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Those born after the advent of the compact disc may find this hard to believe, but once upon a time, the past could be an inaccessible place. In the introduction to Simon Reynolds’ new book, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978– 1984, the British critic writes about how difficult it was to track down old music in the late ’70s, an era when “record companies even deleted albums.” Not so in the Digital Age. It didn’t take long for the CD-era music biz to realize that consumers could be coerced into repurchasing their favorite albums in a new format, and the business changed accordingly. In 1995, for example, major labels attributed 40 percent to 50 percent of their jazz sales to reissues.
The phenomenon has affected more than just remastering engineers. Consider the legions of reissue-informed pastiche-rockers who are currently, as Reynolds is wont to say, taking care of “unfinished business” in the postpunk arena. Or the curious music fan who now has to wade through wave after wave of reissue hype. For evidence of the latter, just log on to ForcedExposure.com, a seasoned distributor of out-of-the-mainstream recordings, and type “legendary” into the search engine. As you’re sifting through the hundreds of recent reissues that come up, keep on the lookout for buzzwords such as “lost classic” and “private pressing.”
Though much of this stuff deserves its obscurity, every year of late has produced at least one galvanizing reissue: Os Mutantes, Fela Kuti, Shuggie Otis, Rocket From the Tombs, Goodbye, Babylon. This summer, two new underground-folk reissues, Gary Higgins’ Red Hash and Comus’ Song to Comus, are among the rediscovered legends. And given the recent popularity of anything having to do with shoeless, guitar-wielding hippies—second only to dance-friendly postpunks—both are likely contenders for 2005’s more hipster-oriented top-10 lists. Of the two discs, Higgins’, from 1973, is the easier on the ears—and has already received coverage in the New York Times.
One of a rotating cast of rural Connecticut musicians called Random Concept, guitarist-vocalist Higgins recorded Red Hash in a 40-hour spurt just prior to being locked up for a drug-related conviction. Higgins was in jail before the recording was even mixed, so the self-released album was never properly distributed or promoted. Drag City, the beard-rock label responsible for the album’s reissue, claims that the mostly acoustic Red Hash is “the best of the private press psych-folk records of the early 70s.” Yet few knew of its existence until earlier this year, when Drag City artist Six Organs of Admittance (aka Comets on Fire’s Ben Chasny) released a cover version of “Thicker Than a Smokey,” the album’s first and best track.
Though its origins may imply a certain wasted vibe, the music itself is rendered with a precise professionalism that must have required at least intermittent sobriety. Indeed, the album is so free of sonic indulgences that its psychedelic reputation surely derives mainly from the songwriter’s fringy, surrealistic lyrics. On the cello-accompanied ballad “Telegraph Towers,” for example, Higgins sings, “Hall of the sky/Fluttering eyeballs from side to side/It’s not a train; it’s just my brain/Blowin’ its whistle, too.”
Higgins’ off-the-grid croon and unabashedly melodic guitar playing suggest luminous afternoons spent on back-country porches. You can almost hear the drone of the cicada and feel the sting of the mosquito. (Pass me up one o’ them beers, willya?) More important, though, these pop-length songs evoke a pleasant sense of déjà vu. The best of Red Hash—tracks such as the country-rockin’ “It Didn’t Take Too Long” and the Led Zeppelin– esque “Windy Child”—feel familiar on first listen, as if, at some point, radio stations everywhere must’ve rock-blocked them between the likes of Buffalo Springfield and American Beauty– era Grateful Dead.
That, of course, never happened. And it’s improbable that Red Hash will join the classic-rock pantheon in 2005. It is a better, more tuneful album than anything Neil Young or Stephen Stills or the Dead recorded back in 1973. But that’s not saying a whole lot. It just means that Red Hash is more consistent, that there tend to be smoother transitions between its musical peaks and valleys. Even its highlight, the aforementioned “Smokey,” is more evocative than hooky. Once it’s over, you won’t remember much beyond its ambience.
That could be a problem for lost-classic types. Though Red Hash would no doubt appeal to rock traditionalists, it will most likely be purchased by obscurantists looking for a good mindfuck. Too bad: What they’ll find is a polite, songwriterly private pressing that could have been an audition for the majors.
