Archive for the ‘ Art ’ Category

Kalacakra “Crawling To Lhasa”

Crawling to Lhasa

This is perhaps one of the strangest and most underrated records to have emerged from the first wave of krautrock. 1972’s Crawling To Lhasa was the first and, ultimately, only set of recordings ever released by Kalacakra, the short-lived duo of Claus Rauschenbach and Heinz Martin, but where the band lacked in staying-power they more than made up for themselves in pure imagination. You would be hard-pressed to find much in the way of comparable material from this era in time.

Resting somewhere between the surreal communality of Amon Düül and the spooky grooves of Can, Crawling To Lhasa is a largely instrumental affair (even when vocals are featured, they are generally whispered, cackled or chanted to the point that they serve more as instruments than as any real vehicles of communication) exploring a sort of mysterious, stoned spiritualism hinted at by the record’s many allusions to Tibetan Buddhism. Songs meander, drift, or press on at indistinguishable points, and while this may seem to point to the record as simply being a collection of directionless jamming, the modus operandi serves the mood here in a way more elaborately crafted songs would fail to do.

All this talk about religion and mystery is not to say that this record lacks a sense of humor, however. My German is not very good, but judging by the amount of (admittedly eerie) laughter going on in the background to some of these songs, Martin and Rauschenbach definitely made it a point to enjoy these sessions – even when discussing such topics as the Black Plague in opener “Nearby Shiras.” Tempos are generally slow, though the electric Indian/medieval music hybrid “Raga Eleven” does up the energy a little with cymbal crashes and an alarmingly insistent tambourine. Though the record maintains an extremely constant atmosphere, the band is not afraid to explore several different facets of sound, from the rather beautiful, nine-minute acoustic guitar and flute meditation “September’s Full Moon” to the creeping blues pastiche “Tante Olga,” which keeps reminding me of some sort of cosmic, acoustic Endless Boogie jam session. Rauschenbach’s deranged vocal mantra and Martin’s nauseous electric guitar riff just keeping their cyclical choogling from driving me up the wall.

Garden of Delights reissued this album back in 2001 on compact disc, but unfortunately took it upon themselves to grace the end of this issue with two New Age synthesizer numbers from what must have been a reunion of sorts. Their vinyl issue makes the crime even worse: rather than tacked on at the end of the record where they can be easily ignored, these two additions are spread across both sides of the LP. Looks like you will either have to suffer through these two anomalies or look for one of the few rare original pressings of Lhasa before we can get a properly restored remaster from the band. Don’t let it dissuade you from hunting this number down, though. This is a real gem from the krautrock underground that anyone interested in the music deserves to hear.

 mp3: Nearby Shiras

:D Reissue | 2012 | Bacillus | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

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 ]

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 ]

Soundtrack to Performance

Despite boasting a rather eclectic hodgepodge of performers, the record was all cut by Nitzsche with a steady session band built on the inimitable guitar of Ry Cooder. Despite star turns by Mick Jagger and Randy Newman, however, it may very well be that it’s the soundtrack’s production that ends up stealing the show. Weird electric hums and echoing tape loops bounce in and out of the songs tying everything together and giving even the straightest material a surreal edge. I actually find that this album is very much in the spirit of two related works cut around the same time: Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Illuminations album and Mick Jagger’s warped and surprisingly uncharacteristic soundtrack to Kenneth Anger’s film Invocation For My Demon Brother.

It’s most likely Jagger’s participation which has kept this album available all these years, seeing as his one song here, “Memo From Turner,” has become something of a Stones classic. It’s a great song, but in no way overshadows the rest of the material. A young Randy Newman kicks off the record with one of his heaviest vocals on “Gone Dead Train,” which Nitzsche would later re-record on Crazy Horse’s self-titled album. Performance’s real gem, though? Merry Clayton turning in an absolute barnstormer with “Poor White Hound Dog.” This cut features my favorite example of Nitzsche’s weird electronic aesthetic, with random bursts of white noise and warbling Moog elevating the otherwise-straightforward R&B piece into something entirely unique. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s appearances here are unfortunately limited to two psychedelic mouth-bow instrumentals which, while enjoyable, aren’t much to write home about. Ry Cooder’s guitar pieces have a little more meat to them, with “Get Away” tuning in the spirit of early Captain Beefheart (on whose records Cooder, of course, contributed in a big way) and “Powis Square” highlighting the panoramic, soulful acoustic bottleneck style that would arguably culminate in his haunting score to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas.

