The album I've been asked to examine by my beautiful daughter Frances today is none other than Clearing, a 37-year-old album that I briefly mentioned in my last blog post. It was sitting right in the open spot next to where she had picked the previous album, so I guess she figured, why mess with a winning formula? She can't read, so she didn't know that my brief blog-mention of the record was to dismiss it as “awful”. Upon a number of subsequent listens, I can now safely report that it is in fact as awful as I remembered, but of course as with anything, awful doesn't tell you the whole story.
Now, taste is all about what you think is awful. You like some awful stuff. Maybe you're embarrassed to like it, or maybe you revel in its badness. Maybe you like to be bad. Even before I decided to write about Clearing, it had already logged more spins on my turntable than lots of records that I don't think are awful. I guess I'm like that teenager who's all “O my god I hate this song!!!!” but if it comes on the radio they don't change the station and furthermore they know all the words and yeah you know that story. You do it too, I think, but instead of Lady Gaga it's something else. Peter Frampton maybe, or James Taylor, or Alanis Morissette, or the Doors, R. Kelly, Bush, Madonna, Rush, Nine Inch Nails, Paula Abdul, Garth Brooks, Aqua, Abba... whatever touched a lot of hearts without over-challenging a lot of brains when you were a teenager; whatever was on the radio and had the hooks and the production and the demographic heft to get you to swallow the insipid lyrics; whatever made you feel like a grown-up before you grew up and discovered your Dead Prez and your Guided by Voices and your Husker Dus and your Mountain Goats and your Fela Kutis.
Clearing is one of the thousand-and-one albums that came out below the mainstream radar under the influence of the Dream of the Sixties, back when there were gentle people who didn't do all kinds of drugs and didn't want to start a revolution and were just really into all the Peace and Love on a personal level. This is the demographic that gave us Jim Henson and Sesame Street, Montessori schools and "Free to Be You and Me". It's all about kids and gentle, gentle love. Ok, I'm kind of a hippy, and I'm comfortable with that, but if I'm gonna be really true to that, I should be all “O my god I hate this song!!!” when, like, “Cats in the Cradle” or “Wild World” comes on the radio. And those songs just don't interest me that much. For me to think it's awful, really truly awful, I've gotta be invested in some way. It's got to touch me. I bet that's how it is for you too – what do you really hate? The annoying pop music that plays in the background in the mall, or the artist that takes the aesthetic you love and tweaks in a direction you can't follow?
Why do I hate this record? Because I live in a fantasy world, where Clearing was the biggest album of 1973, and Jeff Brewer, Sara Benson and Joan Minkoff were huge rock stars, bigger than Elton John or Peter, Paul and Mary. In my world, obscure artists that made go-nowhere records on tiny labels just because they loved the music they were making are always gonna make it into the rotation ahead of the ones that I'm supposed to like. In my world, “Morning Light” plays on “The Drive” (Chicago's lame excuse for a classic rock station) between Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen. O my god I hate this song!!!! “Now when I see your face / I see the sun rise clear and bright / Soft as a meadow-green / Where children play in morning light...” I know right? So bad! La la la la la...
In my world, these records are the important ones, BECAUSE no one else wants to hear them. When a record like this sucks, it hurts me, because I need to listen to it all the time. Perhaps as a defense, I've gotten to the point where the pain of cringing is part of my aesthetic.
But really, how could anyone not want to listen to Clearing? It starts off with a bang – the one song that's the hallmark of any truly awful record in the genre that I've just now decided to call Gentlefolk. Anyone care to hazard a guess? It's a lovely song, a really beautiful melody paired with some deeply touching lyrics about the beauty of creation on display in all the large and small works of nature. If you're of a certain age (mine) and had a certain kind of parents (lots of you did) you heard a lot of this song when you were little, sitting cross-legged in a circle with other perfect little Creatures of God, learning the words along with “Kumbaya”, “Dona Nobis Pacem”, “If I Had a Hammer” and “This Land Is Your Land”. Anyone? A Christian hymn, but everyone thought Cat Stevens wrote it? Right. “Morning Has Broken”. (The distinctive piano arrangement in the Cat Stevens version, incidentally, was by Rick Wakeman, previously derided in this space; a fact that I'm ever so slightly bummed out to have learned. Curse you Wikipedia!) Now you know when a record opens with “Morning Has Broken”, you're in for some seriously gentle music.
They give the unaccompanied verse that opens the song (as well as most of the other lead vocals on the album) to Sara, whose voice is what you might call very annoying. You might call it that, and maybe I would too if she hadn't set the standard for singers in my fantasy world, the same way that Simon Le Bon did for the real world. This bit of genius is the first, and so far only, inkling of the musical atrocity in store; otherwise the song is merely a competent and well-played arrangement where guitar and harpsichord tinkle away beneath a tasteful three-part harmony vocal.
