The Pretty Things
SF Sorrow

Released 1968 on EMI
Reviewed by Vox Phantom, 19/05/2000ce

The history of rock is littered with lost masterpieces and opportunities missed, but few seem to have been as cursed as "SF Sorrow." You would think that an album recorded at Abbey Road, at the height of British psychedelia, featuring Norman Smith in the producer’s seat, could do no wrong. After all, Smith had worked on Sgt. Pepper and produced Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Unfortunately, line-up problems and label problems delayed and buried the project. It should be remembered as a classic, however. Smith and the band went to great lengths experimenting in the studio, layering overdubs of odd instruments at odd speeds. What makes this all so much more than the "kids in the candy store" overkill so endemic to the era is the subtlety with which the effects are handled and the fact that the songwriting is first rate. The album was conceived as a rock opera, and inspired Pete Townshend (unfortunately!) to write Tommy. Luckily, the songs are songs first, and the opera concept merely unites the album. While it’s possible to follow the story of a man’s life, from birth to love, war, madness and death, it’s handled in more as poetry, less as libretto. The first track, SF Sorrow is Born, is a mild introduction. Over a mainly acoustic guitar groove we are introduced to our protagonist. The trumpet fanfares and phased out backing vocals and handclaps at the end hint that the Pretties are no longer an R+B band. Next Bracelets of fingers brings in the psych elements more fully, with medieval guitars and wah meeting choral vocals extolling the virtues of wanking. She Says Good Morning is a syncopated seventh chord groove, which builds to a fantastic fuzz climax. Private Sorrow brings back the pastoral acoustic guitar, mellotron and recorder and finally decays under organ chords. Balloon Burning brings back the rock and fuzz and a wild, exhilarating guitar solo. Following is Death, a Baltic sounding pastoral track with fantastic bass riffs sliding around bazouki and punctuated by gongs and chants. Baron Saturday takes us back to the syncopated rock, here punctuated by piano chords, mellotron glissandos and an array of shakers and handclaps. All of this builds up to a percussion workout, spinning around the stereo field as more and more delay threatens to dissolve into feedback. There’s a brief, teasing interlude of mellotron and acoustic guitar before we’re back into the song for another chorus. The Journey starts in acoustic mode, and devolves into an echoing rock workout. Snippets of the rest of the album pop in and out like auditory hallucinations as the guitars and delay build, only to stop suddenly with an acoustic chord signaling the beginning of I See You. Deep fuzz lays underneath and the chorus swells with more tremoloed chorale and mellotron orchestration. As the guitar leads interlace a voice intones, ever more hysterically with sped up tape until it all snaps and Well of Destiny begins. This piece is abstract, with tremoloed and delayed piano and guitar bouncing back and forth in an ever rising game of tag until a forceful guitar riff comes over the top obliterating it all as the fever builds to an abrupt end. Trust is a circling, layered canon, relatively stripped down and a welcome respite. Old Man Going rocks like proto Sabbath and again builds and builds to two cathartic moments, the fuzzy solo and the point of collapse. Finally we’re left with the folky Loneliest Person, a wistful coda of voice and guitar alone. The album had everything going for it, and like The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society and The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle somehow missed out on canonisation. The sound represents the apex of British style psych, and the songwriting is on a par with the best bands of the time. There’s more to discover with each listen and each discovery is rewarding. (Note: the Snapper re-issue is in mono. The sound is excellent, but a lot of stereo trickery is lost.)

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