Cotton Mather

TrackAlbum
Lost My MottoCotton Is King
Saving MyselfCotton Is King
Camp Hill Rail OperatorKontiki
Spin My WheelsKontiki
My Before And AfterKontiki
The Gold Gone DaysKontiki Deluxe Edition
Build HavanaFuture Clouds & Radar *
Malice Of StarsFuture Clouds & Radar *
The Life Of The LiarDeath Of The Cool
High SocietyWild Kingdom

* The group, Future Clouds & Radar, was formed by Robert Harrison in 2006. Their eponymous album was released the following year.

 

Cotton Mather photo 1

Cotton Mather c.1994 (l to r): Robert Harrison, Greg Thibeaux,
Matt Hovis, Whit Williams – (photo: Kate Breakey)

 

 

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Cotton Mather playlist

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Camp Hill Rail Operator, track 1 on Kontiki, album 2 from Cotton Mather

Noise, random shards of guitar
– coalescing into a BIG sound,
– the guitar picking up a riff you’ve not heard before,
– urgent vocal on each channel with the drummer tapping into and reinforcing that urgency,
– words which tell you that this rail operator is a lady, but a mad one,
– who might be an overdue prodigy if she’s not a “one woman Jan & Dean heading for the crash”,
– (and what the heck’s a camp hill rail operator anyway or have I led a sheltered life?)
– with a choral attempt to add some notes of Wilsonian calm and harmony at approx. 2:30,
– broken up by THAT axe whose twin appears on the other headphone,
– taking us back to the maelstrom of noise prior to the opening notes of …

Hold it fellas!

Recorded on four-track and ADAT in a house instead of a professional studio, 1997’s Kontiki comes jam-packed with licks, overdubs, countermelodies, and enigmatic lyrics, not to mention enough overt UK pop to bedazzle late Bomp! founder/collector Greg Shaw. Frankly, the whole endeavor could’ve collapsed like a big-budget Ken Russell feature. Yet not only does Kontiki work, it does so magnificently. Robert Harrison (singer/songwriter) and Whit Williams (guitar god) sound both confident in their ideas and willing to entertain sudden notions, which lets the opening cut, “Camp Hill Rail Operator”, come across as both brash and whimsical.
(Source: The Austin Chronicle Feb 10, 2012, writer Michael Tolland)

… track 2, Homefront Cameo in which she’s leaving home ˈcause “she wants her future back” and rough-and-ready strummed guitar segues into bubble pop balladry with edge – the two voices are back but harmonising before the long fade wherein electronica competes with a distant operatic tenor.

Finally back in print, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign initiated by the band’s leader, Robert Harrison, Kontiki is a glorious album near the pinnacle of the ’90s power-pop movement. They brought together the soaring melody of the Posies, the jangle of Velvet Crush and added their little touches to make something very special. Naturally, there are Beatlesque moments ― it appears their Beatle of choice is George ― but these songs are more than capable of standing on their own even 15 years later.
(Source: Exclaim! Blog Feb 4, 2012, review of Kontiki Deluxe Edition, writer Michael Edwards)

There are no qualms about Spin My Wheels announcing itself as a ballad; the only qualms come from Robert in announcing or not announcing himself as totally smitten, head over heels, the lot. Williams’ guitar limits itself largely to single note accompaniment (unlike the later Autumn’s Birds where he threatens to turn the Big Star/Third style slowie into a 90s power ballad) but with an ever-so-slight touch of discordance, perhaps echoing Robert’s own discombobulation. Unsurprisingly, the harmony bunch get to play a bigger role in this one and my, don’t they do it well. The colouration added by wind instruments in the break is a pleasing extra.

It has to be said: Cotton Mather sound a lot like the Beatles. But not in the brash, unimaginative way that Oasis sound a lot like the Beatles. Cotton Mather’s mission is to revamp, not replicate. Their recent Kontiki album could have been a secret Fabs’ anthology, conceived entirely from psychedelic nuggets that John and George recorded at home on a four-track tape recorder and had consigned to the cutting-room floor by their mainstream spoilsport mate, Paul.
(Source: The Guardian 3 Jun, 1999, review of Cotton Mather at Dingwalls, writer Tom Cox)

The beat is back with the near anthemic My Before And After, a title to salute and a female character to match the one in track #1, a gal who picked him out of millions but then helped his best friend see through him. Hooks galore with both the Hollies and the Who appearing from those memory banks but failing to remove the image of Lennon plonked firmly there by Harrison’s vocal. Ringing the changes instrumentally there’s a pianist who positively scampers up the keyboard during the title line repeats, attempting to breach the dominance of those multiple or multitracked guitars which otherwise rule the roost. This track actually saw single release in the UK in 1998, coupled with a track from another artist on the same label, the London band, Fraff. I’m informed that it sold moderately well but never reached the stage of regular plays on our radios.

