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Pearls Before Swine - The Use Of Ashes CD (album) cover


Pearls Before Swine

Prog Folk

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Sean Trane
Prog Folk
5 stars After a rather weak These Things Too album, Tom Rapp comes back with the superb Use Of Ashes, but by the time of recording, he's the only remaing PBS, Wayne Harley having left, leading Tom alone aboard. Rapp dedicated this album to the low countries (Benelux) where he was staying when he wrote these songs, an evidence for his tastes for his Flemish album artworks (here a unicorn hunting tapestry). So with mostly studio musicians to back him up, Tom rose to the occasion and pulled one of the most spine-tingling performances in the prog folk domain, thus reaching the raconteur troubadour status, often dabbling with medieval-type songs.

Right from the opening The Jeweller, Rapp reaches a sort of purity in his songwriting as well as his performance, the opening track being slightly reminiscent of Jacques Brel in the verses, while the chorus has a catchy hook that one amazes this is not a worldwide hit. The following almost-instrumental From The Movie Of The Same Name, where apart a few chants, the near-classical instrumentation gives a solemn air Next up is Rocket Man, a cello-infested track that haunts the listener well past the song's duration, it is a song taken up with Ray Bradbury's tale of an astronaut's failed return to earth. God Save The Child is the catchiest song on the album, it could easily have been writing by Grace Slick with Kantner's help, receiving an absolutely gorgeous rock instrumentation including an harpsichord. The Spine-chilling Song About A Rois yet another masterpiece, as both the cello and the flute brigs the chills from your spine to your heart..

From the jazzy Tell Me Why and the harpsichord-laden Sargery, you'd never guess this album was recorded (in three days) in Nashville, but then again non-belief will trike you again as you are reaching The Old Man.. which will not only chill you all over and give you goose bump all over and leave you emptied out from your tears of joy. Arresting, poignant, thought-provoking, gut emotion wrenching, the combination cello/flute that Tom Rapp uses so well is doing ravages into your brains. No doubt you'll not be the same after having heard this track, if at least for a few minutes. Riegal has Tom and his wife singing in duo again to cello drones, while the closing When The War Began can only give more chills at the solitude of the man against mankind's horrors, the whole thing contrasting heavily with Rapp's awesome and emotional songwriting.

Some albums simply never got their fair share of breaks and even some almost 40 years after need to be discovered by the public and praised by the XXX that it deserves and The Use Of Ashes is one of those albums. Few will touch you like this delicate and fragile beauty, one that simply could get acknowledge in the early 70's when folk was on its way out replaced by heavy prog rock or hard rock Well don't just sit there reading my review, run to the store and order this baby (hell the store master to order two or three, so he can listen to it as well and have his buddies buy it), because your life won't be complete until you've have this in your stereo.

Report this review (#174286)
Posted Wednesday, June 18, 2008 | Review Permalink
Prog Folk Researcher
5 stars Easily the most impressive Pearls Before Swine album, 'The Use of Ashes' could be considered a solo Tom Rapp album were it not for the impressive cast of supporting studio musicians who make Rapp's poignant lyrics and arrangements really work. The rest of the band had departed following the band's third album, leaving only Rapp and his wife Elisabeth. The two of them had spent time in her native Netherlands, and perhaps this change of scenery benefited Rapp's art since the power of his lyrics is both more potent and more artistic here than on anything he would do prior or after.

Speaking of the supporting cast, Rapp commissioned a serious backing group for the Nashville sessions that yielded these tracks as well as some of those that would land on his next album 'City of Gold'. Charlie McCoy, Buddy Spicher, David Briggs, Mac Gayden, Norbert Putnam and Kenneth Buttrey appear among others. Not surprisingly most of the backing cast had also accompanied Rapp's folk peer Bob Dylan at one time or another, so I suppose he was confident in their ability to grasp and reflect his musical vision given its obvious debt to Dylan's body of work.

Just about every song is a classic, or at least should be. Starting with "The Jeweler" and its metaphoric message of fulfillment in one's art, Rapp paints character vignettes of power and reflective beauty. One exception is "From the Movie of the Same Name", a short and mostly instrumental piece with some really gorgeous cello courtesy of Buddy Spicher, who had just a year prior spent time in the same studio with Dylan recording the 'Nashville Skyline' tracks.