The oddball here is definitely the inclusion of the Last Poet’s black power anthem “Wake Up, Niggers,” an early political rap by New York’s pioneering street poets. While clearly interrupting the spectral mood of the record, this piece does nevertheless add an interesting new angle to the proceedings and help to break up the music’s intensely Nitzschean framework. The producer’s own compositions, the ethereally orchestrated “Rolls Royce and Acid” and rather beautiful piano piece “Harry Flowers,” shine a little bit of calm and meditation into the claustrophobia and are perhaps the most overtly cinematic recordings here.

Rarely does one find a rock and roll-based soundtrack that so perfectly manages to tie this kind of sweeping, emotional power with uniform listenability, and the fact that so many talented musicians managed to turn in such defining performances on this one thirty-seven minute album is a testament to the producer’s vision as well as the era from which it emerged (as Hunter S. Thompson would so famously put it, the “place where the wave finally broke and rolled back,” i.e. the end of the communal dream that was the sixties). It looks as though Performance is out of print these days in any tangible format, but besides the ever-present vinyl originals floating around out there you can pick up a digital copy without much hassle.

mp3: Gone Dead Train
mp3: Poor White Hound Dog

:) Original | 1970 | Warner Bros | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | Warner Bros | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

 

Robert Calvert “Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters”

It wasn’t strictly necessary to be a musician to be a member of Hawkwind, the proto-punk space-rock commune from Notting Hill; longtime associate Stacia’s contribution consisted of stripping nude, painting herself blue and gyrating energetically to the rhythms. Robert Calvert’s efforts were a little more artistically substantial: he was an established poet and playwright who featured at intervals during the 1970s as the band’s lyricist and singer. His first “solo” album was originally conceived as a stage play, but in the pilled-out experimental spirit of the times, and with the willing assistance of most of Hawkwind’s musicians and some suitably eccentric guest vocalists, it became a studio-produced concept album alternating songs with darkly-comic sketches and Monty-Pythonesque dialogues. Though having nothing thematically in common with the Monkees’ Head album, its structure is not dissimilar and it’s just as absurd and disorienting. Bob Calvert was famously bipolar, always teetering between rationality and madness and passing occasional intervals in institutions; unsurprising, then, that he produced such an off-the-wall opus.

Calvert had nursed a boyhood yearning to become an RAF jet pilot, an ambition thwarted by a perforated eardrum. His simmering regret for this is probably reflected in his choice of theme for Captain Lockheed And The Starfighters: the German Luftwaffe’s F-104G scandal. The story is well known, but briefly the air arm of West Germany was persuaded to purchase the Lockheed Corporation’s F-104 Starfighter, conceived for the USAF as a supersonic daylight interceptor, as an all-weather strike fighter, a role for which it was totally unsuited. The story also allegedly involves ruthless hard-sell tactics by the manufacturer, bribes accepted by high-ranking German officials, a lamentable lack of training for flight and ground crews and various technical shortcomings including ejector seat failures, the end result being 292 lost aircraft and 115 dead pilots and the nicknaming of the plane as “Widowmaker”. Calvert was clearly familiar with all these factors and included them all in his hard-hitting and highly satirical libretto.

The eight songs commonly employ familiar Hawkwind motifs: driving, repetitive riffs, pounding bass and drums and howling lead guitar and sax, with Calvert’s unhinged vocals wailing over the top. “The Right Stuff”, “The Widow Maker” and “Ejection”, all of whose themes are obvious from their titles, follow this template closely. “The Song Of The Gremlin Part One” and its subsequent companion “Part Two” are more intriguing, with freeform arrangements and some fine synthesiser work. The closing “Catch A Falling Starfighter” is a blackly-humorous dirge resting on the obvious tasteless pun. The intervening spoken-word interludes follow the uniquely British late-sixties fashion of absurdist comedy, seemingly largely improvised in the studio by Calvert, Arthur Brown, Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzos and, unexpectedly, Jim Capaldi of Traffic. Stanshall’s stereotyped hysterical voicing of the German officers is desperately non-politically-correct by today’s standards but hilarious to anyone who appreciated John Cleese’s contemporary “Don’t mention the War” routine, and on “Ground Crew (Last-Minute Reassembly Before Take-Off)” Stanshall and Capaldi recall the best moments of Peter Cook’s and Dudley Moore’s witless, peerless partnership.

