What does it sound like?:
Avid consumers of Mojo magazine’s ‘Buried Treasure’ feature, that tags an appreciation of a little-known album onto the re-issues section it calls the ‘Archive’ each month, may well have burnt their fingers a few times over the years. I certainly have, and my shelves are leavened with several such releases, played a few times, mulled over, and returned to the shelf ever since. What you might be wondering is if this is another one of those. Happily, the answer is that it isn’t. It certainly has a few moments when it teeters close to the naughty shelf, but, and this is the key thing, it also has moments of truly marvellous brilliance.
Let’s start at the beginning, in case you haven’t read the Mojo piece. And if you are unable to cast your mind back to the late sixties and how the music scene was at the time, I’ll do my best to try to set that scene for you as well. It’s 1968. We’ve had a lot of change across the musical spectrum in the last few years; Beatles, Stones, Motown, and so on. Soul and R&B (as it was then) have grown up too, and the psychedelic sounds are so ubiquitous that the industry is starting to pump the stuff out – soon to be anthologised and eventually to be boxed up by Cherry Red and Co. At the folkier end of things, we’ve had Donovan, Simon & Garfunkel and the rest, all acoustic guitars and hip lyrics, with outliers like Tim Buckley pushing the envelope in that direction.
In California, two high school kids who’ve known each other for several years start to write their own stuff, inspired by the folkier end of things, mainly because they have only got acoustic instruments, and they have limited access to funds. They do a few neighbourhood gigs, playing originals and covers, and then after finishing high school decide to record most of their original material on an album. They save up $300 and pay for 3 hours of studio time. They manage, just, to get 10 songs down in the time available. Getting 200 copies of the album – ‘Of Sun And Rain’ – pressed, they sell them locally, at gigs and to friends, and then they get on with their lives. They stay in contact, play live again together a decade later, continue to write new material. But essentially, they have vanished from the music firmament, having had their flurry of presence in 1969 when the LP was pressed, they are happy to fade out and live their lives without the music business.
So what is it, this artefact they put out into the world as very young men, barely out of their childhoods, all that time ago, and now that it is possible to buy a re-issue in CD form, would you enjoy it if you invested? I had some doubts when I decided to get a copy for myself. I didn’t really know what to expect across its 50-odd minutes (there are three extra tracks on the CD that the original LP lacked) though YouTube had revealed clues through a few low-fi rips.
So the disc slides into the CD drawer and the first notes ring out. Crystal clear finger-picked notes from a guitar with clarion harmonics from a second. A gentle vocal that follows the child-like melody, and it’s all very much of its time, immediately bringing early Simon & Garfunkel to mind. Technically, it’s mostly quite well recorded – two interwoven guitars and two voices, clear and easy to distinguish. What I hear immediately tells me that the songs that start the record are very much reflecting the authors’ influences – a nod to the sound of Paul Simon’s picking here, there a Donovan lift. The lyrics are, as the Mojo piece nicely says, awash with ‘sun-dappled naivety’ that instantly evokes a time of innocence, a time of confidence, that has sadly ebbed away over the intervening decades.
I found it difficult at first to listen all the way through, overwhelmed with what felt like deep waves of twee; I stopped the CD after about five tracks, at the end of the original side one of the LP, and put it back in its little case, wondering what to make of it. Charming and brittle, so obviously made by two guys besotted with the folk music of their day, both easily capable of producing a convincing version of it by themselves, and blessed with a curiously European voicing style that meant the lyrics – written by a third party – were easily heard, innocently reflecting their earnest, rather unworldly nature.
Reflecting upon those first few songs, what they brought to my mind was a recording I have of a concert a bunch of us put on at school in 1973. It was a combination of poetry readings and original and covered songs – very much a performance model at the time – and it was performed by a five-piece band; two guitars, keyboard, bass and drums. The whole thing was titled ‘Fire & Ice’ after the Robert Frost poem, and was roughly themed around a cycle from creation to eschaton. I happened to have a small cassette machine at the time and recorded one of the performances. My recording is a million miles lower in fi than the frankly astonishing quality of this self-released LP, but listening to it again, I heard the same youthful naivety and lack of self-consciousness coming through, the same optimism and open-ness, the same spiritual generosity.
In the light of this, some days later I decided to try again, and this time I skipped to what I knew was the first track on side two of the original vinyl; the sleeve notes told me that I was listening to their first co-written number, and to my mind the influence most strongly at play here was suddenly Buckley – no longer Simon or Donovan, but much more robustly American. And I was hearing a track that, if I’d been told was a Tim Buckley song, I’d have believed it. It’s an acid-folk freakout of the first order, lots of fun, and jumps out of the speakers. It’s the first track to really reveal the technical limitations of the recording process, and is a pretty astonishing single take; very much both of its time and yet outrageously bold. It’s followed by another return to the mellow vibe of the first side, and yet there’s a more mature feel to the songs now; the second side seems to represent material written by much more confident musicians. Anyone who enjoyed acoustic folk of the last years of the sixties – McTell, Tilston et al in the UK, Buckley and others in the USA – you will find songs and playing here that will make you nostalgic for that time of peace protests, early eco-awareness, and earnest young things trying to change the world.
In a nutshell, I was gently charmed by the first side of the record, but I was both charmed and impressed by what the second side reveals. I won’t go into every individual track; I want to leave you with the possibility that you’ll make up your own mind about their worth.
I should finish by answering the basic question; is this a buried treasure or is it a historic curio? The truth is it’s both. It fully deserves a time in the sun; I think it will appeal mostly to those of us of a certain vintage who remember the first time round for these stylings, when we couldn’t afford to buy many records so settled largely for the well-publicised ones from the artists whose names were written about. These guys were operating in the same territories, but did it all on a shoestring for their own satisfaction, and did it all out of the sight of the vast majority of music fans. If you’ve a mind to invest I think you’ll admire their spirit and take joy from the fact that their recordings are still out there, smiling with innocence and enjoyment.
What does it all *mean*?
Here’s their whole story condensed to 20 fascinating minutes.
Goes well with…
Buckley, Simon, and the rest of the acoustic explorers.
It’s out now here: http://www.slipstreamrecords.com/
Might suit people who like…
An evening’s reflection in a mellow mood.