Bernie Taupin has claimed Rapp's "Rocket Man" inspired the lyrics to Elton John's hit of the same name. The story is quite similar; an astronaut is lost in space and is lamented by his son. Again, cello and violin paint an appropriately somber tone as does the delicate backing voice of Elisabeth Rapp.

Rapp co-wrote "God Save the Child" with his wife, presumably a song about protecting our future from the ravages of our present circumstances, or perhaps about attempting to preserve the inner child of us all; the fact that the second half of the record focuses pretty heavily on anti-war themes might suggest more of the latter I suppose.

"Song About a Rose" is full of lyrical metaphors that like much of Rapp's earlier work can be hard to work out, but I suspect he's trying to articulate the difficulty in projecting the true essence of a thought or object in audible or visual art-forms. Or something like that ? sometimes hard to tell with this guy.

I personally think "Tell Me Why" is the one weak track on the album, sounding much more like the band's previous work with a slightly jazzy spin than anything Rapp would record in this and his next Nashville session. "Margery" has a wartime theme, as does most of the rest of the album. I gather this is a 'letter to the girl back home' sort of tale, a little too mushy for my tastes but possessing the great line "everyone is blinded to the sanctity of change" that is worth thinking about all by itself.

The cello on "The Old Man" is easily the best string arrangement on the album, somber and almost morbid at times especially considering the theme of the song. I think the 'old man' is another metaphor, this one about aging with lines speaking of children putting the toys away as the old man snatches up all the magic from their worlds. Then again, this could also be a war-related song.

"Riegel" is definitely a war theme, where Rapp tell the tale of the sinking of a German freighter by the same name carrying prisoners at the hands of British air corps bombers. The ship ran aground near Norway killing more than 4,000 prisoners and soldiers, most of them Yugoslavs and Russians as well as their Norwegian crew.

For some reason I suspect strongly that Colin Meloy owns this album and was inspired by "When the War Came" when he wrote his song of the same name for the 2006 Decemberists' release 'The Crane Wife'. The theme is similar, speaking of the ravages of war on a community and its culture. This is a very somber and sobering tune from Rapp, and also by far the longest song he ever recorded at more than seven minutes.

Like I said at the onset, this is easily the best album Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine ever recorded. Rapp had finally found his own voice and left behind the tendency to parrot Dylan, something he was quite guilty of in the early days of the band. I'm not quite ready to call this a masterpiece, but it certainly is close. Four stars easily, with a promise to reevaluate that for a possible bump to five in the future. Very highly recommended.


^ bump - August 11, 2010 :-)

Report this review (#280254)
Posted Sunday, May 2, 2010 | Review Permalink
3 stars Pearls Before Swine - The Use of Ashes (1970)

PBS is an English (psych)folk band around Tom Rapp (who proved to be the only remaining member over the years). Their debut and second are both great psych-folk records, but in the seventies Rapp changed direction to more traditional folk and rock arrangements. The Use of Ashes still has some reverb-arrangements, but the focus lies on professional production instead of the intimate and psychedelic feel of the PBS records of the sixties. I've become quite a fan of PBS and it's mastermind Tom Rapp, but a second hand vinyl collector can't always decide in which chronology he get's it's records. Actually, this was my last PBS record. The hopes were high, because of the high ratings of other well respected users.

To be honest, I don't really get the hype (it is praised as the best PBS record all over the internet) around this record. The production is good, the arrangements are professional and the use of some symphonic sounds are nice. But the song-writing is way below the level of earlier (and in my honest opinion) later records of the band. The praised 'Rocket Man' leaves me quite cold and most other tracks have melodies that just don't sound touching. On side two the band regains momentum with a string of reasonable songs 'The Old Man', 'Riegel' and my favourite 'When the War began', but even those songs are a bit too simple and sound too professional (instead of intimate). The band now sounds a bit static and the total absence of psychedelic influences makes this another band. Where are the days of simple, but effective moody/atmospheric songs like 'Another Time' (from the debut)?

But let's not get apocalyptic here. The voice of Tom Rapp, one of my favourites, still shines in most songs and the records doesn't have any weak song either. Some arrangements are quite clever (though never too touching). It's the bluesy/folky voice of Rapp that still changes lead into gold. But if one would ask me, I would still prefer the more eclectic and playful 'City of Gold' (which in turn is somehow widely known to be a low-point for the band) and the more intimate 'Beautiful Lies you could live in'.

