Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Alexander

Alexander "Skip" Spence
Oar (1991 Remix)


Released 1991 on Sony Music Special Products
Reviewed by Joe Kenney, 25/04/2007ce


The difference between the original mix of this fantastic album (as featured on the 1969 Columbia LP and the 1999 CD/LP from Sundazed) and this 1991 remix by Ken Robertson can be generically summarized as follows: the '91 remix is sonically flat by comparison, with the instruments all bunched together and sounding compressed, with Spence's vocals spread thick overtop. The original/'99 mix offers more variance, with much use of separation on the instrumental and vocal tracks. Also, there are several little sound effects which are missing on the '91 remix, odd production gimmicks Spence included to make his album even more unique. Another unusual difference is that the 1991 remix sounds modern, as if it could've been recorded and released that very year. The original mix, on the other hand, sounds timeless.

So does this mean the '91 remix is a waste of time and money? Not really. As with most remixes, it brings to light parts of songs you might never have noticed before. Also, it features extended versions of many of the tracks. Where many songs fade out on the original mix, on the '91 release they go on for several seconds longer -- in the case of Diana, over a minute longer. This might seem of little worth to the average listener, but to the Oar nut -- an extra millisecond of Skip Spence is worth it.

On to the track by track comparison...

Little Hands fades in, unlike the original mix, so you miss some of the cool guitar licks in the intro. There are less effects on Spence's vocals; just the first of many examples of how this remix lacks the psychedelic murk of the original/Sundazed mix. It also seems to me that the acoustic guitar is brought up in the mix, to the detriment of the other instruments. The version on this mix goes on for a few extra seconds, but it's just a final burst on the drums (after the syncopated marching beat which ends the original mix) and some silence as the cymbals fade out.

Cripple Creek grooves on the original mix, the instruments spread all around the sound spectrum. Here on the '91 remix it's much more subdued, more of a downhome acoustic jam. A quieter affair. I know most of this is just because, as with most early nineties CDs, the '91 remix isn't mastered as loud as the Sundazed release from 1999. But beyond that, the instruments are mixed together so tight that you don't get a chance to appreciate them, unlike the original mix. To make it more to the point -- the '91 mix makes Cripple Creek sound like a demo. The original/Sundazed mix sounds like a finished track.

Diana nearly seems like a different song on the '91 remix. First, it's over a minute longer than the original mix. Not only that, but different instruments are brought to the fore; most notably the bluesy electric guitar which compliments Spence's vocals. But again you don't get as good a feel for the funky nature of the song, as in the original mix. However it's a shame this extended ending is now lost to history, only available here on this now-rare '91 release. Because, well, the extended ending is pretty damn great. Spence comping along on all the instruments, building into a groove, picking up the pace, laying down some jagged licks on that bluesy guitar, scatting "Diana" and "Watch it!" overtop. Sundazed really should've included this as an "alternate take" on their otherwise definitive 1999 release. This is the only instance where I enjoy the remix as much as the original; in fact in some ways it's better.

Margaret-Tiger Rug has always been my least favorite track on Oar, and it's basically the same here as on the original mix. At least I couldn't detect any noticeable differences, other than the condensed instrument track on the remix. But that's true of the entire CD.

Weighted Down (The Prison Song) is again muted, when compared to the original/Sundazed mix. In fact Spence's vocals nearly drop off at the very beginning and throughout the song. Tape fade? Another example of the lower mastering of old compact discs? I'm not sure. Beyond that, this is another track which is mostly similar. But then again, there's not much going on in Weighted Down that could even be changed by a remix. A basic blues sans drums, Spence's untreated vocals, the weary vibe of a soul-crushed man...I mean, it's all already there. That being said, again, the instruments just aren't as to the fore as in the original mix. That bass is still crisp and clear, but everything else sounds more muted.

War In Peace is again mixed to sound drier, less psychotic than the original. The original mix was a psychedelic shitstorm of fractured nerves, the LSD to the remixed version's downer. But then the volume of the lead guitar jumps up halfway through the song, as if a switch has been turned in the editing booth, and the guitar sound suddenly jumps up a few notches. Those "Moon Turn the Tides, Gently, Gently Away" sounds increase in volume as well, but the track still doesn't attain the haggard majesty of the original/Sundazed mix. What's more, the misappropriated "Sunshine of Your Love" riff doesn't have the way-cool fuzz sound we all know and love on the original mix.

Broken Heart, like Weighted Down, doesn't have much which could be all that changed. Another basic blues, this one's pretty much the same on both the original/Sundazed mix and the '91 remix, save for the inferior sound quality and densely-mixed instruments on the latter.

All Come To Meet Her doesn't have the punch of the original mix. However there's a weird, near-Hendrix effect to the electric guitar, most apparent in the opening seconds of the track. Like this strange sort of echo, placed way in the background. It's ghostly, and much different from the more in-your-face guitar in the original mix. This effect stays in place throughout the remix, lending the song more of a haunted, disturbed feeling.

Books Of Moses sounds pretty much the same as the original version. Those hammer and chisel sounds (the Commandments being hammered right there in the studio?) are mixed just as loud, the storming rain just as thick. The original/Sundazed mix just sounds more alive.

Dixie Peach Promenade is three seconds longer in the original/Sundazed mix, but that's just extra seconds of silence. The original mix is a jamboree of strummed guitars and upbeat drums, again with the instruments spread across the spectrum. And again, the remix lacks this; everything's in the pocket, condensed, subdued. You don't get a feel for how that acoustic guitar's being strummed for all it's worth, how that bass kit is just getting thumped.

