Author Archive

Ithaca “A Game For All Who Know”

Though only one record was ever released under the name Ithaca, the band actually has a rather lengthy history which encompasses four different LPs. The band’s roots lay in the British folk duo Peter Howell and John Ferdinando, who put out two obscure albums in the late 1960s under their own names before pulling their act together into the band Agincourt. That band’s Fly Away, released in 1970, was a gently magnificent slice of cosmic folk-rock which highlighted the ethereal vocals of Lee Menelaus. A Game For All Who Know is technically the follow-up to that unfortunately unheralded release, marked by a change in name (which probably didn’t help the groups’ momentum, if they had any at all by this point), and a somewhat darker atmosphere.

The songs on A Game For All Who Know tend to bleed into each other in a rather seamless continuum, giving the record the feel of a concept album. All in all, it’s a relaxing trip. Though “The Journey” opens rather auspiciously with an explosion, the buzzing of insects, and what sounds like a soaring air raid siren, it soon dissolves down into a beautiful wash of gentle cymbal crescendos and finger-picked guitars. Droning vocals are kept relatively low in the mix, making the overall sound a little disorienting but also emphasizing the engaging instrumental textures which underlay the songs. According to the liner-notes on the Acme Lion reissue, the band decided during the recording of this album that their material had gotten too complicated and involved to perform live.

The sound of the record has more to do with chiming 1960s U.K. folk rock than it does with most of Ithaca’s progressive-leaning contemporaries. Jangling acoustic guitars provide the bedrock around which most of these songs are written, and instrumental flourishes tend toward flutes, Gilmour-esque slide guitar runs and organ trills that never escape their place as accents. Even the record’s eight-and-a-half minute centerpiece “Times” floats on a quietly-tumbling Bryter Layter atmosphere before picking up the pace into a bright, country-rock groove. The cosmic “Dreams” is perhaps one of the album’s most unsettling moments, in which traces of jazz piano melt and bleed into clouds of fuzz guitar before light ivory arpeggios bring the proceedings down into a rather sudden fade-out. Cut to the lengthy, record-closing reprise of “The Journey,” introduced by the sound of pages turning and a a burst of flamenco guitar before sampled NASA radio chatter announces that “Houston, we are underway” and Ithaca returns to the spaced-out balladry that by now has clearly been revealed to be their forte. It’s only in the introduction of weird, rudimentary synthesizer harmonies on this cut that the band starts to push into standard prog territory, though they redeem themselves a little later in the piece as it begins to slide out into a super mellow, freestyle improvisation.

The band would release one more record, this one under the name Friends and being more of a Peter Howell project than anything. Howell was also spending more and more time as a composer at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (where he would go on to compose the second Doctor Who theme, released as a single under his own name in the late seventies), and slowly the loose amalgam of musicians that had made up Agincourt, Ithaca and Friends ceased recording formally together. They left an impressive run of musical testaments, however, and A Game For All Who Know is worth checking out. Though it was only released in a limited run of ninety-nine LPs back in 1973, the aforementioned Acme Lion edition is readily available for anyone down to take “the journey.”

mp3: Questions
mp3: Peace of Mind

:D Reissue | 2008 | Lion | buy at amazon ]

Amon Düül “Paradieswarts Düül”

This is quite an anomalous record. Issued under the name Amon Düül in 1970, Paradieswärts Düül has very little to do with any previous records released under that aggregate’s name. In fact, it is not hard to see how this record tanked commercially back when it was released. By the time this album hit shelves, the name Amon Düül meant pretty much one thing: low-fidelity recordings taken piecemeal from a legendary, hypnotically intense communal psych-out held by the German political commune of the same name in 1968. Albums like Psychedelic Underground and Collapsing had polarized much of the international music scene, with some hailing these records as extraordinary improvisational snapshots of the psychedelic extreme, and others dismissing them as meaningless, tuneless disasters; symbolic postcards of the worst counterculture excesses.

