The United States Of America
The United States Of America


It was really a nice surprise to know about the re-release of this "classic album" (granted, it's not that well-known), originally released by Columbia Records in 1968 and which had already been re-released by UK's Edsel Records in 1987, at the dawn of the digital age. Extremely beautiful on an aesthetical level, The United States Of America is a one-of-a-kind type of album for (at least) two reasons: first, it's the only recorded work by this line-up; then, 'cause it's an original mixture of pretty different styles, which are given their organization by a sure hand and an impeccable logic. A work where electric violin, ragtime piano, female lead vocals, intricate bass parts, marching bands and an experimental use of electronics brilliantly coexist. A work which had no "sequels", nor heirs - even Joseph Byrd, the group's resident genius, could not succeed in continuing the story; and trying to see the group's heirs in some names that can be said to be superficially similar in some (minor) aspects of their work it's an absolutely useless task, obviously; just the way it is for so many innovative groups that are really unique.
The nice sound of this re-release - round and clear at the same time - makes it possible for us to investigate the work's underlying logic, whose clarity owes a big debt to both The Beatles and the long tradition of classical music. Add to this an expressive urgency that's typical of those times - The 60s, with their youth revolt, the Vietnam War, the experimenting with drugs, musical innovation and so on (the nice and comprehensive liner notes exclusive to this edition make it possible for the listener to get a clear mental picture of that era, beyond the history of the group).
The first track, The American Metaphysical Circus, is a perfectly representative microcosmos of the whole album: the calliope melody, the piano, the orchestra sounding so "Old America", the synthesizer, the female vocals filtered though a ring modulator, the dry rhythm section, the sinister atmosphere that becomes a nightmare. Then the record offers, among other things - sporting an eclecticism that was without a doubt a big obstacle for many listeners - some vocals somewhat reminiscent of Grace Slick/Jefferson Airplane, meditative moments, ironic atmospheres that one could link to Frank Zappa, some episodes à la Beatles, sonic collages and songs that can only be said to be simply marvelous - check Love Song For The Dead Ché, which in some ways is the peak of the album.
What could I say to those who already own this album in one of its previous incarnations? I've already mentioned the liner notes, so I'll say of the new pictures and - again - of the very good sound. BUT: There are no lyrics (they had been featured in the first release and in the Edsel 1987 edition): WHY? There are a few unreleased tracks, and though they cannot better the original album - how could they? - they can enrich our perception of it. Extremely welcome are demos of three songs that later went on the record; one alternate take, and a couple of unreleased tracks (the very good Osamu's Birthday and a quite different version of You Can Never Come Down, which will later be featured on Byrd's solo album). There are also three unreleased tracks by a line-up headed by Dorothy Moskowitz, which show us the singer's preferred style; these songs are pleasant enough - especially the Beatles-influenced Perry Pier - but they are quite distant from those artistic ambitions which make it still possible for us to love the group so dearly.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Aug. 19, 2004