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Judy Henske & Jerry Yester Judy Henske & Jerry Yester
Album: Farewell Aldebaran
Label: Omnivore
Tracks: 15

This distinctly curious album appeared at the end of 1969, on Frank Zappa’s Straight Records label (which had also hosted LPs by the GTOs and Jeff Simmons). It sold extremely poorly however, which may have been attributable either to lack of promotion or else its frustratingly wayward stylistic variety that didn’t even half comfortably fit any predetermined musical categories or classifications – who can tell, for it disappeared without trace and became a cult classic even among cult classics. This, its first ever legitimate CD reissue, has been remastered from the original tapes. And it’s still a most bewildering and at times exasperating experience, embodying all the frustrations and serendipities that come with a truly oddball record. But that’s the joy of the challenge, after all…

Judy and Jerry were a married couple, each of whom had by 1969 already attained a healthy pedigree on the music scene – Judy (dubbed “Queen of the Beatniks” by Jack Nitzsche) as an acclaimed interpreter of folk and blues songs and Jerry as former member of The Lovin’ Spoonful and occasional producer of other artists like Tim Buckley and The Association. But Farewell Aldebaran was their first artistic collaboration (in terms of lyrics by Judy and music by Jerry); it was born out of a major life-change following the birth of their daughter and a wholesale relocation from Greenwich Village to LA’s San Fernando Valley, upon which Judy fell prey to illness-induced delirium and embarked upon a feverish bout of writing visionary but unsettling lyrics inspired by the contemporary zeitgeist that matched thoughts of mortality with a sense of new life and fresh possibilities, using her solid grounding in poetic craft to temper her wild flights of imagery. Jerry’s music, similarly, took folk, baroque and classical gestures and overlaid them, often unpredictably, with pop hooks, modern rock and voguish experimental touches. A spirit of freewheeling, easygoing fun conjures an insouciant aura of “no rules” and “anything is possible right now” that extended from the nature of the writing right out into the often way-out textures and even for its time way-ahead instrumentation.

The record was co-produced by Jerry’s Spoonful colleague Zal Yanovsky, and featured a host of musicians including David Lindley, Solomon Feldthouse, Gail Levant, Ray Brown, John Forsha and Zal himself. A quotient of somewhat unusual instrumental timbres gave many of the songs an often otherworldly, almost spacey feel – the title track included some pioneering Moog synthesiser programming and used voice distortion to isolate overtones – while the sinister Appalachian-flavoured folk ballad Raider featured the esoteric and exotic sounds of bowed banjo and hammered dulcimer and the chirpy gothic St. Nicholas Hall brought in the obscure Chamberlin tape organ (a precursor of the mellotron). Elsewhere, the album’s tracks lurched violently from the aggressive electric riffing and ultra-fierce vocal of Snowblind to whimsical fairground bubblegum (Horses On A Stick); the tremulous eerie macabre of Lullabye and the cryptic neo-operatic harpsichorderie of St. Nicholas Hall to the swooning pomp orchestration of Three Ravens (whose lyric is loosely derived from the folk ballad) and the heady suffocating nightmare of the induced-hallucinatory Rapture.

This admirable reissue comes with five bonus cuts. Mostly these turn out to be little more than instrumental backing tracks in the form of tryouts-cum-demos for the album, but the source of Three Ravens’ lush melody is revealed on the demo as a Smiley-Smile-esque crooning a cappella composition Moods For Cellos. The presentation of this disc is helpful, with an insightful background essay and commentary. After indulging yourself a good number of times in Farewell Aldebaran’s delights, getting to know it in depth, I’m convinced you’ll share my opinion that this is indeed what it’s claimed to be – one of those genuine lost pop-folk-psych classics. It’s a very, very strange record – but it sure is worth getting into.

David Kidman