But then we have this record. Paradieswärts Düül has more in common with the records of Amon Düül II, the spaced-out (much more musically-inclined) offshoot of the original commune, which had been releasing a number of critically-acclaimed LPs away from their former communards-in-arms. The truth is, this version of “Amon Düül” shares little but a name with the anarchic ensemble that preceded it. Though its members were involved with the commune, they sought to pursue the actual idea of a band, with actual songs and melodies, and the result was a world apart from 1968. The focus here is on long, rambling acoustic/electric environments and earthly vocal harmonies, and for the first time Amon Düül can be said to be creating some truly beautiful music.

“Love Is Peace,” which occupies the entire first side of the record, is a number you will find yourself returning to again and again. Behind its cryptic lyrics and intimidating running time lay inspired vocal and guitar melodies. The first half of this one is truly entrancing, with that lazy rhythm and the carefully-woven tapestry of reverbed instruments. Repeated listenings reveal just how well-composed this piece is, and highlight the instrumental talents of the bands several members. Key in to the jazzy, minimalistic drum patterns or the burbling electric bass line, for example: everything runs together as naturally as a river, creating cyclical loops of sound that refuse to let you go. Around the halfway mark, everything but the guitar drops out and the listener is left with several minutes of warped, deconstructed electric guitar before a wall of acoustic guitars bring everyone back in for what in all honesty sounds like Can on a camping trip. Incomprehensible, Suzuki-styled vocal meanderings leap in and out of bongos and rudimentary piano plucking as the guitarists take turns soloing somewhere off-center in the mix. It’s nowhere as illuminating as the first half of the song, but remains engaging up until its rather sloppy end.

The second side of the record consists of two songs, which actually mirror Side A’s two sections: first up is the long instrumental electric guitar workout “Snow Your Thirst and Sun Your Open Mouth,” closely followed by another warbling acoustic guitar can’t-quite-sing-along called “Paramechanische Welt.” The former is a fantastic listen, and proves that these cats had their game together. The influence of Amon Düül II (more specifically Yeti, sides three and four) is obvious here, which makes the fact that two of that band’s members contribute not to this track but the following one a little ironic. “Welt” is by no means a bad cut, but it isn’t anywhere as memorable as the rest of the material here, lacking the impressive instrumental interplay or clear vocal lines that seasoned the preceding tracks.

Like most krautrock albums of the era, this one fetches a pretty high price in its original vinyl form, but if you’re lucky enough to spot a copy, pick it up! For the rest of us, there’s an excellent CD reissue on Repertoire records that, while also out-of-print, also includes both sides of an excellent 45 released by the band, which distills the sound of Paradieswärts into two, shorter numbers and, had they been included in the original album, would probably fall second only to the first half of “Love Is Peace” insofar as album highlights go.

mp3: Love Is Peace (Excerpt)
mp3: Eternal Flow

:) Original | 1970 | Ohr Records | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2006 | Repertoire | buy here ]

Bo Hansson “Ur Trollkarlens Hatt”

Technically speaking, Bo Hansson’s Ur Trollkarlens Hatt (on English editions: Magician’s Hat) comes from the same Swedish music scene as the International Harvester record covered a few weeks back. Around the time that Bo Anders Persson was breaking down artistic and political barriers with said troupe of psychedelic renegades, Hansson was serving as one half of the musical duo Hansson and Karlsson, dropping heavy waves into the European music scene and eventually collaborating with Jimi Hendrix (who would go on to record a version of their song “Tax Free,” released on his posthumous record War Heroes). The two bands carved very different furrows in the realm of underground Swedish rock, however, and this 1973 solo record of Hansson’s definitely works well in highlighting the stunning diversity of the Swedish progg movement.

Where Harvester built its sound on a raw, spontaneous strain of improvised, communal music-making, Hansson was much more methodical in his composition and recording. His first album, the surprisingly well-known Tolkien-driven concept album Sagen Om Ringen, set the stage for most of what was to come later from the pen of this highly talented (and apparently quite reclusive) keyboardist: engaging soundscapes veering back and forth between cosmic space-outs and tight, electric grooves. Hatt takes that formula and throws it through all sorts of subtle little loops, incorporating fragmentary touches of…well, pretty much everything. Progressive keyboard passages melt beautifully into jazz horns, acoustic guitars, spy-theme allusions and blissed-out pedal steel flourishes, creating an eclectic, but somehow complementary, tapestry of music that, while not entirely connecting to the eye-catching album cover, is quite otherworldly.

