Two of the releases in Smog Veil Records’ “Platters du Cuyahoga Series” encapsulate the sound of Cleveland, Ohio, albeit from bands with whom you might not be familiar. The plan of the imprint is set forth by the label:
“With the Platters du Cuyahoga series, the team at Smog Veil Records is shining a light on some of the lesser known, but just as accomplished acts from the area […] to share a researched selection of these recordings with music fans and record collectors the world over.”
The two particular recordings we’re looking at perfectly reflect the musical sides of the city with which most listeners might be best acquainted: there’s the blues-based rock ‘n’ roll, probably best exemplified by the likes of the James Gang; and the avant-garde work of Pere Ubu.
On the blues-rock side, there’s The Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade, featuring Mr. Stress with Sunday Morning Revival; on the avant side, French Pictures in London by the Robert Bensick Band. They’re as far apart in terms of genre and process as one can get — Sunday Morning Revival is a loose blues jam recorded on one Sunday in 1967, with French Pictures in London a studio project laden with overdubs and mixing, two years in the preparation.
Bensick’s an underground artist, who — despite assembling a band consisting of members of Pere Ubu — even the more obsessive musical devotee is unlikely to have heard of. The Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade might not be a name you’ve heard of, but you’ve definitely heard of the band which featured lead guitarist Glenn Schwartz, drummer Jimmy Fox, and Tom Kriss on bass: the James Gang, who were still two years from their debut release, Yer’ Album.
The appeal of each release comes from very different angles. In the case of The Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade, it’s hearing folks you know as undeniably talented tackling a selection of blues numbers with which you’re familiar. Even in 1967, there was probably a surfeit of covers for Big Joe Williams’ “Baby Please Don’t Go” and Elmore James’ immortal “Dust My Broom,” but both versions here are excessively pleasing. It is, as recorded, very much a Sunday morning record: the sort of LP which you put on the turntable as you make coffee and massage your aching temples after one too many whiskies the night before.
For all of that, Robert Bensick Band’s release is the soundtrack to the Friday and Saturday party that brought on that sore head. It’s complex and challenging, but also catchy. French Pictures in London is almost something of an inversion of the bubblegum garage upon which the bandleader, Bensick, cut his teeth when drumming for bands like the Munx.
Take, for example, the closing Bensick Band cut, “Doll,” as exemplary a piece of mid-’70s musical creativity as one can hold up. It has the metronomic, motorik beat of Krautrock as its backbone, while the synths blast off into the atmosphere, with Bensick’s vocals sounding like something one might hear on a long-lost Dr. Demento episode. It’s fascinating in its madness, yet still undeniably hooky. “Doll” is absolutely mad, but take a listen to the work the Munx did on their regional hit, “Our Dream,” almost a decade prior, and one can easily draw a straight line between the two.
However, while extraordinarily disparate, as far as tone goes, the physical releases from Smog Veil share quite a bit. They sound amazing, especially considering the fact that, as near as I can tell, both were remastered from tapes well over 40 years old. French Pictures in London‘s “multi-tracks had long since disappeared following Bensick’s inability to pay the bill,” per the extraordinarily-detailed liner notes, and the tape of the final master actually came out of the collection of Cleveland DJ Kid Leo, with the only other copy in the hands of Alan Howarth — yes, the Alan Howarth who collaborated with John Carpenter.
Usually, unreleased albums are either of amazing quality, or forgivable in their fuzziness, tolerated because of the historical nature of the material. The vinyl releases for both these albums sound bright and fresh — the Schwartz-Fox record is a little warmer, but it may just be the aspects of the music itself, rather than the recording. The vinyl is absolutely gorgeous, with French Pictures getting a nice, marbled reddish-brown, and the creamy yellow of Sunday Morning. They’re not super-heavy, but they’re sturdy.
The artwork’s a little iffy: while the cover of French Pictures In London is amazing, the back looks like something from a self-released compact disc, circa 1995, while the front of Sunday Morning Revival is an attempt at reproducing the era’s design aesthetics that comes across a little too cleanly. For all of that, though, it’s literally what’s inside those covers that counts. Open the jackets and spin the records while you read those liner notes, covering the history of the artists in fantastic detail. The notes go back before the recordings, trace everything through, and then continue into the modern day. They’re invaluable to placing these records in their proper context, but the music stands up so well, the historical context is more important intellectually than for pleasure.
TL;DR: Buy these records now, tell your friends, and spin them as often as possible. Convince Smog Veil that this is a worthwhile project, and one which ought to be continued as long as they can dig up material. All of the releases in the “Platters du Cuyahoga Series” can be purchased directly from the label, either individually or as a subscription package.