24. PEARLS BEFORE SWINE – BALAKLAVA (1968)

BALAKLAVA“In peace sons bury their fathers,
In war fathers bury their sons,
Love is silent at the edge of the universe,
Waiting to come in'” (‘Translucent Carriages’)

Balaklava was the second album by Pearls Before Swine, and their second to be released on New York’s legendary ESP, the label responsible for The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra and other uncompromising free jazz recordings of the mid-1960s, as well as oddball counter-cultural rock albums by the likes of The Fugs and The Godz, to whose music I was introduced through a resounding commendation in the original Perfect Collection.

The very first time I heard the music of Pearls Before Swine I knew it was what I had been waiting for my whole life. I had a complete set of albums by The Velvet Underground, Love, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Tim Buckley et al. But something was missing. I never knew what that something was until I encountered Balaklava.

Pearls Before Swine were different. Once fittingly described as “a madman saint leading the asylum band during the rainy season”, Tom Rapp, the band’s leader, songwriter and only permanent member, enjoyed little popular success despite a catalogue of wonderful psych-folk albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Perhaps his quivering voice and heavily pronounced lisp – charmingly honest to some – provided an obstacle to commercial credibility. Or his lyrics, so rich in strange Biblical and Blakean imagery, may have alienated others. Whatever the case, success eluded the band during their career. Recognition came late – too late for pop stardom – but a quietly flourishing audience of fans including a number of musicians, resulted in a tribute album, and concert invitations began to flood in during the late 1990s, by which time Rapp was working as a Civil Rights lawyer in Florida.

Their debut offering, One Nation Underground, was initially recorded as a demo and sent to ESP, who promptly signed the band and rush released the album. On first hearing, it’s Dylanesque protest folk – along with song titles like ‘Drop Out’ and tunes as immediate as ‘Uncle John’ – may seem to have captured the zeitgeist well, but the album sleeve featuring the macabre painting The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, hinted at something more portentous. At this stage the band had not yet ‘turned on’ – indeed Rapp identifies the strongest intoxicant favoured by the fledgling Swine to have been Winston cigarettes! Although it was the only Swine album to sell fairly well (around 200,000) the band claim to have received very little royalties and this may have accentuated a darker worldview which while not quite dystopian, stood in stark contrast to the vacuous euphoria of the ‘flower power’ generation.

Balaklava which appeared a year later, received Rolling Stone magazine’s dreaded [], it’s lowest possible rating. But in the 1960s Rolling Stone frequently got it badly wrong. Once again the album featured some apocalyptic artwork, this time Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death, and presented a uniquely harrowing vision of the horrors of war, delineated by Rapp’s (Winston inspired!) hallucinatory and surrealistic poetry.

The album is bookended by two historical recordings: the first, by Trumpeter Landfrey, who sounded the bugle at the beginning of the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ at the Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War; after the second, a barely audible recording of the voice of Florence Nightingale, we hear a tape loop of the whole album rewind to the beginning, surely a commentary on the perennially rapacious nature of the human species, forever embroiled in military conflict, captured at the precise moment when the ugly truth about America’s involvement Vietnam was gradually emerging.

‘Transluscent Carriages’ the most explicitly anti-war song, is shrouded in mystery, Rapp’s ghostly utterances over a plaintive acoustic guitar line, tastefully embellished by atmospheric clavinette. The lyrics to the opening verse are indicative of the album’s sombre mood:

“The translucent carriages
Drawing morning in
Dawn inside their pockets
Like a whisper on the wind.”

‘Images of April’ has a simple swooning bass line but replete with birdsong, flutes, echoed voice, and introducing the intriguing ‘swinehorn’ of Lane Lederer, is the archetype for the album’s peculiar sound.

Even better is ‘I Saw The World’. Warren Smith’s string arrangements provide a panoramic sweep somehow reminiscent of the theme tune to the classic 1960s French children’s TV series The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (or is that just the augmentation of the sound of sea spray?), while the ghostly atmosphere evoked by the distinctive percussive arrangements sound like they come from the depths of The Black Ark. A strange marriage indeed, but listen and you may hear what I hear…
‘Lepers and Roses’, Rapp’s take on the Orpheus myth, is equally gorgeous . The lyrics may be inscrutable:

“In fields where Susan sings/The leopard brings/Yesterday/In upon a string/And all your dead rainbows/Begin to stain/The lace on your raincoat/So leave the blind/Roses behind/You’

..but the music is drunk on its own beauty. A dreamer’s dream…the songs on the album are less conventional narrative or story and more mood pieces. Rapp once clarified his approach to songwriting in an interview with Goldmine:

“My sense of writing a song was that you started with a mood or a feeling and you just chipped away everything that wasn’t that feeling and in the end you’d have something that had crystallized it somehow’

Despite this concentration on mood and atmosphere, the album has its flaws. Although there is a delicately judged cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, there is at least one mis-step along the way, the plodding sub-Donovan (sub-sub-Dylan) folk of ‘There Was A Man’. But, the old gramophone production of ‘Guardian Angels, is exquisite. Here Rapp once again resurrects the voice of the ancient prophets:

‘All of the pain in the world is outside your bed/In the shapes of phantom men tapping your window with rhythms of dread/And all of the silver rosaries hung on the door/Will not drive them away they are going to stay.’