The album opens with what is possibly its most ambitious statement, the epic, eleven minute suite “Storstad.” The piece may not be the highlight of the album, as one might hope by its length, but it is nevertheless a rewarding listen full of memorable moments. It somehow manages to shift back and forth between various complex dynamics without ever dissolving into the sort of pretentious, instrumental indulgences that mar so much similar music of the period. That which might be called the “middle” of the album is composed of a series of short numbers that, while marked as separate tracks, all work together in much the same way as the opening cut’s various movements. The guitar and flute interplay of “Fylke” and the acid-drenched “Findhorns Sång” are two highlights here. The second half of the record sees a shift away from the horns and jazz-flavored lines of the first side, and instead places more emphasis on the organ and electric guitar. These are the cuts I find myself returning to most often. Dig the driving rhythm and spiraling guitars of “Vandringslåt,” or the electric piano and fatback drums that almost help push “Solen” into krautrock territory. The final number even throws on some wah-wah and a heavy, fuzzed out lead guitar…before taking a disorienting detour into happy-go-lucky parlor jazz.

Both EMI and One Way Ticket Records have reissued Ur Trollkarlens Hatt at one point or another, both with extended versions of “Big City,” and the former with the added addition of two bonus tracks. Those wholly turned off by anything bordering on progressive rock may be wary of this album, but it’s distinct enough from such fare that you should be able to shake your preconceptions about the genre and take this record in on its own terms.

mp3: Findhorns Sång
mp3: Vandringslåt

:D CD Reissue | 2004 | EMI | buy here ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1973 | Silence Records | search ebay ]

Crazy Horse “Loose”

After releasing their classic debut on Reprise back in 1970, Crazy Horse underwent some serious changes in personnel. Guitarist Danny Whitten got kicked out for substance abuse, keyboardist Jack Nitzsche left to focus on his highly-successful career as composer and producer, and occasional Horse cohort Nils Lofgren got sucked into a promising solo career before eventually finding berth in a top dollar position backing Bruce Springsteen. The result was that Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina – band mainstays to a degree that they have pretty much become Crazy Horse – decided to call up their former Rockets compatriot George Whitsell and rewire the group. It would be foolish to claim the ensuing record, 1972’s scatter-shot country-rocker Loose, is anywhere as good as its predecessor, but it’s nowhere near the disappointment its neglected position in Horse history has led some to claim it as.

What we have here is a solid collection of 1970s Canyon stompers and Zuma beach jams, pulling the spirit and sound of the band’s first album into a slightly lower register and trading in a bit of the garage-band cackle for a smooth, whiskey-soaked groove. This is by no means a tamed Horse, as some might lead you to believe, but rather one that’s learned the ropes a little and has decided to switch pastures before getting ground up in Los Angeles smog. “She Won’t Even Blow Smoke In My Direction,” a seemingly insignificant one-and-a-half minute instrumental coda to the record, actually does everything to sum up this new Crazy Horse cool: loose, laid back groove, raw, twangy guitar and the “hell, might as well switch on the tape recorder” spirit that has always been the band’s modus operandi.

A reference point for some of the material might be the New Riders of the Purple Sage, especially on the mellow shuffle of “One Thing I Love” (very obvious shades of Sage ballads like “Last Lonely Eagle” here) and the barroom ramble “You Won’t Miss Me,” which features tasty pedal steel licks and honky tonk piano. “Hit and Run” is pure Horse, however; it would be hard to mistake those ragged harmonies and that classic rhythm section beat with any other group. Numbers like this help bridge the new, sleepier approach to the band’s prior incarnation, and perhaps even hint at where Horse catalyst (and arguably, founder) Neil Young’s own music was meandering around this time. Those missing the jams that defined the Horse’s original work on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere might be reassured to come to “All the Little Things,” which has some great guitar playing that, while remaining distinct, does occasionally slip into some Neil-style, one-note growls.

