Pearls Before Swine is one of those legendary bands that is considered legendary mainly because far more people have heard about the band than actually have heard its music. Pearls Before Swine frontman, Tom Rapp, has become a cult hero mainly because of the increasing obscurity and scarcity of his musical output. He once complained that in the pre-CD era, he had no way of hearing his own music because he would have to pay more for a vinyl copy of a Pearls Before Swine album than he made for recording it. With the first two Pearls Before Swine albums, One Nation Underground and Balaklava, now available on this handy single disc collection, maybe Pearls Before Swine’s output can now be heard rather than imagined through the misleading hype of Mojo magazine (who included One Nation Underground as part of their “Ultimate Record Collection”) and the countless champions of minor league psychedelic-era bands.
The first misconception about the band lies in how supposedly “crazy” Pearls Before Swine was. Certainly, the 20 songs on this compilation show that Pearls Before Swine never really sounded much like its contemporaries. After all, this is the band that notoriously put out “(Oh Dear) Miss Morse”, a single that was banned from the radio because it typed out “fuck” in Morse code. Still, Pearls Before Swine is more folk-rock, than the proto-freak folk act that it is made out to be. There are a few psychedelic freak-out moments on the album, notably the frenzied organs on the chorus of “Drop Out” or the frenzied, remote-control flipping randomness of “I Shall Not Care” which is made up of pieces of other songs. The majority of the album is low-key, in fact depressing, folk songs highlighted more often than not by woodwinds rather than electric guitar.
These gentler songs, although perhaps not as “interesting” as the more psychedelic numbers, turn out to be the moments where Pearls Before Swine live up to the “forgotten classic” reputation. “Another Time” is an oblique tale of resurrection that takes on the aura of myth: “Did you follow the Crystal Swan? / Did you see yourself / Deep inside the Velvet Pond”. On paper, the lyrics sound like progressive rock hoodoo, but when Rapp sings them to the downright apocalyptic instrumentation, the words strike a chord. If the somewhat fanciful lyrics foreshadow any later progressive rock moments, I could only point to the softer tracks on King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, which featured a similar doom-laden tempo to match its fantastic tales.
Not that Pearls Before Swine is all about being a downer, despite the fact that the cover of Our Nation Underground is the disturbing “Hell” portion of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. “Regions of May” is absolutely bucolic both in its flute-filled arrangement and in the near-poetry of lyrics like “My mind / Is all entwined / In fragrant fields of flowers”. Rapp, of course, ducks out of any charges of naivety with the following rack, “Uncle John”, a vicious blues rock assault on religious hypocrisy. Our Nation Underground‘s concluding track “The Surrealistic Waltz” lives up to its title, it perhaps being the track that made people treat Pearls Before Swine as a crazed-out hippie-rock freak-for-all. The track is a strange combination of swirling organs, a waltz-esque beat, and surreal poetry: “She stays with Timothy / In black vibration’s alley / Love makes statements / In the closet mouths of cloth”. Beat that, Captain Beefheart.
Balaklava, the second and final album Pearls Before Swine recorded on ESP-Disk, is a much more uneven, and dour, affair. Rapp replaced the horrific but wild and psychedelic Bosch painting from the band’s debut and replaced it with Bruegel’s brutal and to-the-point Triumph of Death. History can forgive Rapp, at the height of the Vietnam War, for treating the horrors of war with a certain amount of gravity, but the concept album itself grows weary. To drive home the difference between war-in-theory and war-in-reality, Balaklava begins with an ancient recording of one of the surviving trumpeters of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, blasting a triumphant fanfare that contrasts sharply with the fate of the majority of that battalion. This ironic trumpet blare is basically the only piece of music on Balaklava which is truly uplifting.
Beyond the depressing subject matter, there is a bit of pretension that mars Balaklava, with Herodotus and Tolkien getting co-credits on songs, and would-be-deep lines like “You know that your guardian angel is dead” (“Guardian Angels”). Balaklava, which stays closer to the unmixed folk rock, not too far off from what the Incredible String Band was doing at the time, works the best when it strays from its main themes of the horror of the war and the corrupting nature of hate, especially on “Images of April”, a semi-sequel to “Regions of May” that is equally as beautiful. Perhaps by the second album, Rapp was already losing interest in his musical career, as there are few of the inspired moments that appear on the tracks from One Nation Underground. There is nothing really awful on these later tracks, but there is enough that seems half-baked (the sound-effects and string section clogged “I Saw the World”) and downright dull (a listless version of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”) to make it an uneven listening experience.
The Complete ESP-Disk Recordings is not a “treasure trove” reissue from a forgotten-but-great band. Pearls Before Swine is little more than a unique footnote to the psychedelic era, a dead end experiment that yielded some minor revelations and more than a few good songs that really sound like nothing else recorded during that time period. If they approach The Complete ESP-Disk Recordings with this caveat, this collection will surely please folk-rock and psychedelic rock fans who are willing to appreciate a band both overlooked and over-hyped.