ALBUM REVIEW: Bill Stone – ‘Stone’: Maine psych-folk nugget sifted and reissued

YOU MAY think we’ve been there, got the T-shirt, seen it all where it comes to long-lost psych singer-songwriters of the Sixties and Seventies. Lovingly and righteously restored to our consciousness by people out on the frontiers, sifting in the streams of the vinyl backwoods, waiting for that tell-tale gleam.

Yep, we’ve adored and come to revise the place of history for artists like the wonderful Bill Fay, the delicate Vashti Bunyan, the mellow stoner Gary Higgins; the Laurel Canyon trippiness of Linda Perhacs. They’ve been embraced, lauded, careers rejuvenated. We’ve mined it dry; we love it; nay, we adore it, but we have the measure of it. That territory is mapped.

…. not so fast. Drag City, in partnership with Galactic Zoo Disks, have been digging really deep, and this very week they’re reissuing the sole album (At the time, anyhow) from Maine singer-songwriter Bill Stone.

Who he? You enquire. Well, Bill started out playing in folk ensembles alongside the occasional solo gig, which led to the 1969 recording of Stone on a 2-track Panasonic tape recorder in a pottery studio in Boothbay, Maine; an album Drag City are happy to call “psychedelicate”, which is a pretty cool and apt neologism.

You are so unlikely to have come across this little gem, pressed up as it was in microscopic quantities by the Portland, Maine, Omni Recording Company, from which only a meagre handful of releases, one of which being a University of Southern Maine college yearbook album.

And lucky you should be thanking the good folks of Drag City, since the original has been commanding around the $350 mark of late on Discogs.

Not that two-track recording was that primitive at the time, though; The Beatles’ catalogue is nearly entirely put together on four-track, bounced down and shuffled and all around. Bill does recall, however, how his assembled band and he competed with a cat in heat at their makeshift studio. Layin’ down some yowls, brother.

The line-up for this album? Tom Blackwell and Bill Stone on guitars, Arthur Webster on bass, Bob Blackwell and Skip Smith on drums, and Bill Stone and Beth Waterhouse on vocals. Let’s take a listen.

“Here I Am” takes us straight into Bob’s aesthetic with more than a little grandstanding Robert Zimmerman about that rising chord progression, but it really has a spirit of its own, a weariness and intimacy. The winding lead guitar, a harmonic meander, adds country-psych depth. One thing Bob doesn’t do is ape that idiosyncratic microtonal swoop Bob Dylan made his own, which be thankful; too many try and fail. It’s ’65 in ’69, and there’s even a little Gene Clark in that plaintive surrender.

“Purple” was dropped as a teaser single, and we’ve re-embedded it for you down below, because we’re nice like that; it’s a little raw, sure, but intimately so; there’s what the incomparable Califone call ‘room sound’, and doesn’t it have that dusk mood of Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine? Sure does. You can picture Bob playing this to an amour on an autumn dusk, and it rings down the decades fresh as a daisy.

“Fog” is chiming and bemoans the New England weather with simplicity: “The mist and rain / Fall … and everything is still …”, simple diaristic impressions, hearing cars go by, rendered with arpeggiating simplicity, major verse to minor refrain. “Friends” switches things up for a duskier Leonard Cohen burr, impressionist and jazzy, a more upbeat “Suzanne”, if you will (and as if you could push the guitar-troubadour form any further downbeat, more harrowing, than “Suzanne” …). I can’t help but wonder what this would sound like with a judicious late Sixties’ string arrangement. “I’m gonna miss her in the morning,” chimes Bill.

“Vision On Sherman Street” seems, at first, to move us into deeper, jazzy introspection, all yearning glissando, but it quickly rouses itself to be one of the album’s comparative bangers, if you like; it almost drifts towards a Six Organs of Admittance thing in places, crisp bass, jazzy lead fills, an elegy of an evening misspent, a vision of a lover lost to inaction in downtown Portland. It also reminds me an awful lot of “Christopher Street”, by Felt, in its jazzy breathlessness.

“The Fate of… ” and ” …Jessica’s Lover” are a cute pair of jazz guitar skits, leading out and leading in across the two sides of wax; mere fragments, but lovely ones, and reunited in reprise as the album’s final track: “The Fate Of Jessica’s Lover”, no surprises there.

A rare live shot of Bill Stone

“Part-Time Girl” is very of its time, and it was a very good time; it’s another smoke-textured look at a lover that flashed through a life, with some tasty riffing reprising “Like A Rolling Stone”. Her fleeting vignette in a small Maine town captured forever in song; I wonder if she recognises herself, knows she’s been captured in musical amber this way?

“Crystal Lover” again has that raggedy naivete and sweetness you find in the Velvets’ “Pale Blue Eyes”; and as with that song, triumphs through it; lazy, slow, real. Simple major chords ringing strong, a good song that needs no more – OK, why not, a little lazy wah-wah can only be a good thing. Beth Waterhouse’s vocals add a haunting, longing thing.

“Charlotte’s Town” is quite the odyssey: heartbeat drumming, feedback howls draping an elegiac lost baroque folk classic, Bill and Beth whispering the intimate refrain together. Hell, there can’t have been many folkies using howlround to such effect at all until the acid folk boom of the turn of this century. A real find. And we lead out with a smile in that jazzy jam, “The Fate Of Jessica’s Lover”.

What happened after the album first time around, you ask? Well, he married, settled down; had a (literal) side gig playing covers in bars, picking up a little extra dollar; then he chose the academic route, taking both a masters and doctorate in education.

Still later Bill published on subjects as diverse as school counselling and chaos theory; but retired now, he’s returned to music, recording a new album of originals and traditional numbers, based on his experiences as a cab driver – another eddy in the river of life – you can find that at Bill’s Bandcamp, where this reissue is also being vended – the link’s down at the end.

Drag City have dug deep, and struck fortune. Bill Stone’s album rings down the decades and you have to say, overall? It’s really sweet. Sure it’s a little rough ’round the edges, but did you complain when Devendra released The Black Babies? That’s far more lo-fi.

And that rough ‘n’ readiness is absolutely part of the charm; you can hear these songs live and breathe, the actual moment of their realisation, thrown pots and amorous cats and the rain at the window. It’s a very real and delightful record and if you’re a crate-digger who delights in buried treasure, this is a fine little addition to your racks.

Bill Stone’s Stone will be reissued by Drag City/ Galactic Zoo Disks on mp3, FLAC and vinyl on February 12th; pre-orders are now open for business at Drag City and Bill’s Bandcamp.

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