Mark Fry - Dreaming With Alice

Mark Fry
Dreaming With Alice

Released 1972 on IT Dischia/RCA
Reviewed by flashbackcaruso, 10/04/2010ce

Side 1
1. Dreaming With Alice (Verse 1) 0:41
2. The Witch 6:43
3. Dreaming With Alice (Verse 2) 0:35
4. Song For Wilde 2:33
5. Dreaming With Alice (Verse 3) 0:35
6. Roses For Columbus 5:19
7. A Norman Soldier 2:24
8. Dreaming With Alice (Verse 4-5) 0:38

Side 2
1. Dreaming With Alice (Verse 6) 0:37
2. Lute And Flute 3:57
3. Dreaming With Alice (Verse 7) 0:34
4. Down Narrow Streets 2:59
5. Dreaming With Alice (Verse 8) 0:35
6. Mandolin Man 8:18
7. Dreaming With Alice (Verse 9-10) 1:39
8. Rehtorb Ym No Hcram 2:26

The early 1970s was such a fertile time for underground British folk that seemingly hundreds of fine LPs managed to slip under the radar and are only now being discovered, like a time capsule full of treasure that just keeps on giving. Thankfully many of the musicians responsible for these lost classics are still active and able at last to enjoy the long overdue recognition for the incredible music they created all those decades ago. Mark Fry's 'Dreaming With Alice' is among the rarest and greatest of these albums, its rarity largely due to the fact that it was never released in the UK. A teenager studying art in Rome, Fry was signed up for a 10 year contract with IT Dischia, a free-thinking subdivision of the Italian arm of RCA records. Things began unpromisingly when he found the studio and staff producer uncondusive to getting his songs successfully recorded. But then the label put him in touch with a group of Scottish musicians who had signed a similar long-term deal and together they recorded the album in a makeshift basement studio which, due to lack of soundproofing, precluded the use of a drumkit. Fry has admitted that the names of these musicians have been long forgotten, thanks to the quantity of weed which was their other major contribution to the sessions. I first picked up this LP as a (probably unofficial) reissue on the Akarma label in a sleeve which chopped up the cover photo of Mark with his little brother Wilde and inserted it into a pastiche of the cover of Donovan's 'Barabajagal' album. There is definitely a strong element of Donovan in Mark Fry's sound, but I'm reminded more of the first two, primarily acoustic, albums, albeit obscured by clouds: the move from a professional studio to a basement set-up gives the sound a pleasingly hazy quality, and the vocals have an introspective tone that is more 'Summer Day Reflection Song' than 'Sunshine Superman'. The songwriting is unaffected in its simplicity, frequently relying on tried and tested descending chords and melodic scales, which might be why the songs hit the spot with such apparent ease and, in their unadorned state, sealed a deal with a major record label. But it is the treatment of the songs that turns Dreaming With Alice from a fine folk album into an incredible acid folk album - a stone cold classic of that genre. From a connoisseur's point of view it ticks every box - flanged vocals; trimmings of flute, sitar and bongos; extended jams pushing a couple of songs past the 6 and 8 minute mark; dubby reverb effects; backward tapes; abrupt editing; and of course there is the Lewis Carroll connotation of the title - a touchstone of all psychedelia. And key to the structure and overall mood of the album is the splitting up of the title track into small nuggets, the way Elvis (to make an unlikely parallel) did with the title track of his contemporaneous 'I'm 10,000 Years Old', feeding the song to the listener a verse or two at a time in between each track and thus elevating it to mythical status.

And so the album begins with the first part of 'Dreaming With Alice' itself, a circular acoustic guitar motiff supporting a reflective, dreamlike melody. But the dream quickly takes on the quality of a nightmare with first song proper 'The Witch', itself built upon another circular guitar riff, a one chord trap from which the singer cannot escape. The theme of the witch looking through the window before breaking and entering makes me think of the shape-shifting hag which terrorised the Pogles (and perhaps the young Mark Fry) on kids' TV in 1965. Chord changes on the chorus momentarily break the spell but the words are far from comforting ('I'm all alone, waiting for someone to come on come on come on home'). A heartbeat bass drum hints at the palpitations of fear, while a bass guitar pumps away mostly on one note. Sitar and flute improvisations help push this gloriously bewitching track towards the 7 minute mark, making it an essential slice of psych-folk. 'Song for Wilde' is a gentler proposition, a song of encouragement to the younger sibling pictured on the cover ('March on my brother, go that little bit further'). Acoustic fingerpicking is backed up by rudimentary bongos, and a flavour of psychedelia is evident in the double-tracked vocals which are hard-panned out of sync, as well as a hint of wah-wah guitar at the close. 'Roses for Columbus' is built on a beautiful descending chord sequence with a pretty acoustic melody and subtle flute. Fingerpicking gives way to strumming and a more forceful verse, and there is a gorgeous outro where the bongos start to play more of a rock beat, the bass becomes heavier and stoned voices hum along with the chord changes. These same voices help out on 'A Norman Soldier', a compact little song consisting of just three chords. Verses 4, 5 and 6 of the title track lead us from side one to side two of the LP and we come to what the record company considered the 'hit single'. On 'Lute & Flute' it is as if Mark Fry stumbled across an ancient, forgotten cliche that was superseded by the first song to rhyme 'moon' with 'June', and he plays up to this archaic quality with knowing tweeness. It makes sense that the chorus is based on an old and familiar template, the same one that gave us 'Streets Of London' and 'Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal'. The lyrics 'I will play my lute, if you will play your flute, and we will dance and make merry all day' could have written themselves. Warbly harmonies and much la-la-la-ing help to make things all the more winsome, stopping just short of leaving you wincing. It's a fine line. 'Down Narrow Streets' is beautiful in its simplicity, with a descending melody, a perfect two-note flute riff and casual backing vocals. It fades suddenly at 3 minutes but could go on much longer. The 8-minute 'Mandolin man' begins with a jazzy Bert Jansch riff but after 3 minutes turns into more of a rock feel with proper drums, wah-wah electric guitar and spaced out harmonies. Eventually we get a sense of the jazzy riff fighting to return, while the electric guitar thrashes about like an angry duck. At 6:25 the track begins to fade, but then cuts abruptly to a slower more stoned groove with a wordless vocal refrain and sickly flute. The final two verses of 'Dreaming With Alice' provide a clever link from the biblical imagery of the previous verses to Alice In Wonderland itself, as Salome is equated with the Red Queen ('Off with the Baptist's head'). The final words are hung on the looping acoustic guitar riff as Mark's voice reverbs back and forth across the stereo spectrum to extremely trippy effect. The album is given a suitably psychedelic coda by the simple process of reprising 'Song For Wilde' as a backwards tape and retitling it 'Rehtorb Ym No Hcram'. It's a stupendous LP. Buy it now and play it right through spring and summer.

Reviews Index