Lessons from Paradise (almost) Forgotten

Elysian Field Louisville Music Series #3 (GearFab Records)

Elysian Field

By Tim Roberts

In medias res it's a classical method of storytelling that means that the story starts "in the middle of things." The beginning is told in flashbacks until it catches up to the center, which then drives the action to the climax. In literature you'll find it in The Odyssey and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, among many others.

In music, it's the Elysian Field compendium.

Released as the third part in the Louisville Music series by the Florida-based GearFab Records, this recording contains the work of a band that evolved from Soul, Inc. (featured on the first two of GearFab's Louisville series) in 1968. According to Rick Mattingly's concise liner notes, Marvin Maxwell, Frank Bugbee and Jim Settle left Soul, Inc. to pursue a different musical vision. Throughout their history, the band altered membership by adding (and, other times, subtracting) Gary Johnson, Mark Miceli, Dennis Ledford, Rudy Helm, Steve McNicol and Denny Lile.

While the sound quality of the selections is a little rough since they were dubbed directly from aging Mylar (and two were copied directly from test acetates found in Maxwell's home), you can still sample a band that searched for a sound it couldn't seem to lock in. That's important because Elysian Field was always daring itself to go for something different. You can hear The Jam do the same thing in their Greatest Hits recording. It contains tracks from the band's inception as a punk trio in the UK, then its move into new wave, then horn-based soul, then pop.

This volume of Elysian Field is different, however, because it documents an effort and, like classical mythology, it also teaches. It is a dispatch to musicians in the future. The messages? Try. Play.

The band's lineups throughout its three years as a loose unit are key to how the tracks are arranged in the recording. It opens with the tunes recorded when the band included its best-known lineup of Maxwell, Settle, Ledford, Miceli and Lile, at the center of its relatively short career. The sound then was at once rough and rootsy ("You Again" or "Good Time Living"), cut with shards of slick psychedelia and proto-punk attitude ("Mother Hate," "I Think I Can't Live Without You").

The center third of the recording contains material from the Field's early days in 1969, when the songs were filled with walls of sound encasing lush strings and horns (borrowed from the Louisville Orchestra), sweeping harp runs, harpsichords and some lovely harmonies. Imperial Records, the label that had signed them, wanted to mold them into a unit similar to Dennis Yost and the Classics IV, the lite rock band of their day. While the songs were lovely, their style was derivative, shown in "Strange Changes" with is lounge-samba rhythm and "Alone on Your Doorstep," about an obsessive guy who waits out his unrequited love on the porch of the woman he wants. It may rank up next to "Turn Around, Look At Me" by The Vogues as a stalker's anthem. When the band obviously found more energy and something worthwhile with the harsh sound illustrated in the opening tracks, Imperial cancelled their contract.

The drastic change in style shown in the first portion of the collection mellows in the final third into relaxed southern rock in the manner of The Allman Brothers. Acoustic instruments erase the fuzzy electric guitars, harpsichords and horns from the earlier sound, while the piano becomes an integral part of the rhythm section. There's a vocal melody and harmony as big as the outdoors in "Canada," gritty guitar boogie in "Revolution's in the Air" and soaring beauty in "Sundown Red," a Steve McNicol composition on which he sings lead.

In Greek mythology the Elysian Fields were the delightful place of blessed repose after death. They were the lush afterlife home to heroes, poets, priests and generally nice folks, especially those who helped others. We are now able to hear Elysian Field's experimentation with divergent styles that, for fans and the curious, gives a satisfactory retrospective of the substantial musical talent this city had more than 30 years ago. But for young musicians, it's a lesson plan.

It's help from an older generation.