[17 January 2014]
There’s a Giller Prize winning novel of recent vintage called Half-Blood Blues that has a plot point where a young man makes a primitive jazz record around 1940 in Paris as the Second World War drapes across Europe that is discovered years and years later, making the individual in question a jazz legend in certain circles. The novel’s romantic idea of someone making an album (or a song) in complete, utter and total obscurity, only to have it found decades later and have it rechristened as a classic, is one that’s gaining traction with certain indie record labels in recent years. There’s a push on to find that unheralded lost classic, and a few discs of this ilk have crossed my desk in my reviewing capacity at PopMatters. Some of this stuff is, indeed, brilliant – South America’s Traffic Sound had a re-released record from the late ‘60s called Virgin that lasted in my bedroom’s CD alarm clock radio for about a year on the basis largely of the title track, but the rest of the album was almost as equally amazing. There was a band called Hot Knives who released an album, a pretty good album, not too long ago – despite the fact that the master tapes sat in someone’s kitchen cupboard for the better part of 35 years. Then there was the white label-esque release from Misty Hush Revival, who brought forth their one and only album some 40 years later out on an indie label after the original pressing went out only to a small select group of maybe 100 family members and friends. That last one was a bit of a curio: okay, but hardly revelatory.
I think you’re probably seeing where this write-up is leading: the point that for each and every gem of a lost classic that’s discovered or rediscovered, there’s a lesser worthwhile band out there who is just merely okay (or worse) and you can see why they never broke through the threshold from minor cult act (or complete no names). But indie labels are now scrounging around for hardly heard music from decades ago, regardless of brand name or quality, because they tailor their releases to a specific niche record collector only interested in the past, and who has run out of things to buy, having pretty much gone through the rock ‘n’ roll canon of great albums to get. Couple this with the Antiques Roadshow culture where people discover hidden treasures in their garages and attics, and it seems that anything remotely ancient has a dollar value attached to it in the minds of many – even if the item in question is utter crap or a fabrication of some true antique. Thus, anything old is now “worth something” in this reality TV culture, regardless of what it is.
And this path leads us directly into Annabelle’s Garden.
There’s not a whole lot known about this gothic neo-folk quasi-new age band that originated out of Hamburg, Germany, unless, of course, you want to try to navigate a Wikipedia page that’s been translated from German, or happen to hit on a few underground music websites (including that of the record label) interested in preserving lost art. So here’s what we do know: the band was most active in the decade between 1987 and 1997, they rarely performed live, and, when they did, it was an extravaganza of sound created from household or traditional instruments and performed in large fields amongst a smattering of friends (presumably in the German summer), and the band generally circulated their material on cassette tape. While Annabelle’s Garden did get the CD re-release treatment in the ‘90s after Patrick Leagas of Death in June and 6Comm/Mother Destruction put out stuff by the band on his own Kenaz imprint, the group was hard to find outside of Europe and was destined to be forgotten about. Until, that is, Dais Records dug up a crate of this stuff and spent the better part of four years contacting and working with the band to release the material once again. Time’s No Measure (1987 – 1993), the first volume of re-released material, compiles the group’s 1993 album Wo Sind Nur Eure Götter Hin? (gesundheit!) but also includes songs from the band’s original first recording, which was a cassette release, along with a never-heard-before remix of one of the songs that graces this set.
The question is: is any of this any good and worth revisiting? And the answer is, sadly, not really. There’s the odd glimmer of a great idea and the odd song here and there that rises above the murk, but Annabelle’s Garden spends a great deal of time trying to come across as a new age-y, sort of folksy version of dour European bands such as the Cure or Depeche Mode. In fact, when you listen to Time’s No Measure, you can practically play a game of spot the influence, which means that the band didn’t, at least not early on, transcend its influences and do something startling. Another problem is the sheer length of some of the songs: many of them push into the five-, six- and seven-minute range, which means that an idea or a lick, no matter how good or bad it is, gets pummeled to death. The other thing is that, probably through little fault of the band, the lyrics are dreary oftentimes, and the reason may fall at the feet of the fact that English was probably not the working mother tongue of whoever was writing and singing these songs. While a handful of songs are in German, the English songs are… meh. And full of new age claptrap. “Can we live forever? / Harmonize with the earth, our mother?” goes one lyric on “If”, which seems to be one of the group’s “better known” songs, considering that it is the sole track that gets the remix treatment. The lyric might be cloying in and of itself, but it is delivered in such a serious, earnest way that any hipster irony pretty much bleeds out of the picture. And the rest of the material is pretty much in the same vein: stuff that just wouldn’t wash with even the most overwrought of high school student diaries of poetry. “What happened to you? / What happened last night? / What happened last night? / Who took your life from me?” Brother.
What can I say that’s remotely charitable? Well, the set does sound good. For material that was recorded 20 to 25-ish years ago, there’s a crystalline quality to the album’s engineering that belies the fact that this stuff was pretty much committed to being released on cassette tape, which, naturally, isn’t exactly known for its audiophile qualities. And, of course, there’s the occasional not bad song dotting the map of the 16 tracks offered here. I really like the techno-esque remix of “If” and would argue that it’s the better song – a rarity in that the remix exceeds the original – and there are cuts such as “Thoughts on Departure”, which sounds as though it could have hailed from the Cure’s Faith album and is a pretty good replica of that sort of thing, and “A Path Towards Nothing”, which is another stab at moody, angst-ridden rock. However, for each thing that approaches near-diamond status in terms of having a catchy hook, there are two or three or four pieces that are nothing but lumps of coal. Maybe this stuff plays better in Germany or Europe. Or maybe this seemed better back in the day, an antidote to the over-glossed ‘80s pop of the era that some of this material bursts from. But obscure classic? You’ve got to be kidding me.
I suppose Annabelle’s Garden is just another example of the commoditization of the underground and, how, if given enough time, anything can become revered. But there’s absolutely nothing that’s utterly special or profound about Annabelle’s Garden and the end feeling I walk away from this collection with is that a record company has essentially tried to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Still, this won’t be the last time that a hidden olden days outfit finds a marketplace after the fact, and, as noted above, Time’s No Measure won’t be the last we hear of this group as at least another reissue covering 1993 to 1997 seems destined to come. The only question that remains is will anybody actually care enough to reconsider Annabelle’s Garden as a vital, overlooked group that is only now getting its due. Based on what I’ve heard here, all I know is that I certainly won’t.