Pearls before Swine was the band formed in Florida in 1965 by Tom Rapp, Its first two albums, One Nation Underground and Balaklava – both recorded for cutting-edge New York label ESP-Disk, are widely acknowledged to be cornerstones of that era’s Stateside psychedelic-folk scene, with what’s been described as edgy, often dark expositions of frayed romanticism. Many latter-day musicians have cited Pearls before Swine, and these two albums in particular as a key influence. By 1969, however, the original band members had left and the band name was just used to denote Rapp and whichever musicians he was recording or touring with at the time. The next five albums released under the Pearls Before Swine name were released on Reprise, although following album number three (These Things Too) the recordings were made by just Rapp, his then-wife Elizabeth and a bunch of session musicians. Also, by then, Rapp’s lyrics now generally embraced a more whimsical brand of mystical humanism, within musical settings that were comparatively conventional in terms of sound and gravitated more towards aromatic folk-baroque with shades of pastel and sunshine pop.
1970’s City Of Gold was the third of Rapp’s albums to appear on Reprise, and followed The Use Of Ashes, drawing heavily on material left over from the recording of that album. It involved predominantly acoustic backings (using members of Area Code 615), with occasional deft, lean-textured string arrangements giving a somewhat wispy, insubstantial air to the music and lyrics. Rapp’s seven own songs were topped up with a somewhat bizarre collection of covers – Leonard Cohen’s (Seems So Long Ago) Nancy, Judy Collins’ My Father (one of several tracks to be sung by Elizabeth), the Rod McKuen take on Brel’s Seasons In The Sun (agh!), and, most curious of all, the LP’s opening track, a cutesy country-waltz rendition of Shakespeare’s Sonnet #65 that lasts a mere 45 seconds. Rapp’s own somewhat idiosyncratic vocal style can seem a little out of touch with reality at times, but it becomes quite endearing (as acquired tastes go).
The cryptically titled …Beautiful Lies You Could Live In album followed in 1971, and was fuller-sounding in terms of its instrumentation, although again using high-calibre session musicians to augment the core lineup of Elizabeth Rapp, Mike Krawitz, Gordon Hayes and Jon Tooker (who formed Rapp’s touring band too around that time). Electric guitars and drums gave the album more of a country-rock sound, yet Rapp’s own compositions (which formed all but two of the tracks) were more memorable than those on City Of Gold, while retaining the spirit of haunted romanticism that had long been his hallmark. For the album’s two covers, Rapp returned to Leonard Cohen for Bird On A Wire – this, after a distinctly intriguing a cappella opening, turns the corner straight into impassioned soul-country-gospel mode, which proves unexpectedly convincing. Literature is ransacked for the album finale, Epitaph, a delicate 1½-minute setting by Elizabeth of a Housman poem.
These two albums may not be the most innovative or important in the Rapp history, and for all their freshness of sound I can’t altogether escape a strong overall impression of insubstantiality (contradiction in terms though that may sound), but this BGO reissue’s excellent booklet essay provides better background and appraisal than hitherto available and certainly assists in our timely reassessment of their charms.
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