CAMERA OBSCURA #4
by Mark S. Tucker
"This PSF column is named after my 50-issue samizdat from the '80's (some of which were issued as cassettes), titled for the actual camera obscura precursor to photography. I merely twisted the parlance to mean "focus on the obscure." At any rate, I'm starting with LP's that not much of anyone would argue are obscure (and if you're one of the those who would, write yer mother instead; she needs to hear from you, bubbaleh, and I could care less about your objections to my selections, yo)."
BRAHMAN Brahman (1971 / Mercury)
Since the collapse of the '70's, there have been several bands bearing the moniker 'Brahman' (the latest's a Japanese foursome), but this Canadian group was the first and stands as a fair example of what was going on at labels like Mercury and Epic back then, imprints that tended to corral a lot of ensembles well outside the big label mainstream, making for a good deal of interesting listening. Such gaggles weren't consistently tip-top, mind you, oft well away from it, but rarely ignorable when it came to crazed sonic omnivore collectors like me and a bunch of the musico-stoner cats I used to hang with. Brahman's one-off was something of a find even back then, much more so now, not issued in high numbers apparently, and no collector I know of will let go of his copy without a fight. If you're hip to the milieu, then you might want to think in terms of Euphonius Wail (Kapp), Chimo! (Epic), Jam Factory (Epic), Dirty Tricks (Polydor), and other releases, not for stylistic similarities particularly but instead as stabs at statements a shade or three off the beaten path.
The recording for Brahman is decidedly mediocre, as engineer Bob Fava seemed to have little sense of balance and timbral brightness anywhere in the LP. My initial guess was that he was some half-talented kid dragged in off the streets in Vancouver and paid peanuts, thooooooough his work the same year with Sir Lord Baltimore, and a year earlier in The Naked Carmen, was vastly better, thus quashing the notion. Either he was just having a bad day or the studio interfered in the mastering... or some damn thing. Band members Duris Maxwell and Robbie King (Skylark, Hometown Band) didn't do jack to cure the mess either, throwing their hands in during remix, but I'll refrain from slipping a severed horse head in any of their beds until I can figure everything out.
The song compositions mirrored the recording flow: kinda sloppy, a bit confused, sometimes inconfidently executed ("You Changed My Life Around": hideous singing), but strangely attractive 'cause the band was reaching for an elevated state while falling appreciably short; hence: no successor LPs and the usual dissolution. The odd but informative Discogs site IDs the boyz as "Psychedelic Rock: rock, funk, soul", but, uh, no, not really. If that's soul, then Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway were WAY the fuck off base. "Funk"? Only in the sense that brick-brained crits use that term even for The Carpenters and Donny & Marie. But "rock" and "psychedelic"? Sure. Then there's the possibly-brain-damaged Francois Couture at All Music Guide who perplexingly raves about the gig in inadvertently hilarious semantics.
The band was organ heavy, a dim Uriah Heep-ish strain sneaking in here and there, and guitarist Eddie Patterson could crank out some great lines - too few of 'em unfortunately - before all headed into baroquey, harpsichordy, don't-quite-know-what-the-hell-we're-doing-here territory; by no means Gryphon or Gentle Giant but Elizabethan, a fetish staple in the '70's. Then there's the embarrassingly titled "She Went Down", one of the baroque-y thangs in a heading aligning in eroti-rock annals along with Sky's "How's That Treatin' Your Mouth, Babe?" and Frampton's "I'm in You" (what the hell was Pete thinking???).
The 9-minute "epic" "Waiting to Love You" is arguably, very arguably, the highlight of the mishmosh, a stab at building magnitude that kinda comes off but mostly doesn't, all and sundry forgetting that solos and compositional techniques are kinda important in such endeavors. By the time the song closes the LP in a churchy organ solo, you're wondering "WTF?!?!?!"
The upshot is that this is another in a very long line of not-ready-for-prime-time attemptees nonetheless fascinating for the band's blind graspings at capabilities beyond their reach. The band's not as irritating as the heroic Heavy The World, the most ambitious gaggle of inept small-timers in rock history, admirable if only for their unbelievable stick-to-it-iveness, but Brahman's one-off status is easily understood in the very first listen, the LP a genuine combination of head-scratcher, amusement, eccentricity, and garage achievement, a bin-cop I ain't gettin' rid of, and I've offloaded a LOT of discs over the decades. This one, however, is in my permanent collection and will stay there, always a refreshing slab of puzzlingly enjoyable divertessement.
