Strawbs-Grave New World

December 2, 2011

The Strawbs

Grave New World (A&M 1972)

http://www.mediafire.com/?q2ezq173o11kxr7

Amidst all of the psychedelic wayfarers of the 60s England, the Strawbs have always gotten lost in the shuffle of a deck stacked with Pink Floyds, Beatles, Cream, Incredible String Band and countless other seminal influences on modern music. All you need to know is that I discovered this album through the recommendation of my mother-in-law. Yeah, she’s a pretty cool mother-in-law to be sure, but it points to how their musical pollination never quite spread beyond a long-forgotten garden visited by far too few souls. That’s a shame because I’ve been dipping my toes into their pool and hate that they’ve become a criminally neglected footnote to the careers of original member Sandy Denny and later addition Rick Wakeman. Personally, I am enamored by the prospect of any band that combined the opposing viewpoints of the folks who sparked Fairport Convention and Yes, even if they contributed to different eras of the Strawbs. Sadly, the names of Denny and Wakeman obscure the legacy and immense talent of singer/guitarist Dave Cousins, who is the foundation of the band.

Cousins’ voice kind of reminds me of a folksier, gentle version of Cat Stevens, but with a bit more passion, grit and urgency. Although the instrumentation of Grave New World straddles the line between pastoral English folk and the orchestral bombast of 70s prog, Cousins grounds it all with a earnest, pleading voice that wouldn’t sound out of place on a lonesome folk platter lost to general obscurity. His timeless voice and knack for imbuing each track with a sad, weary pathos can be derived from his time playing skiffle and obsessing over the heartbreaking catalogs of Leadbelly, Bob Dylan and Elizabeth Cotten. Most important was his devotion to Flatt and Scruggs who inspired him to pick up a banjo and dedicate himself to its mastery. Don’t expect any hoedowns and juke joint paeans to wayward lovers since the Strawbs were a far different band by the time Grave New World was released in 1972.

Grave New World and its predecessor From the Witchwood are where the Strawbs really hit their stride. Folks tend to fixate on their debut with Sandy Denny, but it’s folk-rock sounds simplistic in comparison to their flights into the pretentious heavens of prog. Don’t fear–this is no Tarkus or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Grave New World may be the most folksy, earthy prog album of the 70s and avoids the conceptual excess and pompous pitfalls of their brethren. At it’s core, Grave New World is 60s English folk album concerned with “lords of the forest”, changing seasons and the decay of true love. However, Cousins dalliances with prog enervates these tried and true themes and the familiar becomes electric. Just take a listen to “The Flower and the Young Man” and tell me that it doesn’t deserve a place besides “Calvary Cross” and “Come All Ye” in the sweepstakes for the penultimate English folk tune deserving of epic status. Awash in warm, buzzing organ, perfect harmony and a beautiful progression from serenity to frenetic guitar soloing, this song just nails everything I love about this era in music. Even the lyrics paint a perfect picture:

While seasons change in timely way
The salt sea ever flows
Where open moors lie cold and bleak
A single flower grows.

Though winter snows fall deep and long
The flower grows the while
The weary traveller passing by
Feels warmer for her smile.

Sunshine and the tender flower
Both melt the young man’s heart
But he who lingers waits his turn
Must learn to play his part.

Through summer days of warmth and love
The young man tends his flower
But blinded by their colours bright
Heeds not the passing hour.

The autumn trees once clothed with gold
Now frayed and sadly worn
The flower bids a chill farewell
The young man’s heart is torn.

While seasons change in timely way
The salt sea ever flows
Where open moors lie cold and bleak
A single flower grows.

It’s a classic tale that wouldn’t sound out of place as a traditional folk tune recorded long ago, but their instrumentation places it in a different musical context and it is simultaneously a twist on time honored themes and a declaration of their individuality and unique take on what others fumbled or rehashed. I’m not saying Grave New World is some game changer that will leave you slack jawed, but is peppered with bouts of genius that deserves to be treasured by more than my mother-in-law and I.

Terry Allen-Juarez

October 28, 2008

Terry Allen

Juarez (Fate 1975)

http://www.mediafire.com/?w93ibjujmni

It is a wonderful problem to have in this troublesome world, but sometimes it is hard to pick the next album for this lowly blog. Over the years, so many albums have wormed their way into my heart. Some have been my best friend at 4am when the whiskey wears thin and soothing sounds are required to ease me into the next day. Some are forever associated with moments of sheer ecstasy where life was absolutely electric. Others lack an association with a particular moment, but they still remind me of why I spend so much of my time listening to the albums which litter my home. There is a massive mental list of albums that I would like to share, but Terry Allen’s Juarez was always near the top of the list. However, a fella can’t give it all up on the first date, so you had to wait a few months before I slipped off my granny panties and revealed what is in store for you.

Terry Allen may be one of the most unsung voices in country music and Juarez, his debut album, might be the first I would grab if ordered to take one with into the next life.  He never received the same accolades as Lubbock, TX contemporaries like Butch Hancock, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, but only the Flatlanders debut can match the brilliance of his opening salvo. Juarez is a concept album, but dispel all notions of Yes and ELP’s prog manifestos since this concept is noirish at its very core. It documents the dark tale of an alcoholic couple on a bender who get involved in murderous sojourn through a Southern California desert by way of Mexico. It is more than a great album, but a well-crafted story complete with spoken word interludes that introduce the characters in a colorful fashion. The story is the linchpin that draws you into the world of Sailor, Spanish Alice, Jabbo and Chick Blundy as they drink, fuck, get married, escape, the law, honeymoon and meet ther eventual demise. Each song is another step in a narrative about adventure, bad decisions, love and a surrender to impulse. I cannot think of another album that works so well as both a story and ode to the tragic nature of the outlaw in country music.

