Features | Retconning

V :: Seventies Folk

By Mark Abraham | 3 January 2007

I don’t have a whole lot to say by way of introduction this month, since I think the contextual history is pretty well known. Folk music had already been irrevocably altered in concept and form in the early and mid-sixties, first by Dylan and then by the Byrds and other folk rock groups. What’s surprising, I think, is just how far certain folk musicians took experimentation in the early seventies to move away even from folk rock, and how many of these albums, whether because of willful disregard for audience demands or all sorts of horribly handled marketing campaigns, have languished in that wasteland of "critical acclaim" but still seem to have little popular value.

Lately, more than any other genre, it’s sometimes it’s hard to keep up with new discoveries. A certain Banhart’s growing popularity (soundtracking horror films?) has caused a spate of obscure folk albums loosely associated with "freak" to be reissued in the last few years, but most of the ones new to me just don’t match the quality of the ones on the list (although, thankfully, the same push has caused most of the more rare ones here to be reissued as well. Except Starsailor. Somebody reissue Starsailor already). Most of the music here only loosely qualifies as "folk" insofar as what it sounds like, but you probably could have guessed that given my other tastes. I mean, Blood on the Tracks is all fine and good, but do we really need Dylan to define folk music in every decade? I say "snore," and while I’m well aware that’s a highly unpopular opinion, Comus would eat Bob for breakfast.

Linda Perhacs :: Parallelograms (1970)

If the title makes it sound like a jazz album, I’m happy to say that at times you can read it that way. Exhibit one: the title track of this 1970 gem features ludicrously beautiful harmonizing on lyrics like “Mono-cyclo-cyber-cilia” and “Radio-larial-uni cellular”; the weepy dips spread out like California’s Topanga Canyon where Perhacs grew up, words bouncing back at one another, intersecting vowels and consonants soaring towards the horizon. That experimental space is deep, but the rest of the album is about Perhacs playing right at your face. Like the title says, it’s all angles. Exhibits 2-4: “Call of the River” also has a melody built on oblong shapes; the bass and guitar of “Sandy Toes” caress each other like post-coital Tetris blocks; “Delicious” is both the concave banks of a river and the shifting speeds at which its water flows. On the other hand, we get exhibits 5-7: “Moons and Cattails” (template for Califone), “Paper Mountain Man” (template for Heart), and “Porcelain Baked Cast Iron Wedding” (template for awesome). Ignore the dippy cover art with its vaguely “native” iconography (although those heels are totally unsuitable for that terrain); ignore the freak folk titles that make it seem like a Vashti Bunyan album (it bears some relationship, but it’s way better than that); ignore the sketches of leaves on the back. The CD version of the album contains a couple of extra tracks, and therefore Perhac’s complete discography. It’s incredibly beautiful, well-crafted stuff, but what I really like is how it puts all your Banharts to shame. Because “freak folk” or not, Parallelograms dispenses with the vegetable garden metaphors in favor of hooks that satisfy any Pythagorean theorem.

Tim Buckley :: Starsailor (1970)

Like father, like son but I’ll always take this version of the father, sweaty and oozing more sexuality than anything his son could ever conjure, because Muddy Waters may have sung about his mojo but this album is what mojo sounds like in the first place. When the opening noise of “Come Here Woman” gives way to Buckley’s fixated caterwauls, his phonetic conjurings that often sound better than they mean are simply vessels for his moans, screeches, and bends, his voice tripping over Lee Underwood’s guitars and synths, Maury Baker’s percussion, John Balkin’s bass, and guest-artist/former Mother of Invention Bunk Gardner’s horns. The result sounds like little earthquakes in perfectly resonant rooms; it’s vocalized free jazz, and everything is genius. Even “Song to the Siren,” which might have been a throwaway to fans pissed at Buckley’s new eclectic direction, sounds like the blueprint for Talk Talk’s later work and Slowdive (and was covered by This Mortal Coil). “Junglefire” and “Monterey” give just enough rock thump to keep the album spinning forward, but it’s the weird, claustrophobic vocal overdubs of “Starsailor”; the spinning, undulating space of “I Woke Up”; and Gardner’s placid sax solo over Buckley’s excruciatingly distended vocals on “The Healing Festival” that make this such a fascinating piece to return to again and again. “Down By the Borderline” is almost respite, Underwood dropping the funk while the horns and the drums play cutely on. Of course, as often happens with a challenging masterpiece, the lackluster reaction to Starsailor would start Buckley on the path that would lead towards his death in 1975. He was financially ill-equipped to produce his own music; Frank Zappa’s Straight Records demanded something more commercial; his next three albums, all produced under drugs and duress, were apathetic stabs at rock and funk. And while the legal battles between Straight and the Rhino subsidiary Bizarre have still prevented this beast from reissue (after a very short run in 1989), iTunes recently made it available online, which is kind of weird, but also kind of awesome. Nothing sounds like this album, and nothing probably could or should, since I doubt we need another giant experimental mess that makes sex sound so endlessly sad.

