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Music Review: Boots/C.C./Snake & Remus – Box

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This mysterious three-LP box set first appeared in 2006 courtesy of HP Cycle Records. The press materials claim that the original records were privately pressed with very limited distribution and found their way to the label by chance. Any further information about the relationship between the three albums is unclear though it’s apparent they are the work of the same artist (or group). It would be easy for the music collected here to fall short of the expectations created by this kind of mythologizing, but unlike a lot of other “outsider” releases, these records are as listenable as they are strange.

Live at Rainbows End – credited to C.C. – is the strongest and most straightforward record in the set. The first eight tracks are spare, acoustic folk songs; the artist croons dark and impenetrable lyrics over gently plucked acoustic guitar. These tunes might sit well on a mix tape alongside similarly melancholy singer-songwriters like Nick Drake or Elliot Smith, but the darkness here is far more palpable than anything recorded by either of those famously tortured troubadours. The lyrics don’t make much sense, but are filled with sorrowful, sometimes violent imagery. Songs like this can very easily feel overwrought but this album is so frighteningly intimate that any conventional standards of restraint don’t seem to apply.

In its own fractured way, Live at Rainbows End can be pretty catchy, too. The artist never sounds as conventionally pretty as the aforementioned Drake or Smith, but still manages to deliver a consistently captivating performance throughout. I’m tempted to draw comparisons to Syd Barrett’s acid-damaged psych-folk, but further comparisons belie the singularity of this record.

There is a uniquely insular quality to these recordings that I find endlessly fascinating. I’m almost ashamed to say that over the course of a few days I listened to “Worn” – the album’s penultimate track – literally sixty-three times. But not every track on the album bears repeated listening; the ninth and final cut is a fifteen-minute field recording of long periods of tape noise punctuated with some distant voices and slapping sounds. There’s not much happening and I can’t recommend listening to this more than once out of sheer curiosity if you have fifteen minutes you don’t mind giving up.

The other two records in the set are a bit spottier. The first side of Boots runs in a similar vein to Live at Rainbows End, though it’s an even darker affair. The lyrics, while still inscrutable, are more overtly sinister, taking on an almost threatening quality when paired with the artist’s passionate delivery. In nearly every way, Boots is raw and scrappy where the C.C. recordings are fragile and delicate. I assume the vocals are by the same artist, though they’re quite a bit less refined here. While I hear shades of Bowie in the singer’s inflections at times, Bowie never sounded this raw. Even the strongest melodies here are derailed with bum notes and cracked yelps. The chorus of side one closer “I’m A Farm” incorporates disgruntled, shrieking donkey impersonations, a gimmick that might sound unintentionally hilarious (or at least pretentious) on another record but here comes across as genuinely disturbing in the context of all that comes before.

The flip side of the record is an eighteen-minute percussion and electronics free-noise excursion. It’s not for everybody, but if you managed to get through the first side without shutting your stereo off in horror, you can probably dig “New Earth” too. You have to be patient with it, but it certainly has its own rewards. Personally, I’m a fan of a lot of early analog New Age music, which this track clearly owes a strong debt to. There’s no new ground being broken, but it works as a much-needed palate cleanser after the unflinchingly raw first side.

The final record in the set – No Tape Outside, attributed to Snake & Remus – is equally haunting, though somewhat less accessible than the others. Divided into two untitled sides running roughly nineteen minutes apiece, this album is hard to listen to straight through. If you take the time to let to record open up to you, however, the results can be very rewarding. The first side sounds quite a bit like the first sides of the other two records in the set, though the instrumentation here is a bit more varied, incorporating various percussion and electronic sounds along with the acoustic guitar.

While it’s not exactly a cheerful affair, this album feels considerably less dark in tone than the others. Though the format of the unbroken track seems daunting, the songs themselves are far less claustrophobic and overwhelming. Without individual song titles or much distinction between the tracks, the first side is crafted like an epic, slowly unfolding suite rather than a collection of singles. There are discrete compositions here, but the record feels as if it were meant to be listened to straight through as there is no way of isolating the individual songs except by ear. If these tracks were served up individually, this side might rival Live at Rainbows End for accessibility, but as it stands a lot of people are going to be turned off by the long-form approach. Ultimately, this does still feel like the best way of presenting these tracks, as they aren’t as visceral or immediately compelling as cuts from the other two albums and work best when taken in context as a whole unit of sound.

Side two of No Tape Outside is nineteen minutes of processed guitar and electronics. It’s relatively pretty as far as ambient listening goes, but there’s nothing immediately engaging about these songs, if you can call them that. Again, these are discrete compositions presented as one unbroken track, so it’s best to sit back and let the whole nineteen minutes play out. It’s definitely worth exploring as there are some rewarding moments, but this side fails to deliver as compelling an experience as the others in the set.

These albums are too darkly intimate and insular to warrant casual listening. They demand attention in a way only great records can. While the mystery and back-story behind these three LPs certainly provides a compelling hook, that’s not what ultimately keeps me coming back. The music here speaks for itself, and it speaks in a voice that is extraordinarily hard to forget. Some have speculated that these records are a hoax crafted by some psych-folk collectors. Others believe they are somehow related to Terry’s Rojvi and Jim Collins’ Music Performed by the High Mass, another set of mysterious psych-folk releases. But whether you buy into the mythology or not, there’s no question that these are some of the most mysterious and enigmatic records you will ever hear.

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