In an album’s worth of non-stop pop delights, “My Before and After” is a clear masterpiece.
(Source: AllMusic review of Kontiki, writer Stewart Mason)

Private Ruth ensures that the ladies are still hogging the limelight; Alice and Lily are yet to come with Annie (and her kite) also getting a walk-on part in the bonus tracks on the 2012 Kontiki Deluxe Edition while unnamed ones are everywhere. And whether Ruthie’s need for solitude is totally genuine or merely her rejection of Robert is questionable. As a song, it’s best described as quirky. Guitars dominate both channels again with electronic psych sounds increasingly appropriating the close. I was about to say “long” close but that would be misleading; all the songs in the original section of the album are less than 5 minutes in duration with the exception of Vegetable Row which only exceeds that by a second.

The hooks on songs like “Vegetable Row” and “Private Ruth” catch one off-guard because they begin in a well of odd sounds that becomes increasingly melodic and beautiful, so that the noise one once heard has become the matrix of the sound of the universe. Om.
(Source: Popmatters 19 Feb, 2012, writer Steve Horowitz)

Whether track 6, Vegetable Row is actually aimed purely at Bob the bard or not, I’m unsure. Certainly lines like “I bet you were the funniest clown at the front of the hip parade” are highly suggestive of just that and Robert’s vocal is a pretty good attempt at a late 60s Dylan sneer (which got picked up by most of the critics). However, a reference to the Bells Of Rhymney indicates that Roger McGuinn too might be in there as part of a larger target. Musically though, the basis is Like A Rolling Stone with any doubt you might have had eradicated by the presence of an Al Kooper soundalike. Notwithstanding any of that, the performance has enough impetus and flow to disarm the naysayers and both band and producer have fun over the final minute (with a tiny fragment of another song entirely, showing its face before the start of the next track, increasing the sonic collage effect).

Quite possibly the best powerpop album of the nineties has been rereleased in a deluxe edition.
AND
If you can imagine Guided By Voices working their way through Rubber Soul / Revolver era Beatles, you’ve got an idea of what to expect.
(Source: Active Listener blogspot review of Kontiki Deluxe Edition 2 Mar, 2012)

The psych cum spacy sounds are back for part 2 of Aurora Bori Alice – terrible pun but I’ll forgive him – signalled by a key change from part 1 with its ominous sounding guitar balanced by playful fairground organ. Loads and loads of voices in that second part too; it’s a shame that it seems to finish so swiftly. And in terms of word play, is that another reference to the fabulous foursome via “Northern Lights”?

Cotton Mather singer Robert Harrison sounds more than a little like John Lennon. He also writes songs that sound like the Beatles. Those two factors are usually enough to write a band off as retro wannabes, but this Austin group has made great music that uses its inspirations merely as a jumping-off point to explore original territory.
(Source: Trouser Press, writer Marc Horton – and I’d add that I’d got this far including what I felt were relevant quotes, and realised that I hadn’t included one which was representative of what often hits the first time listener to Cotton Mather, the Lennon thing; I’m well towards the rear end of critics who’ve queued up to make this observation.)

The foregoing was a walk through what would have been the first side of the original Kontiki had it been released in the same physical format as Revolver, the album to which it has been so frequently compared. Its welcome wasn’t quite as rapturous as the quotes might suggest, particularly in the US. I had intended to include some rumination from self at this juncture on certain negative points raised by buyers but length considerations banished this verbiage to the footnotes (see 2 and 3).

But my selections from Kontiki aren’t yet complete. For my final pick I’m going to the Deluxe Edition 2CD version. As is to be expected from exercises of this nature, the extra CD is a ragbag of alternate or early versions of songs from the main set, plus numbers which ended up on the studio floor. Of the latter, two are particularly worthy of note: Little Star which gets an introduction that leads you to expect something from Axis: Bold As Love though doesn’t quite match that vaulting ambition, and The Gold Gone Days, a track which was originally pencilled in as the closing number to the original album. Quite why it didn’t make it is anybody’s guess but in my view – and with nothing against the eventual holder of that spot, Autumn’s Birds – it should have been there. There’s a certain stately elegance about this track which is rarely heard elsewhere in the Cotton Mather canon.