Comus First Utterance (1971)

Wikipedia calls Comus the Greek god of “nocturnal dalliances.” Who wrote that shit? Comus was the god of fucking, but he was the god of, like, inhumanly decadent fucking. You’d die from an orgasm, but he’d still make you want to tap that, whatever “that” was, since the Greeks spent his parties in drag. The name of the British band might therefore hint at why this album is a folk, prog, and metal landmark all at the same time. The lyrics are all about violence, murder, insanity, and rape. Basically, imagine Fairport Convention jamming with King Crimson on some weird Leda and the swan fantasy — it’s sometimes that awkward, reaching hentai levels of icky translated through Tolkien levels of dorky. The seven band members play acoustic prog with the same deftness as Genesis on Foxtrot (1972) without ever exploding into distorted sections; they don’t ever need to, because this stuff is intimidating enough. At the same time we get all sorts of delicious pop moments: the roundabout choruses of “Diana” at the end of the opening track, the absolutely beautiful harmonies that grace the coda of “The Herald,” the weird scattered rhythms and funk of “Drip Drip” that lead into a gorgeous string-and-acoustic metal riff whose eventual breakdown is a huge “fuck you, Dave Matthews Band!” Songs like “The Prisoner,” “The Bite,” and the scorching “Bitten” are all the more impressive for the fact that the band had no drummer (the reissue has a subsequent EP that does feature a drummer, although they don’t really get less sparse); their pulsating rhythms and on-a-dime changes are achieved with only hand percussion. But what really makes the band work is the vocals. Say what you want about the lyrics, but the singing of Roger Wootton, Bobbie Watson, and the rest of the band is always clever, engaging, and counterintuitive. And incredibly intimate, as it describes all your catastrophes, which is the scariest part I think.

Roy Harper :: Stormcock (1971)

We can follow the bouncy ball from Harper to Broughton, but only with a couple of pit stops at Springsteen and Jethro Tull. The four tracks show Harper at his best: simple concepts, exquisite executions, and absolutely fabulous writing. Witness “Hors D’Oeurves,” where he takes a descending bass acoustic line (one you’ve heard on approximately 27,893 songs) and cranks it into a chilling 8 minute dissection of a critic who had given him a bad review: “You can lead a horse to water / But you’re never gonna make him drink / And you can lead a man to slaughter / But you’re never gonna make him think.” The song spirals overdubbed vocal ambience, organs, and several acoustics. “The Same Old Rock” explains Ian Anderson’s debt on Harper, while Jimmy Page (credited as S. Flavius Mercurius) plays lead overtop. The two move through some wonderful guitar passages under the vocal passages, but it’s the crisp and thunderous chord riffs that cut into the later sections that make the track soar. “One Man Rock and Roll Band” is all reversed cadences and pianos collapsing over complex guitar fingerings. “Me and My Woman” features lush horn and string arrangements by David Bedford. When I said in our Joanna Newsom review that I was glad she was bringing back the long-song format, this is the kind of thing I was talking about: conceptually erudite but wholly evocative.

Mickey Newbury :: ‘Frisco Mabel Joy (1971)

I lurve “The Future’s Not What it Used to Be.” It’s the best song to mention any of the Decaturs, and that opening piano is just wonderful. And that could be the blurb right there, if Newbury wasn’t so woefully unknown despite all the fabulous writing he’s done. Elvis Presley made “An American Trilogy” a hit a year later, inserting it as a glittery centerpiece to his Vegas act, but Newbury’s original version that opens this album is gorgeously understated, interpolating three Civil War-era songs into a stunning and conflicted deliberation on American idealism. Newbury, with his weeping voice, moves into more personal territory for the rest of the album. “How Many Times (Must the Piper be Paid for His Song)” is slow and deliberate, Newbury turning his voice to “fragile” as he tears all over Charlie McCoy’s placid guitar picking. “‘Frisco Depot” is insanely haunting in its desperation: “When you’re alone you ain’t got much reason for living / But while you’re alive you just have to live with your pain.” Both feature heavily reverbed backing vocals that sound like synths climbing in the background (and, for both this and the wonderful string sounds, producer Dennis Linde deserves credit). And while much of the album follows these two songs in explorations of endless personal angst, the album also features some wonderfully upbeat material. “Mobile Blue” is basic rocking honky tonk, stealing from as much as it inspired Kris Kristofferson. “How I Love Them Old Songs” strips it down further, ending the album on a playful note made all the more resonant by the utter despair that precedes it.

Judee Sill :: Heart Food (1973)

Her self-titled debut is probably a tad easier to get into — notably, for the Graham Nash-produced “Jesus was a Crossmaker” — but Sill’s second and last completed album is enchanting precisely for how obtuse it is. The imagery and tone are almost zealously religious (this isn’t Sufjan’s pretty Christianity; this religion is hard) on songs like “Kiss” and “Donor,” and Sill also struggled with heroin and cocaine addictions. While she was critically acclaimed, she refused to open for other acts, which meant she rarely toured, and he slow self-destruction after this album began with her dropping out of sight — she disappeared so quickly that Nash thought she had overdosed as early as 1974; she actually would in 1979. This album is about blind faith in god or drugs and it sounds like that, and while I’m wary of saying that artists give themselves over in art, Sill always sounds like she’s in direct communion with her higher power. Her incredibly dense vocal and string arrangements for Heart Food are like staircases, and her songs are often languid enough that you can clearly see their structure. “Kiss” is the highlight, an unfolding gospel epic that conflates intimacy and communion; the way she piles on those harmonies is both fascinating and chilling, capturing the sense of rapture she so often exploits. Fortunately, less earnest pieces like “There’s a Rugged Road” and “Soldier of the Heart” keep this somewhat earthbound and approachable. For being one of the more straightforward releases on this list, this might be the hardest album to find a good space with; listening to a singer vomit their desire to marry god on you is both moving and incredibly uncomfortable. But strangely haunting, all the same.

Meg Christian :: I Know You Know (1974)

Olivia Records, a label started by radical ex-Furies and Radicalesbians in 1973, was a cultural feminist project as much as it was about music. If women were constantly objectified in music and controlled in production and marketing, the five main members of Olivia thought women needed their own infrastructure to work within, free of men. Meg Christian was the only musician who was also a member of the collective, and this album was both her and the label’s first (most fans of Olivia would point to Cris Williamson’s The Changer and the Changed [1975] as the best album, but I’ve always been fonder of this one). It’s hard to separate the album from the politics sometimes; this is difficult music, inspired by the Olivia members’ belief in radical separatism, in creating worlds without men. This is also lesbian music in the confrontation sense, and when Christian opens with a gorgeous interpretation of Alice Cooper’s “Hello, Hooray” redesigned as a celebration of coming out and coming together, it’s easy for the boys in the audience to get acutely self-conscious. Musically, however, Christian displays a beautiful ability to interpret and compose. Her classical training in guitar certainly helps, as does the coterie of women who were brought in to orchestrate the album. Songs like “Mama” and “The Hive” are angry and confrontational, “Joanna” and “Valentine Song” celebrate love, “Scars” speaks to feminist revolution, and her cover of Linda Lewis’ “Goodbye Joanna” is simply a gorgeous song, however you cut it. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this album to lesbians and gay men in the seventies; despite the rise of gay lib post-Stonewall, it was albums like this that helped many young women and men to come out in those more repressive times, and while the rise of DC punk culture would fuel different routes for feminist and queer music in the ‘80s, I Know You Know still relevantly wears its politics on its lovely, gorgeously musical sleeve. Plus, “Ode to a Gym Teacher” is awesome.

