Monday, May 3, 2010

The International Submarine Band: Safe at Home (1968)

(LHI Records)


Narrative: A Harvard dropout named Gram Parsons decides to pursue music and ends up fronting a perpetually unlucky and indistinct psych-rock band, who are so completely un-celebrated their performance in a Roger Corman movie is overdubbed with someone else's noise, while the band that will give him his muscle and an assured career is already world-famous and achieving their peak in California. Somehow or another, two things happen: The band disintegrates after a couple of singles, and Parsons becomes enamored first of folk-rock and then of pure country music. And then, lightning strikes the world and history is made.

Safe at Home is best explained through its deceptions. Parsons' entire life reads as fiction, and his first group the International Submarine Band's lone album sets the stage. To begin with, it's not really an album by the International Submarine Band, the psych-rock band mentioned above, who splintered some months before its recording into the offshoot Flying Burrito Brothers, who enter the story much later. My understanding is that Parsons' various fixations (and perhaps he was not alone) were driving the band toward folk-rock well before the amicable split. Circumstances shifted around again and the upshot was finally that Parsons and buddy John Nuese were forced to assemble a new International Submarine Band on a moment's notice for LHI to record An Album, informed almost entirely by a country music obsession.

This is the result. Heralded as the invention of country rock, it arrives from the hands of accidental innovation. In and of themselves, a lot of these songs don't invent anything so much as they expand on an idea that already existed. Country is one of the foundations of rock & roll, and in 1968 those foundations were not so far away yet. Thus, it can be difficult now to hear the country in some of the rock songs, and the rock in some of the country songs. The one ingredient truly in place for Parsons' later records is his voice; despite some mishaps, it has all the poetry of Sweetheart and Grievous Angel. And the unflinching at something so desperately uncool as country music is a new phenomenon for 1968.

Personal: I'm a longtime Parsons fan but this album is new to me, and my opinion may be colored a bit by the way I discovered him, like so many others, via the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which was not just my introduction to him but the way I first explored anything resembling country music. What's always intrigued me about Rodeo is that it is very close to being pure country, but it still sounds like the Byrds, and there's still something barbed and beautiful and weird about it all in that very Byrdsy way. The Flying Burrito Bros. would infuse Parsons' songs with soul and power, and Parsons' solo records would attain an unexpected level of heartwrenching beauty. The International Submarine Band is his artistry at its most basic: a manifesto with the country and pop concepts still more or less separate. Maybe it's because these musicians weren't used to playing together, but this all seems just a tad too slick and competent. It's solid all right, but where's the tension, where's the bite?

The problem's illustrated most strongly by the two Johnny Cash covers, which come off as slightly lazy, and this is a great disappointment to me as I can't think of many things that excite me more in theory than hearing Gram sing "I Still Miss Someone." And the reading of "Folsom Prison Blues" seems fundamental, rote, bored, and lamely segues into Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right," a pairing that does neither song any great favor. The Jack Rhodes composition "A Satisfied Mind," already covered shortly before this by the Byrds and, recently, by Johnny Cash himself shortly before his death, is equally routine.

But no reason to carp. Not all the covers are weak. Parsons provides Merle Haggard's "I Must Be Somebody Else You've Known" with a reverential, passionate reading, and the band falls in line tightly behind him. Sun Records maven Jack Clement's "Miller's Cave" provides the ISB with the basis for their most convincing true country-rock hybrid of the record, a magnificent recording that deserves to stand with Parsons' greatest.

The LP begins beautifully, with the stunning Parsons original "Blue Eyes," which reveals him as some kind of maverick immediately on appearance. The triumph is twofold: in songwriting terms, he's already knocking out affecting Nashville music with the best of them; even the words perfectly capture the playful but genuine yearning of the best commercial country music from Hank Williams on down. It blends seamlessly with the covers, but lingers in the mind far longer, an auspicious signal of what was to come. Safe at Home's other peak has the opposite effect: with scarcely anything to do with country, "Luxury Liner" sticks out harshly, but its double track vocals, and wildly grinding sound prove a level of eclecticism Parsons would never entirely have a chance to explore. It is simply killer pop music.

We have, then, an extremely well-recorded album (seriously, the sonics are incredible) with an EP's worth of great music and plenty more good music. And maybe it did invent country rock. But it didn't make country rock matter. The Byrds would give Gram his megaphone to descend like some winged freak upon the world; the Byrds would pick all this beauty up and get it coated with grit and grease. Safe at Home is a fine record, but it's livelier as a piece of history -- in the context of what it preceded -- than as a listening experience. For this fan, anyway, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is the true beginning, but Safe at Home is essential for anyone with a love of this music and this mythology.

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