If I tell you half the truth
Would it make you very wise
I could punish you
By removing this disguise

On to Robert’s before and after; did you seriously expect me to resist the phrase?

Cotton Mather started out in life in Austin, Texas in 1990 as an art rock duo consisting of Nat Shelton, cellist and Robert Harrison, singer, guitarist and mastermind; Harrison is the man who links all the iterations of Cotton Mather and to all intents is, was, and is again (travelling through time), Cotton Mather. There’s no evidence of the first version of the band having had any success. Harrison himself stated in later years, “When I first started playing music in Austin I was aggressively, and unsuccessfully, avant-garde – extremely raw and grating. FC&R (see later) allows me to reclaim that interest but blend it with something more refined and melodic.”

Shelton left in 1991, with a new version of the band getting together with Harrison as a more conventional four piece rock outfit but one which retained the name. In terms of both longevity and more importantly, contribution, guitarist and back-up singer Whit Williams was by far the most significant of the new band members. The group’s first record, if we can call it that since it was actually an 8 song demo, came as early as 1992, with the title, The Crafty Flower Arranger. A helpful soul has uploaded the entire album onto YouTube together with a handy guide to start points of individual tracks. Harrison wrote all the songs, something we’d later come to expect on records which bore his name.

1 Asterisk Man 0:01
2 Ship Shape 2:53
3 Spellbound 5:42
4 April’s Fool 8:02
5 Cross The Rubicon 11:09
6 Lost My Motto 14:51
7 Listen To The Angel 18:40
8 I’m In Debt 23:01

And it was very good, indeed so good that the record should have seen official release. For any fan who looks back dreamily to the music of the British sixties groups (or British Invasion in US terms), and/or has a liking for groups in later years who have had the label Power Pop attached to them, this must be manna from heaven; I recommend playing the entire clip or working your way through the tracks.

Two years later the group’s first official release saw the light of day, on the short lived Elm record label. The latter was based in L.A. but the studio used was Ardent in Memphis, a name which is indelibly associated with Big Star. The album, Cotton Is King, contained three of the numbers from Crafty and 9 new songs, all from Harrison (and I’ll stop saying that from now on). On drums for the set was a gent called Greg Thibeaux and on bass was Matt Hovis although they were supplemented to an extent in the studio. Mind you most of what you’ll hear on track #1, Lost My Motto, one of the songs from Crafty, is Whit Williams who’s absolutely everywhere on the number like a Townshend on steroids, (that’s assuming that Harrison didn’t perform any of the axe work which could have been the case). Either way it’s something of a tour-de-force and a prime example of a trait which would become more apparent on Kontiki, that of using an unusual song structure which moved away from clearly identifiable verse, verse, chorus, bridge etc, to something more complex bringing in different melodic elements, new rhythms and mood changes.

Robert’s ability to craft lyrics that rarely drop below the level of interesting and sometimes transcend it (though he does take risks which lead to the occasional fall from grace) are apparent throughout the album, notably on the mid tempo and Beatle-y, Saving Myself, a track on which his vocal effectively duets with Williams’ commendably versatile guitar.

Saving myself ‘cos I don’t too much trust anybody else
I’m saving myself for a girl who knows the difference between money and wealth

The album isn’t all Beatlesque power pop. Both The World’s Boutique and The New King Of Trash demonstrate a love for ballads on Robert’s part, something which would feature strongly in future work.

Come 1997, come Kontiki, on the Copper record label. I’ve drip fed quite a bit of information about the album already via the quotations used. What I haven’t said is that Messrs Hovis and Thibeaux had left (due to the commercial failure of Cotton Is King according to Wiki) and been replaced by George Reiff on bass and Dana Myzer on drums. In addition, what I said about its reception might have been overly flavoured by history since several of the reviews quoted came from 2012, the year of release of the double CD deluxe edition. In fact critics at the time were impressed but the US public reaction was mixed, not helped by the label having distribution issues.

In 1999 Kontiki was released in the UK on the Rainbow Quartz label. In an interview with Harrison by Live4ever in 2017 headed “The Album Oasis Wish They’d Made”, there’s a statement describing how the album came to the attention of the Gallagher brothers:

“(Oasis touring and studio musician) Paul Stacy tells me that it was a New Year’s Day or Boxing Day party at Ron Wood’s house where somebody had Kontiki and they listened to it over and over and over with Noel (Gallagher) among them,” Harrison said. “And Paul says Ron Wood kept on saying, ‘It sounds like the fookin’ Beatles. Sounds like the fookin’ Beatles.’ So that’s how those guys got it.”

