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John and Philipa Cooper – The Cooperville Times

March 31, 2012

john & philipa cooper the coopersville timesI normally shy away from ultrarare psych nuggets.  The fetishization of a recording’s rarity can and often does obscure any clear-eyed assessment of the music itself, and when discussions about a record revolve around the object and not the music, well, those discussions are more appropriate for Antiques Roadshow than, say, here.

The Cooperville Times, a 1969 record by South African psych-folk duo John and Philipa Cooper, would seem to fit that bill pretty well.  It appears to be the only recording by that group, about which there is precisely nothing substantial online beyond the fact that they shared a surname (husband/wife?  Brother/sister?  Happy coincidence?) and were from Johannesburg, South Africa.  So, yes, discussing the The Coopersville Times would be entirely conducive to crate-digging one-upsmanship (look what I found!) and nothing more, except for the insignificant trifling issue that its first four songs are actually stupendously deliciously excellent.  It’s true: Even when considered on their own merits and not as crate-digging artifacts, these songs are great.

Even better, these four songs are sonically diverse, not just four variations of the same successful theme.  Indeed, they succeed because of John and Philipa Cooper’s organic and subdued approach to psychedelia, which relies on judicious use of unexpected instrumentation throughout these songs.  A distended organ here or a buried guitar solo there contributes volumes on The Cooperville Times.

For example, opener “The Mad Professor” is a fairly standard axe-wailer recast by its explosive intro and unusually funky drum pattern (which is absolutely begging to be sampled by the RZA) into something at once odder and more engaging.  Meanwhile, “Gipsy Spell” is a charming cast-off spiked with surprisingly accomplished and otherworldly Balkan-influenced fiddling, not the sort of detail you’d expect on a record of this provenance.  “Wild Daydream” blends a jaunty clarinet and clusters of what sounds like a trilling harpsichord into a swinging shuffler.

The highest point in The Cooperville Times‘s beginning run is “I’ll Be Much More Than Satisfied,” a beguiling piece layering flute, upright bass, a deliberately picked acoustic guitar line, and a spectacular vocal performance by Philipa, who sings in that clear, piercing, affectless way common to many of her psych-folk contemporaries.  It’s not a very original way to sing, but she absolutely nails it, hitting her notes with a sort of precise coo that renders her soaring vocal range small and approachable.  I’ll happily open myself up to criticism by admitting that I’m actually kind of moved by the lyrical content of “I’ll Be More Than Satisfied,” as saccharine and naive as it is, but Philipa’s stunning delivery could make grocery lists give me chills.*

Taken as a whole, this album is merely very good, not great.  With the exception of the haunting “Singing In My Soul,” a song very similar in mood and construction to “I’ll Be More Than Satisfied,” the remaining material after the first four songs is forgettable.  But those opening songs more than make up for the unremarkable remainder of The Cooperville Times.  Grab it.

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*Though I must admit that there’s something about over-the-top homages to undying love, however divorced from reality they may be, that gets me.  The most moving song in this tradition is the Byrds’s rendition of “John Riley,” which routinely wells me up.

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