Lawrence of Euphoria is a totally different take than the original mix. Or at least it's an extended version, as the remix is twenty seconds longer than the original/Sundazed. This is due to Spence repeating two verses in the latter half of the song (the "Ellie Mae from Californi-aye"/ "Vivian's twin sister Ellie Mae" lines), whereas in the original mix Spence's vocals finish at the one-minute mark. On the other hand, the remix lacks the punch of the original mix. One of my favorite "hidden parts" of Oar (meaning something that doesn't click until you've heard it for the fiftieth time) is how the bass drum on this track thumps so innocuously yet thunderously in the background. It's mixed down here, still thumping, just not so thunderously. This is another example of where Sundazed should've included this take/version on their 1999 release.

Grey/Afro is a strange mix. First of all it fades in, whereas the original/Sundazed mix starts at normal volume. This means some of that cool bass is lost. Speaking of which, the bass guitar which opens and centers the track is fatter on the '91 remix, but not as phased and psychedelic as the original. I'd say of all the remixes, this one's the worst. The original/Sundazed mix is a super-cool epic of frayed nerves and pulsing rhythm; the remix floats along in a subdued haze, the rhythm and drums buried in the mix. What's worse, the track fades WAY down seven minutes in, as if it's going to fade out as per the original vinyl. But it keeps going for two minutes at this super-low volume. Why? The Sundazed release gets it right, with the track continuing on in full gear for the duration, as Spence intended. The remixed version gradually fades back up at a little over nine minutes in, just in time for the track break to "This Time He Has Come."

One thing the '91 mix was notable for was the first appearance of "This Time He Has Come," which apparently was supposed to be the third part of Grey/Afro but was cut for length. Unfortunately this version again lacks the impact of the Sundazed release; it sounds like it was recorded in an echo chamber – which would be cool, but not for this breakbeat-filled song. The instrumental track is all jammed together and muted, save for the bass, and it lacks the funk that is so apparent in the '99 Sundazed release. I mean, one thing you never see mentioned about Oar is how damn funky the extra tracks are. It's like pure-cut White Boy funk, a one-man jam band. But that's missing here. Seems to me the remix tries to make the song sound "weird" like the original Oar release, but gets it all wrong, putting the effects on the wrong things and missing the groove factor. Just another case where the '91 remix gets it wrong, but the Sundazed release gets it right.

It’s The Best Thing For You follows, same as the Sundazed release. Again, mixed in a way which hazes the underlying funk which is apparent on the Sundazed mix. The bass guitar does have a cool phased effect to it, and is more noticeable here than on the Sundazed version, but if it’s not apparent yet…I prefer the Sundazed version. This is another example of how on the Sundazed release the drums are tight in the right channel, yet spread over both channels (and phased) in the remix. This again undercuts the impact.

Keep Everything Under Your Hat follows on the tails of the preceding track, same as on the Sundazed release. I've always liked how this happens, Spence yelling "Hot chords!" at the end of It's the Best Thing For You, then his "band" immediately going into the Keep Everything...as if it isn't just one guy there in the studio, playing it all. This track is one of the funkiest of the bonus material, but again sounds muted on the remix. It also starts a second later than the Sundazed release. The bass dominates, so you get a good feel for that phased effect which isn't as noticeable on the Sundazed. But that's about it. It seems to me like a lot of noise reduction was applied to this track on the remix, like the life has been sucked out of it.

Furry Heroine (Halo of Gold) is next, and the Sundazed release is a good thirty seconds longer, featuring an opening vamp which was cut from the remix. So that's one more strike against the remix. It's funny, this track sounds like what it is on the Sundazed release -- a funky little number with vocals, drums, and bass. The remix features the same instruments, but comes off like a calypso or something. The bass again predominates. I wonder if this was something apparent in Spence's original mix, which was taken down by Columbia and later Sundazed? It just can't be a coincidence that the bass is the shining star of the remix...unless of course the remixer just has a natural preference for it.

Givin' Up Things ends the remix, mislabeled here as Doodles, which owners of the Sundazed know is a completely different song. What a desultory end to an album! A defeated-sounding Spence moaning over muted instrumentation...more than anywhere else on Oar it sounds like a derelict in the studio. You can barely hear the snapping drums in the remix, and the track fades out earlier.

And that's it for the remix. The Sundazed release features five more tracks, including the fantastic If I'm Good/You Know medley, one of the highlights of the entire CD. The packaging also isn't as definitive as the Sundazed release, which included lengthy liner notes by David Fricke, the original liner notes to the Columbia LP, and even the Rolling Stone* review by Greil Marcus from 1969. The remix features a few pages of liner notes (no photos) by Bruce Eder, which glosses over certain things (a vague reference to a "breakdown," but no mention of the infamous axe incident) yet boasts that the release is a straight-up "reconstruction" (Eder especially enthuses over the new mix of Diana, calling the restored ending a "rave-up similar to what Moby Grape was doing").

So if you're an Oar fanatic, you might want to hunt this down. If this is your first experience with Spence's masterwork, then seek out the Sundazed release. It's the mix he originally released, and there's really not much to recommend the remix over it -- only the extended versions of Diana and Lawrence of Euphoria stand out, and good that they are, I'd take the original mix over them any day.

*Someone at Rolling Stone really liked Oar. When the magazine released its first compilation in 1972, The Rolling Stone Record Review, Marcus's Oar review was included -- this well after the LP was out of print. And what's more, not a single review for Moby Grape was included.


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