Archive for the ‘ Folk ’ Category

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 ]

Linda Perhacs “Parallelograms”

This unique and fascinating album has belatedly garnered a considerable following in recent years as a result of the new interest in what is nowadays referred to as Acid Folk. In reality it’s finely-structured acoustic folk-rock, but with strong elements of psychedelic studio treatment and twentieth-century avant-garde classical and choral music. Until now it’s only rated a couple of oblique references in these pages; now it’s time to give it the full exposure it deserves.

The album was the product of a chance conversation between Los Angeles periodontist Linda Perhacs and one of her patients, film score composer Leonard Roseman. Perhacs had written the songs as a hobby sideline, composing with just modally-tuned acoustic guitar and her own beautifully clear voice. Stimulated by Perhacs’s own graphic visualisation of her composition “Parallelograms” as “visual music sculpture” encompassing light, form and colour as well as sound, Roseman offered to develop her songs into an album, arranging and enhancing them in George Martin fashion and utilising the services of his studio’s state-of-the-art technology plus session musicians including guitarist Steve Cohn and percussionists Milt Holland and Shelley Manne. The stunning results found a release on Kapp records, but there the interest stalled; the label pressed the songs out of sequence with dull AM-friendly equalisation on poor quality vinyl, and then proffered no publicity for it, and the brashly commercial Los Angeles AM radio stations refused to play it. When what would become her first and only album in almost four decades tanked, Perhacs went back to the day job. Over thirty years later she was alerted to the fact that the new generation of Acid Folk musicians such as Devendra Banhart were drawing inspiration from her long-lost work. Reissued by Wild Places in 1996 and by Sunbeam in 2008, the currently-available CD is correctly sequenced, beautifully remastered and comes with eight bonus demos, alternative versions and unreleased songs plus a superb booklet history by Perhacs herself. Perhaps best of all, its belated success has induced Perhacs to start creating music again and she’s issued two albums of new music in partnership with musician/producer Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl since 2007.

The quirky acoustic guitar tunings of Parallelograms may suggest early Joni Mitchell and the clear, crystalline vocals similar-period Joan Baez, but on this album Linda Perhacs utterly transcends both with her dazzling originality. The gently-rippling guitar arpeggios and cascading multi-tracked harmonies of the opening “Chimacum Rain” set out the collection’s predominant motifs, but the following “Paper Mountain Man” is surprisingly funky and blues-inflected with its jazzy percussion and distant, ethereal harmonica, and the wonderfully ironic critique of South Californian society marital celebrations, “Porcelain Baked-Over Cast-Iron Wedding”, rocks along similarly on oriental percussion and delightfully atonal 12-string. Head and shoulders above the rest, the title track even eschews proper lyrics, the singer’s tongue playing mischievously with the syllables of the title and the names of other geometric forms in a sinuous flow of sound, broken by a Gyorgy Ligeti-like musique concrete interlude, all being the product of Roseman’s realisation of Perhacs’s original scroll-like pictorial depiction of the song. “Moons And Cattails” and “Morning Colours” are similarly, though slightly less, experimental, the former again utilising superbly melismatic vocals and the latter glorious electronically-processed flute obbligati. The rest is more conventional, but still well to the left of the field. As with the avant-garde music that largely inspired it, this is an album to be listened to, not merely heard.

mp3: Paper Mountain Man
mp3: Parallelograms

:) Original | 1970 | Kapp | search ebay ]
:) Reissue | 2011 | Sundazed | buy here ]
:D Reissue | 2010 | Sunbeam | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

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 ]

 

Oliver “Standing Stone”

There’s nothing new under the sun, the old adage goes. Particularly in music, anything that eventually comes to be seen as groundbreaking can usually be traced back to earlier influences: Beethoven to Haydn, Dylan to Woody Guthrie, the Beatles to Carl Perkins and early Tamla Motown. What makes the new product distinctive is the way the influences are combined, remoulded and extended. Oliver’s über-rare psychedelic folk-blues opus Standing Stone clearly takes in the likes of Robert Johnson, Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart, but his synthesis and development of these already abstruse sources is so imaginative that the end product is truly like nothing else, and that’s no exaggeration.

In early 1974 hippie musician Oliver Chaplin and his brother Chris, a BBC sound engineer, retreated to their parents’ farm somewhere in Wales “within shouting distance of the Standing Stone”, as the reissue booklet note puts it, to produce this totally unique, enigmatic collection. Oliver laid down vocals, acoustic, electric and slide guitars, hand percussion and occasional recorder and harmonica on a four-track Teac. Chris, a veteran of the Beeb’s Hendrix sessions, overlaid the various threads and added numerous sound effects, aided and abetted by occasional unsolicited input from various farm and wild creatures.

