Pearls Before Swine – One Nation Underground
Drag City – 20 October 2017
Pearls Before Swine is (was) one of those band names that has almost always been considered to possess something of a legendary status, and indeed notoriety, both because of and in spite of its cultish obscurity. Extravagant claims have been made by Those In The Know for the output of maverick American songwriter and singer Tom Rapp, who formed the band (such that it ever was) in Florida in the early-mid-60s.
Its debut LP, One Nation Underground, was recorded in May 1967 (with minimal facilities) at Impact Sound studio in New York City and released that October on the experimental jazz label ESP-Disk (which also released The Fugs’ early albums). This circumstance alone meant the album was almost certainly destined for obscurity – I rather suspect that had it appeared instead on Jac Holzman’s Elektra label, there’s a good chance its music would’ve met with at least a modicum of recognition from adventurous music fans, if only under the “file-under-curio, curious-yet-worthwhile” tag that would’ve fitted, say, The Zodiac’s Cosmic Sounds.
On One Nation Underground, the Pearls Before Swine guys genuinely didn’t sound like any other band, and although individual tracks may have betrayed specific influences (and then only sometimes) the album as a whole was idiosyncratic to a fault and, with its multiple identities so hard to get a handle on, proved elusive at best. The sound-world was unpredictable, the instrumentation wildly inconsistent and eccentric but at the same time almost unnervingly low-key; and the melodies weren’t exactly catchy, and often not even especially memorable per se. Tom’s singing style was erratic, and often at odds with the nature of the lyrics – this feature was unusual even by contemporary psych-folk-rock standards. Tom ranged across the expressive modes, from plaintively Cohen-esque (Another Time, with its swirling heavenly autoharp) to gently pained and anguished (the tremulous folk-baroque Ballad To An Amber Lady) to nasal cod-Dylan parody (Playmate), weary Donovan/Byrds-type crooning (the exhortation Drop Out!) and snarling Dylanesque (the obligatory anti-Vietnam protest number Uncle John), then in complete contrast slightly jazzy acoustic-folk (with soft brushed snare, vibes and pastoral cor anglais) cradling the bucolic poetry of the album’s love song Regions Of May. There’s also the knowingly dotty “odd ode” (Oh Dear) Miss Morse (you don’t need to be an Oxford detective to work out what the riff spells – no wonder the track got banned from radio play!). Then the vocals go amok spilling over several styles on the episodic I Shall Not Care (which feels a touch Velvet Underground too, I think).
Instrumentally the guys supporting Tom (Wayne Harley, Lane Lederer and Roger Crissinger) provide some really inventive touches to signpost (but not over-reachingly so) Tom’s startling imagery. Not only is there a great use of banjo as a key textural element on some tracks, but there’s also some far-out glimpses (but that’s all they are) of world music, as viewed through a hole in the centre of the earth – a rippling kora sound in the background on Amber Lady, a subliminal sitar drone and what sounds like ethnic flutes (but uncredited) on Morning Song, and a sarangi on one of the many sections of the episodic I Shall Not Care. But, in contrast to the contemporaneous world-adventures of the Incredible String Band, these colours were more subtly applied, not splashed into the foreground. Pearls also brought in occasional spacier-psych trappings, like an audio oscillator swooping up into the climax of I Shall Not Care (did the good Mr. Rapp have too much to dream that night?).
Down to the presentation then, and in a way, the cryptic choice of cover art (a portion of the Hell panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s acutely visionary Garden Of Delights) is emblematic of the LP’s beautifully detailed yet frustratingly enigmatic contents, positively inviting controversy and polarising opinion while providing in its seemingly almost literal “nation underground beneath the world as we know it” depiction an intense and lavish banquet of food-for-thought, on which to feast the eyes while aurally digesting the music within the package. At times, the overload of minute detail precludes focus on the bigger picture – again, much like the music.
For this 50th anniversary reissue, ESP house producer of the day Richard Alderson has carried out a splendid mono restoration from the original master tapes that really does capture something of the striking impact this (even for its time) unusual music must have had on those fortunate enough to be in the position to hear it. The album’s sheer difficulties of access and distribution must have been the reason why it never even passed close to my own radar at the time (I don’t even recall any tracks being played on the John Peel programme, which was always such a haven for the wonderful and obscure). But I’m not sure what I’d have made of it anyway, for the highly ambiguous nature of its neither-folk-nor-psych presence may well have drawn me (and other prospective buyers) initially to tracks like the louder and more overtly pop-psych Farfisa-dominated offerings like The Surrealist Waltz (a cut that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Electric Music For The Mind & Body). But then I’d have bypassed the gorgeously understated folkier offerings, which at this remove are all the more mind-blowing, especially here in their clearer, better-defined remastered sound (earlier stereo-imaged reissues had fudged the issue by doing quite nasty things to what I can now hear as a quite delicate internal balance within the mono soundscape). As we learn in Richard Alderson’s new liner note, the sound of Pearls Before Swine was trippy, sure, but in the natural and organic rather than studio-generated or drug-fuelled sense.
This has-to-be-definitive reissue is something of a benchmark. The sturdily-packaged CD edition is sure built to last; it sports full lyric sheet and new notes giving a historical perspective from both Rapp and Alderson. I’m sorely tempted to suggest that the Pearls’ followup album, the much-maligned Balaclava, might usefully be given a comparable restoration.
To celebrate the release some of the Drag City roster of artists have offered up their own covers including Meg Baird, Bill MacKay and Ryley Walker. Watch them below: