Friday, May 21, 2010

Typer At The Gates Of Dawn

Hail friends & readers! Back again with yet another installment of one of our favorite features here at Trip Inside This House. By now you should know the gist of this. The premise being invite a fellow psychedelia obsessive to write a disquisition on a favorite-and oft-overlooked, LP.

Today we bring back an old friend who's appeared here before. His qualifications are numerous. So, let's see what he's on about:

"A symphony of flashing shadows..." (An appreciation of 'Definition' by Chrysalis)

Psych nuts like myself are forever in search of that perfect '10'. The ultimate statement from 1967 (or thereabouts) that encapsulates everything we look back in wonder upon from this Now remote outpost in time. 'Definition' by Chrysalis is one of those fabulous yet frustratingly enticing one-offs. Perhaps it's not truly a psychedelic record (whatever that might mean in 2010AD) but for me it's a strong contender for the best obscure major label underground LP from the late 60s (as well as a perennial in my own personal Top 10).

I've seen various descriptions of the album identify folk, jazz, Zappa (read on please even if you are not a fan, I'm certainly not), baroque, avant-guard influences. No combination of these really covers it for me, I just hear the individual musicianship of Chrysalis themselves and the amazing song craft of James ‘Spider’ Barbour. There's an identifiable mood for sure though, and it's a strange musty Victoriana Havisham half-light vibe punctuated by the odd fuzztone attack & sunshine pop melody peeping through clouded windowpanes & dusty drapes. The arrangements are a damned near perfect match for the songs, which the band a plainly in love with the songs themselves since not a note or idea appears out of place with the overall vision.

Chrysalis came together in New York & were quickly signed up by MGM. Reading about certain shenanigans regarding who would produce them (even Zappa himself being in the frame at one point), you get the impression that plenty people were impressed with the young but fully formed band. The musical configuration is relatively standard. Paul Album and Dahaud Shaar on bass & drums respectively, providing variously complex or stately rhythmical bases firmly rooted in jazz. Jon Sabin lends an understated but perfectly scored contribution on lead guitar, while Ralph Kotkov’s keys add greatly to the air of eccentricity that seeps through the record. Up front are leader Barbour & his co-vocalist Nancy Nairn, academia’s answer to Sonny & Cher…

Proceedings kick off with the snare hits & electric piano stabs that introduce "What Will Become Of The Morning", and straight away we face one of the LP's many idiosyncrasies - Nancy Nairn's voice. Is it's in tune, or is that Spider in the background making her sound bad (actually with headphones it seems more an effect of extreme left/right panning of what’s apparently a duet)? Is it Grace Slick’s younger but equally strident sister? Just then the amphetamines hit the pianist with a jolt & doesn't let up for the rest of the song pretty much. Think Mike Garson falling down an even steeper flight of stairs than when he outro'd Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. Actually it's sped up to the point where possibly not humanly playable, but works somehow with the band's light yet sharp backing (like a less wobbly Ultimate Spinach). Once you've adjusted to all this, it's a corking tune & excellent start to the lp. Next up are perhaps two of the defining tracks, certainly the two that contribute most towards that antique parlour vibe I was referring to before. 'Lacewing' is a aching Beatles'y waltz around Barbour's other specialist subject (he's a renowned biologist & author these days, hence the original liner notes “...Philosamia cynthia is the Working Man's Moth”). 'Cynthia Gerome' follows with a character study of fading beauty, reminding me a little of the UK Kaleidoscope (actually more in their Fairfield Parlour guise) & once again perfectly realised through to the atonal outro (her lover having “softly closed the door....”)

