PEARLS BEFORE SWINE Balaklava (Get Back)

It must've been at least ten years ago that I read Johnny Black in CD Review suggesting that "when someone has the balls to release CDs by Tom Rapp's magnificently off-the-wall cult group Pearls Before Swine we'll know the format's here to stay". It gives me great pleasure to announce that someone (actually Italian reissue specialists Get Back) has had the balls to release Pearls Before Swine's first two albums (and many other important but long-lost recordings from the ESP-Disk label, whose roster included Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, The Fugs, Godz, Holy Modal Rounders, Tuli Kupferberg, William Burroughs and Charles Manson) on the only music-carrying format not currently being stalked by Japan Inc. or the internet (vinyl, as if you couldn't guess - gorgeous high quality 180 gram virgin vinyl, to be precise).

Pearls Before Swine were centred around Tom Rapp, a North Dakotan poet/painter/guitarist/singer/composer, accompanied here by Jim Bohannoin (organ, piano, clavinette, marimba), Wayne Harley (banjo) and Lane Lederer (bass, guitar, swinehorn). The sound they make on "Balaklava", originally released in 1968, could lazily be described as that of an American Incredible String Band, but instead of the ISB's gift for angular melody Rapp and his cohorts experimented more with the structure of the actual album than that of the music, attempting to make the kind of all-enfolding multimedia experience the Beatles had a stab at with "Sgt. Pepper" and "Magical Mystery Tour". The songs range from a setting of Tolkein ("Ring Thung") through more conventional folk to a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne", all bathed in the sort of ethereal half-light that the Cocteau Twins would later spend an entire career being typecast as. Snaking in and around all this is a plethora of unobtrusive sonic trickery, including the voices of Florence Nightingale and the last surviving trumpeter from the original Charge Of The Light Brigade, birdsong, crashing waves, a song allegedly 'recorded in Guadalope, Mexico in 1929 on 78r.p.m. equipment and specially reprocessed for stereo' (which would be almost believable had Rapp not managed to write it 18 years before he was born) and, at the close, the sound of the entire album being rewound.

If it lacks something in terms of memorable songwriting - "Suzanne" apart there's nothing here that you'll find yourself humming - "Balaklava" nevertheless has a clarity (or possibly wooziness) of vision and construction that makes it quite unique, even amongst its late 60s contemporaries, as recognised when The Wire magazine recently selected it as one of "100 Records That Set The World On Fire".

PEARLS BEFORE SWINE One Nation Underground (Get Back)

On this, their first album, released in 1967. Pearls Before Swine aren’t quite the kaleidoscopic acid-folk concern they would become with the following year’s “Balaklava”. Instead, on “Another Time”, it’s only Tom Rapp’s prominent lisp and the impressionistic lyrics (Rapp was moved to write this, his first composition, after walking away unscathed from a car accident in which the convertible he was travelling in overturned) that distance them from, for example, early Tim Buckley. It’s hard not to suppress a frisson of delight at hearing the Swine so anchored within some kind of recognisable, referential framework.

With its piercing keyboards, jangling guitar and Rapp’s blatant vocal impersonation, “Playmate” is either a tribute to or a parody of Dylan circa 1965/6. (The teenage Rapp had actually beaten the young Mr Zimmerman in a talent contest back in his home state of North Dakota.) The fact that elsewhere, on “Regions Of May”, Rapp casually drops in references to “drawing crazy patterns” suggests it may be more of the former. The whimsical lyric of “(Oh Dear) Miss Morse” – “Don’t blame me, dear/Blame McLuhan/His media was your ruin” – deflects the listener from the fact that Rapp cheerfully intones the Morse code for F-U-C-K during the chorus. The song spelt trouble for veteran DJ Murray The K when he played it on air: a group of local Boy Scouts correctly decoded it and phoned in a complaint. It’s altogether more whimsy than might be expected from an album with a cover detail taken from the “Hell Panel” of Hieronymous Bosch’s painting “The Garden Of Delights”.

“Drop Out!” offers another moment of clarity, a clarion-call to likeminded hipsters that still resonates powerfully – sometimes all it takes is a catchy chorus. It’s surprising how effective they are when dealing with worldly, rather than otherworldly, concerns, making it almost a shame that Rapp chose not to pursue this direction. Heck, they could have been a lesser Jefferson Airplane instead of a lesser Incredible String Band! Underlining this, “Uncle John” is another standout, a vicious anti-war tirade as potent as anything Country Joe & The Fish were offering at the time, Rapp hollering himself hoarse during the outro.

Despite all this blatant commercial potential “One Nation Underground” is still a Pearls Before Swine album, meaning it boasts a mad entanglement of instrumentation: autoharp, banjo, mandolin, vibraphone, audio oscillator, English horn, swinehorn, sarangi, celeste, finger cymbals, organ, harpsichord and clavioline are all deployed alongside more conventional rock ‘n’ roll weaponry. Reassuringly strange, it’s surely one of the oddest albums ever to sell a quarter of a million copies.