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Pearls Before Swine - The Wizard of Is

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Artist: Pearls Before Swine

Album: The Wizard of Is

Label: Water

Review date: Sep. 8, 2004

The Wizard of Is — a typical Tom Rapp title, profound and slightly tongue-in-cheek - is indicative of the ramblingly witty affirmation that imbues this archival Pearls Before Swine set. Here is a glimpse into the whimsical creativity so integral to PBS and that informs Rapp’s later work, even after a 25-year hiatus.

Disc one presents demos and live broadcasts. When composed by Rapp, these are culled largely from the Warner/Reprise era, four albums of which were painstakingly reissued by Water last year. Rapp’s infatuation with arrangement and instrumentation is evident throughout; we are treated, for example, to the earliest version of “Rocket Man,” recorded in Holland with only acoustic guitar accompanying Tom and then-wife Elisabeth’s vocals. Just before the tune starts however, Rapp expresses his desire to have the song recorded with English horns and other “delicate instruments”; the other two versions on offer here are more harmonically developed. “Translucent Carriages” — complete with pipe organ and somewhat awkward but fascinating vocal harmonies — is already well-formed in what the liner notes allege is one of several complete versions that are now lost. Among some tasty covers is a stand-out rendition, again with Elisabeth harmonizing, of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free.” As spare and melancholy as the original, the harmonies only enhance the mood.

Disc Two is comprised mainly of concert material. Several classic ESP tracks appear here in very different versions from their studio counterparts. “Another Time” is delivered in half-speech half-song, and the faux-English gentility of “Miss Morse” is dropped in favor of a serio-comic recitation, which is actually even more humorous than the original.

Humor rears its pointed head quite often in the PBS catalog, and the previously unreleased “Crawling towards Bethlehem” and the 1999 recording “Lessons from the 60’s” are wickedly satirical examples of Rapp’s ability to make light of dangerous situations. On the flipside, “Prisoner of War” is sadly as relevant today as it was in 1972, when this recording was made.

For the most part, the tracks on these discs were recorded some 30 to 35 years ago, and it shows. The sound is generally of the high-quality bootleg variety, an aura which Tom Rapp’s poignantly punchy but scattered liner notes do nothing to dispel. Such trivialities don’t even come close to diminishing the importance of this release — maybe not a great starting place for the uninitiated, but certainly a treasure trove for both casual and devoted fans.

By Marc Medwin

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