Monday, 18 August 2008

Google Dr. Strangely Strange and you won’t find much in the way of actual information, and the best source of that is, in fact, the booklet accompanying the Halcyon Days CD. Alternatively, treat your ears to Donnybrook Fair, Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal or Dr Dim and Mr Strange off their quite wonderful (assuming, of course, that you like that sort of thing, if you don’t go for acoustic folkie whimsy, steer well clear) first album.

Retrospective: Dr Strangely Strange

Dr Strangely Strange

To this day I don’t know what made me buy the album.

It certainly wasn’t the cover art. A photograph of three guys and a girl sitting on rocks in the middle of what looks like a mountain stream doesn’t leap out at you screaming Buy me! Even if one of them seems to have a bird’s head for a hat.

The Calendar sticker on the front indicates the Australian release was on one of the less-significant offshoots of Festival Records, so it wasn’t a case of deciding to take a risk on an album by a band you’ve never heard of just because it’s on a reliable label, which was, more or less, how I stumbled on Nick Drake.

I doubt the producer credit (Joe Boyd for Witchseason Productions) was the decisive factor, however highly I rate the gentleman's contributions with the benefit of hindsight - I don't recall hearing his name too often back in the day despite his connections to The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Richard Thompson et. al.)

I doubt that it was the band’s name, though Dr Strangely Strange could well be the sort of name that might prompt a punter to take a second look. It was a time for odd names.

It certainly wasn’t the album title, Kip of the Serenes, whatever that meant.

Looking back the only reason I can think of would have been some reference to the band as the Irish equivalent of the Incredible String Band, an aggregation that most of my mates seemed to regard as very much an acquired taste. It was, however, a taste I’d managed to acquire.

And it definitely had something to do with the price, since the album was sitting in one of the one dollar discount bins in Townsville’s downtown Woolworths.

We were fairly adventurous in those days and there was, for some strange reason, a lot of good stuff that seemed to find its way into those bins.

Including copies of this album by Dr Strangely Strange.

Regardless of what my other associates thought of the Incredible String Band, however, the album went over well enough for one of them to walk into our regular Saturday night venue brandishing a copy of the group’s second album on Vertigo, a label that I probably would have skipped right on by since I didn’t hold Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep and Juicy Lucy in particularly high esteem.

In fact, I didn’t regard them with any esteem at all.

So the discovery of Kip of the Serenes by Dr Strangely Strange goes down as one of those surprising strokes of serendipity that emerge from nowhere and could just as easily have slipped by without anyone raising an eyelid.

Over the years the album, along with its worthy successor, wormed its way into a prime spot in Hughesy’s pantheon of obscure and widely ignored albums, gaining sufficient prominence to ensure that I’d check every couple of months to see whether either of them had been rereleased on CD.

The second album, Heavy Petting, appeared in 2003 on a Japanese reissue label, guaranteeing Hughesy’s continued interest in locating a digital version of its predecessor.

Then, early in 2008 a message on one of the sixties-related mailing lists on the 'Net alerted me to the fact that a reunion gig the previous June had been recorded and that the recording was in circulation. Around the same time I saw a review for a new album, Halcyon Days.

Once I'd heard the reunion show, my revived interest meant that I started looking for Dr Strangely Strange material again. A visit to the iTunes Store, more in hope of locating the new album or the 1997’s Alternative Medicine than any expectation of older material, there it was - Kip of the Serenes available again after all these years for $16.99, and just in time to download before we headed to Japan.

Given that it was a mere two days before we left, I decided to wait till we returned before conducting further archaeological research in the musty back corners of Hughesy’s memory but, as things turned out I came back with a copy of Halcyon Days as well.

So to the music.

As you’d expect, an album that starts with a track named Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal, with the opening lines:
Friends greet you on the way
Say “There you go.”
There you go
You may wonder where you’re supposed to be going
has a little more than its fair share of lyrical whimsy, and fits nicely into the same folk-psych vibe as the incredible String Band without exotic instrumentation and vocal eccentricities.

With an instrumental line-up of acoustic guitars, fiddle, mandolin, penny-whistle and harmonium it sounds very much like what you'd expect from a group of Dublin hippies getting together in their commune. From the start, the lyrical content name-checked various of the band's friends and acquaintances, and incorporated various stray musical and lyrical influences.

The spoken word introduction to the second track Dr Dim and Dr Strange, for example, comes straight from the pages of Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Historically, Opened and Cut up, published in 1621.

Then there are the two tracks with lyrics straight out of James Joyce’s 1907 Chamber Music (although one of them, Lean out the window, doesn’t actually appear in the “official” track-list.

When the time came for the follow-up album in 1970, things had changed. While the band’s first live gigs were in folk clubs and poetry readings, the arrival of sixteen-year-old guitarist Gary Moore on the scene meant Heavy Petting had a harder edge, though the pastoral elements were still there in abundance in the opening Ballad of the Wasps with its cautionary tale of metamorphosis, Kilmanoyadd Stomp, the Latvian blues of I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes, with it’s concluding quotation from W.H. Davies “Leisure”, Jove Was At Home, the instrumental When Adam Delved and Ashling.

On the other hand the more electric material doesn’t always rock out, although Gave My Love An Apple tended to get people near the Underworld stereo hoppin’ and boppin’. Sign On My Mind took the pastoral elements, threw in some tasteful guitar work from Gary Moore and meandered away across the meadows. Things are not, indeed, the way they seem so while Summer Breeze and Mary Malone of Moscow don’t feature in Hughesy’s list of all-time classic tracks they don’t have me reaching for the skip/shuffle button either.

And as five voices gather around the harmonium for Friends, the album closes on a note that mightn’t quite match Kip of the SerenesDonnybrook Fair it still ain’t too shabby. If Heavy Petting isn’t quite in the same class as its predecessor that’s more a result of the first album’s strengths rather than any weaknesses the second might possess.

And there, for many years, the story ended. I saw a couple of passing comments that suggested that there was a third album in the works, and duly noted the release of the “difficult third album” Alternative Medicine in 1997 with a mental note that I needed to pick it up at some point in time.

The release of Halcyon Days, prompted me to think that the real third album has (possibly) emerged, and, frankly, to me it’s a disappointment. Given the almost total lack of reference material on the band, it’s almost impossible to know what was going on around the band when these sessions took place.

For a start, looking at the “Productions and Co-Productions” list at the end of Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles, the recording dates between April 1969 and October 1970 seem to put the album in between Kip of the Serenes and Heavy Petting, which suggests that, rather than the third album we’re looking at an attempt to get something together for the follow-up to their debut.

It’s been widely noted that artists who write their own material find it difficult to develop enough new material of sufficient quality to make up a second release immediately after the first album appears.

Of course, you’d expect that the debut album would be have picked the eyes out of the band’s repertoire and that anything left that wasn’t good enough for the first album is going to need considerable further development if it’s going to qualify for the follow-up. Since the debut was probably the result of a lengthy period of writing, rehearsal and live performance, recording the second album is always likely to involve the odd dead end.

Which is, unfortunately, what I think we’re looking at with Halcyon Days. I’ll be giving it another chance from time to time over the next few months, but I think it’s almost time to start looking for Alternative Medicine.