Tuesday, April 10, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 388: Rare Air

I wanted so badly to get through this next review that when I got home I just sat in the bathroom and waited for the last five minutes to roll by (the rules precluding any activity more involved.

O, how I wanted to reach behind me and read a few pages of Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Great Shark Hunt” (my current bathroom reader) but rules are rules, and no such activity is permitted when listening to an album for the CD Odyssey.

All of which is to say, I earned this one.

Disc 388 is…Space Piper

Artist: Rare Air

Year of Release: 1991

What’s Up With The Cover?: I’ve been known to be unkind to folk album cover art, but this one more than makes up for it. A highlander astronaut in full regalia, plays the pipes on the crag of some far off planet. Yes, technically you couldn’t hear the pipes in the vacuum of space, but this cover is not about what you could technically hear. It is an injection of pure awesome right into the eyes.

Yes, I bought this album for the cover.

How I Came To Know It: In the early nineties I had an insatiable appetite for Celtic folk music and was looking for something new. Through other acts I’d come across Green Linnet records, and knew they signed a lot of eclectic Celtic folk. Looking through their catalogue I found this record, and I bought it for the cover.

How It Stacks Up: This is the only Rare Air album I have, or am ever likely to have.

Rating: 1 star

What a cool album cover! Scottish finery and a space suit! A majestic pose and a tartan flapping in the cosmic wind.

Here the excitement ends, however. “Space Piper” is not your typical folk album, and it seems to take a great deal of delight in making this plain to any listener.

The principle of the record is cool, and what drew me to it; the fusion of space-age jazz with more traditional folk compositions. It even passes one of the key tests for me to enjoy modern jazz, that being I know what styles they are screwing with.

Also, the musicians in Rare Air are clearly talented. They know how to play and they play incredibly tightly despite very intricate arrangements. These guys know their craft. For this reason, it was even more maddening to hear them use their talents for evil.

The ‘evil’ in this case takes the form of a meandering jazz-noodle fest, with just enough penny whistle and bagpipes to leave you wanting more. Most songs have about two minutes of pretty harmony mixed with a nice ambient ‘space’ sound, and then another six minutes of wild jazz imaginings that torture that harmony into something unrecognizable - deliberately. As someone who loves folk music’s simple constructions, it was like the songs were being tortured. I found myself wondering if a jazz enthusiast would feel the same way, only from the opposite perspective.

I have only myself to blame. I read a review before I bought this and it was clear this album was going to be experimental. Even the cover art indicates you are in for some serious crossover. Unfortunately, the cover art is so cool I couldn’t resist taking the risk.

“Space Piper” is instrumental only – voices occur only as ambient background, and once as a poorly imagined narrative that introduces listeners to “Snake MacMurray” on the song of the same name. I believe “Snake” is a composite character of what the band imagines they are doing musically. By track four (where “Snake MacMurray” lurks) if you haven’t figured out what Rare Air is doing you haven’t been listening, but that doesn’t stop the boys from explaining it to you. I think it is supposed to be groovy and whimsical, but I found it patronizing.

This record should be on the ‘sell’ pile five minutes after I finish this review, just like it should have been on my sell pile the last three times I’ve found the mixture of musical bravery and pointless pride to put it on. It deserves to go to the home of someone who likes this kind of music – I’m sure there is someone, and no doubt they would be drawn right in. However, I’m going to keep it. I’d like to say I’m keeping it because I’m going to listen to it from time to time, but the truth is I just really like the cover art. A piper! In space! With bagpipes!

Best tracks: Death Of A Space Piper is 8 minutes long, and pretty damn cool for about five of them.

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