Anyone up for a super-obscure 1970s Euro-funk concept album about French painting?
I see a lot of you are heading for the exits. Please do not push or run, I don’t want any of you to get hurt.
To those of you still reading this, let’s quickly review the legend of Bobby Callender. It’ll be quick: American dude has a couple unsuccessful singles in the 1960s, makes musical-trainspotting history with a couple of weirdo-beardo psychedelic funk records that no one buys, then disappears forever. Okay, maybe not so much a legend as, y’know, just another story.
Except apparently that wasn’t the end of the story—Fallout Records has recently unearthed this blast from the past, recorded in Massachusetts and only ever released in the Netherlands sometime in the early 1970s. (Year? They don’t say.) So if you’re curious about Callender’s strange little career, or if you want to hear really strange music, you can now indulge yourself.
“It wasn’t a great success / But it truly was blessed / With the gift of light / That only few possessed.” This comes from the very first track, “Nadars (The Baptism of Impressionism)”, a gospel-soul number in which Callender recounts the very first exhibit of Impressionist art. If the album was better, this verse would be perfect for me, because then I could spin it into a whole “Callender, like the artists he idolizes, followed his vision as far as it went, and we are all the poorer that it never caught on” or something.
Sadly, however, it’s not some kind of OMG Lost Classic. Sure, there are flashes of brilliance all over the place: proto-disco tunes with everyone cooing “Renoir!” are pretty rare in this world, and I love the opening heavy strut of “Berthe Morisot”, especially because Morisot is the one everyone forgets. “Senses and Soul” has a bit of a Curtis Mayfield vibe, the chord changes on “Vincent Van Gogh” are no joke, and there’s a lot of bounce to “Paul Gauguin (Tahitian Man)”. No one else would even have had these ideas, and it’s pretty cool to reach back in the way-back machine and hear someone try, especially when it comes off.
But Callender was his own worst enemy. Too many snippets and interludes and reprises kill any momentum that starts to build up, and you’re never really sure what song you’re on. (Fallout didn’t help much by effing up the tracklisting, on the CD case and on the tracks’ electronic labeling.) And, let’s face it, it’s pretty ridiculous in a lot of parts, as you might expect. There are a lot of gospel singers going all “Baptism of Impressionism” over and over, songs with impenetrable structures, textures that sound thin, ugh. And Callender’s voice, which sometimes sounds strong and cool, often devolves into weird choked over-whatever-ing.
Ultimately, this is the kind of record that you will only love if you love really weird stuff for the sake of it being really weird. But I guess there are worse reasons to love a record. If you’re still reading this review, you should probably try to give this album a listen. I’m keeping it around because, y’know, it might be a grower.