-place on an album full of CSN-lite offerings. Both songs recall 1967-68, when, inspired by Sgt. Pepper, every British album had to include a few music hall-type numbers full of twee Angliophilia. Of the two songs, “Black Current Betty” (which I’m almost certain should be “Black Currant Betty,” and the writer on the Vanity Fare page agrees) is the most listenable, even if “Penny Lane,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or even “Hello Hello” by Sopwith Camel got there first and more memorably.

Tranquility is hardly a buried classic, even if the Vanity Fare page claims that  the band “blew more than one big-name U.S. band off the stage.” All this begs the question: are some bands/albums better lost to history?

In the case of Tranquility’s 1972 self-titled debut, that depends on your tolerance for an album that veers wildly between introspective singer-songwriter offerings featuring CSN-type harmonies and English pop that would have sounded at home on Chad & Jeremy’s Of Cabbages and Kings.

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“Try Again”

:) Original | 1972 | Epic | search ebay ]
:) Reissue | 2004 | Rock & Groove | buy here ]
😎 Spotify link | listen ]

Blue Mountain Eagle (self-titled)

Blue Mountain Eagle is a band with a tediously convoluted history. Though originally construed by former Buffalo Springfield drummer Dewey Martin as the New Buffalo Springfield, they went through a long series of lineup changes during their brief existence, the end result of which was Martin’s rather ironic expulsion. A pretty-much-inevitable lawsuit taken out against the band by Stephen Stills and Neil Young effectively barred them from performing under their rather awkward, hand-me-down moniker, so the group took on the name of a newspaper one of the guys had picked up while on tour.

What may have seemed like setbacks at the time, however, were for the best, as Blue Mountain Eagle deserved to be remembered as more than just a shadow of the Springfield. By the time of their debut record, the band boasted a strong line of musicians which included, oddly enough, the brothers of both Jim Price (horn-man with Delaney & Bonnie, the Stones, et al) and Bobby Fuller (who fought the law and lost). It seems to me that these cats couldn’t help but be overshadowed, whether through the ghosts of musical history or their own blood kin.

Taken as it is, the band’s 1970 self-titled debut comes on like a breath of fresh mountain air, boasting traces of influence from the old Springfield but a sound all unto its own. The band’s vocal harmonies and tight songwriting mesh beautifully with their heavy Pacific Coast sound. Many of the tunes here feature lengthy instrumental passages showcasing Bob Jones’ scorching electric guitar work, though no one song surpasses the five minute mark. Early Traffic shades the laid-back “Troubles” (that acoustic guitar opener sound familiar to anyone else or am I hearing things?) while a Moby Grape influence is all over “Feel Like A Bandit” and “No Regrets.” The choogling rhythm section, brash vocals and soaring guitar interplay are chock-full of the kind of drive that normally marked a band as future FM favorites. Despite Blue Mountain Eagle’s album selling moderately well, however, it just wasn’t enough to keep a band like this in the game for long. This proved to be their sole recording besides one obscure single, an early take on Stephen Stills’ “Marianne.”

Blue Mountain Eagle is currently out-of-print, but relatively recent reissues on both CD and LP are still easy to track down. There’s a lot to dig into here, and if you’re into west coast psychedelia I’d really recommend checking this group out. After the Eagle’s dissolution, members would go on to join such groups as Medicine Ball and even Arthur Lee’s reconstituted Love.

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“Troubles”

:) Original | 1970 | ATCO | search ebay ]
😉 MP3 Album | download ]
😎 Spotify link | listen ]
Don’t buy the Fallout bootleg

The 13th Floor Elevators “Bull of the Woods”

Bull Of The Woods (an International Artists release) is the Elevators most controversial offering.  Some fans claim it’s their best LP but many, myself included, feel Psychedelic Sounds and Easter Everywhere are the group’s finest discs.  Frequent personnel changes, drug busts and Roky Erickson’s fragile state had destroyed the original core of Sutherland, Hall and Erickson.  Stacy Sutherland was the only original member left by 1968 and he made a game effort by putting together some newly recorded “solo” tracks with older, stray Elevator tunes that were cut during the previous year.

The Sutherland solo cuts on Bull Of The Woods are a mellow mixture of blues, roots and psych – totally different than Erickson’s feral, howling rockers.  The best of these cuts are the psychedelic “Rose And Thorn,” the spacey, heavy echoplex guitar work of “Street Song,” and the rootsy blues jam “Down At The River.” Erickson sings lead on four tracks: “Dear Doctor,” which was supposedly written as a response to a Bob Dylan number, a powerful blues rocker titled “Livin’ On,” the demented acid psych of “Never Another” (a superb psych track) and finally, Erickson’s acid damaged goodbye, “May The Circle Remain Unbroken.”   This last cut is loaded with reverb and bears striking similarities (in concept) to the final contributions of Syd Barrett (“Jugband Blues”) and Skip Spence (“Seeing”).

