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11 April 2016

Peter Grudzien - 'The Unicorn/The Garden of Love' (Subliminal Sounds)

Peter Grudzien is an outlier among outliers; in many ways you could call this just another acid-drenched, home-recorded privately pressed psych record, albeit one deeply rooted in country/western traditions and affectations. But Grudzien's 1974 statement is one that is militantly gay, wistfully fragile, and perfectly balanced on the damaged/cohesive axis, and somehow feels completely unlike anything else in the genre. The songs on The Unicorn are almost all based around a strummed acoustic guitar and his yokel yodel, but then there's some weird fuckery throughout; 'Redemption and Prayer' is built around processed voice loops, and feels akin to something that might come out of the San Francisco Tape Music Centre a decade earlier. 'Kentucky Candy', an epic ode to his lover, has some delay-heavy, operatic background vocals that (according to the liners) were just ripped off an LP recording of Tannhäuser, and the effect is stunning. There's a plodding bass throughout most of the album (which is just enough to make it all feel off-kilter, despite Grudzien's excellent technical abilities) as well as pedal steel, banjo and some electric guitars. It feels like a vision - one that begins with the title track's mystical allusions (for the unicorn, according to Grudzien's original liner notes, is a 'frail creature that will redeem mankind', though the 2007 reissue notes state that it's about a guy whose profile looked like a unicorn) and on through the unambiguous 'White Trash Hillbilly Trick' and 'Queen of All the Blue-Eyed'. He digs in and shreds on the instrumental 'The Lost World', and the lyrical themes throughout don't avoid the big issues of religion, love, and guilt. This is a lovely reissue too; the home-recording makes everything a little bit uneven, as levels tend to jump from cut to cut, but the acoustic instruments sound warm and full, and the musique concrete parts feel appropriately spooky, with enough midrange to clearly identify them as tapes being reworked. Everything climaxes on the finalé, 'Return of the Unicorn', which moves through a variety of different recording fragments, including a lo-fi, instrumental keyboard theme which feels anthemic, and a full-band (though of course, all Grudzien) conclusion which sounds decisive, even visionary. The second album was culled from recordings ranging from the 1950s to the late 80s, and it sounds appropriately hodgepodge, but strong. There's more country stylings but even some homemade doo-wop ('The Bills', from 1957), a few versions of the title track, and some cover versions. Spotty, yes, but overall enjoyable, and it feels more like a window into the mind of a person who is just absolutely in love with sound and its potential. And he was at fucking Stonewall, according to the haunting cut of that name, from 1987, made up of nothing more than his (deeper than before) voice accompanied by bells. His chronicling of the story revises the official history and talks about clones and conspiracy theories, too! The aforementioned liner notes, written in all capital letters, are pretty difficult to read but tell Grudzien's story, and one of the things that I think makes this so strange is that Grudzien is a New York City guy through and through, despite the Nashville/Bakersfield influence on his music. Given that Merle Haggard died last weekend, it's interesting to think about the whole sense of identity in country music; Haggard played his cards when it suited him but is mostly remembered as a right-wing or even reactionary figure against the counterculture (though it's of course more complicated than that, sorta like, say, Neil Young). Grudzien seems like he's from another planet, and maybe he was -- he was a total outsider in every way, not just because of his sexuality, and you could argue that country music represented a true freedom to him, and his obscure private-press rendition of it captures a genuine essence that the commercial products only pretended at. Though I hesitate to ever call one form of art/music genuine and another not; what I mean is that Grudzien, who even after this gorgeous double-LP reissue remains super obscure, represents the untold story of 1970s counterculture. Not that The Unicorn necessarily stands alongside any traditional country or underground gay art music of the time - it's just a singular creature, and shaped a bit like a unicorn.

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