Oliver’s compositions give the effect of being totally spontaneous but are clearly carefully built up given the amount of overdubbing required. The material ranges from tiny, delicate fingerpicked acoustic numbers (“Off On A Trek”) via quirky Barrett-esque acid-pop ditties (“Getting Fruity”) to rambling, effects-laden one-chord blues extrapolations (“Freezing Cold Like An Iceberg”) and whacked-out marijuana-inflected nonsense (“Cat And The Rat”). Oliver’s guitar skills are manifold and dextrous and his sound palette seemingly boundless, sometimes sparklingly pure but at others bolstered by a battery of sound effects ranging from simple flanging to backwards taping and what sounds like Les Paul-style vari-speed recording. The lyrics are frequently incomprehensible but it doesn’t matter; Oliver uses his voice as another set of instruments, moaning, warbling and scatting, varying its timbre widely and sometimes distorting it electronically. As testament to Chris’s skills, the sound quality of the final recording is simultaneously utterly low-fi and outstandingly clean.

The end product was to be offered to the then fledgling Virgin label, but the reclusive Oliver’s reluctance to engage with the record industry scotched the deal and only a handful of private-press copies were produced, housed in plain bilious-green jackets. Around fifteen years later one of these surfaced at a car boot sale and the burgeoning psychedelic collector circuit sat up and noticed, applying the retrospective “acid-folk” appellation to it. Such was the demand created by the appearance of this single example that Oliver was tracked down and found to have several more copies still in his possession. These fetched crazy sums until the album was licensed to the tiny UK reissue label Wooden Hill and appeared in that imprint’s own habitual very-limited-edition format, firstly on vinyl in 1992 and then on CD in 1995. Appropriately enough, in truly serendipitous manner I stumbled on a copy gathering dust in a Bath charity shop earlier this year; I took it home and it blew my mind. If you decide that you want one you may have to search hard and long and pay top dollar, but if you’re lucky enough to find one it’ll be worth it. Meanwhile several tracks can be found on YouTube.

mp3: Off On A Trek
mp3: Cat And The Rat

:) Original | 1974 | Private | search ebay ]

Ellen McIlwaine “Honky Tonk Angel”

There’s a select coterie of artists whose voices are recognised as musical instruments in their own right, their unique vocal deliveries transcending lyrics and, without being pure, trained or operatic, tantalising the ear wordlessly like a breathy tenor sax or a sobbing Dobro. Ella Fitzgerald, Richie Havens, Tim Buckley, the late John Martyn all had this talent. Add to this rare gift an astonishing propensity for producing the deepest funk and the most soulful blues on an acoustic guitar, and you’ve got Ellen McIlwaine.

Born in 1945, Ellen grew up in Japan, the daughter of American missionaries, where she listened to AFN and learned to play New Orleans piano after Fats Domino and Professor Longhair. On the family’s return to Atlanta she switched to guitar, rapidly assimilating all the fiery Southern styles. For several years from 1966 she worked around NYC’s East Village, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Muddy, Wolf, Hardin and Hendrix. After a brief unproductive spell leading her own rock band, Fear Itself, she signed to Polydor in ’72 as a solo artist and produced her freshman album, Honky Tonk Angel.

The comparison with Richie Havens is more than appropriate here. As with the bulk of his early work, her primary mission on this album is to take familiar and unfamiliar songs by other artists and cover them in an idiosyncratic and totally individual vocal fashion, accompanied by a fluid and relentlessly rhymthic acoustic guitar. She’d develop her own songwriting on the follow-up and later albums, but here there are only two originals alongside the eight borrowed songs – but her choice is impeccable, taking in some of the finest writers of the late 60s and early 70s in a plethora of genres. She covers Isaac Hayes (“Toe Hold”), Jack Bruce (“Weird Of Hermiston”), Jimi Hendrix (“Up From The Skies”), Steve Winwood (“Can’t Find My Way Home”), Bobbie Gentry (“Ode To Billy Joe”) and Ghanaian jazz maestro Guy Warren’s “Pinebo (My Story)”, culminating with a momentous retread of the traditional “Wade In The Water”. Most of the tracks are marked by her jazzy, strident Guild guitar, chock-full of scratchy percussive flatpicking, earsplitting eleventh chords and occasional soaring slide, complementing her astonishingly confident, melismatic, androgynous vocal as she plays shamelessly with the lyrics, frequently wandering into pure scat or an ululating African dialect. By contrast the gentle “Pinebo” is a multi-tracked, stereo-separated acapella tour-de-force in Swahili, whilst her reading of the Winwood ditty is masterful and sensitive with immaculate fingerstyling. Half the album was recorded live at NYC’s Bitter End with McIlwaine’s voice and acoustic set off only by adventurous bass guitar and rattling Latin percussion, the remainder at The Record Plant with scarcely denser backing, but McIlwaine’s fretboard pyrotechnics and vocal gymnastics make the whole collection sizzle with excitement. The only sore thumb to stick out from this otherwise homogenous collection is the inexplicable inclusion of the old Kitty Wells country chestnut “(It Wasn’t God Who Made) Honky Tonk Angels”, done in a po-faced, almost caricatured Bakersfield style with full backing band including wailing pedal steel.

