A fitting tribute to Rapp’s singular talent.
There’s no vocalist quite like Pearls Before Swine’s Tom Rapp. With a tentative delivery and noticeable speech impediment, his voice takes some getting used to for those who prefer their singers to be polished and presentable to a larger audience. This isn’t to say that Rapp, is unlistenable – quite the contrary. His vocal shortcomings are more than made up for by his impressionistic lyrics, surrealist, abstract imagery and earnest, often emotionally-charged delivery. Even in an era in which out-there was increasingly becoming the norm in both music and culture, Pearls Before Swine’s Balaklava sounds nothing like anything else.
Given this decidedly underground bent, it’s little surprise Rapp/Pearls found a home on the legendary ESP-Disk as part of the label’s adventurous move into the rock and folk artists who no commercial-minded label at the time would give a second look. Along with The Fugs, The Godz and The Holy Modal Rounders, Pearls Before Swine existed within a then unclassifiable ghetto of forward-thinking artists whose influence wouldn’t become fully recognized for several generations (if ever). In other words, they fit perfectly along such free jazz extremists as Albert Ayler, Sonny Simmons and Sun Ra.
Reissued to mark the album’s 50th anniversary by Drag City, a label that has long since shown itself as the spiritual heir to the more avant rock/folk side of the ESP-Disk stable of freaks and weirdos, it’s anti-war approach shows how protests can be erudite and historically-informed rather than mere sloganeering. Using the Crimean War as its jumping off point, Balaklava allows Rapp to rail against the Vietnam War outside the context of burning draft cards, marches and hippie rhetoric. Instead, he places the horrors of war within a broader historical context showing that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The album opens with an ancient recording of “Trumpeter Landfrey,” one of the surviving trumpeters from the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade sounding the charge from that date in 1854. It’s an odd opening and makes for a strange transition to “Translucent Carriages” and its disconcerting whispering behind Rapp’s vocals. Once the listener settles in to Rapp’s world, however, it proves itself to be wholly enchanting and unclassifiable. Ostensibly rooted in a progressive folk idiom, Balaklava transcends overly-simplistic genre tags, showing itself to be something far more nuanced, ambitious and ultimately aurally rewarding.
“I Saw the World” is late-‘60s Bee Gees filtered through a psychedelic prism that refracts the familiar sounds into something that far surpasses its closest musical allusion. It’s a sprawling, orchestral ballad that shows the full range of Rapp’s vocals while allowing the emotional heft of the subject matter to come to the fore for maximum impact. “Guardian Angels” employs a bit of audio trickery to make it sound much older than it is, a nice callback to “Trumpeter Landfrey” made all the more engaging by the chamber orchestral arrangement. It’s an abstract love song that transitions nicely into a reverent read of another challenging vocalist in Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” Rapp foregoes Cohen’s deadpan delivery in an attempt to imbue the lyrics with a gravity lacking in the original.
Few songs offer a more unsettling ambience than “Ring Thing,” however. Coming immediately off a barely discernible recording of Florence Nightingale, it’s a hauntingly elegiac performance made all the more unsettling by the droning, atonal bagpipes sequestered somewhere in the far corner of the recording. It’s as if they are marching into battle with Rapp’s monotone delivery and Tolkien-heavy lyrics only to be quickly cut off in favor of the sound of rewinding tape and a faux return to the beginning with Trumpeter Landfrey making an encore appearance.
Both fronting Pearls Before Swine and solo, Tom Rapp, who died early in 2018, was and remains a singular talent. Quietly crafting his own fantastical world built out of recognizable elements but fashioned into something simultaneously child-like and ancient, he has left a body of work unlike that of his contemporaries (one can’t really claim him as having any true peers). Balaklava deserves a place alongside the best albums the late-‘60s had to offer. Cheers to Drag City for making it widely available once more, now gloriously restored and remastered. It’s a fitting tribute to Rapp’s singular talent.