Review Summary: Listening to this album is to slip into an idealistic reverie of simpler times.
Grab your backpack, run out the door and hop on your bicycle. You’re speeding through the streets, quaint suburbia a mere blur in your periphery. Great rows of oaks stand to attention, swaying gently in the breeze; the pavement glistens in speckled sunlight. It’s a warm Sunday afternoon. Left at Lake Avenue, kids playing on the side path; right onto Pine Grove, two small dogs on leashes; straight on ‘til Washington Street. Jump off your bike, chuck it against the peeling white weatherboard wall - you’re here. Push open the door. The old man reclines lazily behind the counter; he glances up from his Rolling Stone magazine and raises his eyebrows. Nod a greeting, walk briskly down the threadbare aisle. Up the dusty wooden stairs: one, two, three
- the last is creaking worse than ever. Music plays softly in the overhead stereo… The Velvet Underground
, maybe" Start thumbing through records. Pink Floyd
, Grateful Dead
, Jefferson Airplane
- Christ, isn’t there anything new here" - The Beatles
, Crosby, Stills & Nash
… Hang on, what’s this" At the very back of the crate, a vibrant technicolour sleeve lies covered in dust. Wipe the jacket clean, read the title aloud: ‘Relatively Clean Rivers
Such is the mythology that surrounds Relatively Clean Rivers sole release. Privately pressed and limited to just a handful of copies, the album seemed doomed to obscurity - another artefact from the unhinged, dope-fuelled experimentation of mid-’70 West Coast counterculture. It was delegated to the back of the record store, destined to rot in a stinking pile of musical curiosities, until an enterprising group of vinyl enthusiasts pulled it back from the edge of oblivion. As it turns out, they’d struck gold. Over time, whispers became rumours and rumours became legend: a forgotten hippy-folk masterpiece - mysteriously self-produced and rare as hens’ teeth - had been unearthed, and any self-respecting psychedelic aficionado needed to hear it. Today, original pressings of Relatively Clean Rivers
self-titled album sell for around $1000US, and constitute the crown jewel in many record collections.
If anything, four decades of sleuthing has only contributed to the legend. As it turns out, Relatively Clean Rivers is the pet sound of Phil Pearlman, an Orange County native who grew to prominence jamming psychedelic improvisations with both The Beat of the Earth (1967) and Electronic Hole (1970). Relatively Clean Rivers
was largely written and recorded by Pearlman himself, with small instrumental contributions from friends and former bandmates. In an effort to gain an audience, rumour has it Phil would “reverse shoplift” the album by hiding it among the shelves of record stores. Following its release, Pearlman relocated to property in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains, established a goat farm and - in contrast to the tenacity of his final album - faded away into obscurity.
Listening to this album is to slip into an idealistic reverie of simpler times. It feels like a sepia-toned Linklater film; dazed and confused, blissful, baking in the California sun. The pastural acoustics and lackadaisical harmonies of ‘Easy Ride’ recall Crazy Horse-era Neil Young
. ‘Hello Sunshine’ begins in much the same way; it isn’t until the bridge - awash with primeval flutes and backwards guitar riffs - that you realise Relatively Clean
Rivers covers decidedly more experimental territory. In fact, Pearlman happily wanders off the beaten path into sprawling psych-tinged wilderness at the drop of a hat. The soothing acoustic instrumental ‘Last Flight to Eden’ shows Pearlman at his most focused and restrained; with ‘Prelude’, he samples and reverses the entire track, as if disappointed by his capitulation to normative songwriting. It’s this dichotomy of structure and improvisation that forms the mesmerising spine of this album. ‘Through the Valley of O’ is the standout track because it most perfectly embodies this tension. It’s a stale bluesy two-chorder in anyone else’s hands, but Pearlman only manages a single lilting verse before meandering into another heady, contemplative jam. Towards the end of the song - in full-blown Grateful Dead
mode - he asks himself, ‘would I walk away to paradise or keep on playin’ the game"
’ Well Phil, the proof is in the pudding: if you’ve proven anything with Relatively Clean Rivers
, it’s that you can do both.