Sound Opinions, the long-running public radio music program from Chicago’s WBEZ, frequently makes a point with which I rarely agree, in that the story behind an album can render a release more powerful. While I concur that music is sometimes inexorably tied to the time and place of its creation, a good story doesn’t necessarily make music better.
For instance, I appreciate a lot of the music released by the Numero Group, but while the stories behind the various compilations put out by the similarly Chicago-based label are often fascinating, I’m not spinning the records if there’s not something good there. Numero’s sixth release, Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up, succeeds not because I know the story of Lord Rhaburn or how the music of Belize came to be this amazing concoction of reggae, Latin, and funk, it’s because the music is catchy.
Counter to that, Ultra-High Frequencies: The Chicago Party features an amazing story of a public access dance show, complete with footage from the program on an accompanying DVD. But the music — despite a fascinating tale of a no-coast dance party that wanted to be Chicago’s version of “Soul Train” — can’t overcome the fact that the bands and musicians on the compilation have enthusiasm in greater amounts than talent.
However, when everything comes together in a proper package, a story can take music which hooks you from the start and fill it out in ways you didn’t think possible. Such is the case with Craig Smith’s Love is Our Existence, recently released by Ugly Things’ Mike Stax.
Smith’s music was recorded in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s after the musician underwent a terrible assault while traveling through the Middle East. The assault exacerbated an already budding schizophrenia, turning the psychedelic folk singer further toward his alter ego, known as Maitreya Kali.
The music on Love is Our Existence is fragile and beautiful, and Smith’s voice — while high and clear — has a certain warble at times which threatens to break the listener’s heart. The title track is rather hippy in tone, and as such, sets the stage for what you’re going to hear over the course of the LP’s 16 tracks: some very loving songs in which opening your heart is the key to expanding the mind.
There are, of course, songs which go way out there. “Jupiter’s Queen,” which ends the first side, is stop-start blues, featuring Smith singing of the titular subject: “riding on the rim of the ocean…worshiping the Devil’s devotion.” Percussion is provided by slapping the side of his guitar, and it’s very much a dark, odd track which contrasts deeply with the likes of the second side’s “Country Girl.”
“Country Girl” would later be recorded by Glen Campbell for his 1970 album, Try a Little Kindness, in a rather more upbeat tempo, but one can hear the roots of the melody and sweetness which exemplify the track even in this late ‘60s demo version from Smith. It’s a little more folky than Campbell’s take, but the rootsiness was present even from the start, to say nothing of the superlative melody in both guitar and vocal.
The final song, “Subtract One From One,” is the only track on Love is Our Existence to feature a full band, and it’s perfectly sequenced at the end. While other tracks might feature another guitar, the focus is primarily on Smith’s voice and lyrics, as well as his rather adept guitar playing. The inclusion of the full-band track at the end allows the listener to hear exactly how full the musician’s compositions could end up being, as well as ending a journey that starts out positively, stating “Love is Our Existence,” by only too realistically singing, “When you subtract one from you, you get nothing.”
Knowing Smith’s story fills out the songs and makes the journey through the album a more intellectually fulfilling one. The liner notes by Mike Stax tell you the story behind the musician and point as to why these recordings lay dormant for nearly 50 years, but you couldn’t exactly call it artistic enrichment. In point of fact, it’s a sad, fascinating tale which almost casts a dark pall across the listening experience, knowing where Smith was both mentally and personally.
Finding out that the musician was a schizophrenic with drug troubles almost had me feeling guilty, as if I were listening to the private thoughts of a really troubled soul. It could have turned a joyful thing into something akin to voyeurism, but thankfully, Stax’s extraordinary writing manages to walk a line between celebration of beauty and a dark origin.
In the end, the music is first and foremost what keeps Love is Our Existence on the turntable for multiple spins. The guitar work is, once again, deft, and Smith’s lyrics and singing beautifully wrought. Even without knowing anything about the record, beyond the fact that these songs have a “haunting, otherworldly quality,” you’d want to listen.
There’s some hiss and crackle, which is to be expected, as these recordings were rescued from 40-year-old acetates and tapes, making the already-delicate voice and guitar music sound as if it comes from another world. If anything, it lends it a sense of authenticity, as if you’re listening to music from another time and place — physically, temporally, and mentally.
Stax’s liner notes are fantastic, and the gatefold sleeve is adorned with imagery previously unseen by most. It’s an old-school tip-on jacket with a heavyweight vinyl pressing within. While the typography on the front is a little too faux-hippy for my liking, it works fine for the presentation.
Love is Our Existence is available from Ugly Things Magazine.