Numero Group made its mark through its Eccentric Soul series, focusing on soul labels that had largely gone unnoticed and surrounding the music with extensive packaging. The label has done more than just that one genre, and last year launched a new series called Local Customs, compiling music from small recording studios that never quite made it. The second release in that series, Lone Star Lowlands contains music from the Lowland Recording Studios made between 1969 and 1974 in Port Neches, Texas. The disc, while hit-or-miss as these things are likely to be, holds its own in Numero’s archives.
One way to approach the disc would be to consider whether the music reflects its time, or whether it’s simply derivative. I suspect the best case could be made for “Eh, a little of both”, but you’d probably be missing the point. Lowlands contains a wide range of styles: psychedelia, boogie, folk-rock, and more. You can find Neil Young or Led Zeppelin here, and it would be fun to play the “name the soundalike” game. Or not. I spent several days going batty trying figure out what Mourning Sun’s “Where’s Love Gone Today” sounded like before several friends helpfully and immediately pegged it as “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
Going further down that road isn’t necessarily flattering. The compilation sounds a little like all the second-tier bands that played at Woodstock that no one remembers (and I don’t mean that as an insult—some of those bands were great). I keep thinking of the Lovin’ Spoonful, even though not a single cut on here sounds like the Lovin’ Spoonful.
Playing that game isn’t necessarily the best way to listen to the album, no matter how hard it is to avoid thinking that Circus sounds like Mountain or whatever. A better route might be to take the music on its own terms, or at least contextualized not historically, but as the production of a small, struggling studio, driven primarily by Mickey Rouse’s passion. With a proper backstory in place, the music (good enough on its own) takes on a heightened significance, and the very purpose of doing this sort of compilation would be lost without that sense of narrative. It’s not a rock compilation, or a snapshot of the early ‘70s. Instead, it’s a biography.
The package provides all you need to know about this music (and possibly too much, given that the 35 pages of liner notes and family tree information make the digipack hard to get out of the box). The family tree, titled “Lost in the Golden Triangle” seems superfluous at first, until you try to follow the movements of key figures discussed in the notes. If you’re interested in really getting it, the chart helps.
The listening experience is certainly aided by this knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that the songs aren’t enjoyable in isolation. They’re good, and it’s unfortunate—but not atypical—that bands like Mourning Sun, Circus, and Next Exit didn’t get an opportunity for greater exposure. Many of these songs are tight, hook-y numbers with some stick to them. You’re not likely to have your mind blown with these recordings, but the studio did produce a noteworthy number of recordings worth saving (and, of course, hearing).