May 12, 2012
s/t (Fulcrum 1971)
Most music junkies eventually fall into the trap of unjustly glorifying obscurity for the sake of diving headlong into something new to them. It’s understandable since the internet has made it all too easy to paint oneself into a corner when downpours of discographies rain down upon the eager like manna from heaven. I come from the last gasps of a time when neglected classics were unattainable unless you had the good fortune to have an elder sage to take you by the hand and make cassette copies or burn a cd and pay it forward to the next generation. Thankfully, my social circles were populated by a few of these altruistic punks, hippies and burnouts and my eyes were opened to artists like Skip Spence, Ted Lucas and Michael Hurley that expanded my horizons beyond the indie rock cul de sac I inhabited. As I obsessively dug deeper and deeper into the cavalcade of wounded souls that recorded in the 60s and 70s, I found myself falling into the aforementioned trap of blindly embracing the obscure and viewed too many flawed albums through rose-colored glasses. I guess I became so addicted to the initial rush one gets when an album immediately embraces you and shakes your hand like an old friend at first listen. I just wanted all of them to be my companion and spent too much time justifying their faults.
However, I recently discovered Virgil Caine’s s/t debut and it sparked the same sense of awe and familiarity that the aforementioned artists once inspired in me and reminded me why music encompasses so much of my life. It is one of those small, but transcendent moments in life when you stumble upon such greatness and realize that you haven’t heard a damn word about in it’s forty year existence and it was just lying around unloved for so long until now.
There is no one named Virgil Caine in this trio. The name is borrowed from the protagonist in The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” which is fitting since their music is indebted to Dylan and The Band and sometimes reminds me a bit of a loopy, southern gothic cousin to The Velvet Underground’s minus all the pretensions. Honestly, drain all the bombast and grandeur from all three, mix it up in a pot and it kind of sounds like Virgil Caine.
What makes Virgil Caine more than a likable footnote in the annals of 70s folk and private press oddities is the Appalachian drawl and literary knack of guitarist and vocalist Roger Mannon who paints a southern tableau populated with swamp witches, environmental destruction, small towns where everyone is welcome at the dinner table and mischievous barn cats who raise havoc to a Vaudeville soundtrack. It’s an absurdist slice of the south depicted in the most endearing way possible as Mannon pays tribute to an America where pagans hide in the shadows and organized religion demands blind allegiance. Yet, Mannon romanticizes the concept of genteel southern hospitality and its genial smile as many of his songs glorify the humility and helping hands that drive the small towns that litter the landscape of his songs.
Just listen to the opener “The Great Lunar Oil Strike, 1976” and you gain immediate entry into Mannon’s sincere, yet tongue in cheek lyrical bent. Centered around a sloppily strummed guitar and messier backbeat, it’s a biting and bitterly sardonic commentary on the oil industry that is eerily prescient of what was to come in the future. It might be the first recorded protest against deep sea drilling and exploitation of the American wilderness by big business. It fittingly ends with the coda”You just can’t see the moon at night” as Mannon describes an America that doomed to be subjugated by its industrial master. It’s as timely today as it was in 1971.
However, my favorite song on Virgil Caine is “Swamp Witch” as Mannon cooks up some imaginary southern mythology about a swamp witch who beckons visitors with promises of armadillo meat and a place to lay your weary head in the mire. Mannon speaks of his desire to learn the voodoo arts, but has his mind torn apart and falls under the spell of this enchantress. These spoken word interludes are always broken up by a bewitching chorus celebrating this swap witch until Mannon jumps back in to depict the swamp an elemental force that has the power to literally rend him limb from limb. It all sounds so sinister if you listen to the lyrics, but the vibe of the song is so relaxing and inviting as if it were a song from a siren itself.
Ultimately, Virgil Caine’s one and only album is one of those rare albums that give birth to its own insular universe populated by a cast of paranoid crackpots, broken hearts, kind souls and simple folks who aim for nothing more than doing right thing in a world full of wrong. I revisit it often since each song is like a vignette that I want to obsessively read over and over again and linger upon each syllable and chorus.
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