Joni Mitchell :: The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)

Okay, so if you have ever wondered what my favorite album ever is, here you go. Why? I’ve never really bought into the importance of Mitchell’s lyrics — I like them, and they’re great and all, but they often don’t amount to much more than interesting turns of phrase strung together with only loose concepts to bind them. And a lot of contemporary critics said that since this album turned away from the “confessional” style of her more intimate folk it was not as good, but I mean, I don’t really see the difference, beyond the fact that her concerns had matured by this album’s release (although it’s probably not surprising that many of those reviews were vaguely sexist at the thought of their precious Joni making music like this). Which is likely why I like this album more than perennial favorite Blue (1971), since a) like Buckley on Starsailor, Mitchell was always more concerned about sound and tone anyway, which is the real point here, as her voice becomes another instrument in this burgeoning jazz folk fusion experiment, and b) fuck her lyrics when you’ve got this incredibly dense and complex sound. Because even calling it jazz folk doesn’t really explain it, since “Jungle Line” — with its field recordings of the Warrior drums of Burundi and its harsh Moog synth lines — anticipates the work of post-punk groups like This Heat, “Shades of Scarlett Conquering” is orchestral in scope, and the closing “Shadows and Light” is one of the most profound vocal experiments ever set to tape. Elsewhere, we have the wonderfully fun “In France They Kiss on Main Street,” the gorgeous mob story of “Edith and the Kingpin,” the stream of consciousness “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” that acts as a prelude to “Coyote” which is my personal favorite Mitchell track, the meditative “Boho Dance” with its gorgeous synth lines, and the solo acoustic “Sweet Bird” which is sort of like a “hey — remember what you thought I was?” after the deluge. She wasn’t, and this album is a fucking masterpiece in every sense of the word, and a beautiful example of how an artist can decide to produce some fabulously composed songs in a whole variety of ways, influenced by whatever he chooses, and still come out the other end with a wonderfully cohesive piece…

Kate & Anna McGarrigle :: Kate & Anna McGarrigle (1975)

…and besides, folk is supposed to be eclectic, right? In that real, down home “folklore” ideal, where songs are about history and culture? This album is like the opposite of Hissing of Summer Lawns, endlessly traditional and always fun. Kate and Anna, Quebecoise sisters, play most of these songs straight, but it’s the way their compositions seem timeless — the way they get into the styles they’re performing — that makes this set essential. We get typical Fairport Convention fare like “Kiss & Say Goodbye,” basic blues like “Blues in D,” and the gorgeous ballad “Heart Like a Wheel” which was later recorded by Linda Rondstadt in much more bombastic form. But we also get reggae like the French “Complainte Pour Ste Catherine,” a banjo-driven recording of Kate’s once-husband Loudon Wainwright’s “The Swimming Song” (yes, she is the mother of Rufus and Martha), and the gospel workout “Travellin’ On for Jesus.” The album also features guest appearances by Tony Levin and Lowell George (in case the thought of Levin playing reggae makes you giggle like me). The is an album of wonderfully oldschool invention that plays with form and subject in ways that seem entirely natural, and which, as an album, is far more coherent than most of its ilk, which is why Fairport Convention And Related Material isn’t on this list.

Renaissance :: Scheherazade and Other Stories (1975)

They weren’t as gruesome as Comus, but British band Renaissance (as the name might suggest) was just as interested in times long gone. After a grueling prog intro, we suddenly launch into an idyllic exploration of the fair, Annie Haslam singing beautifully over chimes and organ pulses. The song, and the material on the album, rotates between heavily composed sections and passages that seem to build through slight improvisation. “Folk” is a concept here; “The Vultures Fly High” follows those footsteps, but would fit comfortably on a straightforward rock album, John Camp’s bass doing its best to sound like dive bombing birds in the creases. “Ocean Gypsy” shows off keyboardist John Tout’s impressive skills and drummer Terrence Sullivan’s ability to switch between restraint and cacophony fluidly. Band leader and guitarist Michael Dunford plays a funny role — he’s written the songs, but his guitar is rarely the focus of the arrangements. Especially on the closing “Song of Scheherazade,” a reinterpretation of the Rimsky-Korsakov suite based on The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, a Persian folk tale about the way Scheherazade manages to prevent the Sultan from marrying her, fucking her, and killing her the next morning as he had his past 3000 wives. Lovely, I know, but the music hear, accompanied by full orchestra, is astounding; Haslam leads the chorus and musicians beautifully, and Tony Cox’s arrangements play homage to the original piece while displayed modern nuance. Tout’s piano segues are themselves worth the price of admission. This is folk music at its most obese, and thrilling for it.