Graded on a Curve:
High Tide,
Sea Shanties

So I’m back with my close personal friend Herman Melville, author of the world’s first how-to manual on sperm whaling (Herm: “I swiped the title from a Led Zep song!”) and Herman’s–how’s the best way to put it?–a bit riled up.

The last time we got together Herman proceeded to drink about a dozen 40s of Haffenreffer Private Stock malt liquor (my old pig farmer pal Billy Harrison SWORE it had mescaline in it, but based solely on taste I suspect the secret ingredient is ASS) before delivering a rather dazed and confused sermon on the virtues of the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” And believe it or not he actually won me over.

But not tonight. Because tonight he’s REALLY wasted (“Gimme another Haffen-Wrecker! NOW!”) and all he wants to do is tell big fish stories about some album by a band called High Tide I’ve never heard of and don’t particularly want to hear. But old Ahab is insistent and what’s more he’s brought the fucking album with him, and when Herman’s on a tear it’s best to just get out of his way.

But before he can put it on I snatch the empty sleeve out of his hands and say, “What is this shit? Sea Shanties? I ain’t listenin’ to no fucking sea shanties! I HATE folk music!” And Herman’s like, “These ain’t your old harpooner’s sea shanties of the sort you’ll find on Paul Clayton’s Whaling and Sailing Songs (From the Days of Moby Dick)! NOBODY likes that shit! I nearly PUKED every time I was forced to listen to “The Maid of Amsterdam” during my whaling days on the Acushnet! It’s the reason I jumped ship in the Marquesas Seas! This is rock’n’roll! With just a whiff of prog to it but not enough so’s you’d want to make it walk the plank!”

“I don’t believe you!” I shout. “What do you know about music anyway? You’re a goddamned customs inspector!” “Retired!” bellows Herman, who is touchy on the subject. “And wrote a book called The Pizza Tales!” I shout, just to dig the knife in a bit deeper. “That’s The PIAZZA Tales!” he roars. “Now get outta my beard and listen to this shit!” He puts it on, muttering, “Came out in ‘69. One of the first rock albums with a violin on it. Blah blah blah blah… “

Now let me just say that Herman has tried to sell me on some real crap in his day. Even tried to push Moby down my gullet until I cried nepotism and he backed off. But when the first song, which I can tell by the album jacket is called “Futilist’s Lament,” comes on, I perk up. Cuz I’m big into futility and this monsoon roar comes out of the speakers and the singer is… Jim Morrison! Or might as well be Jim Morrison cuz I can’t tell the difference, and he’s black snake moaning some real bummerific and so-dumb-they’re great lyrics along the lines of “Mother Earth sees the bird/Shitting all over her/Vomiting their lies of truth/In her youth.”

“Whatcha think?” smiles Herman.

“Damn,” I say. “It’s like Iron Butterfly fucked the Doors! I gotta hand it to you, Herman, for once in your life you may be onto something!”

“Wait till you hear ‘Death Warmed Up’!” he says. Which turns out to be a slow motion anchor drag across the bottom of vermillion seas featuring a duel to the death between the guy on violin and the guy on guitar with just the slightest tinge of Irish green algae to it. No vocals, just a lot of wah-wah and slashing violin going back and forth like somebody sawing through a giant chunk of whale blubber. And the truly amazing thing about it is it goes on for nine minutes but never once do you find yourself shouting, “Shut the fuck up already!” because it’s got this strange almost jazzy feel going for it like a two-ton sea dog swinging (but with what grace) in the rigging from jigger skysail to mizzen skysail while every matey on deck looks up and goggles.

Herman feels the need to educate me: “That’s Simon House on the violin, motherfucker, who would later join Hawkwind, the greatest band of all time! And that’s Tony Hill on guitar and uncanny Jim Morrison imitation, who would later go on to do nothing much!”

But I shush him to listen to “Pushed, But Not Forgotten” which sounds like the Doors gone progressive with the organ surgically removed. It’s WAY too hyperactive for my tastes; it’s one of those songs with like six songs embedded in it, like a Frankenstein monster made up of little bits from this dead guy here and that dead guy over there. Fortunately High Tide keeps it short (4:43 to be exact) and moves on to “Walking Down the Outlook,” which suffers from the same problems as “Pushed, But Not Forgotten.”

“Why can’t these fuckers play one song at a time?” I shout. “I hear two good songs in there! And four godawful ones! And what are they doing now? It sounds like an iron screw frigate caught in a sucking whirlpool made out of changing time signatures!”

“Yeah,” Herman concedes, “they do tend to needlessly complicate things. You gotta put dead-eyed focus on one thing like monomaniac Ahab pursuing Moby Dick the whole way to Poseidon’s gem-encrusted palace. It’s like me sticking Bartleby the Scrivener in the middle of Omoo or some such. But forget about those two losers! The rest of the songs are better than anything on Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog!

You gotta hand it to the old tar; if there’s an album out there with a nautical theme, he knows about it. He bought Mastodon’s Leviathan a while back and hasn’t shut up about it since.

But he’s right about the rest of the album. “Missing Out” establishes a big, lurching groove over top of which Hill declaims short lines of doomful portent (“Hey can you save me?/Oh, it’s all over”) while House saws away on the violin like a sailor who’s fallen from grace with the sea. Meanwhile Hill shreds on guitar and the general effect is like you’re on a ship foundering in a shrieking, mainsail-ripping typhoon off the coast of some isle of happy cannibals with poor Hill barking out orders that don’t make any difference because the boat is heading straight to Davy Jones’ Locker.

As for “Nowhere” it’s gotta a sorta lightweight kinda prog feel to it and reminds me a bit of Kansas until Mr. Mojo Soundalike starts tossing off lines of suspect poetry along the lines of “And nowhere is there me.” What saves it from sounding precious is the intricate but bordering on chaos interplay between guitar and violin. At its best it’s an exercise in controlled caterwaul–you’re in the eye of the hurricane on this one with the Lizard King manqué, and for once nowhere is an okay place to be.

Herman, smiling smugly while twisting the top off Haffenreffer who knows how many: “Is them some sea shanties or not? Beats the crap out of all that shit the boys used to sing on the Acushnet like ‘The Girls Around Cape Horn.’” And with that he drunkenly sings, “And wished us many a pleasant voyage around and off Cape Horn” until I tell him to shut up already, I simply cannot fathom why people back then didn’t just KILL themselves from lack of good rock’n’roll.

“What are you bitching about?” says Herman. “I had to LIVE through that shit! It’s a miracle I never BLUDGEONED anybody with a whalebone scraper!”

And with that he sings, “We rant and we roar like New Bedford whalers” and I’m like, “Hey, that one ain’t bad!” and with that Herman produces an ancient tin penny whistle from his trusty oilskin seafarer’s jacket and we spend the rest of the night shouting out “Spanish Ladies” until the old lady in the apartment above pounds on the floor with what sounds like a rusty anchor and tells us to keep it down, be nice boys, it’s time for all roaring whalers to put down their rum and fall into sleep’s arms like the sea.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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