Ellen McIlwaine would go on to an uneven but uncompromising career, her commercial appeal blunted by her determination to make music her own way, but she continues to tour and to release albums at intervals. Honky Tonk Angel is out of print in any form as a unit but all of it can be found along with the follow-up We The People and one previously unreleased track on the excellent Chronicles compilation Up From The Skies – The Polydor Years.

mp3: Toe Hold [Live]
mp3: Can’t Find My Way Home

:) Original | 1972 | Polydor | search ebay ]
;) MP3 album | download ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Pete Seeger “Clearwater II”

While this record is technically credited to various artists, I’m calling it a Pete record here (he likely wouldn’t accept the credit) for convenience and recognition of the fact that it wouldn’t exist without the Hudson River Valley’s hero and national treasure, Pete Seeger. If you haven’t read up on Pete’s body of work, seen the excellent documentary The Power of Song, tried to learn 5-string banjo, or ever listened to an American folk tune, there is little doubt that Seeger’s music or social efforts have still reached you in some way. On this rarely found followup to 1974’s Clearwater, Pete and friends, including folk names like Judy Collins and Tom Paxton, deliver an outstanding set of traditional folk, sea chanties, and progressive folk numbers devoted to the Hudson River.

Tom Winslow’s “It’s the Clearwater” kicks off this rather fine sequence of gems, a rousing and catchy anthem to the Clearwater Sloop that’s sailed the Hudson promoting environmental awareness since 1969. I had heard lot’s of Pete Seeger’s music recorded with the Weavers, solo cuts from scores of best-of albums, but I had yet to hear his “Golden River,” a gorgeous ode you could only imagine played on bank of the river, featuring lazily swift guitar patterns and a vocal as honest and pleasant as a voice could provide. This may be Pete at his finest, his banjo machine seeming to perform the melody by itself for “My Dirty Stream,” a plainly clear assessment of the Hudson’s polluted condition; the picking sounds almost accidentally natural. Several boisterous sea chanties lend a presence similar to Graceland, albeit a little more from under an Irish bar than African skies.  The tracks balance gently, never allowing one feel or another to steal the show.

A couple surprises turn up too, like side A closer “Jebah Brown” by the Womblers, a traditional sounding number hiding a dark, synth-padded almost-psych section, detailed with some nice electric picking and a good and out-there mix. Another gem is Frostwater’s “Haul Away,” a laid-back folkster groove educated with a slight taste of rock.

If you aren’t a serious folkie, you may not get down with every tune here, but Clearwater II stands as a sweet slice of American folk that while gravely honest, and to-the-point in message, feels like a celebration among friends. As local and homegrown as it gets, yet universal, and rich with life.

As stated on the back cover, “Proceeds from this album will be used by the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater to improve the ecology of the river.” If you manage to find this one out in the wild or enjoy the tracks posted here you can find out how to donate to the Clearwater cause at clearwater.org and you can find some of the tracks  from Clearwater and Clearwater II posted at their site as well.

mp3: Pete Seeger – Golden River
mp3: Frostwater – Haul Away

:) Original | 1977 | Sound House Records | search ebay ]

Doc Watson “Doc and the Boys”

There’s little doubt folk and bluegrass lost one of its legends in Doc Watson, a self-taught founder of flatpicking and popularizer of traditional American music for 60 some years. While you can’t miss on any Doc record, this one is my go-to favorite.

Though Doc and the Boys was Doc’s highest charting LP (41 on US Country), little mention is heard of the record today. A lot of the early pickers are subjugated to compilations, best-ofs, and box sets. Fortunately, this LP comes from a time when singles were eschewed for album length statements, and Doc and the Boys delivers a rock solid 35:00 straight from the prime of that funky, in-the-groove Nashville country of the mid-70s.

