There will always be another amazing record you haven’t yet heard, but it’s also true that a wealth of unreleased recordings exist that would blow minds, if only somebody ever saw fit to release em. This is what Nigel Cross at Shagrat Records has made a career of: mining the archives for aural documentation worthy of serious reconsideration. Since I last checked in with Nigel a few years ago, he’s released previously unheard, early 70′s jazz rock jams by American ex-pat Londoners FORMERLY FAT HARRY, post-MOBY GRAPE twang by THE DARROW MOSLEY BAND, and amazingly fluid psych sessions ca. 1971 by Brit master musicians HORACE. Now, hot on the heels of a 10″/book by late 60′s SF ballroom kings MAD RIVER, Nigel gives us the Presumed Lost CD by ex-MAD RIVER multi instrumentalist Lawrence Hammond. And what a confoundingly great, sincerely stellar record it is.
Up front I should admit I’ve never been a diehard fan of MAD RIVER’s schizo, acid rock cut-ups. The BEEFHEARTian jaggedness of their first LP and cowpoke trippiness of their later Paradise Bar & Grill record do have wiggy moments, moments I once savoured deeply when courting “altered” states of mind as a young adult. But MAD RIVER also had a perverse knack of changing the psychic flow without warning, often at the most inopportune of times. And more than once, I’ve pulled that first rec off the deck mid-tune, as the music therein was threatening to sour my trip, bigtime. Clearly though, group leader Lawrence Hammond had some serious talent, and long after he’d left the SF Sound behind he recorded an album that illustrates those strengths beautifully.
From the outset, Presumed Lost announces itself proudly as unabashed country & western, free from most California country rockisms proliferating at the time. Originally recorded for but unreleased by the then-waning Takoma label in the late 70′s, Lawrence’s songs alternate between lilting, southwestern country/folk and a kind of ambitiously composed, spit-shined country pop popular in Nashville then; indeed, his “John Deere Tractor” would later be covered famously by THE JUDDS. He proves himself master on a half dozen instruments (gtr, piano, fiddle, mandolin) while sidemen like banjo player John Hickman and renowned fiddler Byron Berline are consistently sympathetic and always ring in with nimble, biting precision. It’s true that all of this has as much to do with acid rock as Marty Robbins does, but if you can’t sit still for a Pete Drake pedal steel solo . . . well, that’s your loss, partner, not mine.
At heart this is a vocally-driven record, and Hammond’s voice! Good God, what pipes. Few others this side of FAMILY’s Roger Chapman – or even THE FLESH EATERS’ Chris D. – have possessed a voice so divisive as Mr Hammond’s. While I can empathise with reactions noted in Eugene Chadbourne’s review of Lawrence’s first solo LP, Coyote’s Dream, to my ears his mad yodel here is utterly captivating. His lyrics, too, are also fairly unique in the field of C&W: bittersweet narrative punctuated with naturalistic imagery and western colloquialisms, it’s erudite but ornery stuff that gets me believing Lawrence could’ve founded a High Lonesome School of Cowboy Romanticism all his own.
Two songs do bear noting for their peculiar magic: “Papa Redwing Blackbird” is a gorgeous falsetto psych folk number that’ll send chills down your spine every spin, while “Love For The Hunger” is the sort of dark and brooding tune THIN WHITE ROPE might’ve covered to great effect a decade later. But as amazing as those tracks are, they are but diversions in a central, more powerful journey, one where Lawrence nudges country music in a profoundly soulful direction few have ever tried to. A trip worthy of serious reconsideration, indeed.