Self Help Serenade - Marjorie Fair
Paisley Underground was a short-lived movement from the west coast of the US in which country rock was mixed with psychedelia to create albums of gently soulful songs that spun off into the sunset with the sounds of the late-sixties. Influenced by Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds and The Beach Boys, Paisley Underground was indebted to both Brian Wilson and Gram Parsons, both of whom had laid the template for its sound before being forgotten about for a decade or so - one burned out in California, one simply burned in Nevada - before having their sound picked up by the Dream Theatre, Green On Red and Rain Parade.
So little is Paisley Underground recognised that it makes not one appearance in the press release for Marjorie Fair with only Mercury Rev and Grandaddy admitting such a fondness for it as to allow it into their sound. One suspects, however, that if pushed, Marjorie Fair would happily admit a debt to Paisley Underground as the sound of psychedelia is deeply rooted in their sound, mixing electric guitars, sweet harmonies and experimental rock into gentle and drifting country rock.
Of course, Paisley Underground was set vociferously against what was then fashionable but Marjorie Fair have a sound that should ensure some level of commercial and critical success, albeit nowhere near that afforded to either Mercury Rev or Grandaddy for despite a good, occasionally great, selection of songs, Self Help Serenade is not the equal of Deserter's Songs nor The Sophtware Slump. Yet without sounding too loud a note of pessimism, this is a better album than one would expect of the dreary sound of country rock as offered by Doves, Snow Patrol and Elbow, themselves more in debt to the lazy sound of their own lack of effort than the weary, love-lost sound of, say, Neil Young's beautiful Expecting To Fly.
Self Help Serenade starts in assured fashion with the trio of Don’t Believe, Halfway House and Stare, all of which serve to highlight the use of noise and gentle psychedelia behind Marjorie Fair's occasionally wonderful songs. In particular, Don't Believe is a series of soft bursts of music underpinned by country rock that's almost easy-listening. Similarly, Stare has the sound of white noise ebbing and flowing behind the music, which, as Mercury Rev revealed on Chasing A Bee on their debut album, Yerself Is Steam, is a smart way of making the sound of an acoustic guitar all the more exciting.
But if Self Help Serenade starts well, then by the fifth track, Waves, it settles into safe but ultimately lifeless music that it had initially tried hard to separate itself from. At its basic, this is the one fault with Self Help Serenade that prevents it from being genuinely great - with a wonderful opening third and only a slightly less impressive closing third, it's the middle of the album that disappoints first, before one's left feeling let down by not hearing an explosive clutch of songs that would have worked to lift Self Help Serenade into being a great album that understood both its debt to rock's backpages as well as offering as suggestion as to its future. Regardless of how nice it all sounds - Stand In The World and Silver Gun are highlights of the closing third - the album never offers a song to take Marjorie Fair wholly into psychedelic rock. Instead, Self Help Serenade becomes, well, slightly dull in the end. As the album closes in on its final five minutes, you might expect My Sun Is Setting to be a psychedelic blowout, closing the album in the same manner as The Sweet Odyssee Of A Cancer Cell T' Th' Center Of Yer Heart brought Side One of Yerself Is Steam to a end...but it never happens. Instead, Self Help Serenade ends in much the same manner as it began, with very little growth between those two points if indeed any occurred at all.
The parting thought on hearing the album's final notes is, "Is that it?" That's not a thought born of a desire to hear much more than the fifty minutes on the album but more that Self Help Serenade peaked in its first ten or fifteen minutes and offered little from that point on. Whilst great during those minutes and still good thereafter, psychedelia, whether by association with drugs, lysergic rock or meditation, always seemed to be about the journey somewhere, whether it was to the ego within or to music that was always lifting us up higher. Self Help Serenade , whilst tipping its hat to the sounds of psychedelia, is about staying safely in the one place and for the long term success of Marjorie Fair, is not a good place to rest up in.