Pearls Before Swine

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One Nation Underground (1967), 7/10
Balaklava (1968), 8/10

Tom Rapp's Pearls Before Swine were perhaps the greatest band venturing in psychedelic-folk during the 1960s. Their two masterpieces, One Nation Underground (1967) and especially Balaklava (1968) are mosaics of atmospheric songs that defy classification, evoking the hallucinated state of Dali's surrealism, lushly arranged, and influenced by both classical and jazz music. Each album is performed by a veritable "chamber ensemble": organ, harmonium, piano, harp, vibraphone, English horn, clarinet, celeste, banjo, sitar, flute...
(Translated from my original Italian text by DommeDamian)

Pearls Before Swine were the invention of North Dakota’s folksinger Tom Rapp, who moved to New York to seek his fortune. The group was actually primed to record their first album, One Nation Underground (ESP, 1967), and was never a real band. His folk music on that record was bizarre not because it was psychedelic-rock (Rapp, a good guy from the Midwest, had never used drugs) but because its author was an eccentric character.
On this disc, a strong Blonde On Blonde-influence occurs, but mostly Rapp turned out to be an original of the arrangements. Pearls Before Swine were in fact a chamber ensemble complete with organ, harmonium, piano, harp, vibraphone, English horn, celeste, banjo, sitar, flute, as well as rock instrumentation. Among the musicians were Roger Crissinger (future One) and Lee Crabtree (ex 

 and Holy Modal Rounders ). The similarities with Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead were superficial: the sound of this record was derived from the orchestration of Rapp and the "loose" way in which the musicians could operate. Above all Rapp imposed his surreal metaphysics: dreamlike atmospheres, a sense of fairytale, poetic texts, refined counterpoints, delicate singing. It was as if Leonard Cohen faced the formation of Blonde On Blonde and Van Dyke Parks dictated the arrangements based on the I Ching.
Apart from the pacifist song Drop Out, the album sports the lyrical glimpses of lean and tender ballads like Another Time and Amber Lady, as well as impressionist watercolors of an almost religious intensity like Morning Song and Regions of May. The raga-rock I Shall Not Care and the Surrealist Waltz are the only concessions to the hippies' goliardic spirit.

Rapp did even greater on Balaklava (ESP, 1968), one of the rock masterpieces of those years. Anti-militarist concept album inspired by the homonymous battle, it is structured like a mosaic of apocalyptic panels that speak of death and desolation. It is a picaresque journey through the ruins of humanity, immersed in dense symbolism and a funereal atmosphere.
Once again it is easy to confuse surrealism with psychedelia, but Rapp's art is much closer to the paintings of Dali and Ernst than to LSD's "trips". Inside the naturalistic cartilage of Translucent Carriage (wind), Images of April (birds) and I Saw The World (sea) breathes medieval ballads, set in mysterious landscapes, secreted by daring alchemy and accompanied by intimate lyrics. And then Ring Thing is the macabre fresco, a nostalgic funeral with gong blows with distant bagpipes and pipe organ, canceled by bands of radio disturbance.
The lyrics stand out particularly in the ballads of “Cohen-esque" pathos, such as There Was A Man and Lepers And Roses , imbued with disarming fatalism and grim despair.
Rapp also has the brilliant idea of ​​giving them the ‘bad' sound quality of the tremulous 78 RPM chants of yesteryear.
The arrangements are even more rarefied and experimental: jazz pianos and flutes, classical string sections, oriental percussion, orchestras from the 1920s.

Tom Rapp then recorded five albums under the Pearls Before Swine name but actually included only himself, his wife and assorted sessionmenThese Things Too (Reprise, 1969), The Use of Ashes (Reprise, 1970), City of Gold (Reprise, 1971), Beautiful Lies (Reprise, 1971), later collected in the box Jewels Were The Stars (Warner, 2003).

30 Years of Pearls Before Swine (Birdman) is another anthology.

Stardancer (Blue Thumb, 1972) Sun Forest (Blue Thumb, 1973) Subsequent records instead reduced the genius of Rapp, presenting a twilight songwriter unable to keep up with the times.

Thanks to a renewed interest around Pearls Before Swine, Rapp returns after a quarter of a century with A Journal of The Plague Year (Woronzow, 1998), a record that in the best moments brings back to the atmosphere of his first records Shoebox Symphony , Silver Apples ).

The double-CD The Wizard of Is (2005) collects unreleased material from 1967-76.

Rapp died in 2018.

