When I think of the music that I find most interesting, much of it, when seen in the context of an artist’s career, could be described as ‘inconvenient’. What I mean by this is that its very existence seems to defy common sense. Either the music does not have any ready audience for it (for example, the album A Midsummer’s Day Dream by Mark Eric, which captured the style of the mid-60s Beach Boys, but in 1970, a period when the Beach Boys themselves couldn’t get arrested), or it has the potential to alienate an artist’s existing audience while not having the capacity to win them a new one (as in the case of Frank Sinatra’s Watertown, a concept album about a man’s marriage breaking up that not only sounds like nothing else in Sinatra’s oeuvre, but also like nothing in anybody else’s).
These records fascinate me so much as they are often clearly made not in order to please an audience (although that would be nice), but in spite of the fact the audience almost certainly won’t be pleased.
They are almost perverse acts of will, existing because someone feels they have to. They are the creative force captured in an almost pure state, and often of a visionary intensity. Not always perfect, and not always even good, they nevertheless have their own distinctive character that shines through, making them far more worthwhile to my mind than most music that aims to please and plays it safe.
(I should make it clear that what I don’t mean is atonal or openly experimental music, or anything that sounds like a shouting tramp, such as Captain Beefheart or Tom Waits. This music is effectively guaranteed an audience of some kind. There are people who want to hear stuff that sounds like a box of tic-tacs in a washing machine, and if that’s what you do, chances are they’ll hear about it.)
So, this is the first in an occasional series in which I highlight albums in my collection which I consider to fall into the category of ‘inconvenient.’
First off is Paint America Love by Lou Christie, from 1971. Christie had numerous hits in the 60s in the UK and US, such as ‘Lightnin’ Strikes’, and ‘I’m Gonna Make You Mine’. Excellent though they were, they were essentially bubblegum (a genre that does, of course, bring you the Naked Truth).
The ‘Paint America Love’ album, however, is a different proposition. The cover depicts Lou in red, white and blue braces with a little American flag on a stick held nonchalantly over his shoulder, and a knowingly winsome expression on his walrus-mustachioed face. The vibe is M*A*S*H*-era Robert Altman satire. Inside, however, Christie is seen with his writing partner Twyla Herbert, a classically-trained clairvoyant twenty years his senior, with a feather boa wrapped round the pair of them. The vibe here is a bit Harold and Maude.
‘Wood child, I saw the devil on his knees, I saw the angels tasting tea…’ And so the record begins, as Christie intones the dense lyrics of opening track ‘Wood Child’ over a reverb-drenched piano. Intriguing, although there’s no real sense of where the record is going. It could begin to sound like King Crimson at any minute. Then, on the line, ‘And the riverboat will take you sailing on a sunday morning’, something happens. Not just a switch from the metaphorical to the specific, but from Christie’s normal voice to falsetto.
Falsetto in pop is a curious thing. It can be sublime (Brian Wilson), or ridiculous (Frankie Valli). Christie’s falsetto, which was his USP on his 60s hits, is both sublime and ridiculous simultaneously. He sounds like a chipmunk, but a chipmunk who’s seen through the doors of perception and glimpsed the infinite.
After this, Christie then alternates his natural voice with his falsetto, repeating the line ‘take a ticket and get on this boat’ in both until the song fades. The effect is jaw-dropping and achingly beautiful. Like The Band, Christie is harking back to a disappeared (and possibly non-existent) America, looking for a purer, more innocent time (when non-interventionist foreign policies stopped things like Vietnam from happening, although you would still have had racism and stuff, so it wouldn’t have been all good, whenever this lost era was).
Next up is the jaunty ‘Paper Song’. ’Everything is done electric’lly,’ we’re informed, ‘pots and pans and now astrology’. The song is either a warning about environmental depletion, or a celebration of the logging and paper industries. I’m really not sure. It doesn’t really matter though as it’s irresistibly jaunty, and ends with a pathos-drenched coda of ‘penny paper, get your paper…’ sung a cappella like an old-time paper boy.
The next three tracks, ‘The Best Way to See America’, ‘Chuckie Wagon’ and ‘Waco’, continue the Americana theme, celebrating the country in all its vastness. Sample lyric: ’Waco, turn down that radio, you got six more brownies left till you get to Ontario. You call your cousin when you get to the border now, she’ll put you up for the night…’
Side Two opens with ‘Campus Rest’, a lush instrumental interlude. Following that are two songs, ‘Lighthouse’ and ‘Look Out the Window’, which respond to the unrest of the time with both anxiety and hope. The album is no longer looking back, but staring at the America of 1971, wondering if it’s all going to work out for the best.
Of course, things must get better, because the alternative is George W. Bush. But how to bring about a resolution to the country’s apparently irresolvable conflicts? The answer is, as ever, love. ’Paint America Love’, Christie pleads on the title track that closes the album. And the way he puts it, it sounds like a good idea.
On release, ‘Paint America Love’ sold to not many people, and Christie descended into drug addiction (although not without recording the fine follow-up, Beyond the Blue Horizon in 1974, the title track appearing years later in the film ‘Rain Man’).
‘Paint America Love’ was never going to find an audience, at least not in 1971. It strayed too far from Christie’s home turf of high-intensity love songs, and although it shared a world-view with the then-huge California singer-songwriter scene, it maintained a precise and thickly-orchestrated bubblegum sound, mostly arranged by the magnificently-named Ronnie Frangipani, rather than the looser acoustic feel fashionable at the time.
Nevertheless, in retrospect, it’s Christie’s take that now sounds fresher, and his earnestness is far more endearing than that of, say, James Taylor or Crosby, Stills and Nash, who these days come across as smug, bordering on punchable. To some ears, they probably did at the time as well.
The album has been out-of-print for years, and I had to order my copy over the Internet for many pounds (before finding a mint copy in a second-hand shop for just three quid several years later). It has, however, finally now been reissued on CD. You should buy it because it’s good.