Song to Comus: The Complete Collection, on the other hand, is much closer to what one would expect from weirdo, acoustic psych music—or “acid folk,” as they call it nowadays. This double-disc anthology culls together for the first time all extant recordings of British cult act Comus, a gaggle of commune-dwelling, Milton-reading hippies who, at various times, were signed to RCA, Pye, and Richard Branson’s fledgling Virgin. In other words: Comus’ career arced a good deal higher than Higgins’.
That hardly spared the group from obscurity, however. And, to be honest, the mere fact that Comus had a career—any career—is mind-boggling. In terms of instrumentation, at least, the suburban-London-based outfit was not all that unusual for its time. Formed as essentially a Velvet Underground– tribute act in late 1968, Comus employed a mix of acoustic guitars, electric bass, flute, violin, and hand drums that, on the surface, fit in fine with other late-’60s Britfolk acts such as Pentangle, Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the Incredible String Band. Vocally, though, Comus stood apart.
Guitarist and chief songwriter Roger Wootton’s unnatural singing style can range from reedy and elfin to deep-throated and devilish within the space of a single line. (One British weekly likened the singer to “Marc Bolan being squeezed to death.”) And percussionist/recorder player Bobbie Watson—only 16 when she joined the band—provides seraphic counterpoint, regularly ascending to a register few vocalists even attempt to reach. Together, they rise and fall intertwined—and sometimes slightly out-of-tune—an effect both beguiling and unwholesome-sounding.
Strange as they may be, Comus’ vocals are an ideal match for its lyrics. The band’s early-1971 debut, the more or less minor-key First Utterance, is full of woodland-set narratives that revel in rape, murder, and madness. On standout track “Drip Drip,” the frontman sings, “Your soft white flesh turns past me, slaked with blood/Your evil eyes—more damning than a demon’s curse/Your lovely body—soon caked with mud/As I carry you to your grave, my arms your hearse.”
It would be difficult to understate the overall creepiness of the song—and the rest of Utterance. Fairport Convention, Britfolk’s most popular and influential act, is well-regarded for its interpretations of a number of dark traditionals. Sandy Denny’s vocals aside, though, much of the power of Fairport’s music comes from its electrification. Even Utterance’s lightest and prettiest cut, the Watson-sung “The Herald,” makes those performances seem safe and almost quaint—a feat achieved with mostly acoustic instrumentation.
The remainder of Comus’ debut has an aggressive, almost satanic edge that’s reminiscent of nothing so much as Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut from the previous year. “Drip Drip,” “Song to Comus,” and the album-opening “Diana” are all metallic in their intensity: The band, at times, works so hard at its instruments that you half-expect to hear the strings snap and the drum heads break. Plenty of Britfolkies eschewed the tools of rock, but none played this feverishly. And none were able to make music created in the ’70s so evocative of an earlier, more horrific time.
Unsurprisingly, Utterance sold poorly and, as a result, Comus disbanded—though the band’s one-of-a-kind debut did find an enthusiastic audience in subsequent decades. In 1998, The Wire named it, along with recordings by the likes of John Cale, Miles Davis, and Public Enemy, one of “100 Records That Set the World on Fire (While No One Was Listening)”. And this package is merely its most deluxe reissue—something that can’t be said of Comus’ long-lost sophomore LP, 1974’s To Keep From Crying.
By the time the reunited band recorded its second and final album, both Britfolk and post– Sgt. Pepper’s experimentation were past their sell-by dates. Comus responded to this new climate with love songs and a glam-influenced sound that today comes across like a sampling of some kind of lost Jesus-freak musical. This is perhaps best exemplified by “Children of the Universe,” a Wootton/
Watson duet featuring some painfully high-pitched melisma: “Cheee-uuuhl-dren,” the two Comus voices sing in unison, “Shiii-yiii-ine on/Everyone/Shiii-yiii-ine on.”
That Crying is barely more accessible than Utterance matters little to its present-day critics—that is, the few who have heard both. To these folks, the former, despite its deeply bizarre take on mid-’70s pop music, is a disappointment. It’s easy to see where the haters are coming from. Crying, after all, makes concessions to the real world, to a specific time and place. Part of what makes Utterance so special is that it feels as if it had been recorded by sex- and death-crazed forest dwellers, not hippie suburbanites. The record also conjures an era when, we presume, a less bottom-line-obsessed industry could take a chance on an act with such an extreme vision. Crying, for all its odd charm, ruins this illusion. As Wootton and Watson sing on that album’s “So Long Supernova”: “The dream is over.”CP