The rest should have been history but was only so to a relatively limited extent. Noel and Liam were very definitely impressed though, witness quotes below from the same article:

“Bastards! It was like the Beatles. I thought if that isn’t the best record I’ve heard in 10 years, then I don’t know what is. It’s one of my all time favourites.” (Noel Gallagher)

“I f**king wish it was ours. I play it all day at home.” (Liam Gallagher)

The Gallaghers also invited Harrison & co to the UK to play three dates with them on a UK tour. All of which should have had major impact over here. It certainly bowled over some critics – note the Guardian mention earlier – and gained them something like cult status with a relatively small but knowledgeable audience.

Some of that near adulation should have seeped back across the Atlantic and, to be fair, a little did. But not enough to produce sales for the boys’ next album, The Big Picture, which they started recording in 1998. Harrison probably didn’t help by stalling action on Picture and instead devoting attention to a 7 track EP, Hotel Baltimore, which saw release in 1999. Lead-off track on the EP was a rerecording of Lost My Motto; it’s OK but did we need another? Three outtake songs from Kontiki (which later saw the light of day via versions on Kontiki Deluxe) were also included leaving space for only three new songs. This might all have been seen as a little anticlimactic after Kontiki and when The Big Picture did finally emerge (in 2001), fickle record buyers could have moved elsewhere.

Was it worth the wait?

I wish I could give a clear answer. It’s one of only two albums associated with Robert Harrison from which I haven’t made any selections. There are certainly fine tracks on it. The four – count them! – ballads are all well performed with Baby Freeze Queen, one of two rejects from Kontiki, and Monterrey Honey with real or synthesised harp, strings and extremely long verses of the type Robert loves, particular favourites, as are the two tracks – Glory Eyes and Panama Slides – on which the tumbling guitar sound evokes the first iteration of Crazy Horse (with or without Neil Young) or Teenage Fanclub, but only in places. But I’m put off by a lead track (Last Of The Mohicans), which attempts to replicate the crash, bang, wallop introductions to the previous two albums but doesn’t quite pull it off, also the entry of Whit Williams’ axe on track #2, Marathon Man, which casts an unfortunate AOR pallor over the performance. And why does Harrison have to switch to singing in Italian approx. half way through Story Of Anna which was choogling along perfectly well as a vaguely early Springsteen outing up until that point. But I’m quibbling. Following Kontiki was never going to be easy. Perhaps they tried too hard. It’s still a good four stars compared with five plus, plus, plus.

Wiki refer to the years between 2003 and 2012 as a “hiatus” for Cotton Mather; it’s not a word that would have occurred to me but it’ll do just fine. Certainly the band effectively disbanded after what must have been some disillusionment following the commercial failure of The Big Picture, with members going their different ways. Harrison apparently wanted to spend more time raising his family. There are also various reports of health issues to which the man himself made reference in an interview conducted shortly before the release of his first album with a new band, Future Clouds & Radar:

Why this different direction? After Cotton Mather, I was laid up for some time with a spine problem, and getting beyond it required a complete psychic, spiritual overhaul. I left music. And when I returned, I decided the new expression should be a truer extension of the spirit. I’ve always reacted against the commodity-driven notion that artistry is strongest when it’s monochromatic. I still wanted to create rooms, but the walls had to go. Now it’s a freewheelin’, paint-splattering, horn-blowin’, kitchen-sink world where guitars still rule the roost. And it’s a dude fest no more. With women in the group, the energy balances.”
(Source: Texas Monthly Apr 2007, writer Jeff McCord)

To all intents and purposes, the album, Future Clouds & Radar, was a solo affair from Robert. The ‘band’ was more of a loose collective of musicians which gave the auteur the ability to regularly work with a much wider range of musical sounds than hitherto. The 2CD, 27 track album could have been a disaster with Robert indulging his clever, clever side all over the place. Although a casual first listen might suggest that this has happened, it’s not the case. Yes there’s experimental/frivolous filler here but not to a substantially greater level than on most CM albums. And yes, it could have been trimmed to a single CD, which is what happened (though with no evidence of quality control) for the UK release, but what double album escapes such comment?

I’ve selected two ballads, the sixties psych Malice Of Stars, a track that you feel Robert must have had fun putting together, it harks back so much to his favourite period, and, almost at the other extreme, the highly poppy Build Havana, optimism expressed with a latin beat.