Conclusion. A good but non-essential album by folk-rock legend Tom Rapp that somehow works very well for others. If you like slightly symphonic arranged songs with a focus on great folky/bluesy vocals this might be a great entry to the band, for progressive or psych leanings I would recommend 'One Nation Underground' and 'Balaklava'. This one will have to settle for three.

Report this review (#579641)
Posted Friday, December 2, 2011 | Review Permalink
5 stars I honestly don't even remember how I first heard about this album; I suspect it was one of those passing comments in the forum that I just happened to look into. In this case, it was certainly a lucky thing for me that I did, as "The Use of Ashes" is one of those rare albums that I enjoy not only while I'm listening but that I keep coming back to. Really a very special album and one that should be heard by any folk (and especially progressive folk) fan.

"The Jeweler" begins the album with some piano-accompanied vocals. Like most of the music on the album, the lyrics are the centerpiece, but the music certainly doesn't suffer as a result. The instrumentation is simultaneously simple and dense, with piano, bass, percussion and strings melding together to create an instrumental backtrack where any individual instrument is very hard to pick out because it works so well as a part of the whole. The vocal melody is very strong as well, with Tom Rapp's idiosyncratic, faintly lisping vocals adding a very unique feel to the music and helping to set up the atmosphere that will define the rest of the album- a very intimate, close kind of feel that invites the listener in.

"From The Movie Of The Same Name" is the only primarily instrumental track on the album, using a variety of strings, keyboards, wordless vocals and a flute to create a very stately, pastoral feel that manages to contain traces of both britpop and medieval-sounding folk, which is especially impressive considering the band was founded in Florida and the album was recorded in Nashville. Nonetheless, the blend of styles comes through, and though it's a short and slightly repetitive track it works very well in the album.

"Rocket Man" begins with some harpsichord and bass before Rapp's vocals come in, sounding quite a bit more world-weary than they did on "The Jeweler." Telling the story of man who's lamenting his father, a lost astronaut, the song utilizes a unique instrumentation (harpsichord, woodwinds, percussion and bass, primarily) along with some subtle female backing vocals to create an atmosphere that perfectly matches the somewhat somber mood of the lyrics.

"God Save The Child" begins a bit more bombastically, with winds and electric guitar giving the main melody and chorus a powerful feel that's juxtaposed with a more melancholic verse. Though Tom Rapp isn't a super-powered belter by any means, he's able to deliver his vocals with a kind of power that not many can.

"Song About A Rose" has a much darker, more psychedelic feel to it, with all the instruments again working together to create an atmosphere that's as much a complete sound unto itself as it is a combination of instruments. I really have to emphasize how well this album is arranged; in listening through it to review it I found it tremendously difficult to pick out exactly what was going into the instrumental parts because it all blended together so well. Pearls Before Swine really excel on this album at creating complete music instead of merely different parts playing together.

"Tell Me Why" juxtaposes bass and keyboards, along with some guitar and percussion, to create probably the most typical psych-folk song on the album. It's a very good song, but it definitely sounds more dated and slightly less mature than "The Jeweler" or "Rocket Man" do. It's a very enjoyable track, though, if only because it reminds the listener of the time this album was recorded in. Some very nice flute parts feature as well.

"Margery" begins in a very psychedelic, dreamy vein before before switching into a less floaty, more rhythmically grounded vocal melody that features what is perhaps Tom Rapp's best performance of the album, as well as one of the best-written vocal melodies. Featuring (as usual) exquisitely arranged music that highlights the lyrics without distracting from them, "Margery" blends an experimental attitude with classic folk influence to create a song that could pass as simple pop if one isn't listening carefully, but has a great deal of depth to it, which wouldn't be a bad way to describe the album as a whole.

"The Old Man" opts for a bit of a spookier atmosphere, both lyrically and musically. With somewhat arcane, psychedelic lyrics and music to match, it's almost haunting. This feel is certainly enhanced by the echoey production on Rapp's vocals and the use of both flute and cello as forefront melodic instruments. The whole effect is to give the song an ethereal, transcendent feel, and it definitely succeeds in doing so.

