Recorded in Tasmania over three months in 1974 and released to critical acclaim and minimal sales, Howard Eynon’s So What If Im Standing In Apricot Jam is one of those lost albums that seem to have captured a specific moment in the zeitgeist with such pinpoint accuracy that you wonder why it never seemed to have caught the record-buying public’s imagination with quite the same fervour as the music of, for example, Daevid Allen, Roy Harper or Donovan. With the exception of a couple of acting roles Howard himself had pretty much disappeared from the public view by the early 1980s but the recent revival of interest in his music has coaxed him back into the limelight with a string of gigs in Europe and Britain to support the reissue of the album by Earth Recordings.
The opening ‘Wicked Wetdrop, Quonge and Me’ is almost a microcosm of the whole album: Howard’s fingerstyle guitar underpins a whimsical lyric inspired by a combination of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and Spike Milligan, delivered in his warm, mellow voice. Yet, at the same time, you sense that, behind the facade, the Anglo-Australian singer/songwriter is possessed of a sharp, observational eye and an equally sharp mind: two facets of his undoubtedly complex personality which resurface at intervals throughout the fourteen songs included here.
Clocking in at a shade under two minutes, ‘Hot B.J.’ is one of the shortest tracks on the album but it feels about right for a homage to blackcurrant juice. With its several key changes, shuffling drums (by Alf Properjohn) and la-la-la interlude, it has the potential to have been a great advertising jingle. Interestingly, there’s one line which points up Howard’s self-awareness of the likely criticism his musical style might attract – and his uncompromising yet endearing ‘love it or shove it’ attitude to those same critics – and is worth keeping in mind as one wanders through the psychedelic highways and byways of the album:
“And if you want to be critical and say this sounds a bit like Donovan, I won’t change it”
From one of the record’s shortest tracks, we plunge headlong into one of its longest: at over seven minutes, I will admit I was half-expecting ‘Village Hill’ to be an endurance test of how much rambling, psychedelic self-indulgence one woman could reasonably be expected to take. I was not only happy to have my preconceptions overturned, but to have found myself listening to what is, I think, not only the album’s highlight, but one of the better pieces of acid-folk that I’ve ever heard. From an introspective, fingerstyle guitar opening with Howard reciting a spoken word poem with the same desultory, almost melancholic air as Ian Dury in his more reflective moments, it has a gentle, pastoral feel up to its midpoint. It’s here that Howard ramps up the tempo to a fast strum supporting the wild, emotive violin of Peter Daly. The last section returns to the dreamy fingerstyle guitar of the first part, allowing Peter to paint the sound with a more abstract style before it all fades to silence.
Over a circular chord structure reaching for the skies with heavily compressed, half-sung, half-spoken vocals, ‘Commitment to the Band’ is the sound of a man apparently grappling with a highly self-critical mood. Not an easy listen by anyone’s standards, nevertheless it makes an interesting interlude ahead of its diametrically opposed relative, ‘Good Time Songs’. Lyrically it finds Howard counting his blessings although the good times of the title are counterpointed by an underlying, darker side to life ahead of a more upbeat ending. Musically, there’s some nicely crisp phasing applied to the guitar part, understated but very effective, and credit must go to Nick Armstrong at Spectangle Studios in Hobart for his engineering skills – and for inviting Howard to make the album in the first place.
It’s followed by one of the record’s weaker moments; try as I might, I can’t find a great deal of creative merit in ‘Boots and Jam and Heads and Things’. Awash with whooshy, bluesy guitar and heavy reverb on Howard’s vocals it sounds depressingly like an outtake from one of Syd Barrett’s bad trips. It’s a measure of Howard’s rugged individualism that he can, in the blink of an eye, follow a tune like that – more tripped-over than tripped-out – with something like ‘Happy Song’. Another of the record’s highlights and bursting with sunshine and positivity, it’s a laidback yet potentially very radio-friendly tune with some nice harmonic guitar ‘pings’ punctuating its sugar-sweet harmonies and Abi Natham’s flute, albeit a long way back in the mix, adding to the mood.
I think it’s fair to say that ‘Now’s The Time’ owes a certain creative debt to Ralph McTell’s ‘Streets Of London’, although this is mitigated to some degree by the inclusion of a mellotron in the arrangement. A rare and temperamental device at the best of times, Ian Cugley not only manages to keep this moody creature under control but manages to make it sound sweet enough to bring this listener out in a rash of misty-eyed nostalgia. Credit, too, to Graham Ramft for adding a suitably restrained double bass to tie it all together.
