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The Pretty Things - S.F. Sorrow CD (album) cover

S.F. SORROW

The Pretty Things

 

Proto-Prog

4.02 | 71 ratings

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patrickq
4 stars In a 1998 New York Times article, Neil Strauss said that S.F. Sorrow 'is generally acknowledged as the first rock opera.' Maybe things were different twenty years ago, but unfortunately, I don't really think S.F. Sorrow is 'generally acknowledged.'

In some ways, S.F. Sorrow sounds exactly like an album from 1968. I don't have the technical vocabulary to explain this other to say that the soundscape feels confined, as if the technology limited the band's ability to realize their vision - - but at the same time, we have a pretty good idea of what that vision must've been. On the other hand, S.F. Sorrow had to have seemed a little ambitious and risky for what had theretofore been a blues-based pop/rock band.

At least at the time it was released, S.F. Sorrow must've invited comparisons to the Beatles, and by extension, the Beach Boys. It may have been 'the first rock opera,' but it wasn't the first rock concept album, and there are definitely echoes of 'Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!' and 'Strawberry Fields Forever' here. But there must've been a lot of cross-pollination, as there's a lot in common with contemporaneous recordings by the Moody Blues and Tommy James and the Shondells, and on the poppier material here, the vocals aren't all that different from, say, the Lovin' Spoonful or the Buckinghams.

But a lot of the material here is not especially poppy. A fair chunk of S.F. Sorrow is more experimental than Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds. For example, there's genuine musique concr'te throughout, in substantial quality and quantity. Tape manipulation is used to achieve pitch changes and synchronized delay effects long before digital techniques made these common. And the mixing is creative: often, the vocals are almost buried, challenging the listener to pay closer attention. This unorthodoxy is especially clear when the songs recorded for S.F. Sorrow are compared to those drawn from the same pool, but recorded for release as singles or for radio airplay. (On remastered reissues of S.F. Sorrow, several of these are appended to the original album.) A notable exception to this is the album's closing track, 'Loneliest Person,' which - - probably intentionally - - sounds completely different from the foregoing. Gone are the layered instruments and vocals, the heavy audio effects, and the edgy rock atmosphere which prefigured Black Sabbath more than once. 'Loneliest Person' is performed in what sounds like one take, featuring just an acoustic guitar and dry vocals. This starkness seems to fit with the album's storyline; in the end, the protagonist is, as the song goes, 'the loneliest person in the world.'

The material is strong throughout the album. This work is intended to be experienced more as an album than a compilation of songs - - after all, the standalone songs were recorded separately. But a few numbers stand out: 'S.F. Sorrow is Born,' 'Private Sorrow,' and 'Baron Saturday,' the latter reminding me of the Moody Blues' 'Legend of a Mind' reinterpreted as. John Lennon song. But the real standout here, and a good representation of S.F. Sorrow as a whole is 'Balloon Burning,' a detached reminiscence of observing the destruction of the Hindenburg and the fiery death of one of its passengers.

S.F. Sorrow meets the definition of 'proto-prog,' but it's also heavily psychedelic; and while it's not at all a heavy-metal album, it has passages whose heaviness goes beyond that of Vanilla Fudge or Iron Butterfly. Like the music of those early heavy-metal bands, these passages aren't particularly slow or blues-based.

S.F. Sorrow represents a transition from the Sgt. Pepper era to what is now regarded as 1970s progressive rock, so much of what made S.F. Sorrow groundbreaking also makes it sound dated. Whereas the Beatles may have had to temper their technological ambitions to ensure a high-quality sound, the Pretty Things were willing to sacrifice sound quality to create a work which wasn't quite achievable at the time.

Nonetheless, S.F. Sorrow is an excellent album which, despite its practical shortcomings, is worthy of four stars for its concept, composition, and creativity.

patrickq | 4/5 |

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