“April Grove” is up next & Nancy is back. Actually considering she was an apparent full time member of the group, it's perhaps strange that she only get's three lead vocals on the album. It's a jazzy feel again, but suits perfectly a fantastic melodic song about "getting stoned watching meanderings of swallowtails". Some subtle electronic treatments too, weird guitar chords & a pulsating drone incantation for a chorus. Interestingly this was recently covered by Martina Topley-Bird (Tricky's former foil & muse) on her Danger Mouse-produced album "The Blue God". A faithful version, & in fact a pretty cool album (especially the single "Carnies"). Up next is “Father's Getting Old” and we're into more familiar psychedelic rock territory with upfront fuzztone leads & pounding drums. It's another character study, a bit more obvious lyrically ("Yesterday he used to go hear Benny Goodman play, Wonder if his band is still around"). Side one then closes with '30 Poplar' and… uh oh here we go with the obligatory (for US 'fop' psych LPs of a '67/68 vintage) ragtime vaudeville track. Wait a minute though, it doesn't the hell have they managed that?! Almost unswervingly the low point of many a decent “psych” LP, this actually turns out to be a highpoint with an irresistible melody married to careering piano-led rhythm track, pausing briefly to reflect that "God is a ring of smoke wrapped around my finger, a wasp without a stinger buzzing in my ear" before a spiked Dixieland jazz band leap in for the solos! The liner notes to Rev-Ola's (excellent) CD reissue that the song refers to a hippy drug den in Barbour's hometown, a "truly wonderful" place that he did great justice to with this fantastic track. As Nancy asks in the last verse, "Hasn't anyone noticed that the music has grown, into a tripped-out masterpiece with color of it’s own"? Actually, yes I have! Let's flip the disc over for more of the same....

'Baby Let Me Show You Where I Live' opens Side 2 & it's a sparse but swinging psych-pop creation with lyrical childhood reflections, jangling electric piano, poppy vocals & flute/tabla-led Eastern intervals. 'Fitzpatrick Swanson' relates the story of a wasted life & being reduced to chasing the children off his lawn, worrying about the opinions of his neighbours & the flies buzzing around his head. He's fairly harmless though, compared to ‘Dr Root’ at least (who'll put in is ghastly appearance soon enough...)

'Lake Hope' is another beautifully melodic Beatles-style ballad this time for strummed autoharp & chamber quartet, it's then followed by 'Piece Of Sun' with it's multitude of complex breakbeat changes, woozy wind instruments and fierce lead guitar. 'Summer In Your Savage Eyes' is back to that by now trademark Chrysalis sound; almost like a grown-up Lovin' Spoonful (or Autosalvage then, minus the clatter & with far superior tunes), driven by jazzy swing rhythm & tack piano/guitar arpeggios (and as ever a fantastic melody wedded to a clearly enounced lyric).

Finally, it's 'Dr Root's Garden' & for many Chrysalis fans perhaps the highlight of the album (although personally I favour the more melodic stuff). It’s a fuzz-laden stomp through the horrors that befall the poor children that dared to frolic in Root’s garden, who together with everyone else it seems have goaded the crazed scientist into wreaking revenge with his “bottles of disease”. It’s a theatrical performance from the role-playing vocalists; Jon and Paul as ‘Miles’ & ‘Chester’ respectively, Nancy as both young ‘Sue’ & ‘Edna’, and Ralph as Dr Root himself. The character, Spider tells us in the sleeve notes of the 200x Rev-Ola CD reissue, is a warped misrepresentation of a former lecturer of his (names not changed to protect the innocent!), by all accounts a thoroughly decent chap who evidently saw fit to forgive his errant pupil….eventually!

The reissue also contains eight bonus tracks. Two demo versions of album tracks ('Cynthia Gerome' and 'Dr Root's Garden'), and six previously unreleased tracks taken from acetates & apparently recorded around the same time as the album in New York early 1968. And guess what...they're uniformly excellent! How often can you say that about CD reissue 'bonus' tracks, eh? Perhaps a little less refined than the album itself, & showing more of an alliance with the prevailing sounds of the time (more SF or even 'Bosstown' than New York to my ears). If you don’t have this in your collection then it goes without saying that I recommend your investigate without haste. The reissue liners also refer to demos for a never-to-materialise second album, which I’d personally kill to hear. Come on Dr Spider, have you found that tape yet??

Thank YOU Tony! You've got me ready to revisit this album!


Cliff. said...

Cheers Tony for a great album review. Soon as I saw your album choice, I put on the Sennheisers and went with you on the journey. Far too long since I listened to 'Definition.' and the experience this time around was much enhanced by your review.

Go on Valis, follow my lead.

. said...

I found this back in the early seventies, when Virgin Records was a good place to be, in the cut-out import rack. It was still shrink-wrapped, so I couldn't check the stunning silver foil gatefold, but those sleevenotes (Spider's own) sold me the package. One pound. The notes are a kind of short story about a rare moth, tarpaper shacks, and (I think) Canarsie. Genius.

Some time later I managed to track down Spider (one of Zappa's piano-dwellers on Lumpy Gravy) on the interwebs, and sent him a Fan Email, which he replied to.

A totally great, totally cool album, and the xtry trx on the CD are high quality, too.