Howard’s grasshopper imagination turns to what today we’d call social justice issues for a pair of songs. The first, ‘Roast Pork’, details an unfortunate encounter with the local constabulary following a misunderstanding over a bottle of whisky and some recreational smoking mixture. It’s mildly amusing on first listen but palls rapidly; it’s very much “of its time” but hasn’t really weathered the passing of the years terribly well. It’s followed by ‘French Army’, a piece of social commentary with particular resonance even today as it references the French nuclear weapons tests at the atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa in the southern Pacific Ocean, and the international protests those tests provoked during the 1970s. Alf’s military-sounding snare provides a solid platform for Howard’s impassioned vocals while the addition of – what else? – a French horn, courtesy the improbably-named B.Z. Fritters, brought a wry smile to my face.
‘Gone to the Pine Tree’ offers a brief moment of light relief; with another of Howard’s “out there” lyrics, the composition is built almost entirely on some impressively tight multitracked vocal harmonies taken at breakneck speed. Superficially it may be a bit of a throwaway number but it gives a good insight into the depth and complexity of his musical vision. The longish ‘Shadows and Riff’ was the closer on the original vinyl release and finds our hero at last really letting rip and rocking out in fine style. Revealing his undoubted musical ability on guitar – “lightning fingers” doesn’t even come close to describing this man’s speed – the song is both showcase and something of a magnum opus for his talents. Aided and abetted by Steve Mannering, who provides some distinctly 1960s-sounding electric harpsichord in addition to some prime 1970s-style heavy rock electric piano, with a little bit of light and shade from Abi Natham’s flute, it makes a fine and fitting end to the record.
There are two bonus tracks with this reissue, ‘Drury Lane’ and ‘Mad Mike’ (the later is premiered below and is to be released as a new single), both previously unreleased, although I’m unsure of their provenance; I assume they’re outtakes which only saw the light of day during the remastering process. ‘Drury Lane’ is a slow, woozy bluesy number which, for reasons that completely elude me, makes me think of Roy Harper’s ‘Acapulco Gold’ (from Valentine, coincidentally also first released in 1974), although I’m not sure that even Roy could play the ukulele with the same degree of studied nonchalance as Howard. In contrast, ‘Mad Mike’ features some very nice twelve-string guitar which seems to have pre-dated Johnny Marr by a good decade. Lyrically, too, there’s enough melancholic regret in the lyric to give Morrissey pause for thought. It’s a strong performance all round and I can only wonder at the reason it was excluded first time around. Still, better late than never and I’m glad it made it to this reissue.
The reissue of So What If Im Standing In Apricot Jam offers a welcome chance to hear an album of which many of us, I’m sure, would otherwise have remained unaware. Yes, there are a couple of tracks which perhaps wouldn’t have made the final cut were it to be recorded today, but Howard Eynon is clearly an individual and talented musician and writer with a keen eye for detail and a dry sense of humour, and it’s this combination which keeps the record sounding as fresh today as it must have done first time around. Welcome back, Howard – and here’s hoping the follow-up doesn’t take another forty years!
Review by: Helen Gregory
Track Premiere: Mad Mike
EU Tour Dates
02 Dec: Komedia, Brighton, UK w/ Wreckless Eric
03 Dec: The Old Church, Stoke Newington, London, UK
06 Dec: The Waiting Room, Eaglescliffe, Stockton-On-Tees, UK
07 Dec: The Bicycle Shop, Norwich, UK
08 Dec: The Old Church, Stoke Newington, London, UK http://bit.ly/1hGa0em
11 Dec: Servant Jazz Quarters, London, UK w/ The Jazz Butcher Quartet
12 Dec: South Records, Southend-on-Sea, UK (in-store, 2pm) FREE
15 Dec: The Old Church, Stoke Newington, London, UK http://bit.ly/1TgF6qP
16 Dec: The Ranelagh, Brighton, UK FREE
17 Dec: Sound Knowledge, Marlborough, UK (in-store) FREE
17 Dec: Ancient & Modern, Winchester, UK
18 Dec: La Maroquinerie, Gonzai Party, Paris, France