A Jug of Love
imon Reynolds’s 1994 Wire feature on post-rock—the first article to work toward defining the genre—cites two common impulses in groups such as Stereolab, Disco Inferno, and Seefeel: the use of rock instrumentation for creating timbres and textures rather than riffs, and a rejection of the premise that the studio is simply a space for mimetic representation of live music. Reynolds is also quick to point out that these drives weren’t unique to a particular subset of anti-grunge insurgents—post-rock’s ethos meshes with the aesthetics of 1970s art-rockers like Can and Brian Eno and late 1980s iconoclasts such as Talk Talk and A.R. Kane. Dealing with this latter group in an earlier essay titled “Oceanic Rock,” Reynolds elaborates further on textural, studio-based experimental rock’s pre-punk foundations, positing drifting folk-rock albums like John Martyn’s Solid Air and Roy Harper’s Stormcock and not-quite-jazz guitarists Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie as early articulators of the sounds heard on Spirit of Eden and 69.
It’s unlikely that A Jug of Love was on Reynolds’s or Mark Hollis’s radar in the late 80s—as a commercial flop on the short-lived Blue Horizon label, the 1971 LP remained unheard by all but the most intrepid of acid folk collectors. That’s a shame: Mighty Baby’s second album anticipates future developments in aerial guitar music almost as presciently as Pink Floyd’s Meddle. Whereas many psychedelic obscurities merely offer more localized explorations of the new grounds broken by more prominent contemporaries, A Jug of Love stumbles into a unique, rarefied headspace.
Emphasis on “stumbles”: Mighty Baby had no clue where they were going in 1971. The group had formed from the ashes of mod group The Action four years earlier. Guitarist Martin Stone (also of Savoy Brown Blues Band) and multi-instrumentalist Ian Whiteman encouraged Action holdovers Mike Evans (bass), Roger Powell (drums), and Alan King (guitar) to expand upon their affection for jazz and folk, resulting in an eponymous 1969 LP jammed full of ambitious, free-wheeling psychedelic pop somewhat akin to Love’s first two albums. Mighty Baby’s interest in rock’s rituals began to wane, however, as members embraced Sufism and found themselves disinclined to play their songs in front of beer-swilling ruffians and pot-smoking festival-goers. Pretty soon, they were playing concerts with their backs to the crowd. When they entered the studio for a second time, the band faced no pressing expectations from their label (the first album hadn’t sold very well) or fans, and they didn’t care whether producer Mike Vernon thought their largely instrumental new songs would find an audience (he didn’t).
A little self-editing and screw-tightening wouldn’t have hurt A Jug of Love—closer “Slipstreams” is particularly rambling, biding its time with lackadaisical verses devoid of a winning melody and a narrative thrust—but its songs are on the whole richly hued and wonderfully transportive. Crystalline electric guitars, shambling piano, meditative bass, and baroque reeds converge in clean-flowing instrumental passages as blissed out as Terry Riley’s most sedative tape loop compositions. Unlike cosmically-attuned, effects pedal-enamored rockers such as Hawkwind and Ash Ra Temple, however, Mighty Baby craft their ego-dissolving sound world without fully abandoning the pop song. Celestial bent notes lock arms with a Crosby, Stills, and Nash-ish chorus in the title track, and “Keep on Jugging” embarks on its third eye-opening voyage from a simple boogie foundation—what concludes with mesmeric bursts of fragmented guitar begins as innocuously as one of The Grateful Dead’s country numbers.
The Dead actually provide a very effective point of comparison. As breathlessly expansive as Mighty Baby’s jams are, they never appear as lost at sea as your average 20-minute-plus interpretation of “Dark Star.” A Jug of Love navigates an almost-pop middle ground that The Dead rarely found.
It’s probably too late for A Jug of Love to blow any minds or shift any paradigms. Its strongest attributes have already been internalized by many current avant-garde rockers—Comets on Fire have figured out how to pare down San Fran ballroom rock on their own, and Califone have alchemized folk elements into alluring soundscapes by taking cues from Faust. You could also argue that the album depicts a band falling apart rather than finding their groove: after a brief supporting tour, Mighty Baby disbanded. Fortunately for us, the band’s disenchantment with rock and all its trappings translated into one of the most bizarrely animated last gasps to emerge from the psychedelic vault.
Reviewed by: Phillip Buchan
Reviewed on: 2006-11-29