Loose has been reissued on compact disc twice: once in 1998 and, more recently, by Wounded Bird Records in 2006. Both of these are out of print, however, and commanding ridiculous sums. You’d be much better off tracking down an original vinyl copy, which occasionally finds its way into record store cut-out bins. If you’re a Horse fan, bite the bullet and give some of this mid-period material a shot. Though Whitten and latter-day Horse mainstay Frank “Poncho” Sampedro may be absent from the proceedings, this is a worthwhile chapter in the band’s history that has remained sorely overlooked.

mp3: All the Little Things
mp3: And She Won’t Even Blow Smoke In My Direction

:) Original Vinyl | 1972 | Reprise | search ebay ]

International Harvester “Sov Gott Rose-Marie”

One of the more under-appreciated international underground music scenes to emerge from the 1960s was Sweden’s iconoclastic progg movement, spearheaded by political organizers and avant-garde musicians such as International Harvester founder Bo Anders Persson. These musicians fought to cultivate a new social and artistic consciousness among Swedish youth, playing free shows across the country and recording experimental, minimalist improvisations that pushed back against an elitist, exclusionary musical culture. According to Persson, their principle goal was to bring the community back into the music. Many different bands would emerge from the progg scene, laying down sounds from fuzzed-out trance rock to traditional Swedish folk and more or less everywhere in-between. This record falls in-between.

The history of International Harvester is somewhat convoluted, due to a constantly shifting lineup and unstable name. Originally the group formed under the monicker Pärson Sound, recording two  albums’ worth of material but never releasing a proper record. On scoring a record deal, the band renamed itself International Harvester, a reference to the U.S.-owned tractor manufacturer and a symbolic attack against corporate agriculture. To avoid legal wrangling, however, the band soon had to shorten their name to Harvester, and released one last record with their current lineup before dissolving into Träd, Gräs och Stenar (Trees, Grass and Stone) and finally managing to score popular success.

Sov Gott Rose Marie, the band’s sole release under the International Harvester name, is an unusual patchwork of field recordings, electric krautrock jams and percussive experimentation that bridges the sonic gap between what the Velvet Underground was laying down in New York (the band was actually personally invited by Andy Warhol to play an exposition, but things fell through) and the Amon Düül commune was brewing in Munich circa 1969. Though the music may sound free-form, closer listening reveals the rigorous discipline displayed by the individual musicians. Each member leaves his ego at the door and subsumes himself in the music, a quality perhaps picked up from the band’s time spent studying and performing under the auspices of the aforementioned Riley back in the mid-sixties.

After opening with the deep drone of a Latin death hymn and the chirping of woodland birds, the record wastes no time kicking into gear. “There Is No Other Place” is perhaps Sov Gott Rose Marie‘s heaviest track, combining the band’s obsession with heavy, pounding tribal rhythms with an overdriven guitar line lifted straight out of the Hawkwind bible. Three tracks later and the disarmingly concise “Ho Chi Minh” serves as one of the band’s more unusual political statements, exploding the Harvester’s percussive tendencies into a Viet Minh war chant running on a hypnotic two-note figure by bassist Torbjörn Abelli. It is perhaps the group’s artistic and political spirit (the band was associated with the Swedish Communist Party’s youth league, and performed and recorded regularly at the Kafe Marx in Stockholm) most perfectly distilled: no time wasted, no unnecessary chords – the new electric underground resistance in less than two minutes.

The mellower side of International Harvester makes itself apparent on “The Runcorn Report on Western Progress” and the droning title track, which rides at a glacial tempo that perfectly foreshadows such later record’s as Earth’s The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull. “It’s Only Love” is one of the band’s closest forays into the realm of popular music, but coming in right after “Ho Chi Minh” it’s given its own surreal edge that keeps you on your toes through all of its one minute-forty seconds. All these shorter songs (basically encapsulating Side A of the originally-planned album release) are only a teaser for Sov Gott‘s second half, however, which is composed of three mammoth jams carried over from the group’s Pärson Sound days. “Skördetider (Harvest Times)” runs almost half an hour, a roaring cauldron of blissed-out space rock featuring spiraling violin lines and low, moaning vocals before an intense fuzz guitar improvisation rends the track to pieces. “I Mourn You” is thirteen minutes of a similar brew, while “How To Survive” is an extended Swedish folk chant built around sleepy-eyed percussion and what sounds like a saxophone impersonating an old, croaking hurdy-gurdy.