Rapp and a new set of Pearls went onto release four albums for Reprise, two of which at least (These Things Too and The Use of Ashes) are the equal of Balaklava. His influence is slight and could be detected in the likes of Bill Fay (another much under-appreciated songwriter) but it has been left to long-time devotees such as Damon & Naomi (of Galaxie 500 fame) and Flying Saucer Attack to rekindle a flame which never so much burnt out as was ever adequately ignited in the first place. But, still that flame flickers for the chosen few – those seduced by the sounds and visions of an authentic lost prophet.(JJ)

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9. THE CLIENTELE – SUBURBAN LIGHT (2000)

In the beginning was the word. And the word was…Felt. Alasdair Maclean saw the word, scribbled on his school chum James Hornsey’s pencil case. The friendship was sealed and The Clientele was born. Or so the legend goes. The band formed in London in 1991, while the boys were still at school. It would be almost a decade before their first fragile songs emerged to a politely indifferent world.

These songs, a compilation of early recordings including singles and B Sides were for the most part recorded on an eight-track portastudio above Innes Phillips’ flat in 1996. Phillips, guitarist and one of the founder members, would leave and go on to form his own band The Relict, before these songs eventually saw the light of day in 2000. As for the collection of songs assembled here on Suburban Light…well you have to trust me on this one…it is arguably one of the most perfect albums from any English band in the last twenty five years. Yes, it is that good.

Comparisons with Felt are obvious (‘We Could Walk Together’s guitar line for example), NZ’s The Chills perhaps less so (listen to the ghostly guitar on ‘An Hour Before The Light’, uncannily reminiscent of The Chills’ classic ‘Pink Frost’), but it is most often claimed the band are musically indebted to The Velvet Underground. Certainly ‘Reflections After Jane’ owes a nod to ‘Candy Says’ or ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ but I wonder if the comparison is apt. Indeed, perhaps it’s a little lazy. In reality the two bands inhabit entirely different worlds. The Clientele’s reverb-drenched songs of wistful suburban ennui the perfect counterpoint to the urban brutality and debonaire perversions of the Velvets. The lyrical contrast is even more spectacular: compare The Velvets’ catalogue of junkies, transvestites and freaks who send themselves by long-distance post in cardboard boxes; to the Clientele’s preference for documenting rainy Sunday afternoons in the park, or walking through the crowds with “Miss Jones” (of whom nothing is revealed, but whom I imagine to be a rather pretty but stuffy English Literature student). Perhaps a more intuitive comparison than the Velvets could be made with Galaxie 500 (performing a cover of ‘Waterloo Sunset’). Whatever comparison one makes, the band would never sound quite like this again. The songs on their first album proper, The Violet Hour did not quite match up (with a few mis-steps along the way). Edges would be softened, the production become more sophisticated. The later albums with the exception of Strange Geometry (which is their other indisputably classic record) somehow strangely failed to recapture the thematic harmony of this first release. It is particularly unusual for a compilation to achieve such a singular vision, such a feeling of unity, but it’s there.

 

Despite greater, though still very limited success on the other side of the Atlantic, The Clientele remain as quintessentially English as an episode of Camberwick Green. Had they been children of a different era they would no doubt have been invited to compose the soundtrack for Bronco Bullfrog, Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush or some other cult late 1960s Brit youth film. The occasional backwards guitar loop alongside MacLean’s penchant for colourful cravats places the band at least spiritually and aesthetically in that era. So, right place, wrong time perhaps? Well, not exactly…there is nothing contrived about the Clientele’s Englishness. Neither gimmick nor motif, rather it emanates organically from their music like the dispersion of light through a prism.

“If we’re on Delancey Street at night,
In the after train ride quiet,
Barking dogs by Highgate Pond,
Something’s here but something’s gone’ McLean sings on ‘Joseph Cornell’ – it is a typically evocative mood piece and the album is littered with such examples:
‘The taxi lights were in your eyes
So warm against St. Mary’s spires
The carnival was over in the rain
And arm in arm through Vincent Street.
The evening hanging like a dream
I touched your face and saw the night again.” (‘Saturday’)

These lost and unrepeatable moments of nostalgia and yearning, moments so vivid and personal are detailed with such precision for time and place, yet somehow paradoxically become universally tangible and almost unbearably poignant for the listener, who immersed in their atmosphere, casts his own shadow upon those spaces and places. I saw The Clientele play to a sparse audience at The Woodside Social in Glasgow in 2005. Perhaps not an ‘I was there’ moment but imprinted on my memory nonetheless. A few members of Belle & Sebastian, one or two from Glasgow folkies Lucky Luke and a few shy-looking snappily dressed mods. Almost their perfect audience. I remember walking out in the cold air afterward, the hazy drunken glare of the street lights providing the backdrop to the band hurriedly throwing their gear into the back of the van. And walking away into the night. Clearly one of those time and place moments – the spell had worked.

Post-millennium there exists very little consensus of opinion on the greatest albums of our age. It would be more straightforward to ask George Galloway to publicly extol the virtues of US foreign policy than expect acquiescence from others in this regard. Perhaps in a progressively individualistic culture which is post-everything, with few recognisable musical genres or subcultures, we have reached that point where consensus is virtually impossible. So we claim precedence for our individual favourites. And they become all the more precious for it. Suburban Light is one of those to treasure. The Clientele are the great lost English band of the new millennium, as genteel yet vital as Nick Drake, as elusive and undervalued as The Television Personalities, and musically, comfortably the equal of Felt. Their early songs, reflective and melancholic possess an enduring appeal. They will haunt you. Let them into your life. (JJ)