Overall, Bull Of The Woods is a very good album that’s worth owning – you are buying this album for the Erickson tracks.   Not recommended to casual psych or 60’s rock fans but essential listening for the Elevator enthusiast.

The excellent Sign of The 3 Eyed Men box set offers an alternative third album in the form of A Love That’s Sound (presented as a lost album of sorts).  The tracks that make up this disc are the original group’s final sessions (with Erickson and Hall in tow) and include many of the songs that made up the bulk of the Bull Of The Woods album. There are a few outtakes that never made Bull Of The Woods, such as the excellent, hard charging psychedelic rocker “It’s You” (also known as “I Don’t Ever Want To Come Down”).  Also, some of the cuts on A Love That’s Sound do not have the horn overdubs that appeared on the original Bull Of The Woods LP.

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“Rose And The Thorn”

:) Original | 1969 | International Artists | search ebay ]
😀 Reissue |  2007 | Spalax | buy here ]
😎 Spotify link | listen ]

Blossom Toes “We Are Ever So Clean”

Variously described as “the finest popsike album ever recorded”, “a quirky look at British life in the late 60s with tea and cakes on the lawn, budgerigars and balloons wafting in the breeze” and “Georgio Gomelsky’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, you might conclude that this definitive whimsy-psych opus was a premeditated attempt to upstage the Fabs and the Kinks at their own game by a similarly professional outfit. In fact it was the more-or-less accidental result of a dissolute R’n’B covers band ingesting lots of pharmaceuticals, reluctantly writing their own material, being impelled by their uber-persuasive manager/producer to come up with potential hit singles, and witnessing their lyrically quirky but musically straightforward guitar-based acid-pop songs being swathed in florid orchestral overdubs by their record company. All of which may sound like a recipe for a ragged, stylistic disaster of an album, and track titles like “The Remarkable Saga Of The Frozen Dog”, “I Will Bring You This And That” and “The Intrepid Balloonist’s Handbook, Volume 1” didn’t help to dispel that initial impression. Released a shade too late for the Summer Of Love and receiving a thoroughly polarised critical reception, it collapsed commercially. However, it gradually established a reputation as one of the great “lost” psych artefacts, was repeatedly bootlegged over decades for the benefit of aficionados, and has continued to attract enthusiasm and opprobrium in equal measures to this day. I like it a lot; you make up your own mind.

Brian Godding (vcl, gtr, keys), Jim Cregan (gtr, vcl), Brian Belshaw (bs, vcl) and Kevin Westlake (drs, vcl) had been the Ingoes, tramping the well-worn path from Hamburg beat band via freakbeat to R’n’B and soul covers. Picked up by former Stones/Yardbirds svengali Gomelsky and re-christened Blossom Toes, they signed to Polydor and worked up a clutch of self-written tunes with lysergic lyrics, spare, brittle backings and dense harmony vocals in the Ivy League vein. These were then subjected, against the band’s wishes, to various degrees of post-production orchestration, some tracks being left more or less unadorned while others were totally swaddled in brass bands, string quartets, plaintive woodwinds and what-have-you.

The leadoff “Look At Me I’m You” is typically everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, featuring a “Taxman”-ish riff with dense harmonies, backwards guitars, scat singing, a full brass band on the bridge and a fake scratched-record-stick on the outro. The thoroughly excellent near-caricature of definitive Britsike, “I’ll Be Late For Tea”, is well-known and has been much anthologised. “Frozen Dog” is a piece of wigged-out craziness with a stomping beat overlaid with deliberately formless, tuneless backing vocals and barking noises – in fact “barking” in every sense. “Telegram Tuesday” comes nearest to the original concept, a fully-formed lilting pop song with Byrdsy guitars and trademark rich harmonies, and for once no orchestral interference. The joyful marching rhythm and hysterical ironic laughter of “People Of The Royal Parks” mask a vituperative attack on the Establishment in the form of a diatribe against po-faced park keepers, government ministers and other officious killjoys. “Mrs Murphy’s Budgerigar” is classic whimsy, chronicling the misadventures of the said bird with enormously over-egged decoration by harpsichord, strings and piccolo trumpet. “Balloonist’s Handbook” is a demented rumba with organ and accordion accompaniment, its rhythm and whacked-out theatrical vocal delivery more than slightly hinting at the Bonzos. For good measure, the closing “Track For Speedy Freaks” is a whirling eighty-second collage of snippets from all the preceding tracks, while between those tracks come brief sotto voce interludes: random speech, coughing, operatic singing and bits of dialogue that sound like cuts from The Goon Show.