All of Pärson Sound/International Harvester/Harvester’s records have been recently re-released in one form or another, with Sov Got Rose Marie finding berth with the independent Swedish label Silence Recordings and finally emerging on compact disc in 2006. This is perhaps one of the definitive documents of 1960s Sweden, and an essential record for anyone interested in the more experimental and stimulating strains of acid rock. Hell, even on the most cursory listen it doesn’t take long to realize that International Harvester was truly a band ahead of its time, and one long overdue for popular rediscovery.

mp3: The Runcorn Report on Western Progress
mp3: Sommarlåten (The Summer Song)

:D Reissue | 2006 | Silence Recordings | buy from amazon ]
:) Original | 1969 | Love Records | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Los Macs “Kaleidoscope Men”

Los Macs may very be one of the crown jewels of South American psychedelia. Born out of the bright, rambling port town of Valparaíso, Chile, the band first gained acclaim playing rock and roll classics on the local bar scene before eventually becoming engulfed in the international wave of lysergia kicked off by the Lonely Hearts Club Band. Kaleidoscope Men is arguable their magnum opus in this regard, a heady mix of ramshackle garage, folk-rock and sound experiments sung in heavily accented English as well as Spanish. The track “La Muerte de Mi Hermano,” or “The Death of My Brother,” penned for the band by noted Nueva Canción writer Payo Grondona, was even a national hit, managing to combine left-wing political sympathies and interpolated tape samples with an extraordinarily catchy beat-group chorus. On the strength of this single, the album was to become one of the group’s most enduring successes, and it is not uncommon for Chileans to still recall Los Macs brief blip in the charts.

A caveat, however: one should not go into this record expecting the artistic budget and sophistication of Sergeant Pepper, despite the many comparisons. At their heart Los Macs were always a garage band anyways, and their musical vocabulary never strays far from a classic Nuggets-family groove. Raw, jangly guitars predominate, with occasional overdubs and tape reversals providing a little local color. Perhaps the closest parallel I can find is the one and only Rockets album, as each band maintains a similarly tight and screwy groove. Standouts tend to come with the more ambitious pieces, such as the extremely Harrison-esque “Atravéz del Cristal” and the album-closer “Nada Dulce Niña,” with its orchestral flourishes and astral organ blips. “F.M. and C.I.A.” rides free and easy, despite having what may be strident left-wing political lyrics (in the given recording the vocals are pretty unintelligible, so it’s hard to say whether this is in fact a scathing indictment of United States media control in Chile or just another teenybopper love song. I like to pretend it’s both). It’s unfortunate that the band did not compose more of their material in Spanish, as the musicians’ own language better serves their material, but this artistic compromise is at least somewhat understandable considering the stranglehold English-language pop music had on the Latin American market at the time (and still does, unfortunately).

If there is one serious fault to Kaleidoscope Men then it’s the album’s rather disjointed nature. Whereas contemporary recordings in this vein tended, almost as a rule, to explore various styles and modes, such disparity was generally bridged by a unifying sound or theme. Los Macs have concocted a solid batch of material, but many of the actual recordings sound as though they may have come from different sessions or periods in the band’s evolution. “La Muerte de Mi Hermano” is a good case-in-point. The sound effects that bookend the song could have served to clear the gap between it and the following piece, the much crisper, baroque-tinted ballad “Anne Marie,” but the band fails to make use of any such transitions and instead opts for a rather abrupt cut. This in turn slips into the frenetic garage rock frenzy of “Tension Extrema,” with a zooming fuzz guitar lead and  rough, filtered vocals. Taken piece by piece, there’s nothing to complain about; it’s only when these disparate elements are pieced together under one name that it starts to get a little jostling.

