There are innumerable hazy musical remnants of the 60's and 70's that hang onto the connoisseur like a tick with a sophisticated palette. Nick Drake was one of them. Before the new Beetle was being shilled under the spell of a pink moon, Nick Drake was one of those names that only the hoary sage members of any random music email list would trot out, just to put the obscurists in their place. Now, you can buy a Nick Drake album at Best Buy and while its all well and good for the estate of the fragile anti-depressant-fatality (I wonder why the Scientologists haven't latched onto him as a why-medicine-is-bad poster boy) it was a blow to us keepers of the kingdom. Not only did this get out the gate, but your Skip Spences, your Alan Lomax finds, all became reissue fodder. Every oddball Brazilian psychedelic sitar-meets-go-go dancer political protest groover is getting the deluxe edition treatment, and the masters of the universe who knew about them first are left holding an empty record crate. Whether that's a sad thing is debatable: we amateur music historians were doing nothing with this gold that didn't serve to brighten our plumage, and since I'm not anywhere as obscure-knowing as I used to be, I should be thankful for these reissues.
One of these that made it on the radar of the music dorks of the absolutely highest water was Gay Higgins 1973 weirdy beardy classic Red Hash which is getting the treatment by Drag City. I don't know where old Gary has been hiding with his Tolkien grade redhead freak flag hair, but I'm glad he's surfaced, and with a great story too. Just days before entering a 13-month stint in the clink from a drug conviction, he gathered his cohorts for a 40-hour recording marathon with a bale of weed and every stringed instrument they could find and made this soon-to-be-buried treasure trove. It is hippy as fuck, even more so than the pre-glam T Rex stuff (Bolan has a distinctive Elvis complex that does battle with the Elvish one in those early records) and crackles like a fresh joint on a cold winter morn. It opens with the twinkling loping "Thicker Than a Smokey" that sounds like what CSN&Y and Grateful Dead might have sounded like without the bombast. His high voice is sweet and thick and the guitars roll by like a slow river. The bongos get hauled out for 'It Didn't take Too Long" as did that unadulterated electric bass you only get in this era and some kind of crazy early synthesizer genie that esacpes from the bottle toward the end. Beneath the realm of the ultra-groovy is what it is. But there is a sophistication about this record, like this is almost a gentleman's psychedelia, where you kick back in your well-appointed library and lace your Cubans with some opium.
No hippie excursion can be made without flutes and cellos putting in an appearance, so the stairway to heaven in this record is the tranquil minor-key canticle "Windy Child" which has a touch of Nelson Riddle sentimentality giving this a little more complex a flavor than the average dish. "Telegraph Towers" is an exercise in texture, of what can be wrought with voice and a guitar and cello, building layer upon layer until you start floating. Things start to get bluesy and a little spooky with "I Can't Sleep at All" whose nervousness and trepidation and paranoia is clear if you know that the singer is about to go to jail in real life, and his promising career will be cut drastically short. But man this is as dense an acoustic record as you'll find, with mandolins and strings and whatnot all cycling around the words, its a beautiful thing. If you have listened to Devendra Banhart and wanted to find the kind of stuff he is aping in his future-retro revival act, this is it. "Cuckoo" is a fucked blues that makes you feel you've gone off the edge a bit yourself, but it is beautiful and tranquil out in the drug abyss.
He gets starry eyed on the mournful "I Pick Notes From The Sky", pastoral and defeated on "Stable the Spuds" (perhaps the saddest thing ever about eating potatoes since Van Gogh's depiction) and funky (and kinda weird) like a drunken country satyr on "Down on the Farm" each track creating and upward spiral of motifs and submelodies and weedy edge. "Unable to Fly" is a particularly sad number leading up to the original final track on the record, the strident, paranoid, heavy heavy "Looking For June." Imagine Burt Bacharach hitting the streets with Arthur Lee, trying to cop. In the spirit of reissue, two more tracks were unearthed and tacked on the end: the jaunty "Don't Ya Know" that sounds a lot like one of the T. Rex songs I was talking about earlier and the epic slab of psychedelia "Last Great Sperm Whale." Merely listening to this song alone might make you fail a pee test, its so lost in a glimmering simmering haze of its own inducement. I don't know if the current line of space cowboys are planning to hoist Higgins on their shoulders like they have with fellow no-hit wonder Vashti Bunyan, but damn they should. He's like if the Iron and Wine guy would totally "go there" like is Animal Collective would quit being cute for a while, if Banhart could be torn away from the mirror for a second. I jest, I love the three aforementioned artists, and if they were all to get in a time machine/gene splicing accident, they might emerge as the long lost, newly found Gary Higgins.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
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