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


Pearls Before Swine


Prog Folk

4.20 | 39 ratings

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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 :-)

ClemofNazareth | 5/5 |


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