Sunday, July 19, 2015

Earth Opera - 1968 - Earth Opera

Earth Opera 
1968 
Earth Opera

 

01. The Red Sox Are Winning    3:30
02. As It Is Before    7:21
03. Dreamless    2:50
04. To Care At All    3:34
05. Home Of The Brave    4:46
06. The Child Bride    4:40
07. Close Your Eyes And Shut The Door    2:45
08. Time And Again    5:45
09. When You Were Full Of Wonder    3:55
10. Death By Fire    6:05

Peter Rowan - guitar, vocals
David Grisman - mandolin, mandocello, vocals
John Nagy - bass
Bill Stevenson - piano, organ, vibes, harpsichord
Billy Mundi - drums, percussion
Warren Smith - drums, percussion
Paul Dillon - drums, vocals




Earth Opera emerged from the Boston folk scene (as did Appaloosa and James Taylor) and recorded two folk rock albums in the late-60's. The main figures of Peter Rowen and Dave Grisman played in various eastern US folk music groups as far back as the early 60's, and their early works can be found on the String Band Project released in 69 by folk-specialist label Elektra. Earth opera's signing to the label occurred at a moment when they were having success with rock acts, such as The Doors, Love and even Tim Buckley, so Earth Opera got their shot as well. Often portrayed as acid folk rock, they were also pinned by the reductive Bosstown (Boston) Sound syndrome, even if Earth opera didn't have much in common, certainly not in sound.

They recorded their two albums over 18 months, both produced by in-house producer Peter Siegel, with a rather stable line-up, although their second album had many guest musicians, including Velvet Underground's John Cale. Their music is a gentle folk rock with some unusual instrumentation (vibraphone), but also had a dark side, which provided some quite interesting songs, usually their longer tracks. Their second album The Great American Eagle Tragedy is maybe a bit weaker, but holds a real class title track, that should appeal to most progheads.

Not commercially successful, the group folded, and the two leaders headed for California and joined Bluegrass group Muleskinner (offshoot of The Byrds) and Old and In The Way (with Jerry Garcia, this will lead in Grisman playing on the Dead's American Beauty album). Later Rowan will form Sea Train (later Seatrain), which is of some interest for progheads. Then he joined his brothers in The Rowen Brothers.

Armed with a bizarre mock-Hindu gatefold artwork, Earth Opera's eponymous debut album is a typical US folk rock album of the time, but can't hold back the odd country flavour sprinkled here and there. Lead by guitarist and main songwriter Rowen and mandolin player David Grisman (both also play sax and sing, with the latter also playing KB), the group also has Bill Stevenson on vibraphone and keyboards, giving them a distinctive slight edge in terms of sound, even delving ever so slightly a bit in jazz realm. Rounding up the group is bassist Naggy (sometimes on the cello) and drummer Dillon who adds vocals and percussion.

Right from the leading track, Red Sox Are Winning, Earth Opera show their Boston (baseball) roots with the vibraphone providing a fun edge. But the fun is quickly over as they plunge into a 7-min+ As It Is Before, with a plaintive moaning tone taking on a dramatic twist around the end of the track; surely one of the album's highlight. The following two tracks are hesitating between different types of boosted (rocked) up folk styles, none of which are really standing out, then followed Home Of The Brave a track is grave and dramatic war track (not related to baseball or Atlanta), which finishes rather strongly and can be pointed as another highlight.

Assuming we are now on the vinyl flipside, The Child Bride is again a rather sombre track and resonates with foregone traditions. Shut The Door and Time & Again are both less interesting (wouldn't call them fillers, especially the later with its fuzzed-up guitar solos), before the weakest Full of Wonder overstays its welcome. But the album closes very strongly on the album's best moment, the superb but eerie and dreary Death By Fire, dealing with an adulteress woman, dealt away by a gay pastor.

Although a quite impressive folk rock album as such, I wouldn't dare dreaming exaggerating its importance (it didn't chart on the US billboard) and wouldn't call influential or even less essential, but it remains a good (even strong) album, borderline folk baroque and acid folk with grave Vietnam-era lyrics. Definitely worth a listen anyway.

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