She gets so broken, she can’t mend
And I get so blown away, I can’t understand
How this little apartment always stays so cold
Our love’s in currency that I can’t hold
We could build, we could build Havana

In relative terms, there’s a lack of power pop in Future Clouds & Radar, in part perhaps due to the lack of Whit Williams, but I would guess that Robert relished the opportunity to stretch out on guitar himself and the music hadn’t totally disappeared, witness Holy Janet Comes On Waves, a track that had to get at least a mention due to that fabulous title. And perhaps feeling that he’d been ignoring roots music for far too long, this time Robert gives us a near country tearjerker in Christmas Day 1923 and a bluesy but brief, Devil No More. Overall the album was very good, offering plenty of convincing evidence that Robert could produce compositions, arrangements and productions that didn’t immediately scream Beatles at you even if his Lennonised vocal hadn’t changed too much.

2008’s Peoria offered more of the same, arguably with a little more consistency, but was (also) arguably a less satisfactory album due to its brevity: 8 tracks spread over 35 minutes. It’s the other album associated with Robert that hasn’t resulted in one of its tracks appearing in the ten. That’s not a comment on the quality, rather that the album has become a victim of Robert’s overall quality level across his entire oeuvre. Tracks like the opener, The Epcot View certainly aren’t without interest or enjoyment.

It’s at this stage I bemoan the fact that there isn’t such a thing as a standard Wiki feature or equivalent from elsewhere containing a biography on Robert Harrison. We can only glean a little by reading between the lines in the CM and the FC&R articles There are a few interviews but he seems to skip over the missing years. What happened musically between 2008/9 and 2012 when he put out the deluxe edition of Kontiki on his own Star Apple Kingdom label, the one he used for the FC&R albums? The FC&R Wiki article states:

“The group never officially disbanded, and occasionally still plays around Austin, but have not released anything since 2009. Although Harrison’s now-defunct blog stated that the “Songs from the I Ching” project would feature music from both of his projects, everything that has been released as of 2019 has been credited to Cotton Mather.”

I assume the 2019 reference merely indicates when the article was written. However, In November 2015, Texas Monthly interviewed Harrison and the para below tells us that he had the idea for the project in spring 2015.

“A few years ago I wrote a song titled “Call Me the Witch” for a woman named Nicole Atkins. I got the idea for the song after consulting the I Ching, trying to figure out what to write. I wrote a couple more after that, basically using it as a writing aid. Around Christmas last year I got the idea for this project as I was recalling a conversation with a friend, who was also a student of the I Ching, and I said my favorite movie is It’s a Wonderful Life, and he supposed this was because every condition of the I Ching happens in that movie. So I thought, “What if I could do that in songs?” At first, when I would ask, “Should I do a project based around the I Ching?” I’d get a gentle “No.” But this spring I was in Europe and realized it was burning in me to do it. I thought it would be gimmicky to do all 64 at once, it would only work if it comes from sincerity. It couldn’t just be, “Hey, look at me.””

Over the period leading up to the release in 2016 of Death Of The Cool, Robert commenced writing, and then recording, tracks for that album with a part new Cotton Mather (though Williams still commanded the guitar hero role). His very first I Ching project song, The Book Of Too Late Changes became the first track on the album and, conveniently or otherwise, it was in the crash/bang/wallop opener style which CM had established (and didn’t compare at all badly with its predecessors). The song was based on hexagram #24, the character Fu for ‘Return’, a highly suitable choice.

Overall the songs were as good as he’d ever created and it’s only the visceral impact of Kontiki which prevents it being pipped by this set as best CM album. Particularly memorable were the ballads: Land Of Flowers with its touches of baroque, the back porch feel of The Middle Of Nowhere (though that’s back porch with a full orchestra and pedal steel) and the true life drama of The End Of Dewitt Finley which is nowhere near as yucky as that might sound (and for the Finley story, see Footnotes).

But it was two non-ballad tracks which vied for my attention as selection from Death Of The Cool: Close To The Sun which had some of the monumental feel of The Gold Gone Days. Okay, lots of rockers have done this sort of thing but Robert, Whit and co. carry it off very, very well, and The Life Of The Liar. What do I say about The Life Of The Liar other than the fact that it’s nutty? Why mariachi trumpets? It can’t just be to appeal to the slightly odd person like myself who loves records which feature them. The song relates to hexagram #6, ‘Contention’, which I guess fits with Robert’s philosophising. Call it my wild card.

2017 saw the release of Wild Kingdom a.k.a. episode 3 of the Cotton Mather I Ching box set; episode 2 having been the 3 track EP, Cotton Mather With Nicole Atkins. Another good album if not quite at the same level as Death Of The Cool. It gave me the same sort of problem in selection of a track as its predecessor. This time the head won out. It was telling me that a rawk track was overdue if I was to echo the Kontiki experience, hence High Society, a guitar filled rocker but more doomy and minor chord filled than a typical power pop effort. Was there an element of the autobiographic in “They shot me down in Texas, so I crawled to Hollywood” even assuming usage of metaphor?

