Graded on a Curve: Various Artists,
Sad About The Times

Described by Anthology Recordings as “an exploration of North American 70s FM covering folk, soft rock, West Coast jangle, power pop and late night jams,” the 2LP compilation Sad About the Times is something of a revelation, going deep into the realms of obscure musical hopefuls while maintaining a higher level of listenability than a mind should reasonably expect. Assembled by Eddy Current Suppression Ring’s Mikey Young and Anthology’s founder and head of A&R Keith Abrahamsson, the set’s 21 cuts blend a melancholic, often singer-songwriter air, regularly touching upon the difficulties of human interaction and amour in particular, with sharp and occasionally excellent playing. It’s out now.

Although it emerged as an alternative, by the 1970s FM radio was pretty firmly ensconced as a rotator of popular music. However, as Anthology’s promotional writing for this release points out, playlists and format constraints were not yet rigid, which meant that songs by unfamiliar artists regularly hit the airwaves; if they stirred-up a strong response in listeners (or maybe just struck the fancy of a DJ) these tunes would likely get a few more spins (at least), but if the opposite proved true the vinyl was destined to be filed away and forgotten.

That is, until wax stack excavators (like Mikey Young and Keith Abrahamsson) put together a well-considered overview of their time spent. Sad About the Times is devoid of chart action but is all the better for it, because the hits of yesteryear aren’t difficult to soak up in the here and now. Much more interesting is this collection’s alternate history of popularity; Anthology’s claim that all these tracks could have been hits isn’t an overstatement, but even better, the results avoid the hackneyed moves or the outright obnoxiousness that can result when musicians are desperately striving for chart success.

The release’s presiding lyrical concerns, when combined with crucial stylistic range, surely assists in helping this stuff to go down so easy. The opening title track from the group West effectively drives home a downtrodden ambience, though the words never falter into the annoyingly sensitive, in part because the thoughts expressed get mingled with a blend of sunshine folk and budding soft rock introspection. Notably, the song is culled from a ’69 LP.

Without delay, the program shifts gears, tapping into the distinctly AOR-ish circa ’76 power pop of Hollins Ferry’s “Lonely City.” As if to underscore the chronological fluidity of this undertaking, Randy & the Goats’ “N.Y. Survivor” dates from 1981 (but I suspect it might’ve been recorded a smidge earlier) and oozes a tangible Lou Reed-ish vibe.

Combining strummed mandolins with a little post-psych guitar sting, Willow’s “Loaves and Fishes” idles at the intersection of country-rock and soft-rock from the year 1974. With its accents of pedal steel, Art Lown’s “Deep Blue Sea” is a more forthright country-rocking experience. Next, skipping back to early in the decade, Jode’s “Tomorrow is Gone” offers an atmosphere that’s rather psychedelic if also fairly laidback.

Jode, like West at the top of side one, make plain how small labels weren’t the exclusive peddlers of the material found here, with “Tomorrow is Gone” deriving from a Vanguard LP and “Sad About the Times” from a platter on Epic. Indeed, not every name is an unearthed unknown, as “Illusion” by Norma Tanega makes clear. She’s remembered for her ’66 album Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog and it’s hit title track, though this cut comes from her “lost” ’71 RCA Victor LP I Don’t Think It Will Hurt if You Smile.

Tanega’s earthy folk-pop, smartly chosen by Anthology as a pre-release promo “single,” further illuminates that Sad About the Times isn’t wall-to-wall hangdog dudes, and that’s just swell. “Illusion” jibes niftily with the folky strum of “If You Can Want” by Canada’s Perth County Conspiracy, which derives from roughly the same timeframe. David Chalmers’ “Hotel Room” jumps ahead to ’76 with a solid return to obscure territory. The album from whence it derives is possibly a private press, but the music is quite bold, blending an AOR pop sensibility with hard rock tendencies.

It goes down enjoyably enough, but I easily prefer Jim Spencer’s “Another Lonely Day,” in part due to its lack of polish (it dates from ’73), though it’s no less together a proposition. It’s also segues nicely into the inwardly contemplative folk aura of an artist named Hoover; his song is culled from a ’71 LP that went unreleased for decades. Hoover precipitates a shift of gears into “Holy River” by Space Opera, which is somewhat jangle poppish, at least until the synth progressions, firmly of the period, flare up.

Although it reverts to a folky zone, Roger Rodier’s “Am I Supposed to Let It By Again (Above the Covers)” retains a touch of the spacy and suggests that Sad About the Times was quite a bit more fussed over than the average retrospective comp. While the prices these songs have commanded on their original LPs (in a few cases rising into the hundreds of dollars) make clear that Young and Abrahamsson haven’t exactly discovered this stuff by their lonesome (indeed, I’ve heard a few selections prior), the glide-strum of Emmett Finley’s “Paula’s Song” and Sky’s “Sing for Me” emphasizes the curatorial sharpness.

And the Smubbs’ “The Running Water,” which also dates from ’69 (released on the Monument label), with its blend of ’60s West Coast psych and hints of third LP Velvets (I swear) kicks things into overdrive. And the show doesn’t really slow down from there, as Oliver Klaus’ “Here Comes the Sun” (not a cover) ups the psych and adds a current of unforced weirdness. It leads into one of the set’s highlights, “Wolf” by Antonia Lamb, her song tapping into rustic folk that reminds me a bit of Michael Hurley; I sincerely hope that’s not a false impression.

Sturdy vocal harmony and a rich blend of strum and fingerpicking sharpness elevates Kevin Vicalvi’s “Lover Now Alone,” while penultimate cut “Sails Across the Sea” by Boz Metzdorf cooks up a thoroughly Seals and Crofts-like dish from the late vantage point of ’79, adds some woozy and kinda out-of-date synth, and in the latter portion of the tune comes up with a total winner through inspired instrumental delivery (with a couple unlikely touches) and a healthy commitment to the style.

The singer-songwriter potency of Dennis Stoner’s “Maybe Someday / Maybe Never” from his ’71 LP on the Rare Earth label wraps up four sides of vinyl that hold nary a dud. Given the decade and the clear (if unrealized) pop inclination, the consistency of quality here is pretty fucking miraculous. Hopefully, some of the LPs sourced will get standalone reissues. I’m eager for an overdue repress of the Norma Tanega alb, in particular.

A few other selections (The Smubbs, Dennis Stoner) appear to be surprisingly and enticingly affordable as originals. If this collection sounds at all of interest, you will likely have your own favorites and will be keeping an eye peeled while perusing the used bins. That means Sad About the Times works as both a corralled summary and an incentive for additional discovery.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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