Kaleidoscope Men has been reissued several times under varying circumstances, including a Chilean compact disc issue with bonus tracks and a Japanese mini-LP version that adheres to the original tracklist. You’re probably going to have a hell of a time finding an original vinyl copy in Europe or the United States, seeing as how the band failed to make any commercial inroads outside of Chile, but these latter-day issues are more than work seeking out for yourself, and help revisit an important puzzle piece in the development of South American rock and roll.

mp3: Atravéz del Cristal
mp3: El Amor Despues de Los Veinte Ano

:) Original | 1967 | RCA Victor | search ebay ]

The City “Now That Everything’s Been Said”

Seven years after 1960s girl group poster-girls The Shirelles scored a number one smash hit with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and three years before recording one of the best selling pop albums of all time, singer-songwriter Carole King was a member of a fledgling west-coast folk-rock outfit called The City. Built around King’s heavily refined Brill building song-craft and the tight, funky guitar playing of one Danny Kootchmar, The City had an extraordinarily brief moment in the spotlight – if the spotlight is even what you could call their momentary spark into existence – before King’s stubborn reluctance to perform sealed the band’s fate. Nonetheless, they managed to cut a very solid record with 1968’s Now That Everything’s Been Said, and it deserves to be slid back into the popular radar, not only as a curious artifact from one of pop’s most legendary songstresses, but as an extremely well-polished disc of mellow rock and roll from a period when even the popular mainstream was starting to dip its sticky fingers in the electric currents of the musical counterculture.

The opening track is one of the album’s finest moments, with the hiccup of a tape deck cutting into Kootchmar’s fluid electric guitar and King’s floating, elemental piano chording. “Snow Queen” has all the Laurel Canyon trademarks, from soaring harmonies and textured instrumental interplay that never intrudes on the vocals but rather elevates them above the laid-back rhythm section into a sort of ethereal timelessness. Perhaps this record’s second biggest claim to fame, besides the obvious presence of King herself, is her own performance of “Wasn’t Born To Follow,” a quiet assertion of individuality and counterculture ideals taken to the charts by The Byrds around the same time that Now That Everything’s Been Said first saw the light. The City’s arrangement is not far removed from McGuinn and company’s, but King’s singing does throw a new spin on the number that lets it rival its more famous counterpart rather than being subsumed by it. For whatever reason I never realized the blatant similarities between this song and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” until I heard this less well-known take – open-handed plagiarism or the old folk-revival card, who’s to say; either way both songs retain their beauty and this particular selection remains a City highlight.

Taken as a whole this is a relatively safe and consistent record, without many real surprises save for Kootchmar’s star turn on the soulful “A Man Without A Dream.” It’s unfortunate that he was not given more chances to shine here (though he does do a sort of informal duet with King on the rambling “My Sweet Home”) as his strong and earthy voice helps ground his partner’s occasional flights into Tin Pan Alley melodramatics. His one song at least manages to add some variety to the proceedings and make this more than just another Carole King record. One wonders how much collaboration there was between musicians here, for despite King’s obvious claim on songwriting credits there are a couple of moments that sound as though they’d been born in an atmosphere of collective improvisation. “That Old Sweet Roll” even sees the band dipping its hands into a sort of rollicking American blues bag, though the song ends up channeling Cab Calloway in a prom dress more than it does Howlin’ Wolf or the Reverend Gary Davis.

