Back to the Future Past
Not all of the songs the Beatles recorded during their Sgt. Pepper days made it to the album. The most interesting tune not included, one which showed up a year later on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, was George Harrison’s “Only a Northern Song”. Its soft psychedelic pop groove grabs the body and the mind. The gently out of tune and out of sequence arrangements mesh floatingly with wise koan-type lyrics that could be interpreted in a number of ways, all of them cool. It’s far out, and that’s not meant ironically, pal.
British band Oasis admired the Beatles and paid tribute to George Harrison through its megahit “Wonderwall”, which took its name from a Harrison composition. Oasis’ Noel Gallagher also raved about an American release, Cotton Mather’s KonTiki. No wonder. The Austin, Texas-based band’s tracks also sounds like Harrison’s Sgt. Pepper leftovers.
KonTiki was originally released in America in 1997 (and a year later in England), but it was commercially unsuccessful. A cult following (such as Britt Daniels of Spoon) championed the disc, but the band broke up a few years later, and the record passed into the dustbin of musical history.
Then band co-founder, songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist Robert Harrison went on Kickstarter to raise the money for a re-release. He far exceeded the $12,000 sought and now has put out a double CD set with the original album and a bonus disc of four-track demos, acoustic versions, and songs that didn’t make the first one, not to mention a nifty booklet with track notes, information, pictures, and such. It’s a natty package, but none of this would matter if the 1997 record wasn’t so good. Gallagher and Daniels were right in their assessments.
While it is far out to hear Texans sing in a British (nee Beatles) version of American English, Cotton Mather is not the first. Just go ask Doug Sahm and other Lone Star British Invasion influenced acts. And like Sir Douglass, Mather infuses the UK stylings with a distinctly off center Texas sensibility (“Is this some kind of reverie / For the one woman Jan and Dean / Headed for a crash”). The hooks on songs like “Vegetable Row” and “Private Ruth” catch one off-guard because they begin in a well of odd sounds that becomes increasingly melodic and beautiful, so that the noise one once heard has become the matrix of the sound of the universe. Om. Or maybe that’s um, because one isn’t always sure where one has traveled to on the wings of song. You just know you were flying.
Other cuts such as “Hometown Cameo” and “My Before and After” ring out beautifully despite the four-track production; Whit Williams’ guitar and vocals complement Harrison’s, with Williams’ inventiveness and ability to create surprising power pop licks. Matt Hovis’ bass always keeps the beats solid while Greg Thibeaux’s drumming keeps the music moving. They sound like a tight band, almost like the Beatles—when they are led by George.
The bonus disc has some lovely tracks, such as the electric version of “Spin My Wheels” and the acoustic “Camp Hill Road Operator”. The cuts show some of the evolution the music took before the definitive versions on Kontiki, but there is nothing essential here. This new Deluxe Edition of the disc gives you more bang for the buck than the original, but it’s the original that matters most.