Various More Oar, A Tribute To The Skip Spence Album

It was a little too creepy when Stanley Kubrick died this year just after finishing Eyes Wide Shut, but it was perhaps even more sadly coincidental when Skip Spence died about the same time on the eve of a renewed interest in his brief, but turbulent career. The story of the Windsor, Ontario-born founding member of seminal San Francisco psychedelic outfit Moby Grape is half the reason why his music has remained compelling to those few who have heard it. There's too much to go into here, suffice to say that Oar, released in 1969, and his last recording until just prior to his death, is the sound of a man seeking redemption after paying the price for his mistakes. As a true solo album, Oar's primitive, and at times childlike construction has been compared to the acid vapour trail left by Syd Barrett, but Spence's surreal observations are firmly rooted in the American folk tradition and the album's best moments easily sit beside the cream of lo-fi like Beck's One Foot In The Grave or Sebadoh III. It's not surprising then that long-time Oar devotee Bill Bentley's track-by-track tribute, More Oar, is a cross-generational affair that overall stays true to the spirit of the original. Oar has been reissued in a remixed and expanded form in conjunction with the tribute and as a latecomer to the album's mythology, I can't imagine each having the same impact on their own. This is cultural anthropology at its best. The opening track "Little Hands," remains the most accessible on both albums, and first-time-around Oar fan Robert Plant gives it an expected reverential treatment, and consequently the most personal performance of his career. This is followed by the perfect match of Mark Lanegan with the Johnny Cash-meets-Burroughs ballad "Cripple Creek," and Alejandro Escovedo peeling back the layers of the painful confession "Diana." Of course, the original Oar contains plenty of unpolished weirdness and these are the tracks that are unfortunately best avoided on the tribute, especially the Ophelias' cartoonish version of "Lawrence Of Euphoria." Yet, as might be expected, Beck is able to take the half-finished "Halo Of Gold" and transform it into what can only be imagined Spence would have done had he learned how to use a sampler and a Moog. Similarly, Oar's nine-minute soundscape "Grey/Afro" is treated as a proto-ambient piece by Flying Saucer Attack, thus showing another path Spence could have explored had he kept his faculties. However, for me, the real beauty remains in Spence's psychotic blues, best captured by Tom Waits on "Books Of Moses," although even he can't duplicate the original version's edginess, and "Weighted Down (The Prison Song)" in which Jay Farrar and the Bottlerockets put their unmistakable mark on Spence's gunslinger fantasy. Oar, on its own, could be written off today as a psychedelic footnote; More Oar, on its own, a collection of a few notable artists indulging their more abstract tendencies. But together, the albums show an almost complete portrait of an artist struggling to put down the sounds in his head while wrestling with his inner turmoil. Above all, it shows an artist who influenced others more than anybody could have imagined. Least of all, himself. (Sundazed)