Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Tom Rapp – Stardancer (1972)

(A Record Review)

After a pair of LP’s for the legendary ESP-Disk label and five for Reprise records, Tom Rapp / Pearls Before Swine landed on little Blue Thumb Records for a final pair of albums in the early 70’s. This is the only album of those nine still never released on Compact Disc anywhere in the world.

From the cover art to the music within, Stardancer revisits much stylistic and thematic territory covered on the previous records, but Rapp succeeds in avoiding the impression of repeating himself. (The concepts of cashing in and selling out presuppose some prior commercial success, so that’s not particularly relevant in this case!)

The title song and “For The Dead in Space” each return to the theme of the doomed space explorer (outer or inner space?) from 1970’s “Rocket Man”, an acknowledged inspiration for Elton John’s song of the same name as well as Bowie’s “Space Oddity”.

You won’t hear “The Fourth Day Of July” on any Country Music station on Independence Day. This is a Nixon-era nightmare of the dead children of Vietnam silently streaming to the White House and the “men who got too far away from what was done in their name” on the title holiday. Acid-Folk Protest, anyone?

“The Baptist” is a lovely tune along the lines of Balaklava's “There Was A Man”, with a touch more Nashville in the sound. Florence Warner’s Emmylou-esque harmony vocal joins Rapp in an allegory of spiritual questing, redemption and loss. “Every day I see old men like mountains and they just crumble and they fall / And I don't know what these days are doing to us all.” “Les Ans” combines a French lyric (see “Mon Amour” - These Things Too) with accompaniment from a string quartet (see “Guardian Angel” - Balaklava). Unfamiliarity with the language is no barrier to enjoyment of this brief love song.

The old-timey ambiance of a shellac 78 touches the jaunty “Why Should I Care”, and “Tiny Song” features a whistling tap dancer, further evidence of the whimsical mind that sent former Boy Scouts an obscene coded message in “Miss Morse” (One Nation Underground) because L-O-V-E just didn’t have the catchy meter of F-*-C-K. (That second letter is dit-dit-dah, by the way!)

Alternately light hearted and thoughtful, love songs make up much of the remainder of this LP. Lyrics such as “If you'd rather talk about it / Than think about it / You better get it together now” and “If I knew myself I'd tell me not to be so silent now” and “Hello Hey - It sure is good to see you” may not have much Nashville Costello single entendre cleverness, but they overflow with warmth and humanity. No wonder Stardancer got no airplay and minimal sales.

It’s a credit to Blue Thumb that they actually released Rapp’s follow-up Sunforest in 1973, but when Blue Thumb disappeared into ABC Records, which got bought by MCA, which eventually got swallowed by one of the mega-conglomerates, Tom determined he’d accomplished what he needed to in the music business and went back to college. His rediscovery and semi-un-retirement several decades later is a story for another day!

Disclaimer - I did not actually listen to this album to write this review. At least, not in the last few years. When Ms. Licky requested some content for a Record Review Page at the Roadhouse, I figured a little more Stardancer verbiage on the web couldn't hurt its chances of someday seeing a polycarbonate re-release. I referred to the fine Pearls Before Swine Connection website to refresh my memory of its contents, but relied mainly on my memory of this great album to fill in the blanks.

The last time I did listen to this album was probably when I bought an 8-track of it on eBay a few years back. Yes, I actually did that, and yes, I have a functioning 8-track player, though it's not plugged into a sound system at present. Anyway, upon playing the tape, I discovered that some previous owner had recorded a Harry Chapin album over two and a half of the four programs on the 8-track cart. Blasphemy! So, I had to rectify that situation. Fortunately, my 8-track deck is a recorder as well as a playback device, so I was able to replace the offending material with properly resequenced Tom Rapp tunes. Pearls Before Swine, indeed.

Anyway, Stardancer is definitely on my list of Top 100 Albums of All Time, often in the Top Ten. So, I need to record this thing to a CD-R Real Soon Now. Along with Sharks' First Water and Nils Lofgren's Back It Up Live on KSAN and Triumvirat's Illusions On A Double Dimple, and the long version of "Bluebird" and the tunes from Last Time Around that Neil left off the Buffalo Springfield Box Set...