Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Alexander Spence—
Oar


Released 1969 on Columbia
The Seth Man, February 2004ce
Alexander Spence’s “Oar” is simultaneously one of the simplest AND most complex albums I’ve ever heard. Successive re-issues unearthed additional pieces to this absorbed and absorbing masterpiece with Edsel’s reissue of the album in the late eighties, Sony Music Special Products’ 1991 version with appended bonus tracks and especially Sundazed’s definitive 1999 reissue. Each issue in turn allowed for a widening perspective on this mesmerising work with many excellent bonus tracks in attendance. But the original “Oar” album still stands alone as a dense and beguiling statement and one as delicate as a moment whose passing is immediately felt and never forgotten...as delicate and rare as a hand-carved snowflake sculpted out of a hollowed-out eggshell as viewed through a back lit strobe projection where outlines are only intimated as shadows flicker into a tiny dance within and without.

Originally conceived as a double album, “Oar” was a prodigious outpouring of Spence’s kaleidoscopically absorbed expressions. From acoustic balladry, country-seasoned laments, ribald conclusions and unswervingly elongated irrigations a silent weight hangs upon every word, every chord and even the drumming is an altogether otherworldly rhythmic device that rolls on unfettered by its dropped beats and minor lapses of tempo. But all instrumentation, handled entirely by Spence, is as unique as it is unvarnished as it all gathers and collects within the limitations of its already archaic sonic environment: fitting perfectly into what would yield two reels of half-inch, 3-track tape over four days of recording in Nashville solitude during the first weeks of December 1968.

The sound is a mid-range to bass huddle against a curiously structured muddle where relief and insight have nestled into each other. And while unpredictable in its calm erratic-ness, Spence’s vocals whisper and continually descend into the lowest of registers: lackadaisically parched as though enduring an interminable period of thirst while rising above the dry heat of isolation as his migratory mind retaining a playful sense and alertness driven on by concentration as he unloads ruminations on love, women, death, jaunty japes and x-rated sauce that run a fragile but determined orbit whose persistence remains for all their wholly unorthodox sound organisations. But the minor miscues and slip ups that occasionally surface do not hamper the inner drive Spence applied to these recordings. For even after Moby Grape producer David Rubinson and Don Meehan mixed his produced masters and manipulating them with equalisation and compression techniques to bolster the sound of the room, they still sounded entirely at peace as they languished thousands of miles from home.

With the spirit of life-changing conclusions coinciding with the break of day, “Little Hands” opens the album in an entirely compassionate display. Then on the next track, Spence’s vocals drops to a lower baritone for the deathbed revelations of “Cripple Creek” as gracefully picked acoustic guitar lines slip in underneath with cyclical warp and woof, warmly accompanied by a minor increase in tape hiss in only one of the many scattered, quiet touches that grace the album with understated texturing. The devotional “Diana” follows, its one-named title evoked over and over as the drums are thrown to the back of the mix to let the main acoustic plaintively mingle with muted electric guitar underpinnings. The gentle “Margaret-Tiger Rug” is sweetly quiet in approach and rendered with vocals, bass and drums alone. “Weighted Down” is where “Oar” slows down in mood and delivery to 0 RPM as though set to the rhythm of lapping waves during low tide:


“Weighted down...by possessions...
Weighted down...by the gun...
Waited down...by the river...
For you...to come...”


Although this chorus will return to circle slowly overhead all by its lonesome, Spence’s emotional tone never falls prey to self-pity. Even sadder, there’s an undeniable and heart-bursting sense of a higher judgment being quietly accepted and served behind every syllable. The weightless “War In Peace” is an emanation from eternity’s echo chamber. Spence’s electric lead guitar bursts in midway -- chipped, fragmentary and falling like glittering silt as echoed whispering and whistling crisscross the patch of snapped tight hit-hats and bass lines like posts demarcating an unswerving boundary into the distance. By the time the electric guitar solo arrives, the infamously shattered “Sunshine Of Your Love” riff is already stumbling down a ravine in slow motion hitting branches, bouncing off rocks and causing landslides while atomic particles just collect and disperse in its wake until finally breaking down into a cosmic freefall beyond their once dimensional limitations.

Side two opens with the slow country paces of “Broken Heart” in a gentle enumeration of life’s deadlocking foibles as Spence’s highly echoed vocals pick up on Johnny Cash’s ancient reverberations. “All Come To Meet Her” is a beautiful viber and a half, as Spence’s double tracked soothing/humming soon weaves gracefully into sung verse of words with gentle e-guitar unpinning. ‘Iridescent’ comes to mind, as it does throughout the rest of “Oar.” The folk ballad “Books Of Moses” cuts in with a backdrop of sheeting rain, thunderclaps and stone tablets being chiseled right there in Columbia Studios, Nashville against Spence’s acoustic guitar cycles and hoarsely-raised-though-whispered vocals. Booming bass drum accenting explodes in the far distance and only clears with the direct crossfade into “Dixie Peach Promenade,” a bright and sunny amble whose assessment “I could use me some yin for my yang” is winking, goofball simplicity as well as horny to the nth degree. “Lawrence Of Euphoria” continues Spence’s ribald trend hilariously with incurably sore throat vox and a one string scattershot acoustic as his Humpty Dumpty bass plonks out all bouncy and buoyant like a Vic Saywell tuba line. Which makes sense, as he’s gearing up for whipping out his wang-dang-doodle with Vivian from Oblivion and Ella Mae from Cal-li-fore-nye-ay.

With an opening twilight bass pattern the conclusion of the album is reached with the expansive “Grey/Afro,” an odyssey that plunges immediately into mystery and stays shrouded there in vibe there while emanating impenetrability as it nudges further and further into itself. Its only guide is Spence’s whispery adorations accompanied by bass plucks from the ether via electronic treatments that place it more in the realm of tabla playing than any stringed instrumentation while his drumming operates as a background sound wash steeped in electronic phasing as the rolling snare fills clattering into a stream of modulations that surf an ocean of sine wave hiss rather than existing as strictly rhythmic framing devices. This song suspends animation, disbelief and you’ll never, ever figure out the lyrics. But at this point, it’ll hardly matter because its static qualities are transcendental to the extreme.

Alexander Spence didn’t so much play music on “Oar” as much as he let the music play him. And it coursed out like a river of the universe steeped through his mind, heart and soul. Powered by strength of composition and a singularity of innovation too far ahead of the curve, it was guided by traditional influences that were generously bestowed with the boundless, golden reins of a visionary imagination. And “Oar” is as unconstructed and sparse as it is sublime and moving.