Forgotten albums by mellow singer-songwriters of the early 1970s are pretty ubiquitous these days, I know. Especially when it comes to introverted and acoustic-leaning young men who floated under the radar (or too close to the sun) and whose careers took a nose dive in the wake of prog rock and the rise of the Marshall stack. But Jimmie Spheeris’s Isle of View (1970) is an entirely different kind of laid back beast. Imagine a collaboration between Bill Fay, Harry Nilsson, Cat Stevens, and David Crosby and you’d be approaching the Spheeris chimera–but any attempt to nail down what exactly makes Isle of View so special can only ever be approximate. The atmosphere on this album is more like a weather system, constantly changing in shape and mood.
Those who caught the Late Autumn Light mix, will have already heard Spheeris’s beautifully resonant voice on an Isle of View cut called “Come Back.” There he unravels the tune in a way that would do Tim Hardin proud, deceptively lackadaisical, locating a lush middle ground between church choir and jazz trio. But he also goes a step further, allowing the musical accompaniment to make the same journey that he’s making vocally. His singing moves the song forward and the band moves with him.
Isle of View opening track “The Nest,” meanwhile, lets you know right off the bat that this is not going to be your average Sensitive Seventies Guy Record. A piano drifts in moodily before settling on a melody that is just as chilly and unnerving as anything Mike Oldfield could cook up. Spheeris’s breathy vocal does, at first, bring to mind “Lady D’Urbanville,” but this Cat is about to pounce unexpectedly. ‘Take me from the nest,’ he howls, and both song and vocal take off. Orchestra strings comes swooping in, rocking harder than anything else on the remainder of the track list (or Spheeris’s career, for that matter)–and this despite the absence of a guitar, acoustic or otherwise. We’re suddenly in the full-on, symphonic territory of The Moody Blues or Procol Harum. Lyrically too, Spheeris is drawing from the same prog-rock well: ‘My scarlet ship sails sacred oceans,’ etc. So sensitive, yes, all right–but hardly the acoustic troubadour stereotype.
And that’s just one example of how protean the music on Isle of View can be. On “For Roach,” the very next track, for instance, Spheeris seems suddenly to be channeling Fred Neil, letting the melody drift beautifully around the easy sway of the song. Nilsson’s balletic vocal style is an obvious touchstone, but then so is the soulful side of Neil Diamond’s baritone. At one moment, Spheeris can be wispy and ethereal, the next, earthy, digging deep into his register. Similarly, on “I am the Mercury,” it’s amazing the way in which he sounds simultaneously so high and so low–what begins as soft and melancholy as “Guinevere,” eventually crescendos into an Everybody’s Talkin’-style vocal work out.
It may sound like the old rock n’ roll myth-machine at work, but Spheeris did in fact spend his early years on the road with a traveling carnival. His father was a sometime strongman who ran an operation called The Magic Empire that toured around the US. Spheeris himself is registered as having been born in no less likely a place than Phenix, Alabama, while his sister, Penelope (who would later go on to make The Decline of Western Civilization documentaries and direct Wayne’s World) was born in New Orleans. When Spheeris Sr died (murdered by a ‘belligerent carnival-goer’ so the story goes), the family moved to southern California, where they stayed. All of which might explain both the transient quality of Spheeris’s music and the fact it remains so saturated in West Coast, singer-songwriter vibes.
Listen to “Long Way Down”. It begins as sparingly and as moodily as “The Nest,” just a few harmonics, before morphing into a low key, jazz club shuffle. You’re half-expecting Tim Buckley to start moaning gorgeously in that way only Tim Buckley can moan, but then the whole song turns on a dime and we’re suddenly coasting along to a CSN groove. And then–wait, can this be right?–a string quartet is grooving along with them. When Spheeris’s vocal enters, it lets us know that we’re moving, surprising us with hooks and breaks that aren’t showy or confusing but have their own obvious logic. One moment we’re hearing echoes of Nilsson, the next Laura Nyro. It’s like watching the street smart kid who’s hustling his way through the city: he knows where he’s headed and he knows how to get there. Then he turns a corner and he’s gone. Spheeris stops singing and the music continues without him, growing more and more eerie until we’re finally back in the dark again.
In the case of Isle of View, reaching for the title of Lost Classic is maybe a little misguided. The concept has very nearly created its own genre now, much of it consisting of minor folk fare from this exact period in rock history. So it’s possibly become too restrictive a term for an album that sounds so great largely because it’s so multifarious. It’s just too dreamy and amorphous to have ever been considered an out-and-out classic (dream of dreams: one wonders how a similarly manic magpie like Van Dyke Parks might have orchestrated his later albums). To call Isle of View lost is also to do something of a disservice to those who have been singing the praises of Spheeris since his untimely death at the age of 34 (he was riding his motorcycle home after a recording session when he was struck by a drunk driver). For this reason, I prefer genre-defying, I prefer surprising, I prefer worthy of love. words / dk o’hara