Friday, September 30, 2011

Alexander "Skip" Spence: Oar (1969)



This record's primary purpose is to generate simultaneously a desire to hug it and a recoiling, creeping disgust -- so given my taste for Alex Chilton's solo work and the Beach Boys' Love You, not to mention Daniel Johnston and (why not) Nick Drake, this would seem a dream album for me. And in one way, I'm amazed that I have managed not to hear it until I was 27, because it's like ear candy to me: dissonant, hyperemotional acoustic psychodrama unfettered by overarranging, with croakingly complete but vague, barely-there songs. Skip Spence was of course the guy who came at a bandmate from Moby Grape with an ax while on a particularly heavy acid trip; upon being freed from the resultant stint in a psychiatrick ward, he showed up at a studio and recorded this lovable slice of shambolic beauty. "Diana" and "War in Peace" are the sound of a broken man, full of the wailing coos that would mark Big Star's "Kanga Roo" a few years later. Say this for a handicap of the sort that addled Spence: it removes all blockage to the kind of wordless desperation that is flawlessly captured on Oar; we don't just recognize this sadness, we feel it.

Part of what separates Oar from its desolate descendants is that its classic rock connection goes far beyond Spence's career lineage. The blues rock elements that built up to the ax-wielding moment are easily audible on "Little Hands" -- ethereal and ghostly, yes, but somehow rootsy as well, an agreeable call forward to Iron & Wine and Great Lake Swimmers, though more unhinged than either. If that's too subtle for you, "Books of Moses" hammers it home. But Spence here exhibits none of the obnoxious machismo that's dated a lot of traditional rock from this period. It helps that the sound and production are a stunningly proficient evocation of a mood. That's the key. As hyperactively eccentric singer-songwriters go, Spence lacks the melodic sense of Brian Wilson and the personable warmth of Alex Chilton, even Daniel Johnston's eagerness to please, but he can wring feeling out of these sparse numbers that Cat Stevens and James Taylor could've only dreamed about. Either would kill for the casual cabaret of "Lawrence of Euphoria," the unsentimentally delicate folk-rock of "Weighted Down," the effortless deja vu of "Dixie Peach Promenade" -- neither would have been able to glean anything honest from them the way Spence does.

Better yet, this rant is not artfully delicate or pretty -- not at all beautiful in a typical singer-songwriterly way; like a Terrence Malick film, its grand emotions come from its rawness and sincerity. It is lovely, it shimmers (see the glorious "Cripple Creek"), and it makes its points with agreeable brevity, the songs fading as soon as they've made their point satisfactorily. Spence's vocals are also ideal for the sonic setting he's concoted, the strain you can sense in his lyrics and singing only making "Broken Heart" that much more convincing and priceless. Maybe this is all extraordinary and prophetic by accident, but it's no small feat that even now, a 1969 album can make a seasoned follower of fringe rock music as uncomfortable as the splendid, otherworldly closing tangent "Grey/Alto" does, to say nothing of the out-of-time "Margaret Tiger Rug."

How refreshing that oar is unembarrassed at its off-kilter sentimentality and playfulness, even at relatively conventional intervals like the naked, stark Simon & Garfunkel guitar move "All Come to Meet Her." Were the album's emotions -- which tend to reflect the confusion that one would expect to haunt a guy just out of rehabilitation --not as unorthodox as its sonics, it would be a home run. As it is, it's very very close.

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