Bonus Tracks Can’t Sink Oar – Beck, Tom Waits Sing in Praise

Oar . Skip Spence. Sundazed.

More Oar: A Tribute to the Alexander (Skip) Spence Album . Various artists. Birdman.

Jewels for Sophia . Robyn Hitchcock. Warner Brothers.

Moby Grape songwriter-guitarist Skip Spence’s sole solo album, Oar , was recorded in December 1968 and released the next fall. Spence’s next 30 years were spent doing time in mental hospitals and procreating–when he died of lung cancer last April he left behind four children and 11 grandchildren. Oar is his artistic legacy, a collection of brooding songs with minimal instrumentation (bass, drums, occasional guitar). It’s one of those legendary albums more written about than listened to.

In the booklet that accompanies the Sundazed reissue, David Fricke stresses the album’s low-fi ambiance, writing that Oar was recorded with so little treble “that Spence threatened to make his songs invisible.” Several pages later, Jud Cost suggests that Oar ‘s quietness is Spence’s repentance for his colorful breakdown during the summer of ’68, when Moby Grape was in New York recording its second album and Spence was gobbling acid like M&Ms, not to mention consorting with a female Satanist who convinced him that Moby Grape’s drummer Don Stevenson was a “snake” (as in reptile).

Mr. Stevenson recalls coming upon a roadie building a wooden box shaped like a coffin. It was. “I’m building your coffin, man,” the roadie said. “Skippy told me to.” Later, Spence chopped up Mr. Stevenson’s door at the Albert Hotel with an ax.

The cops dragged Spence to Bellevue, where he wrote some songs. After his release, he convinced Columbia Records to buy him an Easy Rider chopper and a week of studio time in Nashville. That’s where he made Oar .

This is the second reissue of Oar . The first one, put out by Sony in 1991,was a botched job. Sony remixed the original tapes, and Spence sounds like he’s playing in a closet down the hall. This time, Sundazed Music has done a great and foolish thing with Oar . It’s true to the original– Oar sounds clean and sparse, like Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding . Spence sounds like he is in your room, and you can even make out the lyrics. “A cripple on his death bed in a dream did rise,” he sings in “Cripple Creek,” a song that mines the same biblical cowboy territory of the “John Wesley Harding” songs themselves, with Spence’s mentions of “streams of fire” and a “wheelchair spinning deeper in the mud.”

Now for the foolish thing: Sony’s Oar contained five bonus tracks, and the Sundazed Oar added five more, for a total of 10 bonus tracks. All of them were apparently recorded on the last day of the Oar sessions. More Spence is not necessarily better Spence.

The new tunes all spill from the “Afro” section of the vinyl version’s 12th and last track, “Grey/Afro.” The bonus tracks make for one continuous hypnotic rant. A first-time listener may want to hurl a shoe at the CD player just to turn the damn thing off.

But there’s another way to appreciate Oar : More Oar , a tribute album in which 16 acts do Oar track by track.

Most “tribute albums” are a hodgepodge of unrelated singers that one rarely plays more than once or twice. (Remember the double album of Beatles covers, All This and World War Two , released in 1976? Case closed.) At first glance, More Oar seems to suffer from the usual lack of artistic continuity. Singers like Robert Plant, Robyn Hitchcock, Tom Waits and Beck have little in common. Yet most of the tribute musicians–Robert Plant in particular–duplicate Oar ‘s low-key artistry without being as quite as low-key as Spence himself.

Alejandro Escovedo sings “Diana” and makes the wispy melody stronger. The Ophelias ham up “Lawrence of Eurphoria”–and suddenly you realize what a hoot the song is. A few listens of More Oar will send you to the original album with pleasure.

Robyn Hitchcock’s presence on More Oar (“Broken Heart”) is a reminder of the British tradition of psychedelic breakdown that started with Syd Barrett. Not that Mr. Hitchcock has broken down (yet!). He’s singled out because he released the first perfect tribute album a few years back–Mr. Hitchcock’s complete duplication of the famous 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” concert by Bob Dylan and the Band, song by song. The Hitchcock tribute (which was only officially released as a promotion) points to a direction that tribute albums should take: one artist duplicating song by song a favorite album. Imagine Bob Mould doing Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights , song by song. Or Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo doing Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde . Who should do Mr. Hitchcock himself? Beck would be a good choice. And Mr. Hitchcock’s new record, due out later this month, Jewels for Sophia , would be a wonderful album to duplicate. It’s one of his best. Highlights include his chilly warning, “Time will destroy you like a Mexican god” (“Mexican God”).

For some peculiar reason, Mr. Hitchcock set off to make Jewels for Sophia as deliberately unhomogenous as a tribute album. As he notes in a press release, he used “different combinations of people in various studios, all playing songs they had never heard before.” Mr. Hitchcock recorded Jewels in Seattle, Los Angeles and London with four different producers (Peter Gerrald, Jon Brion, Charlie Francis and Pat Collier), but he might as well have ridden a chopper to Nashville and recorded Jewels in a week, as Spence did Oar . Jewels sounds that connected. No surprise.

Every Hitchcock record sounds more or less alike. That’s not a putdown. Genius doesn’t require variety–consider Johnny Cash. If Mr. Hitchcock had only produced a single solo record like Skip Spence did, critics would now be writing about the demented genius of Black Snake Diamond Role (1981).

Thankfully, he has given us a rich body of work. As for Skip Spence, one brilliant record from that ax wielding maniac is enough. Rest in peace.