The best moments are the most sparse. When it is Just Terry Allen and a piano, it reminds me of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush or Tonight’s the Night, but with less rock and roll at its core. “Cortez Sail” is the pinnacle of the album as it may be one of the most lonesome songs about leaving a town for a new beginning. A storm accompanies their departure and it serves as a metaphor for all of the shit that is about to go down, but amazingly shifts into a vivid description of the Aztec persepctive as Cortex arrived to conquer and colonize a foreign land. It is an odd juxtaposition, but one that truly spooks me to my core. When he yodels “Pachuco” it sends chills up my spine. Plus, any song that includes the lyrics “see how the lightning makes tracks in your air, tearing the clouds in and closing the tear, but you’re not surprised anymore, you’re going home” is ok with me. It foreshadows doom, but the protagonists are ok with their fate because their is a certain beauty to the idea of home.

If there is anything you cherrypick from this ramshackle collection of musings, please make Juarez your first destination. It is an album rarely cited as a classic, let alone mentioned outside of country aficionados and deserves much love and respect from all who encounter it.

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band

Lick My Decals Off, Baby (Bizarre/Straight 1970)

http://www.mediafire.com/?mnbxzmulmne

Throughout my life, I have chosen small purgatories instead of making wild leaps. Sometimes it just seemed more prudent to ponder before making an action that may directly impact my path in this wooly wilderness. Please do not typecast me as a 99 pound pantywaist since I’ve also acted rashly to both my benefit and detriment in the realms of love, money, profession and mental well-being. Most of these stationary moments have lasted weeks or maybe months, but there is one in particular that lasted an entire year. I had graduated from my Western Pennsylvania college and decided to take a job as a record store manager and see where my long-term relationship would lead this old sap. I spent most of my days listening to Yes and Neil Young and occasionally laid on the floor while soaking in Everybody Knows This is Knowhere or Yessongs as if they were my current gospel. The other manager used to drive around with a mannequin of skeleton in the backseat of his car and pull a string to make it wave during Halloween, but many times it was in July. He also fantasized about jumping into the trash compactor while setting himself ablaze, so it is pretty certain that this purgatory deviated more towards a personal hell instead of a heaven. However, there was a numb calm to these days spent opening albums and listening to them while folks fawned over Princess Di and her sappy anthem.

During these moments of malaise, I was thoroughly embiggened every time that the truck arrived with the latest batch of cut-out cassettes. For every Front 242 disaster and emasculated Iggy Pop disaster, there was my virgin experience with Skip Spence, Hawkwind, United States of America, Flaming Groovies as well as the album highlighted here–Lick My Decals Off, Baby. My only experience with the Captain was in a vague appreciation of Trout mask replica that never went past second base. It was all maneuvering and weaving and bobbing without pathos. I still like it, but Lick My Decals was dense, but there was a melancholy about its songs that became addictive.

Many may disagree, but Lick My Decals is far superior to anything Captain Beefheart ever recorded. It is a close cousin to Trout Mask Replica and some songs fall victim to the chops and noodling of its predecesor, but this one is really touching if you listen to it as much as I have. “One Rose That I Mean” is one of my favorite tracks as it echoes John Fahey and early Leo Kottke, but there is so much hurt in this instrumental. Its meager crescendos seem crippled by the emotion involved in its creation.

For example, “Petrifed Forest” starts off with a kaleidoscope of stuttering riffs, poetic rants and rhythmic acrobatics, but there is a break in the storm and he gets it suddenly turns into a romantic coda and he makes a cryptic claim that he “only wants to rumble through your petrified forest.” It lasts only twenty seconds, but the complexity suddenly becomes a simple plea for a chance at love with someone who isn’t willing to accept his intentions.

I also love the weird eroticism and playfulness at work on this album. On the title track, the old Captain is kind of a love starved soul that devotes his time to “licking you everywhere it’s pink” and to “lick his decals off, baby.” There is more than a perverse tale at work as the Magic Band drives the song along its own peculiar manner. Yes, the the image of Captain Beefheart licking every inch of you may inspire disgust or an idiosyncratic explosion of the sexual kind, but one must admit that his paean to hedonism is quite an image to have lodged in your noggin.

Overall, Lick My Decals Off, Baby is the last we would see of the unhinged and somewhat insane side of the band before they became a bit more polished and bluesy. More importantly, his later songs fail to touch me like Decals, Mirror Man, Safe as Milk and much of Trout Mask Replica. This is his peak, but his slide is infinitely more entertaining than most musicians’ best compositions.

Os Mutantes

Cavaleiros Negros EP (1976)

http://www.mediafire.com/?9zuskbeowql

I hold the unpopular opinion that Os Mutantes did their best work from 1973-76, after Rita Lee had left and the drugs were in high supply. This is their final studio work from 1976, just a three song single. I believe this material was also released on a rather spotty rarities collection of the same name. The sound quality isn’t perfect, and there isn’t much to say about the overall originality of these tunes- they’re basically channeling the big groups (namely Yes) from years earlier. However, in my mind the first song “Cavaleiros Negros” might be the best example of how fantastic symphonic prog could be regardless of originality. An extended, somewhat psychedelic intro building to beautiful guitar and keyboard interplay giving way to the most mind blowing synth climax I’ve ever heard about six and a half minutes in. The best song I’ve ever heard without a doubt. The other two songs are awesome, too. An Os Mutantes fan won’t necessarily enjoy this EP, but it’s certainly my favourite of their discography.