The one that lost out? Girl With A Blue Guitar, a track that had instant appeal to the retro part of my brain, conjuring up productions by Lee Hazlewood but with someone more accomplished than Sanford Clark, say Ricky Nelson on vocal – I feel it’s one that would appeal to Richard Hawley. The online Attwood Magazine for Dec 2, 2016 tells us that the song was based on hexagram 53, ‘Gradual Progress’, and “concerns itself with the development of a love relationship using the imagery of swans flying and nesting,” according to Harrison, with a paragraph of commentary from the man. Both come from ichingsongs.com, a site that Robert set up to provide song by song commentary but which is no longer available. Here’s a live version of Girl With A Blue Guitar just to show that Cotton Mather can play these songs.

And the story is by no means over. October 2017 saw the release of a 6 track EP, Young Life. It contained a song called Death Of The Cool which wasn’t on the album of that name but didn’t contain a song called Young Life. It held two ballads, one outright rocker and three unclassified or quirky if you like, songs, and it wasn’t short of lines from Robert which stopped you in your tracks – “See your world in Dutch light but you just don’t remember the fight”. As if to emphasise such quirky moments, the one rocker, Shepherds Purse, started off with a solo sotto voce piano repeating a slow phrase which led the listener to expect something utterly heartbreaking, until the Williams guitar stormed to the fore picking up the phrase and with imperceptible acceleration led us into the return of power pop; even the vocal harmonies were there; they’d been largely absent for a time. “I feel like a comeback kid moving to redemption.”

Given Robert’s ability to come up with words, I feel that he should have the final ones in this Toppermost:

“One thing I’ve always liked about Cotton Mather music is that it’s always winking at you.”

 

FOOTNOTES

1. There’s a long and detailed account of the life and achievements of Cotton Mather, the man, in Wikipedia. The introductory paragraph states:

“Cotton Mather (February 12, 1663 – February 13, 1728) was a New England Puritan minister, prolific author, and pamphleteer. He left a scientific legacy due to his hybridisation experiments and his promotion of inoculation for disease prevention, though he is most frequently remembered today for his involvement in the Salem witch trials. He was subsequently denied the presidency of Harvard College which his father, Increase Mather, had held.”

Vis-à-vis the choice of name for his band, Robert Harrison had the following to say in his interview with Texas Monthly in 2015:

“When I started this band my brother suggested the name Cotton Mather and we couldn’t stop laughing. It was his brilliant, perverse tip of the cap to my road not taken. And as for the witch burning characterization, I’ll take this moment to point out that Cotton Mather was an extraordinarily complicated man, hideous and despicable as those events were. Graduated Harvard age eleven. A man of science who first introduced vaccines into the colonies. Someone who likely wrote more in their lifetime than anyone ever! But Salem is to Cotton Mather as Vietnam is to Lyndon Johnson. History is a cruel publicist.”

An interesting comment in the light of recent history plus, of course, the current spotlight on vaccination.

2. The quotations incorporated within the review section on Kontiki were intended to give a broad media view plus additional factual information. What they did not address was public reaction. While Amazon.com reviews for the relatively recent Deluxe Edition were very largely positive, the same can’t be said about the original album for which the 27 reviews gave an average rating of 3.2 stars. For the sake of balance I felt that these reviews warranted some attention. The extracts below outline the main negative points made (with contributors’ Amazon IDs and ratings included). Prior to reading these I’d note that Amazon.co.uk had zero UK reviews for the 1997 version and 18 UK reviews for the Deluxe Edition of which the vast bulk gave 5 star ratings.

Vlad (3 star)
I wish I didn’t care about the Beatles parroting, but I do. I can’t get past the realization that if the Beatles had merely aped Buddy Holly or Little Richard, we’d never have known they existed. Either Cotton Mather is doing a good job of hiding that they really have nothing new to say, or they’re playing some serious chicken with fate. Either way, they’ll lose.

Eric Collins (2 star)
Anyway, I’ve listened several times, thinking maybe I was in the wrong mood the first time, or maybe it took repeated listenings to “get it,” and I have to say I’m just not convinced about these guys yet. When they can write 10-12 songs as good as “Spin My Wheels” and “My Before And After,” THEN I’ll be hooked. There’s a load a filler here, to my ears.

wsjr786 (1 star)
Way too cute, contrived, i could not believe how much I disliked this cd, just play the songs out and stop trying to be so clever!!!! almost impossible for this 48 yr. old to listen to.