So where does this leave us? I’d argue that The City helps illuminate a time in which even the more conservative members of the American popular music establishment were willing to dip their fingers in the new wave of artistic expression that would in a few years simply become old guard. The results are an unlikely mixture of mainstream talent and late-sixties rebelliousness – a powerful combination, however questionable the concept’s street cred may sound. Considering the personnel here it’s rather surprising that Now That Everything’s Been Said is out-of-print, but with enough scrounging one of the three past reissues should turn up. Maybe you’ll get lucky: my own copy came from the cut-out bin at my local record store mixed in with a bunch of latter-day Carole King records.

mp3: Man Without A Dream
mp3: That Old Sweet Roll

:) Original | 1968 | Ode Records/A&M | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | Sony | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

David Wiffen “Coast to Coast Fever”

The name David Wiffen may or may not ring a bell, but to anyone with an interest in 1970s folk rock I can promise that at least one of his songs will. His material has seen quite a bit of mileage in other performers’ repertoires, and through them a small handful have even filtered up into popular consciousness. Tom Rush and The Byrds both threw their individual spins on “Driving Wheel,” Eric Andersen recorded “More Often Than Not” on his doomed-romantic classic Blue River, and calypso crooner Harry Belafonte rather unexpectedly included both “One Step” and the self-referential “Mister Wiffen” on his 1973 record Play Me. It was the age of the singer-songwriter and David Wiffen seemed to be the next big thing. So what happened?

Coast To Coast Fever, Wiffen’s follow-up to his critically-lauded debut, tells the tale. An informal concept album illustrating the life of the traveling musician and the rigors involved in trying to gain success as a songwriter, it plays as a sort of autobiographical meditation on where the man was at. “He played his tunes to empty rooms, right on down the line,” Wiffen sings on the melancholy title track, “but before he went the money got spent on good times, whiskey and wine.” As in the rest of the album, the singer’s guitar downright sparkles. The production, courtesy of legendary Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn, is as laid back and stripped down as one would hope on a record like this, built around a wide acoustic piano sound and smokey percussion. Indeed, Wiffen could hardly have found a more sympathetic ear to this collection of beat meditations and road songs, and Cockburn’s understated guitar playing is arguably one of the record’s musical highlights.

It is hard to break this record into specific highlights when every piece of the puzzle is so essential to the album’s overall character, but a few key cuts do stand out. The down-and-out blues of “Smoke Rings” rests uneasily between gruff, masculine charm and absolute desolation, cigarette smoke drifting quietly out into an empty landscape and paralleling the sad admissions already found in “Coast To Coast Fever.” The story wouldn’t be quite so affecting if one did not get the feeling that this is not a man who has lost it all, but rather one who never had it to begin with, only having glimpsed the possibilities of fame and seen them immediately dissolve into a hard and bitter reality. It’s a strange story for being so common, the successful songwriter that’s never able to make it on his own terms. Then again there must be some light to all this darkness considering that we are not only still listening to and talking about David Wiffen’s records, but that he’s still around and singing. The man even managed to record a belated follow-up to Coast To Coast Fever in 1999, featuring a handful of new songs that still stand strong alongside his most enduring material.

Whereas Wiffen’s debut seems to have disappeared into the aether, only having been reissued once by an independent Italian label before quickly falling back out of print (original copies of the album are obnoxiously hard to obtain, and have sold second-hand for several hundred dollars apiece), Coast To Coast Fever has remained somewhat easier to find. A North American release on compact disc remains available through most online retailers, and original vinyl copies seem to have seen far wider distribution than any of Wiffen’s other recordings, frequently appearing in record store cut-out bins and online auction sites.

mp3: Coast To Coast Fever
mp3: White Lines

:) Original | 1973 | United Artists | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2009 | Isotope | buy here ]

 

Jimmy Buffett “High Cumberland Jubilee”

Today we delve into yet another unexpected gem by an artist that is usually considered anathema to any discerning aficionado of American popular music. Long before Jimmy Buffett started scoring big in the top-twenty with insipid margarita beach music he was cutting weird, electric folk-rock records and hanging out with folks like Steve Goodman (yeah, that’s him on the cover of Somebody Else’s Troubles) and Jerry Jeff Walker. Nowadays Buffett doesn’t even acknowledge these earlier records, though they have been kept in print under a seemingly-endless number of guises on his own Margaritaville Records.

