Graded on a Curve:
Robert Lester Folsom,
Music and Dreams

Music and Dreams, a 1976 private press album by Robert Lester Folsom, isn’t exactly a new find, but its fresh reissue by the Mexican Summer imprint Anthology Recordings will surely introduce it to a wider audience. Coupled with the emergence of Ode to a Rainy Day, a collection of Folsom’s home recordings made between ’72-’75, Music and Dreams doesn’t necessarily contain the man’s best work, but it is the most representative documentation of the singer songwriter/ guitarist/ studio maven’s artistic personality.

Murky and satanic basement heavy metal, overwrought Hendrix idolaters, hippie burnouts on a Christian kick, twisted mystic folkies, and efforts of maximum expressiveness if questionable competency; these are but four apt descriptions of what can be discovered in the self-financed wing of the sonic 1970s.

While certainly not synonymous with the categorization known as Outsider (“Real People”) Music, many of the period’s privately pressed LPs do flirt with or directly fall into this admittedly wide scenario. So the highly developed approach of Georgia, USA resident Robert Lester Folsom is refreshing; where the output of cultish margin walkers regularly flies in the face of their era’s norms, Folsom was truly of his time, his folk and country-tinged soft rock singer-songwriter gestures lacking in overly exaggerated tendencies as they occasionally inhabit a zone retrospectively branded as Yacht Rock.

Ode to a Rainy Day is edgier and perhaps nearer to what one might anticipate from a rescued private press, and in fact much of it was self-released by Folsom onto 8-track tape. If humbly produced (but with considerable ingenuity already on display), as the solid instrumental “Heaven on the Beach” attests, the musicianship throughout is unstrained.

Furthermore, the mood eschews the off-center and intermittently downright unbalanced traits often associated with recordings of a homemade nature. For evidence, please seek the simply exquisite “See You Later I’m Gone,” said tune’s Band-like qualities unwinding quite naturally and indeed so familiarly that I wrongly assumed it to be a cover (no, it’s not the Marshall Tucker Band composition of the same title).

Ode to a Rainy Day is a worthwhile collection, and anyone interested in absorbing the gamut of ‘70s sounds should search it out. It also hangs together pretty well as an LP, though as it unwinds a progression toward the soft-rockin’ aura informing much of Music and Dreams, the record that accurately serves as Folsom’s debut, is definitely detectable.

The differences in the albums remain striking. As described in Anthology Recordings’ promo notes, by ’76 Folsom was a “seasoned studio head and professional musician,” Music and Dreams cut at Atlanta, GA’s Lefevre Studio. The label’s text goes on to surmise that with proper big company support the disc could’ve become a hit; unsurprising for the verbiage of a reissue project, but in this case a supposition ringing of truth.

Those commercial possibilities are immediately apparent in the opening title track, the glistening gliding strum mingling with surges of synth and sprinkles of keyboard to conjure a mellow, lush whole. Also instantly observable is the appealing similarity of Folsom’s voice to that of Todd Rundgren, a circumstance nicely enhancing Music and Dreams’ hangdog inclination.

“Ginger” raises the intensity and slightly increases the tempo, the song retaining the incessantly strumming acoustic and escalating the floating atmosphere. The result resonates a little bit like the soft rock model that America nabbed from Neil Young being given an airy soul transfusion by Mr. Shuggie Otis.

From there “Biding My Time” is an unabashed plunge into the mild-mannered post-folky singer-songwriter 1970s accented by severely dated but fairly pleasurable (due to legitimacy) floopsy synth doodles, chiming vibes, and low-mixed organ; it achieves a sorta three-way pileup of Rundgren, Seals and Crofts, and maybe Gordon Lightfoot. Like a pair of suede moccasins, it’s thoroughly innocuous and extremely comfortable.

And frankly, I’d half expect to find the song title “April Suzanne” in a Christopher Guest-styled parody of this era/genre, but that’s precisely indicative of what Folsom gets right, diving deep into the sound of mid-‘70s Rundgren as it happily maintains the downtrodden post-Beatles allure Todd was starting to shake off around the point of Music and Dreams’ completion.

Featuring a swell electric keyboard solo and large drum fills, “April Suzanne” is a perfect addition to a mix designed to stump that laid-back Me Decade uncle or aunt who thinks they’ve heard everything; just cue it up and wait for the incredulous response. Who is this guy? And playing them “Weeping Willow Tree,” the ambiance of acoustic and keys applied very thickly to a healthy slice of introspective balladry, will underscore Folsom as more than a one song wonder.

“My Stove’s on Fire” (it’s a colloquialism for love, baby) brings a speedier tempo and with it vocal harmonies, wiggly ‘70s funk keyboard flourishes and layered tech sheen across the entirety, the cut delivering Music and Dreams steadily into the boater’s dock, a space where some listeners will bail as others snuggle up inside it like it’s an undersized Christopher Cross tour T-shirt.

“Spanish Lady” continues in this direction, music and lyrics oozing exoticism as they detail the titular subject, the number flaunting a likeable south of the Mason-Dixon Line approximation of Spanish guitar and sounding overall as if Rundgren woke up after suffering a head injury momentarily thinking he was Al Stewart. Without interruption it suavely segues into “Brown Eyed Lady with Blonde Hair,” the undiluted Todd-ish environs decreasing the Yacht Rock attitudes of the previous two selections.

But not totally leaving them behind, for “A New Way” concocts an anthemic hunk of late-‘70s pop chart uplift sporting ripping yet temperate guitar soloing well suited to the unstrained verve of Folsom’s lead singing. ‘Tis true that bigger major label studio production might’ve broadened the retail potential, but it would’ve also likely lessened some of the more endearing elements here; the organ, the hints of string fuzz, and the rather muffled, briefly employed backing vocals.

For these ears a huge part of Music and Dreams’ success idles at the intersection of securely expressed ambition and fully functional but still relatively modest resources. Complicating my thoughts on the matter is “Show Me to the Window”; infused with slick mellowness, the version is a tad less palatable than the one ending Ode to a Rainy Day.

But Folsom has a firm handle on diversity, the late-LP “Jericho” combining a Steely Dan-like studio-as-paradise motif with a trip deep into the nooks of ‘70s Laurel Canyon. Upon consideration the guitar is akin to the poppy side of the decade’s Southern Rock landscape and even exudes some swirly Gary Wright action.

Bluntly, the sounds of “Jericho” (and by extension Music and Dreams) aren’t a frequent part of this writer’s recreational listening diet; in a manner mildly reminiscent of Jobriath (his unearthed early material reviewed for this website by this writer just a few months back) Folsom sometimes explores areas I’m in no rush to visit. And like Jobriath, had Folsom managed to gather a widespread following it would seem a cinch that he’d eventually have travelled a road of increasingly diminishing returns.

As it stands, Folsom does provide a stronger experience than the vast majority of his more famous smoothed-out contemporaries. The Young-esque “Please Don’t Forget Me” closes the album, preserving the aforementioned achy weight-on-my-shoulders sensibility that helps boost the cumulative value here. Taken with Ode to a Rainy Day, Music and Dreams is an admirable if not indispensable resurrection from a style deserving of appreciation sans irony.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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