Starting from the studio recording side, we get a smoking kickoff in “Darlin’ Corey,” Jim Isbell’s zip-tight rhythm dispelling any doubt that a drum kit belong in a bluegrass tune. Merle trades lines with Doc’s harp on the deep-in-the-pocket “Cypress Grove Blues” and Doc proves his gifts with a song on Tom Paxton‘s very sweet “Can’t Help But Wonder (Where I’m Bound),” an easygoing “Girl I Love,” and a bouncy number called “Natural Born Gamblin’ Man.” Side one closes with the hottest rendition of “Little Maggie” I’ve yet to hear. He may be known for his picking, but Doc may have had one of the best rounded and perfectly suited vocal tones in the history of country music. Such a comforting, deep, and rooted voice.

Recorded live at the Hub Pub in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, side two doesn’t skip a beat in its sound. It took me a year to even realize the sides were split between live and studio! If anything, the live atmosphere only adds to the octane in the picking and harmonies. In any case, tunes like the a capella “Southbound Passenger Train” clearly had to be recorded live and we are treated to honest takes on gems like Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spikedriver Blues” and a fine original from piano player Bob Hill in “Southern Lady.” Cash may have done better with “Tennessee Stud” but it’s nice to hear Doc close with a happy take on a hit.

If you’re a fan of “honest, down-to-earth” and damn good country music, track this one down. We’ll miss you, Doc!

mp3: Cypress Grove Blues
mp3: Spikedriver Blues

:D Reissue | 2003 | 2fer w/ Live & Pickin | buy here ]
:) Original | 1976 | United Artists | search ebay ]

Douglas Dillard “The Banjo Album”

Douglas Flint Dillard died in a Nashville hospital on May 16th, 2012, at the age of 75. He never became a household name – doesn’t even rate a personal Wikipedia page – but that was probably fine by this self-effacing, self-mocking virtuoso musician. On the plus side, he survived to an age not achieved by so many of his peers whose names are more widely celebrated. Sometimes it’s better not to become a rock’n’roll legend, especially if it’s posthumously.

Hailing from deepest Missouri and starting out as a bluegrass purist along with guitarist brother Rodney as the eponymous Dillards, Doug became part of the West Coast country-pop revolution of the late 60s, initially as a session player (it’s probably him on the Monkees’ “What Am I Doing Hanging Round”, although Peter Tork could handle the five-string instrument quite capably) and then as a band member touring Europe with the Byrds playing the Sweetheart Of The Rodeo material. Prior to the tour Doug struck up an enduring friendship with former Byrd Gene Clark, contributing to Gene’s album with the Gosdin Brothers, and on his return jam sessions with Gene, Bernie Leadon and Don Beck led to his own Banjo Album.

Coming as it does between Sweetheart and Dillard & Clark’s peerless Fantastic Expedition, the humdrum-titled Banjo Album occupies a seminal place in the evolution of country-rock, as the instruments and players of the standard bluegrass ensemble go in search of new and uncharted musical areas to occupy whilst taking a rockin’ sledgehammer to the traditional lightweight bluegrass sonic envelope. The historical notes by Joe Foster to the present CD put it more dramatically: “Eclectic is certainly a good description . . . jazz drums, harpsichord, djembek, tablas and various sound effects, as well as a manic attack poised somewhere between Earl Scruggs and the Ramones”. Amen to that. And yet despite the frenzied presentation of the numbers – most of the tracks rush along at breakneck pace and clock in at around two minutes – the oddball instrumentation and the thick rock production, this remains an instrumental bluegrass music album at heart. Bill Monroe fans have nothing to fear.

Whilst credited to Douglas Dillard, this is a genuine band effort: Doug on the five-string plus the core combo of Leadon on acoustic and electric guitars, Beck on Dobro, John Hartford on fiddle and Red Mitchell on upright and electric basses. LA session veteran Andrew Belling contributes the harpsichord licks, future longtime Ry Cooder companion Milt Holland adds drums and exotic percussion and there’s a cameo from Gene Clark on harmonica. Departing on “Train 4500”, surely one of the best musical train simulations ever recorded, the journey takes us through a landscape of familiar and rare traditional tunes spiced with Dillard’s piquant arrangements. Sometimes only the timbre of the instrument reveals who’s soloing, as Beck and Belling can both whack out the triplets damn near as fast as Doug. The other high spots are “Clinch Mountain Back Step” on which Doug slurs the notes like the skirl of bagpipes, never missing a triplet roll even through the deliberate lurch in the rhythm, and the closing Dillard/Leadon original “With Care From Someone” with its distinctly non-bluegrass descending chromatic minor chord progression, on which all the protagonists get a chance to solo and Belling produces some revolutionary rock harpsichord. The bonus track on the Rev-Ola reissue is “Runaway Country”, the one-off track Doug contributed to the movie Vanishing Point with scorching assistance from Byron Berline and Billy Ray Latham of Country Gazette.