The second and, unfortunately, last of these, 1976’s High Cumberland Jubilee, is a killer, even though it remained unreleased until three years after it was recorded. The sound of the band here lays somewhere between psychedelic country-rock and late-sixties power-pop, with lots of weird phased drums, banjos, and twelve-string guitars. Heavy attitude everywhere, believe it or not. The production is pretty well-polished, but hardly overproduced; there’s just the right amount of definition between the instruments to keep things clean, which actually proves to be a beautiful thing when the band leaps into its little instrumental breaks, such as that which closes the record. The most relaxed pieces here definitely call to mind the man’s aforementioned folk-rock affiliates, but also have a touch of starry-eyed Gordon Lightfoot polish to them that you don’t normally find on records like this one.

As one might expect, Buffett’s songwriting tends to be hit-and-miss here. There are some light and entertaining moments, with slight-but-eventually-memorable lyrics, some good shots at obtuse sixties social commentary, and then some numbers which read like failed assignments from Songwriting 101; cliché, dragged-out, full of tired juvenile romanticism. It’s too bad that any chance to hear the singer mature as a songwriter was cut short by his untimely descent into artistic oblivion.

The unfortunate side to some of the reissues of Down To Earth and High Cumberland Jubilee is that Buffett has taken to cutting out the first song of the former, a relatively-scathing indictment of Christian hypocrisy which he today, as beachfront-yuppie-poster-child, presumably suspects will hurt his image. If you can track down original copies of these records, which looks to be a difficult task, snatch them up because, despite all the faults to be found here, there really is a lot to enjoy. Plus you get to see the look on your friends’ faces when you suggest breaking out some Buffett (and they thought they knew you so well).

mp3: England (As the Sun Went Down)
mp3: Travelin’ Clean

:) Original | 1975 | Barnaby | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Frumious Bandersnatch “The Golden Sons of Libra”

There was so much wild music milling around California in the late sixties that sifting for the treasures can often be a tiring experience. For every Jefferson Airplane or Buffalo Springfield there were a dozen or so messy congregations of drop outs and long-hairs dashing out disharmonious noise on the streets of Berkeley. Fortunately, however, the rewards for exploring this scene in-depth can often be exciting enough to make the whole tangle worthwhile. San Francisco band Frumious Bandersnatch is one of those rewards: a strong, if not-very-well-remembered group that managed to loose one three-song EP on the world before falling apart and (rather inexplicably and unfortunately) providing the personnel for both the Steve Miller Band and Journey. The Bandersnatch recorded more than enough material for a full-length record, however, and thanks to record labels like Big Beat and Get Back, folks today can enjoy the entirety of these unearthed recordings via the posthumous compilations A Young Man’s Song and The Golden Sons of Libra.

The latter among these two collections is often considered the lesser anthology, but not having heard the former I can only say that Golden Sons is more than worth investigating. Running a strong forty-five minutes and adorned with some beautiful period-style artwork, it runs the gamut from Quicksilver flavored instrumentals to tight, fierce rock and roll barnstormers which, darker in atmosphere than your usual west coast fare, sometimes call to mind Mad River’s self-titled record. Lead guitarist David Denny is my chief reason for citing Quicksilver here, as his incisive, vibrato-soaked phrasing makes it clear that he was riding the same (high treble, sharp bite) wavelengths as the great John Cipollina. Denny may be criticized for this remarkable stylistic debt, but I would argue that the Bandersnatch’s music is all the better for it.

The opening track on Golden Sons is a strong declarative statement of intent, featuring all of the trademark elements of the Bandersnatch’s sound. The unusual bridge sections, in which the band drops down into a low bass, drum and feedback buildup, ensure the track’s memorability. The real meat of this album, however, is in it’s final sequence of extended improvisations, beginning with the funky “Cheshire” and concluding with the sizzling “Can of Bliss,” which goes from full-tilt boogie into a spastic drum solo before a low bass segment brings the band back in towards one of the most intense guitar solos on the record. Granted, these kinds of long instrumental segments may lose folks looking for concise psychedelic pop or garage (the last track is an almost entirely instrumental fifteen minutes of space age gun-slinging), but for those who appreciate these kinds of untamed musical adventures Frumious Bandersnatch does not fail to deliver.

mp3: Hearts To Cry
mp3: Chain Reaction

:D Reissue | 2002 | Get Back Records | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]