Pearls Before Swine: Wizard of Is, and Patty Waters: You Thrill Me
Wizard of Is
You Thrill Me
Watching this year's 9/11 commemoration at Ground Zero, where parents read the names of the deceased, including their own children, a quote entered my head: "In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons." Written by Greek historian Herodotus, the line finds voice some 2,500 years later in Pearls Before Swine's "Translucent Carriages." The track, which appears on Wizard of Is alongside songs that quote Shakespeare, Sara Teasdale, and W.H. Auden, showcases frontman Tom Rapp's musical inclinations succinctly: Set an ancient rhyme within an enchanted folk song like a jewel--or a pearl--so that, many years later, it still glimmers in the light.
Having bested Bob Dylan in a teen talent contest, Rapp and band released two magical albums for legendary New York label ESP-Disk (home to the Fugs, William Burroughs, and Sun Ra) before jumping to a major label in 1969. Ultimately, Rapp retired from music to practice law, save for an appearance at the Terrastock music festival a few years back. But Wizard of Is rediscovers the lost years with 40-odd demos and live recordings from 1967 to 1976 that were recently culled from Rapp's tape archives.
With his endearing lisp and impeccable songcraft, Rapp's tunes intermingle seamlessly with deft interpretations of his more renowned peers: Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Randy Newman (Rapp gives "Sail Away" a furious treatment on bottleneck). Although the sound quality varies, these two discs serve as a fine introduction to the humor, stark poetry, and craft of the man who is as much a bridge between Renaissance troubadours and '60s folkies as he is a link between The Basement Tapes and the Grateful Dead's lax Americana.
A labelmate of Rapp's on ESP-Disk, singer Patty Waters also dug through old closet tapes for her collection You Thrill Me: A Musical Odyssey 1960-1979. Her side-long shredding of the standard "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," first included on her 1965 debut, remains a watermark of the '60s avant-garde--the vocal equal of saxophonist Albert Ayler's incandescent cries. Those haunting coos and howls influenced a generation of singers from Yoko Ono to Patti Smith before Waters dropped out of the speed-freak East Village scene and moved to California. Unfortunately, the bulk of You Thrill Me sidesteps that crucial era of her scant work, focusing instead on the '70s, when she withdrew from free-jazz fire, shelved her spine-shivering shrieks, and instead murmured torchy ballads like "Georgia" and "Fine and Mellow." Waters's voice remains in fair form, though--smoky as an after-hours lounge, seductive in the dark, caressing like a lover. Listen closely to her and to Rapp; you can hear them both praying for peace.
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