"Riegal" sees Tom and Elisabeth Rapp alternating vocal duties, as well as harmonizing, to tell the story of the sinking of a prison ship. Riegal features some of the best vocal melodies not just on this album but on any album, and with perfect instrumental arrangement to match I'd have to say it's my favorite song on the album and probably one of the better folk songs I've ever heard.

"When the War Began" begins with some somber acoustic guitar and bass, and when Tom Rapp begins singing the lyrics are appropriately ominous. Some understated but beautiful violin and flute melodies help make the track more colorful, though between the minor-key progressions and dark vocals it's easily one of the more melancholic songs on the album. A remarkably powerful performance from Tom Rapp rounds out the track, and closes the album off on a sweeping, grand note with more than a tinge of sorrow.

There are no songs on "The Use of Ashes" that will blow you away if you're just passively listening to it, but with careful listening the album reveals itself to have an incredible amount of depth, both in its lyrical content and its musical arrangements. This is an album that I can't help coming back to. There's just something special about how all the music comes together, rendering "The Use of Ashes" one of the most cohesive, listenable albums I've heard. Clocking in at only a little bit over a half hour, it's one of those albums that's very difficult to only listen to part of; it demands to be heard as a whole. Certainly an album that deserves more exposure then it gets.

4.5/5, rounded up

Report this review (#596623)
Posted Tuesday, December 27, 2011 | Review Permalink
4 stars With the other founder members of the band all gone, Pearls Before Swine had rather become the Tom Rapp show by this point. That said, as far as psychedelic-tinged folk-rock singer- songwriters go, Tom Rapp does an admirable job here, backed up with his then-wife Elisabeth and Memphis backing musicians to issue forth a range of sweetly sung ruminations. The title track derives from The Jeweller, which deftly reveals unexpected theological depth and hidden sorrows in the midst of its syrupy strings (This Mortal Coil did a decent cover of this one), whilst the album as a whole finds Rapp gently singing (in one of the most distinctive voices in folk- rock) his way through a plethora of themes. Not amazingly trippy by psychedelic standards, but there's an off-kilterness to it which persists through the album and keeps things distinctly 60s.
Report this review (#899289)
Posted Friday, January 25, 2013 | Review Permalink
Prog-Folk Team
4 stars I've been reading a book by a sassy fashionista who cues his entry into full reminiscence mode with the expression "Let's dial back". When approaching long past nascent progressive folk that one never had the privilege to hear in its initial run, one would do well to dial back for two reasons. First, cliches may be exploited that were not cliches in their day, so one should step softly into such critiques even while acknowledging the unfashionable traits. Second, one cannot always expect to be wowed by defiant prog just because exhibit A hails from that era. Lots else was going on at the time, and audacious fervour could take many forms, especially where folk influenced music was concerned. In so dialing back, one is left as open to an album's authenticity as if one was truly present on the original release date.

By all accounts, TOM RAPP's PEARLS BEFOR SWINE released several generally unnoticed works, the best of these being "The Use of Ashes". Listen a few times, and delicacy of voice and poetic muse will be manifest, as well as a world weariness that one can't manufacture in a studio. A less depressive NICK DRAKE might be an apt reference point. The largely acoustic guitar and string accompaniment is elegantly assuaged by keyboard arrangements and woodwinds, especially whiffs of harpsichord, and the melodies take a number in one's memory queue. "Rocket Man" is especially poignant in its recounting, a timeless melody and vulnerable lyrics that can reach anyone who has worried for a loved one and felt helpless at some of their life decisions. "The Old Man" incorporates English folk influences as successfully as the late JACK HARDY ever did, while "The Riegel" pairs SIMON AND GARFUNKEL's harmonies with a historical insight and profound respect a la KINGSTON TRIO. In contrast, "When the War Began" shuffles along without drawing in the listener, and, "God Save the Child" insists upon itself in its post-Dylanesque entreaties, although to my ears it sounds even more like a lost post-prime GUESS WHO hit.

"The Use of Ashes" is a simply lovely album of worldly American folk rock with psychedelic and progressive hues and among the most elegantly economical arrangements I have yet heard. If not for a few mediocre cuts, it would merit 5 stars. Highly recommended for the hearth.

Report this review (#949523)
Posted Thursday, April 25, 2013 | Review Permalink

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