After the album bombed the band replaced drummer Westlake with multi-instrumentalist Poli Palmer and released a second album, If Only For A Moment, almost two years later. This was a more conventional prog-rock offering but suffered a similar fate, and Blossom Toes called it a day soon after. Godding enjoyed a subsequent career with various jazz-rock and avant-garde outfits including Centipede and Mike Westbrook’s band, whilst Cregan and Palmer wound up in the highly-successful prog-rock outfit Family. We Are Ever So Clean eventually found a kosher CD re-release on Sunbeam in 2007, its fifteen original tracks being augmented by an interesting assortment of un-orchestrated versions, live takes and unused demos.

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“Look at Me I’m You”

:) Original | 1967 | Polydor | search ebay ]
😀 Reissue | 2007 | Sunbeam | buy here ]
😎 Spotify link | listen ]

The Freak Scene “Psychedelic Psoul”

The story of pop music in the 1960s is littered with “bands” that were never truly bands, but were, rather, the creation of record companies and record producers anxious to cash in on prevailing trends. This, too, is the story of The Freak Scene.

The Freak Scene was the creation of Rusty Evans, an ostensible folksinger who’d gotten his start recording rockabilly for Brunswick Records. The Kasentez-Katz of psych-pop, Evans was responsible for several albums by “bands” that were, in actuality, Evans and a group of studio musicians.  The Freak Scene was the second of Evans’ psych-pop groups, following on the heels of The Deep, and featuring many of the same musicians who’d played on the The Deep’s sole album.

Like The Deep, The Freak Scene was credited with one album before Evans lost interest. Psychedelic Psoul, the lone contribution by The Freak Scene, is a fascinating late-60s curio, made up of songs interspersed with spoken word vignettes that address all the hot-button issues of the time – the Vietnam War, civil rights, the plight of hippies. The result is as much art-rock as psych-pop.

Not surprisingly, the spoken word vignettes have not aged well, but several of the songs on Psychedelic Psoul have lasting appeal. “A Million Grains of Sand,” “Rose of Smiling Faces” and “My Rainbow Life”’ bear heavily the Indian influence that dominated the music of the Summer of Love, with their mystical lyrics and swirling strings; however, “My Rainbow Life” suffers from banal lyrics that make it sound more like a soundtrack entry on an acid exploitation flick than a real song. “Behind the Mind,” “The Center of My Soul” and “Mind Bender” bear a striking resemblance to garage-psych on the level of the Electric Prunes (another pre-fab band) or the Strawberry Alarm Clock.

By far the best offering on Psychedelic Psoul is “The Subway Ride Through Inner Space,” which somehow manages to mash-up the stream-of-conscious lyrical quality of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and any of George Harrison’s sitar-heavy Beatles tracks, all on top of a loping, hypnotic rhythm.

Evans abandoned The Freak Scene after Psychedelic Psoul. Evans worked in A&R for a time, establishing Eastern Productions, which signed both Third Bardo and The Facts of Life, and producing the Nervous Breakdown for Take Six.

Although The Freak Scene was short-lived, Evans wasn’t quite finished with the band’s output; when he re-emerged as a recording artist in 1969 under his given name, Marcus, he recycled “A Million Grains of Sand” as “Grains of Sand,” slowing the tempo, simplifying the instrumentation, and generally going for a more seductive vibe.

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“The Subway Ride Through Innerspace”

mp3: Marcus – Grains Of Sand

😀 Reissue | 2010 | TBird | buy here ]
:) Original | 1967 | Columbia | search ebay ]

Chip Taylor “This Side of the Big River”

Chip Taylor’s This Side of the Big River is probably one of the best underground country albums you’ve never heard. Though the record plays things pretty straight for its genre, it also boasts some pretty solid underground credentials. Not only is Chip Taylor the songwriter behind such Troggs classics as “Wild Thing” and “Any Way That You Want Me” (not to mention “Try,” the great kozmik soul shouter made famous by Janis Joplin), but he’s also the brother of the Midnight Cowboy himself, actor Jon Voight. In addition, three cuts on Big River feature Chip’s friend Sandy Bull on oud, which makes the album about as hip as Nashville could get back in the days of ’74.

