Former Milwaukeean Peter Stampfel has been tilting at the windmill of traditional music in his own unique way since the early 1960s. His most high-profile project has probably been the Holy Modal Rounders, an on-and-off collaboration with fellow Greenwich Village cohort Steve Weber. If Dylan going electric -- and, of course, the influence of The Beatles -- hadn't ended the commercial folk music boom, the Rounders' fourth album certainly would have finished it off all by itself.
In a measure of the changing times, The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders was released in 1968 by erstwhile folk/ethnic music-archiving extraordinaire Elektra Records, which had jumped full-on into the rock game a couple years earlier. The Rounders' music was never destined to light up the sales charts like labelmates The Doors. However, the band did receive a huge burst of exposure after the release of The Moray Eels Eat the holy Modal Rounders when its deranged honky-tonk number "Bird Song" was included in the film and soundtrack album of Dennis Hopper's iconic film Easy Rider.
That song is certainly representative of the album's sound, which shambles through traditional musical styles in a psychedelic haze. Of course, any recording featuring Stampfel's uniquely nasal singing voice has a head start on sounding weird, so you might as well ramp it up! It's disorienting on the first few listens, as songs sometimes start and stop randomly with little or no break between them, parts fade in and out of the mix, and mysterious noises abound. On the surface, this album sounds like the group's members were making it up as they went, or perhaps had no idea what they were doing.
After a few spins, though, the fact that there are some really good songs hiding among the chaos coalesces. The sly put-down "Take-Off Artist Song" and the bluesy garage stomp of "Half a Mind" tend to stick in one's brain once planted there. The album even ends with a piss-take on the "Pledge of Allegiance" -- a brave enough move in 2008, let alone 1968. Considering these guys helped guide the first incarnation of The Fugs before their bandmates really all knew how to play instruments, it makes sense. (Elektra 1968; currently available on vinyl from Sundazed)