Friday, 29 April 2011

Hidden gem: The United States of America - The United States of America (CBS)

What are the criteria for an all-time great album? A number of styles brought together in a seamless fashion must be a pre-requisite, as are strong hooks, innovation and excellent instrumentation. Other useful indicators in my own mind are a defining concept and a degree of freaked out weirdness. I’ve encountered three ‘lost’albums of the late 1960's and early 1970's in recent years that I think fulfil at least some of this criteria – Chapter 3 by Manfred Mann, 666 by Aphrodite's Child and, most recently, the self-titled album by The United States of America.

Formed in 1967 by Joseph Byrd, this New York band used electric harpsichord, electric violin and calliope as much as they did more conventional instruments. Almost uniquely for the time they didn’t use electric guitar. They embraced early electronic instrumentation using audio processors and early synthesizers evoking a more European sound than their name might suggest. 

The band was never supposed to be a permanent arrangement and a tour off the back of the record's release was riddled with technical issues and drug charges which eventually led to their demise. Their self-titled record was recorded in a drug fueled haze in December 1967, produced by David Rubinson, and released in 1968 on CBS Records. The album covered a wide range of musical genres, including avant-garde folk, psychedelia, and progressive rock. Vocal duties were shared between Byrd and lead vocalist Dorothy Moskowitz.

The record was loosely about the social issues facing 60's America and took the form of a song cycle. Perhaps the best known track to British listeners is The Garden of Earthly Delights which was used by artist and sometime Super Furry Animals sleeve designer Pete Fowler on his excellent The Sounds of Monsterism Island CD. This heavy prog-rock  track isn't necessarily representative of the record as a whole as there are much more esoteric delights to be had but the sheer number of styles covered makes this album difficult to pigeonhole. What is clear though is the influence it has had. It evokes not only obvious reference points like Stereolab and Broadcast but indeed the music that influenced that such as acid folk and krautrock. Portishead have gone as far as crediting the album on their track Half day closing.

Opening track The American Metaphysical Circus immediately brings to mind the vaudeville freak shows of Coney Island before giving way to a haunting vocal from Moskowitz. Hard Coming Love meanwhile is far more typical of the dominating psychedelic sounds of the day sounding rather like a female fronted Doors. Cloud Song is pastoral in feel and it wouldn't entirely surprise you if someone told you it was Vashti Bunyan or another long lost acid folk chanteuse. Garden comes next to lift the mood with its talk of gathering mushrooms and the listener is left not really knowing what style is coming next. What does come next is I won't leave my wooden wife for you, the sort of psychedelic pop song specialised in by the Kinks or Small Faces. Song by Byrd it's eccentric but charming.

The second side of the record starts on a much grander scale. Where is Yesterday evokes David Axlerod while second track Coming down is the track that most obviously sounds like Stereolab. Throughout the album as a whole there is wonderful playing and a real sense of uncontained experimentation with some truly odd electronic noises behind the vocal, but a sense of strong songwriting is also apparent. Love Song For The Dead Che is probably the most subdued track on the record but if you listen to the lyrics you can hear Byrd's communist supporting sympathies coming through. Stranded in time has a baroque feel while the final track (suite?) The American Way of Love is a disorientating finale inserting excerpts of the previous tracks into a cut and paste collage that wouldn't be entirely out of place on a Prefuse 73 or Madlib production. 'How much fun its been' a voice in the mix intones - I couldn't agree more.

Despite the widespread support of music critics, the album sold  poorly, charting at number 181 in the USA. In recent years it's worth has been recognised by some and has been reissued but this is still under-valued next to Love's Forever Changes,The Velvet Underground's debut and Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love, all of which it bears comparison to. If want a record that is varied in style, wildly experimental and well executed, you could do far worse than this. Its on Spotify or you can pick up a reissue for a tenner - not bad for some classic counter-revolutionary, avant-garde electro-acid folk-rock.  

1 comment:

  1. ABSOLUTELY!! ONE OF THE MOST VALUABLE RECORDS EVER MADE. I heard this originally in the late Sixties on renegade FM station KFMK-FM (Houston,Texas)....

    This even blows Jefferson Airplane away....unbelievable...and I never took drugs...