The late ’60’s certainly were a time of changes, turmoil, growth, exploration… basically, the universe turned upside down, nowhere more so than in music. I don’t need to wax poetic about how “rock & roll” went from being either an “irritation” or a “silly frivolity” and became an artistic highway with many avenues and paths to wander. The endless pool of incredible music made/introduced during that decade has managed to sustain, awakening new generations of listeners and keeping warm the memories of those who followed then. But you have to expect that in such an explosive time, certain items – some masterpieces – would get lost. The most glaring that would probably be the perfect and magnificent Odessey & Oracle by The Zombies. People finally woke up and started to “get it”. The same may apply to Pet Sounds, but it’s had traction for at least 25 years. It didn’t have to wait as long to be revived and revered. Others, however, slipped through the cracks unnoticed and largely forgotten. Which, at the end of the day, is a damn shame.
One such case is Farewell Aldebaran, an album released around the end of 1969 by singer Judy Henske and her then-husband, Jerry Yester (fresh from his stint in The Lovin’ Spoonful and also an ex-member of The Modern Folk Quartet). Co-produced by the Spoonful’s Zal Yanovsky (the man Yester replaced in the band), it was already out of print by the beginning of 1970, which itself is ponderous. It’s hard for me to give an accurate description of what this album sounds like beyond “experience it for yourself”. A mixture of acidic guitars, with orchestral feel, jazzy arrangements and some of the most dynamic vocals I’ve ever heard. My initial impression – and I first heard the album but never got to “live with it” back in 1995 – was as if someone combined Ornette Coleman bursts and Tim Buckley’s psychedelic folk shifts and partied with Captain Beefheart before Trout Mask Replica became a reality… It’s not linear and “poppy” – it’s beautifully strange. Case and point, the opening track, “Snowblind”, which has Judy Henske just raging vocally, which is something you usually don’t expect from a female singer. She roars the vocals like nothing I’ve ever heard – not Joplinesque – just a throttle of her own, but then on “Lullabye” which sounds like it came from another century, somewhere in the mists of a medieval castle on the moors musically, the warble in her singing is almost Shakespearean, with highly image-laden lyrics. Critics talks about “baroque pop” but this is something farther out there – “St. Nicholas Hall” is a companion piece – but filled with religious imagery and chorale-styled backing vocals – an opera sung in English is what comes to mind. The lilting beauty of “Three Ravens” cannot be accurately described, with its multi-layered vocal, strings – there are moments I hear inflections of Nico (which I know I shouldn’t) but that makes this even more of an eye-opening piece – listen to the build-up of the verses, when the strings, horns and harmonies kick in (you can hear Jerry Yester singing as well) – glorious. “Charity” sounds like it could have been a single that fit for the times, with its big vocal sound and layers, structured verses and “contemporary pop” sound; the title track is Yester’s moment – from the subdued opening on piano and his vocals that carries you on calm seas to the bounce of waves when a Moog synthesizer kicks in. The bonus tracks are instrumental demos of five album tracks, so hearing them without vocals is another experience.
Maybe it was the off-kilter style and combination of songs that led to its being passed over. Or maybe it was the fact that it came out and had no promotion at all from Straight (Frank Zappa’s label through Warner Bros. Records). Or maybe people just weren’t ready to absorb the different textures and emotions that this album had/has to offer – because it does. It doesn’t really matter – that was then, this is now. And now, if you have an open mind and a desire to listen to something that will both shock your senses and make you feel, you have a chance to take this remarkable piece to heart, because it is just that: a complete piece. Farewell Aldebaran – hello to second chances.
Farewell Aldebaran is available now