One reviewer subsequently described the work as “Vaudevillean rock’n’roll theatre from a time when rock was intelligent (and) dangerous”, which seems to me to sum it up admirably. Normally anything this far leftfield would have sunk without trace, but its Hawkwind associations at a time when the band was at its popularity zenith meant it enjoyed considerable appreciation among the Hawk-faithful. Resuscitated for CD in 2009 by Cherry Red, its unique, utterly offbeat nature means that it doesn’t sound at all dated today. For a fuller understanding of Calvert and his oeuvre  read this account.

mp3: The Song of the Gremlin, Pt. 1
mp3: Ground Crew (Last Minute Reassembly Before the Takeoff)

:D Reissue | 2009 | Cherry Red | buy here ]
:) Original | 1974 | United Artists | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

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 ]
:D Reissue | 2005 | Castle | buy here ]

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

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

Buffy Sainte-Marie “Illuminations”

Beginning with 1967’s Fire & Fleet & Candlelight, the music of Cree folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie began to take on a decidedly schizophrenic nature. Traditionally celebrated for her biting political songs, as well as her stark approach to folksong, the late sixties saw her take her distinctive sound in a series of surprising directions. Candlelight experimented with sweeping orchestral arrangements and electric pop music, while its follow-up, I’m Gonna Be A Country Girl Again, saw Buffy immersing herself deep in Nashville traditions. Come winter, 1969, and the young firebrand decided to turn the tables once again, releasing what is perhaps her most esoteric album of all: Illuminations.

From the very first notes you know you’re in for something unique. “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot” is an eerie, electronically treated adaptation of lines from Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers, featuring bizarre production touches courtesy of Vanguard Records president Maynard Solomon himself. Buffy’s voice and guitar are taken and warped into distorted moans and oscillating loops of sound that build upon themselves into a kind of electric witch’s chant. I should warn you not to get too comfortable with all this, though, because if this record is anything, it’s unpredictable. After almost five minutes, this unsettling opening fades into the short, church organ hymnal “Mary,” before a gnarly electric guitar and banjo jerk into the rapid-fire folk-rock of “Better To Find Out For Yourself,” featuring Buffy at her yelping, wailing best. In the clucking fadeout, what might return but Solomon’s electronic screeching, teasing the record back down into a dark, candlelit vampire ballad.

Honestly, I could go on for the entirety of the track list like this, as every song here is  indispensable to the whole. In fact, I’m almost tempted to label this one a concept album, with the opening track acting as a sort of manifesto. As for the music, though, it’s everywhere, from the raw west coast psychedelia of “He’s A Keeper of the Fire” to the caustic “Suffer the Little Children,” which itself sounds straight out of one of Buffy’s earlier records. One of the most wild segments is when the stomping “With You, Honey” closes with a shrill scream and dissolves into the pretty, lilting acoustic love song “Guess Who I Saw In Paris.” This latter track is so overly cute that in any other context I might write it off as a low point, but in context with the rest of the music here it somehow comes off as extraordinary. Like the rest of the album, it’s hard to really put the magic into words. This is one you just have to experience.

Interestingly enough, this album was not only groundbreaking musically, but it was also the very first quadrophonic vocal record ever made. Unfortunately, it appears that few people cared about either of those two points at the time of its release, as it was a huge commercial disaster and would quickly be deleted from Vanguard’s catalog. If you can, I would recommend you all find a vinyl copy, since this seems like the kind of record that was born for the needle, but should that fail there’s always Vanguard’s compact disc reissue. Also worth checking out is Buffy’s follow up to this one, She Used To Want To Be A Ballerina, which, of course, sounds little like Illuminations, but does feature Jack Nitzsche and the original lineup of Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

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“Adam”

:) Original | 1969 | Vanguard | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2000 | Vanguard | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Earth Opera “Great American Eagle Tragedy”

Earth Opera was one of several groups to come out of the rather infamous “Bosstown” scene, a motley wave of rather disparate bands modeled on the highly successful San Francisco sound and pushed by MGM publicity man Alan Lorber. Despite being grouped together in marketing and subsequent rock and roll history, the only real common denominator among these groups is, well, Boston. Each band really did have its own unique sound and aesthetic, and each deserves to be looked at independent from the record company hype that clouded their reputations back in the late 1960s. Earth Opera, headed by future bluegrass pioneers David Grisman and Peter Rowan (who had already made something of a name for himself singing with Bill Monroe), gave testimony to this spirit of individuality when they released The Great American Eagle Tragedy in 1968.

