Bitchin Bajas bubble, Margo Guryan remains unspoiled
This writer has heard his fair share of ambient and drone albums, and the new self-titled double-album from the Chicago trio Bitchin Bajas has several things going for it.
First of all, it generally has a refreshing approach to drone that doesn’t leave the listener in a catatonic state. While it doesn’t necessarily serve as a relaxant or depressant, it also isn’t harsh and in your face, with wearying sound walls.
Instead, much of the album seems to steadily give you energy in a nourishing, not caffeinated way, perhaps like an intravenous drip. The album also benefits from judicious editing—an overlooked art itself—where nearly every moment seems to have its own purposeful place.
The impressive opener “Tilang” has a raga drone vibe with effervescent, cascading synths, a string trio and autoharp strums from Daniel Quinlivan, holding onto a curious sensation of wonderment for as long as it can; “Asian Carp” is similarly entrancing, with its chimes steadily ascending and descending.
Perhaps the album’s best track is “Field Study,” which is a complex, yet effortlessly so, tapestry of woven sounds, including field recordings of birds and restless, bubbling waters from Olivia Wyatt, gentle flutes from wind player Rob Frye, organ notes from Cooper Crain (also of the group Cave) and electronic elements; gradually, a pulse enters the musical forest along with an unobtrusive bass backbone and sound loops, making a perfect blend of the organic with the synthetic.
Still pulsating, the album enters the stringently rhythmic, rapid oscillations of “Brush” with synth tones that experience subtle varations in timbre; in a complementary fashion, “Bueu” extends the vibe and ends with a frenzy that resembles a game of Pac-Man gone wrong.
The final stretch of the album meanders in a way that might not hold the listener’s interest, but for the most part, Bitchin Bajas is a subtly engaging, masterfully edited work of sonic transparencies and textures.
Margo Guryan just wanted to be a songwriter and was never inclined to be a performer, with all the obligations that role entails and being told what to do by agents, lawyers and accountants each wanting a cut.
Guryan started piano at a young age, dove into classical and jazz (she added lyrics to Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”), and had a pop revelation after hearing the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Guryan found herself in the role of performer when it came time to create demo recordings in the late ’60s, in order to shop her songs around; unsatisfied with studio vocalists who didn’t understand her use of meter, Guryan stepped behind the microphone and supplied her own voice—while not particularly versatile, it was fresh, breezy and just perfect for her own pop songs.
The collection at hand, 27 Demos, is an update of the 2001 compilation 25 Demos, which culled 15 demos from the ’60s, nine from the ’70s and one from 2000. 27 Demos offers remastered sound plus two additional tracks, not written by Guryan, “Why Do I Cry” and “Under My Umbrella. “
Her name isn’t a household one, but many have covered her compositions, including Mama Cass, Glen Campbell and Julie London. Her best known song, “Sunday Morning,” was a hit for others in the late ’60s—including Spanky and Our Gang’s chamber pop take and Oliver’s dramatic rendering—but Guryan’s own vision is the best one.
The immediately striking thing about Guryan’s “Sunday Morning” demo is its funkiness—the drum part could be easy transplanted into a pure funk song—contrasted with Guryan sweetly harmonizing with herself. (The more fleshed-out version on Guryan’s sole proper album, 1968’s Take a Picture, is even better, dialing up the funk one more notch and adding strings and electric guitar twang.)
Another highlight is “I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You,” which was commissioned for Claudine Longet; while Longet’s version has a superior arrangement, Guryan’s vocals are better, being gentle, soft and enticing while not as airy and lightweight as Longet’s.
Listeners who aren’t paying attention might not realize that several of Guryan’s pop songs are political, including three on 27 Demos specifically about the Watergate scandal; “The Hum” references the infamous “accidently” redacted Nixon tapes with a chorus of “And the tapes go hmm-mm-mm-mm...”
In such cases in retrospect—Vashti Bunyan also comes to mind—one can’t help but think about the career that might have been; nevertheless, with 27 Demos, we have a document of a great, under-appreciated, eclectic pop songwriter with a pretty voice, unspoiled by stardom.