Review of Pearl River Turnaround:
by Jens Unosson
One or two of you out there may have noticed how I in my record lists repeatedly have been referring to a seemingly specific Canadian 70s folk sound; as hard to define as anything else you only take in via your various senses, the vibe I've vainly tried to describe as 'warm', 'organic', 'friendly' is definitely there but putting it down on paper (or screen, mind you) appears rather futile. Yet, anyone who's ever been seduced by the magic provided by "Letters From The Coast", "Cabin Fever", "Upon A Once Time", "Start Again" or a bunch
of other locally released masterpieces, will know immediately what I'm getting at.
With time and luck on my hands, I will eventually deal with all of these, but for now we'll stick to "Pearl River Turnaround" - the first of the lot, and while I don't know how much of an actual influence it had on the others (they all did know one another though, and in some cases even collaborated), I don't hesitate to refer to it as the mother of Canadian hippie folk private pressings. The motherhood isn't restricted solely to this still-unnamed genre, either, but it's also quite likely the first independently released folk LP of any kind in Canada & would've deserved at least semi-legendary status for this alone (in more mainstream music circles, the fact that Anna McGarrigle makes here record debut here may be of bigger importance. But what do those people know anyway?).
If you ask me though, the main claim to fame of this solo debut of Chris Rawlings', is that it's quite simply an amazingly good album, one that manages to mix a youthful, near-exuberant joy with reflective, haunting material & in doing so never once losing its way as it travels the quirky path introduced by the lovely titletrack. An uptempo, fiddle-driven allegorical tale (I presume - or maybe Chris just leads a more colourful life than the rest of us?), this is about as infectious as it gets, sorta like Holy Modal Rounders sans strait-jacket, complete with a gentle giggle & lyrics that make little or perfect sense, depending on where you are & where you've been:
"Sittin' on a fence with a straw between my teeth
And the green and the blue of the forest and the sky
And a thought came to my feet and my feet began to move
Down a country road, it's
Only six miles to the Pearl River Turnaround
Never very far in the sun or the rain
If you don't turn back at the Pearl River Turnaround
Never get back again
I smoked and I laughed and then I took a pill
And when nothing happened, well I went up to a hill
I sat and I talked with a woman for an hour
'Till she left on her high heels taller than the trees
I slept and I begged and I borrowed
And it's so far back to the Pearl River Turnaround
Down a country road..."
...and eventually it comes to "The blue bottled spider man chased her by the statues of the rain soaked streets sellin' headbands as a front to the leaders of the students on the steps of the building", and if you're not hooked by then, I reckon you're a very different creature than this writer. (Interestingly enough Chris Rawlings' 2nd LP, the equally awesome "Soupe Du Jour" from 1978, had a titletrack with a similarly stoney-smilin' groove & funny lyrics - the sound of a rural pothead pixie! Nothing even slightly Gong-esque about Chris though.)
The excellent "Brook Song" follows, sounding more serious at first, with a great tack piano from Gilles Losier, but soon enough there's a chorus of kazoos & odd voices, making the overall effect more of a halfway stop between the titletrack and the altogether non-humorous "Bridge Of The Night", a brooding, abstruse tale about the battle between the mind, time & struggle for power.
"Pshaw" heads back to the safe havens of Holy Modal pixie cabin hoedown-sounds - this seemingly effortlessly back-and-forth moving could well be said to be something of a Chris Rawlings trademark. His style is not really reminiscent of anyone else I can think of (bar the Rounders then, but this is admittedly a rather lame comparison), yet it's very much of its time with all that comes with the era. Like many other major artists (focus on artist rather than major!) though, this is also what makes his LPs timeless - don't really know how I shall explain this phenomenon & I won't try here, but that's the way I hear 'em anyway.
"Song Of Creation", co-written with Paul Lauzon (who recorded his own version on "Start Again") & based on an old Hopi song, is a lovely folkpsych marvel, with shimmering acoustic guitars, great percussion, flute & sparse soundeffects. More psychedelic vibes follow on the outstanding "Iris Of Flowers", with sax, fuzz, and again some highly effective percussion; slightly mystical ("she is the mystery of circles"), this is perhaps the selling point of the LP to the more narrow-minded psych collectors out there, but eclectic ears shall only hear it as one of ten highlights on here. Yes, every single track of "Pearl River Turnaround" is indeed a highlight - grab it the next time you see it, give it some time & I'm pretty sure many of you will agree with me.
The back cover has a neat drawing of a cat amidst some flowers, or leaves perhaps, and I imagine this is none other than Sally Cooking Fat, the main character of the song of the same name, which rounds off the LP in typical Rawlings style - that of the absurd story presented in a very musical manner; many other songwriters dress up stories like these in chords & melodies that are either imbecile or just plain crap, but this particular Canadian gives them proper care & shows that this is the way to do it.
Speaking of cats, two reflections on the subject that tie in with this album: 1) our cats always react strongly to the roar in "Lion & The Jackal" (label states the full name of "The Parable Of The Lion & The Jackal"), and 2) this is very much a backwoods type of music, but not of the logger-with-giant-wolf/german-shepherd-mongrel-tied-to-the-pick-up-truck-behind-a-decrepit-shack variety, but rather that of a gingerbread house in the middle of the woods, bathing in fading sunlight, with a neat woodpile on the porch, a cat sleeping on the window-sill & yes, a pothead pixie cooking up some herbal tea on the wood stove.