Skip Spence
Band Rating: 3

  • Oar

    Oar (1969)
    Released By: Alexander Spence
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 13

    There are countless possible reasons for a band to break up, ranging from ego clashes to artistic differences to personal friction. Moby Grape, however, have the distinction of being the only group that I'm aware of that disbanded due to one member attempting to dismember his colleagues with a fire-axe.

    In that particular case, the axe-wielder was one Skip Spence, and the catalyst for his rampage was his girlfriend (a self-professed witch) informing him that his band-mates were evil.

    It may seem tasteless to recount this (thankfully bloodless) anecdote, but it's necessary to do so in order to establish Spence's frame of mind at the time. More important, however, is the fact that the majority of the songs featured on Oar were written during his subsequent 6-month incarceration in an insane asylum.

    Due to Spence's less-than-stable mental state, comparisons with Syd Barrett are inevitable. There are some crucial differences between the two, however. Barrett's psychosis is of a markedly playful, whimsical nature. Through his work, he creates a chimerical dream-world that's open to all without prejudice. He makes no effort to disguise or conceal his madness, and his music is an extension of this unashamed insanity.

    Spence is a dramatically different case. The erstwhile Moby Grape (and very, very briefly Jefferson Airplane) member is no less mad than Barrett, but nevertheless he attempts to produce more normal, commercial work. Spence's madness isn't the foundation of his music, but rather an intrusive element that he wrestles with during each song, a force far too strong for him to suppress for any meaningful length of time.

    This struggle is evident on each track on Oar. The more normal side of Spence is represented through fundamentally well-written songs. There are plentiful hooks, and Spence has a knack for catchy vocal melodies. This is not enough to keep the madness at bay, however, as his insanity will invariably manifest itself, be it in the form of collapsing song-structures, eccentric lyrics or inaccessible, unorthodox sound collages.

    These two sides may seem incompatible, and some might mourn that the work of a talented songwriter is sabotaged by his considerable mental baggage. What these people fail to realize, however, is that somehow, contrary to all expectations, Spence has inadvertently found the perfect balance of madness and sanity to produce an unmitigated, insanity-colored masterpiece.

    Spence's more lucid side provides basic, if unstable, song structures and melodies, while his crazed side is what gives his music depth and personality. There's no one to interfere with this dynamic, as Oar is a solo album in the most literal sense. Spence plays every instrument, but he's hardly a multifaceted one-man band. As a musician, he confines himself to the basics, namely guitar-playing (usually acoustic), bass and drums. This imbues the album with a kind of raw, minimalist character that perfectly suits Spence, presenting him at his most intimate and primal.

    As far as style is concerned, it will come as no surprise that the album defies categorization at every turn. Oar is a kind of melting pot for a plethora of genres, from country to folk to rock to pop. Even though each track is unmistakably the work of Spence, the album still manages to be diverse, albeit diverse according to the idiosyncratic rules that he and he alone has fashioned.

    Despite the incredibly spare arrangements, Spence is never held back by his instrumental limitations. This is most apparent on the track War in Peace, an acid-tinged anthem that sounds more authentically psychedelic with no gimmicks or bells and whistles than the meticulously and elaborately arranged attempts at the genre from his more well-known contemporaries.

    War in Peace is indeed a true standout, boasting a catchy and suitably trippy melody along with an electric-guitar solo that's a healthy reminder that you don't need to be a virtuoso in order to hit exactly the right notes. The truth is that a solo like that would likely be marred by a virtuoso, who might needlessly complicate a passage that derives its power from being simple and direct.

    The opener, Little Hands, is a pop song that merges an extremely catchy vocal melody with a rather off-kilter delivery that ensures it could never be a hit. Even more impressive is Broken Heart, a song that's no less moving here than it would be in the hands of a more stable artist.

    The closest thing to a misfire (not counting bonus tracks) is the desultory jam Grey/Afro, a rambling mess that seems to be trying, on some level, to establish something vaguely reminiscent of a groove. The groove never appears, buried too deeply amidst the endless chaotic merging of sound, resulting in a meandering collage that's needlessly sustained for longer than any other track on the album. Somehow, however, the song is still entertaining on some perverse level. It's not overly dissonant, and there's enough progression of a sort to ensure that it never becomes boring.

    One must marvel at the unique ways in which musical madness and sanity not only complement one another, but even compensate for the other's deficiencies. Whenever the madness threatens to lead a song astray, Spence's songwriting gifts will provide a catchy hook or inspired passage to bring the number back on track. Furthermore, if a track ever becomes drab or painfully standard, Spence's alluring insanity will kick in and take the song in new and daring directions.

    By all accounts, this was not Spence's intent. I do not believe that Spence envisioned Oar as a psycho-rock album, nor did he even necessarily recognize that there was anything out of the ordinary in his work. Nevertheless, even if Spence didn't invite the listener into a world of inspired lunacy a la Barrett, more than enough of his madness seeped through to give his audience a pretty clear picture of what his inner life was like as well.