Graded on a Curve:
Bob Carpenter,
Silent Passage

In the mid-‘70s Canadian singer-songwriter Bob Carpenter cut an LP for Warner Brothers, though a contract dispute kept it from coming out when it should’ve; it finally saw release a decade later via Canadian roots imprint Stony Plain. Carpenter never made another album, but the lack of profile doesn’t mean fans of the country and folk material serving as foundation for contemporary music’s Americana wing shouldn’t proceed directly to Silent Passage. It was recently reissued by the No Quarter label.

Not all lost records are equally deserving of being found. Often through collusion spiraling from deep within smoky dens of promotional intent, slabs ranging from pretty good to okay to suspect to downright crummy are suddenly championed, breathlessly even, as vessels of unknown brilliance valiantly rescued out of the clutches of unjust neglect to take their rightful place as timeless classics.

This sort of fervent stumping was once far more common. These days internet access and a set of speakers obviously allow interested parties to take a disc for a test drive prior to dropping their ducats on the barrelhead, and that’s quite a difference from sending off a check based totally on descriptions in a distributor’s quarterly catalog. Yes, many such transactions were conducted by mail order, distance only adding to the existential vacuum (envision a lonely Charlie Brown staring out from a comic strip panel) when a guaranteed garage monster was revealed to be a bunch of crusty also-rans. (Good grief).

There’s a noted deficiency of hype surrounding Bob Carpenter. With Tom Rush, Emmylou Harris, Billy-Joe Shaver, and others recording his songs, his abilities as a writer are secure. Plus, the musicians involved in the making of Silent Passage, amongst them Harris, Little Feat members Lowell George and Bill Payne, steel guitarist Buddy Cage (Jerry Garcia’s replacement in New Riders of the Purple Sage) and session heavyweights Russ Kunkel and Lee Sklar, establish it as more than an ordinary affair. But the absence of calculated overstatement is filled by a persistent lack of appreciation.

Half Ojibway, Bob Carpenter was born on a reserve in Tamagami, Northern Ontario. Orphanages and foster homes figured in his childhood, as did the Navy as a young adult. His early musical activities came through the Yorkville folk scene, a milieu that included Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Gordon Lightfoot. Experience grew with travel, and Carpenter was eventually drawn into the sphere of producer Brian Ahern.

Apparently recording didn’t suit Carpenter. His background portrays him as having problems with discipline both in the Navy and in the studio. Silent Passage took years to complete, though that span isn’t detrimental. Opener “Miracle Man” finds those sessioneers employed to full advantage, with George’s trademark slide and Payne’s barrelhouse piano lending unsurprising hints of Little Feat as the gospel-like flow of the backing by Dianne Brooks and Anne Murray (yes, that Anne Murray) bring the track touches of individual personality.

Less buoyant and more introspective is the title cut. The ambiance remains crisp and vivid, featuring well-done pedal steel from Ben Keith, swell backing by Harris, and a string arrangement of uninhibited pleasantry (it would’ve plainly been a personal buzzkill around 20 years ago) though thankfully non-overwrought (which means I can handle it just fine in the everlovin’ now).

Actually, those strings provide nice counterpoint to the sturdy non-polish of Carpenter’s voice, though please don’t get the impression he’s gravelly or strained. On the almost funky throb of “Old Friends” he sounds like warm fertile earth (or Cat Stevens, take your pick), the song fleshed out by momentary tastes of Payne’s organ and Don Thompson’s saxophone, his instrument stubbornly trumpet-ish to my ear.

Another series of adjustments comes with “First Light,” the participants scaled back to just Carpenter’s vocals and guitar, Milan Kymlicka’s string chart and Payne’s organ as the tune presents a spiritual angle; specifically oriented toward Jesus, it’s basically impossible to miss. But Silent Passage isn’t accurately pegged as Christian Rock (the lyrics are much too varied), and it certainly isn’t Christian psychedelia, just in case you were wondering (or hoping).

The closest the LP gets to any kind of expansiveness is during “Morning Train,” which offers a fluttering delicateness alternating with uptempo shifts somewhat reminiscent of “Miracle Man.” And it’s here that it becomes manifest why Ahern and Warner Brothers invested time and money in the guy, Carpenter hitting a spot likely to thrill ears into Croce and Taylor.

For some, those names won’t be a selling point. And I agree; naturally, I perceive merits in Silent Passage that extend beyond the realms of mere singer-songwriter geniality. For one instance, there’s the intensity of the guitar in “The Believer” and how it contrasts with the sheer amiability of the strings (this time arranged by Jim Pirie) and Peter Pringle’s harmonium as Carpenter’s unique throatiness bonds these extremes into a winning whole.

And “Gypsy Boy,” with its abundance of guitar (Ahern steps in on 12-string) and violin (by Ben Mink and Paul Armin) emits a distinct dark air of Brit folk, especially in Carpenter’s singing, a storytelling style with vocal croak tougher than on any previous track. Had this album shipped retail on schedule, it’s seems unlikely “Gypsy Boy” would’ve been pulled as the first single.

Faring a little better as a hypothetical 45 is “Down Along the Border,” though the unsmooth surfaces of voice, here reminding me more than slightly of departed singer-songwriter-guitarist Vic Chesnutt, is commercially limiting. The very strong “Before My Time” registers nearest to the gentle strains of ‘60s coffeehouse folk that helped to shape Carpenter’s artistry.

Yes, those added strings are ultimately superfluous, but their inclusion was in essence inevitable for a folkie of Carpenter’s temperament that shared a producer with Anne Murray and was recording his debut on Warner Brothers’ dime. However, the LP does fit into that label’s still impressive ‘60s-‘70s run; if it had managed to land in stores with the company’s logo on the sleeve, Silent Passage would surely be known and valued more highly, even if it didn’t prove a hit.

The concise “Now and Then” delivers a powerful finish, doing nothing particularly dissimilar from the nine earlier numbers, though Bill Speer’s piano is a fine aspect in the send out. And if Silent Passage contains elements reinforcing it as the product of a certain era, it’s also far more than just a period piece. At its core are songs; frequently excellent, never less than very good, and with the exception of the digital only Eight Demos 1979 (definitely not a footnote, it’s also not the place to begin) this is the full extent of the work Carpenter left behind.

He died of brain cancer in 1995, but not before becoming a Buddhist monk, a fact underlining that Carpenter’s tale, if dominated by a rather whopping missed/squandered opportunity, isn’t a sad one. And by this date, his album is no longer aptly described as lost; No Quarter’s reissue isn’t the first, but to my knowledge its last vinyl pressing was in ’84.

Sans desperate sales pitch, Silent Passage quietly endures as one of the finer examples of unearthed ‘70s worthiness.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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