KRAZY KAT - China Seas (1976 / Mountain), Troubled Air (1977 / Mountain)
Basically the extension of the marvelous Capability Brown - with a brief excursion of members in Christie somewhere in time - Krazy Kat, not to be confused with the indie '50's/'60's revivalists Krazy Kats, was a quintet of polished Brit popsters along the lines of Little River Band, Byzantium, Barnaby Bye, Argent, The Association, and others, their name taken of course from George Herriman's monumental comic strip. The gentz definitely knew their way around pop/dance/quasi-disco/rockin' tunesmithing and boasted superb harmony vocals. China Seas, the debut, was a sparkling nonet of toe-tapping, hummable, seat dancin', mirror ball cuts designed for pop airwaves, succeeding brilliantly.
Instrumentally based in the twin guitars of Tony Ferguson and Graeme White, Harry MacDonald's keyboards a significant third set of hands, every cut is a winner - not spectacular, as in, say, something Steely Dan, might concoct, but solid and smile-provoking. In comparison to much more successful popsmiths, KK's problem was that their sound was a tad too sophisticated for the oft simplistic pop realm, which tends to even now attract arrested-growth cases and swoony females in the grips of estrogen overload. But think back to the grimmer aspects of the '70's and '80's, and you'll understand you can, for instance, take The Raspberries and Eric Carmen and shitcan 'em without losing a scintilla of luster in the frequently, and too frequently justly, demonized genre. Nonetheless, look at who makes the ducats and who doesn't: in that style, it's usually idiots vacant of brain matter but able to dress up and scribble down the kind of soupy poetics that drove Frank Zappa to distraction.
Prog Archives, a good site that much too often jumps the shark in relegating anything even vaguely non-bland as "prog," placed Capability Brown in their "Crossover Prog" category (an interesting coinage though I prefer my own 'Pop Prog' sobriquet, of course), so I guess they'd put Krazy Kat there as well, esp. due to "Dundee Calling" here, but, as so many progsites are guilty of, that'd actually be a case of miscognizing a rave-up rockin' number leading into the madrigalian "How They Crossed the Pole" (an echo of Capability Brown's killer "In the Garden"), both of which, especially in combination, might seem to be prog staples but aren't.
"Pole" is gorgeous and indeed stretches beyond pop conventions in somewhat a Stackridge fashion ("Santa Fe" another example and quite 10CC-esque as well), but prog it ain't, any more than LRB's unbelievably cool debut was, which extended rock's vocabularies VERY close to prog, so near that I'd not argue contentions that the Aussie ladz overlapped into the bottom progressive rungs. Krazy Kat didn't, however, until...
...the follow-up Troubled Air with its stunning Alan Parsonsy "Carousel," definitely an entry in the prog cyclopedia, a cut in the sort of fashion in which Lake might've kicked out the jams had it harbored notions thataways (and it certainly seemed to). The LP starts with the splashy title cut, clearly following on the previous slab while upping the game in a City Boy direction ('n if'n yez ain't familar wit' dem bad actors, y'all, y'should be; a truly great band). Most of the offerings are cool-ass smooth compositions and rockers logically kindred to their previous year's brethren, a very satisfying collage of the sneaky and snarky, the tuneful and clever, the wistful and propulsive, all of course extremely well recorded (Robin Geoffrey Cable and John Kelly, with no less than six assistants).
The cover art for China Seas is a way hip cross between art noveau and ukiyo-e, courtesy David Scutt, while Troubled Air's illo, also by Scutt, is far less impressive (so I guess you could call it, um, Scuttwork!), more something New England might have chosen for their own bland-ish pop efforts. Regardless, if you're a pop-rock aficionado, and I mean GREAT pop-rock, then these two LP's are tops in the category, standing with the best the style has ever offered. To miss them is a mortal sin (it's in the Bible - Mark 69:1313); further, if "Carousel" doesn't get your rhythmic rocket fuel ignited, you need a check-up from the neck up, Jethro, ‘n I'll let you choose ‘twixt priest and shrink.
