Everyone wants to believe they’ve found that great lost album from whatever year and in whatever genre and from whatever band. People pride themselves on staying ahead of the curve and being the first to discover an album long relegated to the trash heap or some musty attic of some older relative. This sense of discovery has led to many of the great musical reclamations in the past decade, so I can’t fault people too much for feeling this way. I’ve been guilty of this numerous times as I’ve come across interesting records filed away under some table in the local record store and felt that someone besides myself should hear it—needed to hear it. But I don’t have the full bore support of a major independent label behind me, and so sometimes, it’s better to defer to those with the means to ferret out these lost masterpieces.
Artist Proof from Chris Darrow is the latest in a string of reissues/compilations from Drag City Records that attempts to mine the fertile remains of 60’s and 70’s folk rock—though Darrow hews much closer to the countrified rock of bands like The Byrds and The Band than the folk-psych musings of fellow Drag City reissuees Tony, Caro & John or Gary Higgins. And while Artist Proof never quite lives up to the expectations of being a masterpiece, it is a great example of how the country rock genre developed in tandem with the folk scene. You could even toss in a smattering of roots rock tendencies and you’d have a great idea of the sound that Darrow helped to develop and pioneer.
What we’re looking at here is an amalgamation of the Laurel Canyon folk/rock scene with the twang of Appalachia bluegrass (so, The Band basically). His close association with and tenure in bands like The Byrds and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, as well as semi-obscure 60’s psych rockers Kaleidoscope, kept him attuned to the many lines of music that were still reeling from the creative resurgence of the 60’s and 70’s and which led to his not unsubstantial contributions to those genres. But for all the talk of pioneering sounds and musical progenitor status, if the songs on Artist Proof weren’t worth a second listen, Darrow would have continued to languish in relative obscurity. Thankfully, that isn’t the case, and from the opening track, Darrow sets to the task of creating his own vision of bucolic American folk music.
The influences and perceptive associations that most of us have in regards to folk and country music are brought to the fore very quickly, as opening track “Beware of Time” feels pinched from Buffalo Springfield Again or possibly the b-side to some single off DéjàVu from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. There’s nothing terribly novel about the song; it sounds like the prototypical country rock song. But the more time that’s invested, the more the song unravels and reveals how effortlessly complicated it really is—especially notable is the almost frenetic fiddle work from Darrow himself. Other tracks like “The Sky Is Not Blue Today” and “Lovers Sleep Abed Tonight” fall into the decidedly ballad-y area of country rock, and if Nick Drake ever had an urge to make an album with Gram Parsons, then these songs sound like the result of some drunken grope-fest between the two in a dark studio. There’s even a little Jim Croce-esque piano jaunt in the form of “Cocaine Lil,” a short, almost goofy song about the effects of the titular drug. And for the most part, the album maintains an overriding sense of timeless creativity and forward momentum that keeps it from ever getting bogged down in meaningless nostalgia.
The few songs here that do show their age and aren’t quite as engaging–and to be honest, probably never will be regardless of how many times I hear them–don’t necessarily drag the album down but do jolt us out of the “lost masterpiece” mindset. These two songs, “New Zoot” and “The Show Must Go On” are conveniently set back-to-back and makes looking over them that much easier. Besides literally being a song about buying a zoot suit, “New Zoot” never seems to find a good grasp on its melody and the electric guitar just wanders around aimlessly looking for a better song. And the rather mundane platitudes expressed on “The Show Must Go On” do Darrow no favors when viewed in the context of the rest of the songs. While the bonus tracks—just studio/home demos of Artist Proof tracks—are interesting as a way of seeing how the official tracks developed, they really don’t add much muscle to the disc and seem more a way to artificially extend the length of the album. But it is a reissue and so they are expected, though quite unnecessary.
There is a laid-back sense of progression on the album that rewards multiple listens, preferably with the windows down and the sun sitting at 12:00. The excellent, slithering slide guitar that permeates most of the album almost demands some expanse of deserted highway. In the end though, the songs on Artist Proof may prove to be a bit too earnest for the casual indie music fan. An argument could be made that the countrified music that Darrow peddles feels too familiar, or too indebted, to other better known artists. And while that line of thinking may have firm grounding superficially, it loses any semblance of relevancy once you realize how much Darrow actually contributed to the development of these specific musical tropes. For every band like The Byrds or Buffalo Springfield who maintain a critical and commercial viability throughout their tenure together, there are always forgotten artists who seem destined to pine away in some musical background where their actually significant contributions almost seem like afterthoughts. Drag City is going a long way in restoring many of these lost artists’ reputations with their series of reissued, out-of-print records. And just like Gary Higgins or Tony Caro & John, Chris Darrow is one more artist whose work needed to be heard and by more than just those who knew him well or who happened to find his record buried under some table in a local record store.