I Pearls Before Swine furono l'invenzione di un folksinger del North Dakota, Tom Rapp, che venne a New York a cercare fortuna. Il gruppo venne di fatto imbastito per registrare il suo primo disco, One Nation Underground (ESP, 1967), e non fu mai un vero gruppo. La sua musica folk di quel disco era bizzarra non perche' si trattasse si psychedelic-rock (Rapp, bravo ragazzo del Midwest, non aveva mai fatto uso di sostanze stupefacenti) ma perche' il suo autore era un personaggio eccentrico.
Su questo disco esercito` una forte influenza Blonde On Blonde di Bob Dylan, ma soprattutto Rapp si rivelo` un originale degli arrangiamenti. Questi Pearls Before Swine erano di fatto un ensemble da camera con tanto di organo, harmonium, piano, arpa, vibrafono, corno inglese, celeste, banjo, sitar, flauto, oltre alla strumentazione rock. Fra i musicisti si contavano Roger Crissinger (futuro One) e Lee Crabtree (ex Fugs e Holy Modal Rounders). Le somiglianze con Jefferson Airplane e Grateful Dead erano superficiali: il sound di questo disco derivava dall'orchestrazione di Rapp e dal modo "loose" in cui i musicisti potevano operare. Soprattutto Rapp imponeva la sua surreale metafisica: atmosfere oniriche, senso di fiabesco, testi poetici, contrappunti raffinati, canto delicato. Era come se Leonard Cohen fronteggiasse la formazione di Blonde On Blonde e Van Dyke Parks dettasse gli arrangiamenti basandosi sull'I Ching.
A parte la canzone pacifista Drop Out, il disco sfoggia gli squarci lirici di ballate scarne e tenere come Another Time e Amber Lady, nonche' acquarelli impressionisti di un'intensita` quasi religiosa come Morning Song e Regions Of May. Il raga-rock I Shall Not Care e il Surrealist Waltz sono le uniche concessioni allo spirito goliardico degli hippie.

Rapp fece ancora meglio con Balaklava (ESP, 1968), uno dei capolavori del rock di quegli anni. Album concept anti-militarista ispirato dalla omonima battaglia, e` strutturato come un mosaico di pannelli apocalittici che narrano di morte e desolazione. E` un viaggio picaresco fra le rovine dell'umanita`, immerso in un fitto simbolismo e in un clima funereo.
Ancora una volta e` facile confondere surrealismo con psichedelia, ma quella di Rapp e` un'arte molto piu` vicina ai quadri di Dali e Ernst che ai "trip" di LSD. Dentro la cartilagine naturalista di Translucent Carriage (vento), Images Of April (uccelli) e I Saw The World (mare) alitano ballate medievali, ambientate in paesaggi misteriosi, secrete da alchimie rocambolesche e corredate da liriche intimiste. E allora Ring Thing e` l'affresco macabro, un funerale nostalgico a colpi di gong con cornamuse in lontananza e organo a canne, cancellato da fasce di disturbi radio.
I testi risaltano particolarmente nelle ballate di pathos "Cohen-iano", come There Was A Man e Lepers And Roses, intrise di fatalismo disarmanete e di tetra disperazione.
Rapp ha anche l'idea geniale di conferire loro la (pessima) qualita` sonora delle tremule cantilene a 78 giri dei tempi andati.
Gli arrangiamenti sono ancor piu` rarefatti e sperimentali: pianoforti e flauti jazz, sezioni d'archi classicheggianti, percussioni orientali, orchestrine degli anni '20.

Tom Rapp registro` poi cinque album a nome Pearls Before Swine ma che in realta` comprendevano soltanto se stesso, sua moglie e sessionmen assortiti: These Things Too (Reprise, 1969), The Use Of Ashes (Reprise, 1970), City Of Gold (Reprise, 1971), Beautiful Lies (Reprise, 1971), poi raccolti nel cofanetto Jewels Were The Stars (Warner, 2003).

30 Years Of Pearls Before Swine (Birdman) e` un'altra antologia.

Stardancer (Blue Thumb, 1972) Sun Forest (Blue Thumb, 1973) I dischi successivi hanno invece ridimensionato il genio di Rapp, presentando un cantautore crepuscolare incapace di aggiornarsi ai tempi.

Grazie a un rinnovato interesse intorno ai Pearls Before Swine, Rapp ritorna dopo un quarto di secolo con A Journal Of The Plague Year (Woronzow, 1998), un disco che nei momenti migliori riporta alle atmosfere dei suoi primi dischi (Shoebox Symphony, Silver Apples).

The double-CD The Wizard Of Is (2005) collects unreleased material from 1967-76.

Rapp died in 2018.

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