NEUWIRTH - Back to the Front (1988 / Gold Castle)
All I needed to see to grab this LP was a quick read of T-Bone Burnett's endorsement: "I never thought Bob Neuwirth would make a record. I thought he was too dangerous. I thought he was too dangerous to himself... and to everyone else. I've sat around the table many a night passing guitars around, and when a guitar got to Neuwirth, he would start playing the best song any of us had ever heard. Someone would ask who wrote that one, and, after a while, it would become clear that he had been making it up as he went along, and that he couldn't remember a note he had sung, not that he had really sung any notes. I just wanted to say that I think, in many ways, he's the best pure songwriter of any of us."
With praise from a yonder mountain and put that intriguingly by a gent so estimable, well, what would you do? Leave the LP there in the bin? Saunter over to see if any Cowsills slabs had arrived in the used section? Hell no! So I snatched it, raced back home, and was treated to a very cool very raw set of compositions burning with killer lyrics and down home, back porch, North 40, dusty road plaintive Americana strains silently demonstrating why the blues took more than it cares to admit from Appalachian origins.
Not only that but the sessioneers are first rate: Burnett, Bernie Leadon, David Mansfield, Mickey Raphael, tons of input from producer J. Steven Soles, and then others, even a one-shot appearance from Sandy Bull. Man, those Burnett Gee-Tar Nites musta been awfully damn interesting! But who, I asked myself at the time, the fuck was this Neuwirth guy anyway? Well, Dylan dug him, and you can see Neuwirth in the Don't Look Back and Renaldo and Clara movies. That's also his bottom half on the cover of Highway 61 Revisited. Then he got the Rolling Thunder band together, introduced Kristofferson to Joplin, and co-wrote "Mercedes Benz" with her and Mike McClure. Colin Irwin put the outlaw folkie in this light:
"Painter, road manager, sidekick, confidante, henchman, poet, underground cult hero, womanizer, party organizer, self-appointed king of cool, and baiter-in-chief of Baez, Donovan, and any other unfortunate who wound up in the line of fire of his sledgehammer jibes, Neuwirth went on to become a film-maker and a credible singer-songwriter in his own right."
Part of the guy's rawsiding arose from the process: documented live right there in Soles' living room, who recorded the occasion(s) with zero overwhump, an encapsulation of exactly what happened in the moment and left that way. Neuwirth is hard-tack folk music with its madrigalian roots showing through post-colonial skin, veins pulsing violently with the urgent need to not let the style fade, every note perfectly balanced with, every so often, tangs of modern smart-aleckiness.
More than a few times, you'll hear Neil Young, Dylan, Dave van Ronk, Phil Ochs, and others, but don't let those references fool you: Burnett was correct, Neuwirth is completely his own man and, as far as I can tell, always has been. Now at 77, he'd be a exemplary candidate for some writer or film-maker to team up with for an oral history re: his experience of the '60's and '70's (hell, probably the '50's as well!). The transcendencies in his riveting poetry tells us that much: Bob misses little and possesses a heart that beats so rarely in these days well after the greats (Blake, Tennyson, Whitman, W.C. Williams, etc.).
I've pointed out not a single song in this review, only provided an overview (and, yo, ignore the truly shitty cover, the Gold Castle label was obviously cheaping out like a motherfucker), because the entire LP must be heard. The poet-troubador-troublemaker issued only 5 albums over a quarter century, 1974 to 1999, and appeared on John Cale's Last Day on Earth as well as a Hal Wilner gig, Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys (Wilner's an incredible project gatherum genius; check him out), and a few others. Why he hasn't been more prolific is a mystery perhaps best answered in both Burnett's and Irwin's appraisal: cats as cynical as he have a hard time gettin' along with Earth monkeys. Back to the Front is well in place in Camera Obscura as a little-known release, neglected and unbenchmarked by my idiot crit peers but worthy of ensconcement in a museum... and you'll never quite understand what that means until you hear it. There have been a small number of similar works over time, Tom House's Winding Down the Road the most recent and most breathtaking, but Neuwirth is damn near a genesis moment and Bob could have been a genesis artist... or rather: he was but was dragged under as the rock world became the mercantiles' most lubricious wet dream.
Also see Camera Obscura 1
Camera Obscura 2
Camera Obscura 3
Camera Obscura 5
Camera Obscura 6
Camera Obscura 7
Camera Obscura 8
Camera Obscura 9
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