Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Tom Rapp
A Journal of the Plague Year

Released 2000 on Woronzow
Reviewed by Vinyl Junkie, 17/06/2000ce

Tom Rapp - A Journal of the Plague Year (Woronzow/Rubric)

Mr. Rapp’s first studio recording in over a quarter of a century opens with an a cappella rendition of Yeats’ “Silver Apples.” It’s a bold move which announces “I’m back!” warts and all. That beautiful voice crackles a bit here and there, but adds to the cozy campfire feeling of the songs that follow. “The Swimmer” is dedicated to Kurt Cobain (and a second, full instrumentation version of “Silver Apples” is dedicated to Simeon Coxe from the band of the same name that, like Rapp, had it’s nascent career jumpstarted via appearances at the recent Terrastock festivals. Rapp and Simeon were two of the few performers who appeared at all three festivals!) Assisted by fellow Terrastock alum, Stone Breath and Green Crown multi-instrumentalist Olivardil Prydwyn on harp, Rapp’s eulogy to the troubled star questions society’s role in ignoring not only Cobain’s demons, but all like minded troubled individuals:

“we all pass by so silently
like swimmers in the dark
lost inside the pull of tides
that keep us all apart
people drowning all among us
if only we could see
and they’re lost like all the fishes
that can never find the sea.”

Here Rapp, as he did so often with Pearls Before Swine, displays a knack for creating what superficially appears to be a simple tale of a lost sole (sic) floundering in a sea of indifference, but actually is a scathing indictment of society’s ignorance of everyone but themselves.

“Blind” opens with the riff from Buffy Sainte Marie’s “Universal Soldier” (on harmonica, no less!) and puts another spin on the old “life passing before my eyes” cliché, while “Space” features Rapp’s finest vocal performance on this welcome return. (A demo version of this old PBS track is also available with the current “folk issue” of Ben Goldberg’s wonderful Badaboom Gramophone #4 magazine. Also, note that Dave Pearce of FSA was actually the first to commit this song to vinyl on the Rapp/PBS tribute album, For the Dead in Space and an updated “1999” version appears on his Mirror release [see review elsewhere.])

Most of the LP was produced by Damon Krukowski at the studio, Kali, that he runs with partner Naomi Yang (both are ex-members of Galaxie 500, current residents of Magic Hour and have three of their own releases available on Sub Pop.) Damon & Naomi also performed with Rapp at the Terrastock festivals, making this album a reunion of sorts (Dave thanks many Terrastock alum on the back cover) and Damon returns the favor by adding drums to “Mars,” a rather inconsequential rambling piece that seems unfinished. Damon and Prydwyn also contribute to “Hopelessly Romantic,” which also features Tom’s son David from Shy Camp. Tom performed an early solo version of this song on his tribute album, but the vocal here is crisper, the production stronger and the additional instrumentation (including Tom’s old PBS partner, Carl Edwards) rejuvenates the song into a wonderful campfire singalong. Kudos, also to Prydwyn’s wonderful mandolin work here. Damon, Naomi and Prydwyn also join Tom for “Wedding Song” and one is immediately reminded of their Terrastock collaboration and how seamlessly this quartet blends together. It’s nice to finally have a studio performance of them captured for posterity. Speaking of being hopelessly romantic, this song contains my favorite lyric in the whole set, “The only thing I love more than you is us.”

This brings us to the album’s centerpiece, “Shoebox Symphony.” Tom discovered the track in a shoebox on an old PBS tape marked “1968” and it is presented here for the first time. Recorded and co-produced in London by Nick Saloman and Ade Shaw from the Bevis Frond and at Kali Studios in Cambridge, Massachusetts by Damon & Naomi (and featuring all four), the trilogy opens with “Where is Love?” featuring a lengthy organ solo by Nick, who combines the riff from The Beatles’
“Nowhere Man” with a lilting merry-go-round styled funhouse melody. Tom enters with his best Dylan impersonation, circa “Highway 61” and we’re off and running with the first “shoulda been a hit single” of 2000. Part two, “State U” is another scathing diatribe against the phony “peace and love” myth of the ‘60s as Tom recounts the lifestyles of the ungrateful generation that seemingly had everything handed to them on a silver platter, yet still found the time to “write ‘FUCK’ on the bathroom walls.” The “symphony” ends with the nursery rhyme mantra “Just Let the Grass Grow” accompanied by Ade Shaw’s special FX of children laughing in what appears to be a pastoral picnic outing.

[Special note: the CD version of the album features a hidden track recorded at Terrastock I in Providence, Rhode Island in 1997, where Tom does a perfect rendition of Woody Allen’s stand up comedy routine as he recounts a hilarious “drug story” from the old days, peopled with the likes of Wavy Gravy, the New York City Drug Enforcement Agency and Electra, er, "a major recording label on the east coast." Hopefully, a full version of this concert will see the light of day sometime soon.]

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