The album opens with what could have been a killer single, Rowan’s“Home To You”. This song would later be re-recorded by Seatrain in the early 1970s, but the original recording is absolutely superior. Soaring harmonies and snaking steel guitar lines make this one probably the closest Earth Opera got to country rock, which, though eminently enjoyable, doesn’t quite prepare you for the weirdness to follow. “Mad Lydia’s Waltz” is a surreal and atmospheric sketch of a woman heading down a “cobblestone alley” to meet her lover. The lyrics and trilling mandolin almost draw the sound into the British folk rock territory of Fairport Convention, and Rowan’s keening vocals really do border on unsettling.

From there, the band skips through a myriad of sounds, from the rather pale, lightweight pop of “Alfie Finney” to the rollicking “Sanctuary From the Law”. Earth Opera has a well-defined sound, and their real talent is in exploring that sound from all possible angles. The end result is that every cut has its own distinct character, while at the same time working towards building a coherent whole. This whole comes together beautifully on the undeniable centerpiece to the record, the ten-and-a-half minute title track. “The Great American Eagle Tragedy” begins with the mournful wailing of saxophones, with the band eventually building into an explosive early climax and a brief bit of silence. Heavy drums draw the music back in and the band rumbles into a pounding anti-war anthem replete with free-jazz fuzz guitars, whistling flute improvisations and some of the most intense vocal screaming I’ve heard on a 1960s recording. To be perfectly honest, experiencing this song may be worth the price of the album alone.

It’s hard to imagine what could possibly follow “The Great American Eagle Tragedy,” but somehow the band clears the hurdle by throwing in an undeniably catchy rocker that somehow manages to compare love to a roast beef sandwich against a backdrop of mangled guitars. It may sound ridiculous, but this is one you’ll be humming to yourself long after the needle’s been lifted. The tasteful production, courtesy of underground folk legend Peter Siegel, helps keep this gnarly tangle of instruments and sounds in order, and really does give the record just the right amount of fine-tuning it needs to succeed.

Earth Opera released a self-titled record before this one, which is rather different from its follow-up, but definitely solid. Both albums were reissued on compact disc by Wounded Bird Records in 2001, but it looks as though The Great American Eagle Tragedy has since gone out of print. Fortunately, you can find original copies of the album relatively cheap, and seeing as Edsel Records recently reissued it on vinyl, new copies aren’t that hard to snag.

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“Home to You”

:D CD Reissue | 2001 | Wounded Bird | buy here ]
:) Vinyl |  1969 | Elektra | search ebay ]

Tiny Tim “God Bless Tiny Tim”

Love him or hate him, there was no one else like Tiny Tim in the late 60’s.  John Lennon was reportedly a fan, and Tim was a staple on late night television of the time. In 1968 he released his debut album on Reprise- a blend of American popular songs and extreme weirdness that often veers into psychedelia.

God Bless Tiny Tim was promoted as a joke record, but beneath all the camp and novelty there are some stunning gems on this very musical album.

This is an early example of outsider music and Tim did exactly what he wanted here, aided with expert production by Richard Perry. Some moments recall the whimsy of Van Dyke Parks’ debut, or even that of Randy Newman’s first with dense dynamic orchestral arrangements supplementing a full band. Tracks like “Strawberry Tea” and “The Coming-Home Party” and the brilliant version of Irving Berlin’s “Stand Down Here Where You Belong” are completely straightforward pop songs and would have been coveted by any self respecting psych band of the era.

The creepiness of “Daddy Daddy, What is Heaven Like?” is overpowered by Tiny Tim’s sincerity. His knowledge of American musical tradition and dedication to music hall and vaudeville allow these songs to come to life in very satisfying ways. It’s somewhat prophetic that in 1968 Tim was singing “The ice caps are melting…”, and there is a definite vibe that Tim’s not only in on the joke, but is really the one laughing here (which he does hysterically at one point).

The between-song narration occasionally stifles the flow, but it gives us a little glimpse into Tiny Tim’s mindset- his intentions were clearly to open himself up to the world and put on a show; his tastes, interests, showmanship, and quirky personality are all clearly present here. It’s the perfect production and it’s Tiny Tim’s consistently entertaining performances that really elevate this record above mere musical comedy status.

God Bless Tiny Tim is available from Rhino Handmade as a single disc or the 2006 “God Bless Tiny Tim: The Complete Reprise Studio Masters . . . And More” box set.

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“Strawberry Tea”

:D CD Reissue | 2008 | Rhino Handmade | buy here ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1968 | Reprise | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]