Overlooked Albums #19: Jimmie Spheeris: Isle of View
In my interview with David Browne about his book, Fire and Rain, we discussed how the strand of "sensitive guy” singers we still live with had its origins around 1970 with the growing popularity of artists like James Taylor. In many respects, Taylor’s influence on pop music has not been salutary, leading to an unfortunate amalgam of solipsism and insincerity that makes even the non-violent among us want to punch one of these half-bearded trolls in the face. But like many phenomenon in popular culture, the full story is more complicated. Taylor himself produced many worthwhile songs that successfully walked the fine line between tenderness and schmaltz, and others have done the same. One of those who did and one who you may not have heard of is Jimmie Spheeris, whose debut album, Isle of View, is one of the great documents of the singer-songwriter movement of the early '70s.
Spheeris’ biography reads like a movie script ridden with bad clichés about the great musician time forgot. He was born to parents who operated a traveling carnival until his father was murdered by a “belligerent carnival-goer”; someone you probably don’t want to meet after hours on the midway. He recorded a few albums, garnered a small but devoted following, and then lost his recording contract and quickly faded. Then in 1984, he recorded what was to be a comeback album of sorts, and hours after finishing it drove his motorcycle into a drunk driver’s van. It’s got all the elements: a freaky beginning, a tragic end. But few know this story and the music is relegated to cult status, with a new brand of dudes with acoustic guitars popping up like weeds every Tuesday to distract one’s limited attention. So if you were one of those people who were delighted to discover Nick Drake and revel in his depressing career trajectory, Spheeris is your man and Isle of View is your record.
As you’d expect, the music is mainly built around acoustic guitars and pianos with vocals buried securely in the mix, varying from hushed to mildly insistent. If I had to liken the overall sound to something music fans would be familiar with, I’d say it vaguely resembles the tone achieved by Pink Floyd in the period between Piper... and Dark Side... on pastoral pieces like Stay or Summer of 68. There’s a quiet intensity that hints at more under the surface but is actively trying to contain itself. You also won’t be blamed for thinking of Bryter Layter, though I have no idea whether Spheeris had ever heard of Nick Drake, much less heard his music, as he was not a popular figure circa 1972. But though Jimmie’s career was made possible by the growing prominence of the likes of Taylor and Cat Stevens, he is more appropriately grouped with those artists who turned away from the pop charts, expecting the public to meet them on their terms; and as we all know, the public rarely did. In a more modern context, think of someone like Bon Iver (Justin Vernon) who locked himself in a cabin in Wisconsin to achieve a similar mood. This mood is only broken once, on Seven Virgins, which shoots for honky-tonk and doesn’t quite make it. Probably he was trying to supply some variety and simply got out of his comfort zone. Spheeris had a gift for melody, and every other song has hooks aplenty and interesting harmony sitting underneath. It’s hard to pick highlights since, on this record at least, he was so damn consistent. I love the opener, The Nest, with its swirling flutes and quiet/not-so-quiet structure. Another gem is Monte Luna, making the best of drop D tuning and an unexpected minor modulation. My favorite is Come Back, which is just jaw-droppingly beautiful and is a prime example of the kind of earned sentimentality that I eat up like pizza. You never get the sense that Spheeris is pulling your leg or just trying to get his hand up your skirt. He has an unforced earnestness that makes most of the genre look phony by comparison.
If you’re sick of guys with deliberately messy hair, the fourth day beard it took them two months to grow, flannel shirts and skinny jeans, strumming their Epiphone acoustics like it was their cock, braying about the latest chick who broke their fragile hearts, but you still dig music with a certain stillness to fill those quiet moments, then look no further. You owe it to yourself to add Isle of View to your collection.8 November, 2011 - 18:31 — Alan Shulman