One song in, I’m hooked. With trashy guitar struts and May’s witchy screams, these ruffians make The Stones, The Yardbirds, and most of the other R&B-covering competition seem quaint. It’s an unhinged showing not too far off from US garage gods like The Sonics; the song is that startling.
Unfortunately, the opener’s also an anomaly. Monotony sets in about halfway, as I can handle only so many variations on 12-bars and Bo Diddley worship, especially when laxer settings reveal a deficit of vocal charisma compared with, say, Jagger (“The Moon Is Rising”). Still, those first seven songs or so have enough zest for me to recommend this. Few of their contemporaries could make a drum-and-bass-less fling simmer (“Unknown Blues”), and “Mama”‘s convulsive break would be impossible without Prince’s expert stick-wielding.
a messy review for a messy album:
soul? why soul? May can’t sing soul. just listen to “cry to me”. the group chorus is clearly a cop-out from an intimidated man. and production–varying degrees of shoddy. kind of like the playing, which frequently overshoots laxity and lands in mush. but those handful of tracks where their path out of straight R&B strikes gold! “buzz the jerk” and “you’ll never do it baby” have all the garage-y snarls you could hope for.
again, why did they think they could cover solomon burke?
What a hack. Not any of The Pretty Things; their attempts to board a very British pop train are just baldly derivative of conductors Kinks and Who. I’m talking about Reg Tilsley, the arranger. Apparently Fontana wanted to fill out and commercialize the outfit’s sound, so they got this schmo to add all manner of pollution. Think of the horns and strings as flies, buzzing around repeating the same grotesque leaps and garish tones in the most arbitrary manner possible. Honestly, this album made me laugh. Multiple times.
Props to the band, though. If you’re stuck with a label this boneheaded, bowing your heads in order to escape is a smart move.
Lost in all the squabble over whether this actually beats Tommy as the first rock opera: Before now, The Pretty Things had never even seemed capable of a consistent album, let alone something so conceptually grand. Starting as a bratty Bo Diddley tribute on their self-titled debut, they nearly disintegrated on its messy follow-up (Get the Picture?), then faceplanted under label-induced orchestration and brittle Kinksisms (Emotions). So I’m especially pleased to report that S.F. Sorrow not only earns its status as a lost classic but stands as one of the decade’s finest examples of pessimistic psych.
Like plenty of their contemporaries, The Pretty Things borrow liberally from The Beatles’ playbook, drawing on acidic, sighing harmonies and swirling outro collages more like “I Am the Walrus”‘ and “Strawberry Fields”‘ than “Mr. Kite”‘s. Granted, nothing on S.F. Sorrow scales the former two’s heights, but “Balloon Burning”‘s hellish doom comes awfully close. In fact, the song is pretty representative of my feelings on the entire album: I’m here primarily for the instrumentation.
When the queasy atmospherics, muscular bass, and bleak guitar thrashes are toned down (“Private Sorrow”, “The Journey”), the melodies sometimes feel a tad lifeless. May’s archetypically druggy slurs just don’t cut through the sound enough, often getting in the way of a furious jam or chilling stack of harmonies.
Still, my appreciation of S.F. Sorrow as a textural delight is meant in no way as a backhanded compliment. Plenty of these tracks would work divorced from their sumptuous productions. It’s just that “Bracelets of Fingers”‘ nervous jitter and “Trust”‘s hopeful ripples are heightened by the fine work of the band and the engineers at Abbey Road Studios. And when “Old Man Going”‘s panicked synth build or “Baron Saturday”‘s slowing percussion stumble bowls me over on its own, I’m just as satisfied.
Describing this as a colossal letdown might suggest I’m miffed by all of this, which isn’t the case. For all its slavish Abbey Road admiration, the opening suite is a pleasant listen–even heart-warming in spots (“Mr. Square”)–with plenty of garden-like delicacy. Then there’s “Grass”, a dusky gaze at the horizon whose melancholy tinges are bolstered by a smart Mellotron entrance. Unfortunately, the track also contains many of the elements that sink Parachute, chief among them Phil May.
I understand that a repeat of S.F. Sorrow was inadvisable, and given the year and The Pretty Things’ feisty beginnings, shifting to hard rock seemed a sensible decision. But May’s vocals are downright comical in places, striving for a gritty masculinity he doesn’t have the presence or tonal support for (“Midnight Circus”). And sometimes he’s wildly out of place, shredding his voice on “Sickle Clowns”‘ chorus while the rest of the band opts for a more restrained approach.
Equally frustrating are the other myriad flaws that prevent May from solely deserving blame. The group makes consistently poor rhythmic decisions, whether it be clunky tempo doubling (“Grass”‘ chorus) or obnoxious percussion trying to force a Heavy Groove that clearly isn’t happening (“Sickle Clowns”), and attempts at drawn-out guitar jams are so aimless as to leave me wondering how Sorrow‘s “Balloon Burning” lucked out with such an incisive solo. (Surely Dick Taylor’s departure isn’t coincidental.)
That’s not all: The same famed production studio that worked wonders the last time around is a major liability here, frequently laying out distant drums and muffled guitars—pretty big stumbling blocks when you’re trying to place an emphasis on heft.
If I seem peeved, it’s because I am. After S.F. Sorrow, I thought all (or at least most) of my reservations towards The Pretty Things were gone, and began eagerly anticipating the winning follow-up so heralded in underground circles. But this? This is a band returning to Earth from their brush with divine inspiration, only to find themselves face-to-face with the possibility that they’re past their prime.