After the high-water-mark of Fantastic Expedition Doug’s career would settle into a comfortable stream of sessions with just about every country-flavoured performer in California and subsequently Nashville, intertwined with recordings and live appearances with a procession of reformed Dillards, New Dillards, Doug Dillard Bands and Rodney Dillard Bands until Doug became too ill to perform around 2010. If his epitaph be sought, it’s probably fair to say that every subsequent outfit from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to Bela Fleck & The Flecktones that’s twisted the tail of banjo-powered country music into new and unfamiliar shapes can be said to owe a debt to what Doug and Co. did on The Banjo Album.

mp3: Train 4500
mp3: Clinch Mountain Back Step

:D Reissue | 2012 | Floating World | buy here ]
:) Original | 1969 | search ebay ]

Music Emporium “Music Emporium”

This 1969 West Coast Rock curio by a little-known LA combo exudes novelty well beyond its appalling band name and its trashy cod-psych cover art. With three out of four musicians classically-trained and featuring an all-female rhythm section, the outfit’s claimed influences ranged from Iron Butterfly to the Carpenters, with members of both of whom they were on first-name terms.

Bill Cosby (no relation) was a five-time all-USA accordion champion, classical organist and UCLA music major whose preferred rock tool was a mega-cheap Italian Galanti GEM organ amplified through two massive Vox Super Beatle rigs. Diminutive Dora Wahl, also originally an accordionist, switched to percussion to join her elementary school band and by ’69 bestraddled a huge double-bass-drum kit in emulation of her hero, Ginger Baker. Carolyn Lee had played orchestral double bass from childhood and sang in choirs and acapella groups before being seduced by pop music and taking up electric bass guitar. Only guitarist Dave Padwin was an unschooled player, but his fluid, instinctive technique and extensive beat group experience won him the audition. Changing their moniker from the rather doomy Cage to the more psych-twee Music Emporium, the four performed around SoCal at weddings, barmitzvahs, high school hops, beach parties and anywhere else they could score a gig, confusing promoters and audiences alike with their unusual combination of clean-cut appearance, classical/folk/acid-rock fusion and unexpectedly high volume. The album was recorded in a couple of clandestine overnight sessions at Sunset Studios and then remixed with new vocals by an ex-Liberty employee just starting his own local label. The money saved on recording went on the tacky but elaborate die-cut cover through whose “windows” the portraits on the inner sleeve photo peeped out.

The defining sounds of the album are undoubtedly Cosby’s organ and the collective vocals. The GEM as recorded has a reedy, piercing power only approached by Frank Rodriguez of the Mysterians, though Cosby’s classical chops take it way beyond the realm of garage R’n’B. All except Wahl take lead vocals, though only Lee is by any means a polished singer; however, when their voices meld, the confident, slightly atonal harmonies are as effective and distinctive as the Airplane’s. Kicking off with “Nam Myo Renge Kyo”, which mutates from a garage-band romp into a Buddhist chant, the material ranges widely from the dreamy folky excursion of “Velvet Sunsets” and the almost country-rock “Times Like This” with its unexpected piano licks through the shamelessly Bach-inflected “Prelude” to “Winds Have Change”, whose soft harmonies and pulsating guitar work suggest early Moody Blues, and the uncompromising riffs, thundering drums and downright punk vocal of “Sun Never Shines”, the album’s most forthright track. Whilst unashamedly forefronting the musicians’ considerable skills, all the songs are rendered collaboratively and concisely with relatively few and short solos, only the proto-prog mini-suite “Cage” breaching the four-minute barrier. The Sundazed CD reissue also includes five of the same tracks in instrumental form, giving the opportunity to hear how deliberately and delicately the backings were constructed.

An initial pressing of just 300 copies and zilch press or radio exposure guaranteed the album’s rarity, because the Draft Board got Cosby’s number soon afterwards; unlike many of his compatriots he eschewed the Toronto option and elected to serve, and the band promptly broke up. Various crappy bootlegs of their sole waxing surfaced before Sundazed got hold of the master tapes for the definitive CD reissue in 2001. On this Bob Irwin’s remastering is excellent and the insert booklet offers a fine account of the band’s genesis and the making of the album, including touching personal updates by all four members: Padwin became a press photographer, Lee returned to orchestral work, Wahl became a teacher and Cosby served 17 years as Instructor of Cadet Music at West Point.

mp3: Prelude
mp3: Winds Have Changed

:) Original | Sentinal | 1969 | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | Sundazed | 2001 | buy ]