Pearls Before Swine
The Complete ESP-Disk Recordings
n 2005, listening The Complete ESP-Disk Recordings of Pearls Before Swine can be a haunting experience. As the psychedelic protest music of the 60’s followed the clichéd mantra of dropping out, turning on, and tuning in, it eventually dropped off, unwinding its own turbulent optimism into a sour disillusionment. On the two albums collected on this single disc (1967’s One Nation Underground and 1968’s Balaklava), one can hear that death in the voice of prime Pearl Tom D. Rapp’s broad-tongued lisp, melting from an obscure, but ultimately playful and well-meaning figure into a mystic firing ellipses into the dark.
One Nation Underground is essentially a protest album with the air of a relic. Rapp’s voice winds in and out of modes that sound difficult to connect with now, despite the formal sturdiness of the songs. When he bleats lines like “Drop out with me, just live your life / Behind your eyes, your own skies / Your own tomorrows,” it doesn’t sound even remotely revolutionary, it just sounds a little quaint. Of course, this is simultaneously a positive and negative criticism; effective expressions can be timely as often as timeless, and One Nation Underground sounds humbly strapped to its decade.
In contrast to One Nation, Balaklava groans like a prophecy. The element of protest is contorted into deeply bitter allusions drifting on a landscape that grows increasingly dark and abstract, bleeding wispy tape loops and disembodied string sections. Aside from a misplaced cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and the overly Dylan-esque “There Was a Man,” the experience of Balaklava is raw and eerie, a kind of inert melancholy. Rapp still offers some blandly utopian hippie goop, but here it blends ominously with questions like “Jesus raised the dead, but who will raise the living?” The religion-flavored dread of Balaklava places Rapp as a forefather to hazy Gnostics like Current 93 or the prickly tenderness of Coil’s quieter, more ruminative music.
It’s striking to imagine the two albums in the context of the atrocities of our own times—the Iraq conflict, Sudan, the horror of the Gulf, to name a few. It might sound like a pedantic and condescending parallel, but it’s hard not to look at the enthusiasm of Live 8, Help: A Day In the Life, and the muddled and limply articulated concerns of Devendra Banhart’s Cripple Crow (who is at least tangentially in Rapp’s lineage) and feel the fog of Balaklava, the sound of someone’s robust enthusiasm turned into a bleak, strange dream.