The follow-up, an original (as are all the rest of the songs, unusual for a record of this vintage) by Clearing's friend Victoria Fraser (who goes by “Vici” – you only wish you knew how to pronounce that) called “Morning Light”, is innocuous, pretty and of course, gentle. Just a pretty little song like a million others, competing for ears, and no one ever saying they hate it or love it or anything about it. In the real world. In my fantasy, though, the words I quoted above (that stuff about the meadow-green etc.)? That is gold! As nothing compared with the best songs of the 70s: “All your life you've never seen woman / Taken by the wind...” Sorry, Stevie, you've got nothing on “I never saw a heart that's searching / I never saw a puppy's tear / Now I can see what was once in darkness / And all because you're here.”
And so it goes. The really stunning thing about Clearing is the variety of kinds of badness it offers. “Sunshine Man”. How do I get the feel of this song into this text? What's it like? It's minimal! Sara sings in unison with a single high guitar line, punctuated with bongo hits. It's deep! “I used to think the hours told time / That distance was measured by space / But time and space disappear / In the love I see in your face.” It's... perky! “Good mornin' sunshine man in me, good mornin' sunshine man in me.” Ok! It's like when you're a kid and you're like, ok this is my song (actual song that Frances made up): “Happy chicken! Happy chicken! Whooooaaaa!” except actually you're an adult and adult ickiness has crept into the joy and you didn't just let it slide – instead you convinced your friends to add a bluesy melody to the verse and practice it till it was super-tight and record it and release it on “Aberdeen-Acme Records”. Oh Clearing, how do you out-write yourselves every time?
“She's Leavin'” is another solo Sara number, this one with Joan accompanying her on the piano (I think that's the case – it's a little hard to tell from the liner notes. Anyway it's just voice and piano). The lyrics say, “Hey friend that just got divorced and moved to California, I still like you even though I'm friends with your husband too. Let's still be friends, ok?” The music says, “You know that Joni Mitchell record Blue that came out a couple years ago? You know the song 'Blue' that's on there? O my god I hate that song!!!!”
“The First Time” comes close to renewing the joy of “Sunshine Man”, with the cringe-inducing poetry of Jeff's lyrics (“I told her that I loved her and that she / Knew what was best for her and best for me / I knew that I would someday love again / And that was the first time I knew pain”) The First Time – get it? It's a breakup song about the girl he “lost it” to. Classy! But don't forget the innovative harmony: on the final “I knew pain” in each chorus, Jeff and Joan nail this dissonant interval so reliably each time, you start out thinking they are just off-key, but by the end you realize that they are experimenting with a microtonal sonority.
“Seth” is a particular flavor of awful familiar to anyone that loves Jim Henson – Jeff even kinda sounds like Rowlf, especially on the “ba da ba da” part. It's a fantasy piece – inspired by an actual event perhaps? – about someone named Seth – maybe Jeff's actual kid? – going on a balloon trip in the sky. “To think of being up there with nothing to see / But the world and the face of God.” Ok does anyone else think it's just a little weird that this one came out almost 40 years before that Heene nonsense? Leaving that alone. But yeah you know how you'll be watching the Muppets and laughing and slapping your knees and stuff, and then all of a sudden this unapologetically cheesy, sentimental number will come on and you're like, ok if this wasn't being sung by a blue caterpillar with ping-pong balls for eyes then I would be so outta here – and then you're like, ok but it's Jim Henson, I mean the childlike wonder and total commitment to cheesiness at all costs is what I respect about him so I guess I can deal – but if it wasn't Jim Henson then man, this would be lame! So this is that song if someone else wrote it, and yes it is that lame and no, there's no excuse.
The thing is, Jeff, Joan and Sara seem like they are super-nice, regular baby-boomer type folks. The music is competent, Sara can't help her annoying voice (she can carry a tune just fine, it's the timbre that's the problem), and the lyrics are lame but who's never humiliated themselves in public with some schlocky sentiment? Of course they loved Blue, millions of people did. Blue is an amazing album, why not try to make more music like it? It gets me to thinking, what do I really mean when I say I hate a record? If I click the one-star rating, do I mean, never show me any more stuff like this, or do I mean, this music really bothers me because it teases me by sounding like stuff I like but it sucks? I don't know. I don't know if Clearing is Love to Hate or Hate to Love. Such a thin line!
Lest I appear unduly resentful toward this record for stealing so much of my time (who's making my decisions for me anyway? Oh right. Frances is) let me state for the record that “The Church Where We Got Married (Is an Auto Showroom Now)”, which opens Side Two, is genuinely charming and witty and even kind of fun. It's also my least favorite track on the record. What can I say? I love to cringe. “Sunshine Man” hits it out of the park.