As previously stated, however, the music here is country music, no matter how you cut it. Taylor never emphasizes his rock and roll background, instead letting his warm and introspective lyrics drift across lazy, pedal-steel-driven arrangements. One could say that this is the thinking man’s honky-tonk music, which may not be too far from the truth despite the unwelcome elitist connotations that label implies. At times Big River is definitely reminiscent of folks like John Prine or Billie Joe Shaver. In fact, there are a lot of signs that Taylor knew his music – some of his singing on the R&B-influenced “I’ve Been Tied” is straight out of the Gram Parsons handbook.

As an album This Side of the Big River is actually pieced together from assorted studio recordings and tracks cut live on a New Hampshire radio broadcast, though you’d hardly notice the difference without the occasional light applause. Of the latter, Taylor’s cover of Johnny Cash’s rollicking “Big River” is a highlight, despite the occasional presence of an extremely annoying electric piano. Apparently this take on the song impressed its author enough to persuade him to personally promote the album to radio stations – albeit to little avail.

 

As the story goes, Warner Brothers Records had originally signed Taylor as a rock and roll artist, so when he started recording country they had no idea what to do about promotion. Hell, up until his first record for the label, Chip Taylor’s Last Chance, they didn’t even have a proper country music division! Fortunately for us though, the beautiful people over at Collector’s Choice Music have given the album a well-deserved second chance and reissued it with some insightful liner notes by noted music scholar Richie Unterberger.

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“I’ve Been Tied”

😀 Reissue | 2007 | Collector’s Choice | buy here ]
:) Original | 1975 | Warner Brothers | search ebay ]

uReview: The Pink Floyd Discography

With Pink Floyd on an all-out reissue bender, I thought it would be a good time for another one of these discography reviews. I loved the Floyd as a youngster discovering rock & roll, but started to lose faith as I delved deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.  Dark Side is an undisputed masterpiece, but  am I too much of a Syd snob to choose it here? What are you gonna go with?

Top Floyd Records (Choose 4)

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Q. Do you call them “The Pink Floyd” or just “Pink Floyd?”

The Stone Poneys (s/t)

The Stone Poneys should be much more than a footnote. Forever eclipsed by Linda Ronstadt’s latter-day success, the band has found itself set down in history as little more than an early backing group for the singer – hardly a fair assessment, especially considering the strength of the material recorded by the band, of which Ronstadt was only one contributor. In fact, Poneys Ken Edwards and Bob Kimmel were remarkable singers in their own right and actually penned all of the group’s original material.

The Poneys’ self-titled debut is perhaps their strongest statement as a band. Produced by the great west-coast folk-rock producer Nick Venet (Fred Neil, Hedge & Donna, et al.), the album typifies the slow and hazy L.A. sound that would become the man’s signature. Venet would also serve to connect the recent Tucson immigrants with several other players on the local folk scene, most notably Tim Buckley, whose songs they would soon go on to record, and the band Hearts & Flowers, who Linda would sing with on their 1968 record Now Is the Time.

Legendary multi-instrumentalist Cyrus Faryar’s bouzouki opens the album and kicks off one of its most memorable songs, Edwards and Kimmel’s “Sweet Summer Blue & Gold.” Starring the Poneys’ beautiful vocal blend set to a swirling, eastern folk-rock melody, this one could have easily become an underground hit. The singing also helps to immediately put into focus what the Poneys would later go on to lose: first when Linda began to take on the lion’s share of the lead vocals, and at the end, when she essentially became the sole Poney.

All this is not to say that Ronstadt doesn’t reveal her incredible talents on The Stone Poneys. Her soulful rendition of Fred Neil’s “Just A Little Bit of Rain” is a stunner, and she really tears the roof off “Orion,” a cut which foreshadows her rock and roll future while also driving home her companions songwriting abilities. On the second side of the record, Edwards and Ronstadt take a duet on the blue, drifting “The Train and the River,” before borrowing the Rising Sons’ arrangement of Tom Campbell and Linda Albertano’s classic “2:10 Train” to bonnie effect.

Raven Records has reissued The Stone Poneys alongside the band’s second album, Evergreen, which contains their famous recording of Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum,” as well as a few key tracks from the final, Linda-centric Poneys record. I’d say this is definitely a collection to look into, especially if you aren’t yet willing to hunt down all three records on vinyl.

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“Sweet Summer Blue & Gold”

😀 Reissue | 2008 | Raven | buy here ]
:) Original | 1967 | Capitol | search ebay ]
😎 Spotify link | listen ]