3. Given that I’m obviously enthusiastic enough about Robert Harrison and his bands to have put together this Toppermost, I felt that a personal response to the above three points could be of interest. So, here goes:

It’s not at all unusual for artists in a range of media to hold strong influences and for evidence of such influences to be apparent in their early work. What is far less common is for such influences to still resonate so strongly several years into the life of an artist – say five or six years given the text in the Wiki piece on the formation of the guitar rock version of Cotton Mather, not the initial cello based duo. Moving forward to as close to now as possible, 2017’s Wild Kingdom is less Beatlesque than Kontiki but Harrison’s voice hasn’t significantly changed – the fact is that the majority of listeners to the album are highly likely to have their experience framed by the 1997 set and will see Fab Four touches in whatever Robert & co create. To draw an analogy: once you’ve compared someone to Frank Spencer, the Spencer image just won’t leave the brain.

Given that Cotton Mather’s songs aren’t blatant cribs of the Beatles catalogue, the likeness we hear is only occasionally down to melodic similarities – apart from occasional knowing references, the lyrics are streets apart – and much more, the performance (including the Robert/John vocal similarity).

None of the above would be that worrying if Robert’s songs possessed the quality of those from his idols. They don’t (though this is less a criticism of Robert – he’s a mere mortal after all – more a eulogy to the Fab Four). I’m afraid writer 2 above (Eric Collins) has a point. How many of Kontiki’s songs would have gotten onto Revolver? Not a lot. But then you could make exactly the same point about a host of artists who are enjoyed by millions. What Robert does have and what was particularly apparent in Kontiki, is an ability to dress to kill (which probably reached its heights on that album with a bit of help from Brad Jones). This isn’t all performance and production, it’s also the ability to arrange, which itself includes a variety of things: the usage of unusual note or chord or even rhythmic changes, vocal idiosyncrasies with words stretched or galloped over, the inclusion of fragments of other melodies sometimes sung or at other times coming from part of the backing team stepping up, and more. Interest rarely flags when you’re listening to the album. And to repeat the opening comment in this para, just how many writers could come up with songs of the consistent quality of the Beatles in their heyday?

The last commentator (wsjr786) turns the whole thing round and asks, why can’t you guys (well Harrison anyway) just let the songs stand on their own two feet. Don’t you know when to stop adding icing? It’s a valid criticism, and continuing from my thoughts in the last para, the possibility does exist that he, Robert, doesn’t feel his songs are strong enough to stand on their own, hence the icing. I’m more inclined to think that he is constantly on the search for touches to improve a song and/or its performance and that’s his nature. It doesn’t always work of course but that’s the risk he takes.

4. In case the Jan & Dean reference doesn’t make a lot of sense to the reader, I should report that the duo scored 26 US chart hits between 1958 and 1966 (acc. to Wiki) but on April 12, 1966, Jan (Berry) received severe head injuries in a near fatal car accident on Whittier Drive, just a short distance from Dead Man’s Curve in Beverly Hills, California. Jan & Dean had had a hit with a song with just this title in 1964. The tag line of the song ran: “Won’t come back from Dead Man’s Curve”.

5. Under the heading of “Definition And Etymology” and sub-heading, “Characteristics” in their article on power pop, Wiki kick off with the paragraph below. They include a further para but I think the first will do as a broad definition of the genre:

“Power pop is a more aggressive form of pop rock that is based on catchy, melodic hooks and energetic moods. AllMusic describes the style as “a cross between the crunching hard rock of the Who and the sweet melodicism of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, with the ringing guitars of the Byrds thrown in for good measure”. Virtually every artist of the genre has been a rock band consisting of white male musicians who engaged with the song forms, vocal arrangements, chord progressions, rhythm patterns, instrumentation, or overall sound associated with groups of the mid 1960s British Invasion era.”

6. In case anyone didn’t catch the reference, Lily Dreams On from Kontiki is an affectionate nod to the Who and their Pictures Of Lily. It’s also a track which very nearly made the ten.

7. The Cotton Mather/Robert Harrison Twitter ID is @CottonMatherATX. Since April 27, Robert has been posting the parade of I Ching songs from “Dr. Robert’s Magic Cabin” which I presume is his home complete with Revolver/Lennon reference.

8. George Harrison, famously, referenced the I Ching in the writing of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and Robert was undoubtedly aware of this. These are George’s words from The Beatles Bible: “I wrote ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ at my mother’s house in Warrington. I was thinking about the Chinese I Ching, the Book of Changes … The Eastern concept is that whatever happens is all meant to be, and that there’s no such thing as coincidence – every little item that’s going down has a purpose.

“‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was a simple study based on that theory. I decided to write a song based on the first thing I saw upon opening any book – as it would be relative to that moment, at that time. I picked up a book at random, opened it, saw ‘gently weeps’, then laid the book down again and started the song.”

9. The song, Call Me The Witch from Nicole Atkins referred to in the main text, appears on one of a tiny handful of EPs released by CM. The EP’s title is Cotton Mather With Nicole Atkins.

10. There are couple of lines in The Book Of Too Late Changes which run “Hey, does anybody here know / the way to get to Wilco / We’re roughly peers / and yet they seem to thrive”. They did make me wonder whether CM had been ignored in favour of Wilco at an award ceremony or whether there was any bad blood between Tweedy and Harrison. I did spend a little time looking but nothing emerged. I wonder if the reader is aware of anything?

11. Bear Camp Road in the US state of Oregon is a mountain road which is not suitable for travel in the winter. Several motorists have been stranded for days or weeks on the road and a small number have died. Dewitt Finley was one such. To quote Wikipedia:

“In 1994, a man traveling over Bear Camp Road died after being stranded for nine weeks. The victim, Dewitt Finley, was a camper salesman from Montana. He was attempting to drive from Gold Beach to Grants Pass and became snowbound. He kept a journal while stranded on the road, and ultimately died of starvation. His body wasn’t recovered until May 1995, when it was discovered by a group of local teenagers. There is no indication that Finley ever attempted to hike out, or ever left his camper. Some accounts indicate that Finley would have likely survived if he had attempted to hike out.”

12. My initial attraction to, but ultimate rejection of, CM’s Girl With A Blue Guitar might have had something to do with that opening guitar phrase. Take a listen to the Byrds’ Have You Seen Her Face from Younger Than Yesterday and you’ll see what I mean. OK, the lift only picks up the first few notes but it’s resulted in me humming the opening line of the Byrds’ Chris Hillman penned classic each time I play Robert’s song.

13. The Fanatic promotion for Young Life contains the most up to date listing of released songs in Robert’s I Ching project giving hexagram numbers (and meanings) plus source albums etc.

14. Back in the eighties my journey to work was by car and it was lengthy. Which gave me every excuse, in my eyes that is, to make mix tapes to supplement the usual musical diet. It wasn’t long before I started making tapes on which every track had some connection with Texas – artist, composer, studio, producer etc. – and every track was connected to its predecessor (or was continuing with same artist/theme/etc). This came about from a gradual realisation that a lot of artists who I liked across differing genres were born/lived/worked in the Lone Star State. A few years later my journey to work shortened but not before I’d learnt a lot more about my subject (and bought quite a few CDs). So much for that but years later and not too long after I signed up to Twitter, it occurred to me that I could do much the same thing on that medium using a YouTube clip instead of a chunk of magnetic tape and all the resources of the internet were available for my research. That’s how I found Butthole Surfers, or more importantly in my eyes, a totally different band, Cotton Mather. They featured (of course) in my “Texas Tapes” but only Kontiki at the time. I was staggered that the band weren’t better known but timewise I guess I discovered them during the ‘hiatus’. Incidentally, for anyone curious, my first Twitter Texas Tape post featured “the ultimate Texan Willie Nelson & his mate Bob singing Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty””.

15 There aren’t a lot of live clips of CM but the one below packs a lot into its 12 minutes duration. While no date has been given it’s clearly been put together to plug Kontiki, kicking off with songs from the second half of the original album which I didn’t feature in the main text. The visuals are on the murky side but the audio compensates.

 

 

Cotton Mather photo 2

Whit Williams, Robert Harrison, Dana Myzer

 

April’s Fool (Cotton Is King)

 

High Society (Wild Kingdom)

 

Robert Harrison official website

Harold Whit Williams official website

Cotton Mather facebook

Cotton Mather discography

Cotton Mather biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #892

2 Comments

  1. Marc Fagel
    Aug 5, 2020

    Wow, talk about exhaustive! I really like the band, but there’s a lot here I didn’t know. Very glad to see Future Clouds & Radar included; I love that album, and Build Havana is just wonderful.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Aug 5, 2020

    Intriguing band – not quite sure how I feel about them yet but they do sound strangely strange yet oddly familiar. Excellent piece as always…

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