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By Stewart Mason

MARCH 6, 2000: 

Bruce Haack and Esther Nelson Listen Compute Rock Home: The Best of Dimension Five (Emperor Norton)

From the early '60s into the '80s, Canadian electronic music pioneer Bruce Haack and New York dance teacher Esther Nelson teamed up as Miss Nelson and Bruce to record a series of releases on their own Dimension Five label meant to instruct children about the joys of imaginative dance. While the records have served admirably in that function for decades -- I remember bouncing around the floor mats in the music room at Loma Linda Elementary to Miss Nelson and Bruce's distinctively-packaged albums in the late '70s -- adult listeners have also fallen under the spell of Miss Nelson and Bruce over the past few years.

The playfully surreal songs and stories, coupled with Nelson's Laurie Anderson-as-kindergarten teacher delivery and Haack's fascinating, often homemade, electronic instruments, are enjoyable both as kitsch and as brilliant examples of early electronic music akin to Raymond Scott's ventures into the electronic arena (Soothing Sounds for Baby, etc.). Though Haack is probably best known to weird-music fanatics for his wild religious-themed concept album The Electric Lucifer (recently bootlegged and highly recommended), these 15 tracks are an intriguing introduction to his singular musical style. Unfortunately, many of Miss Nelson and Bruce's most bizarre early recordings, like "A Stuffy Story" and the tale of the paranoid pooch "Tokey" (hmmm ... ) are missing. Hopefully, there'll be a Volume Two.

Various Artists Harvest Festival (Harvest)

The five-CD boxed set Harvest Festival details the first 10 years of Harvest Records, the EMI subsidiary founded in 1969 to serve/exploit the booming "underground," "experimental," "progressive" British music scene (a la Decca's Deram, Pye's Dawn and Polydor's Vertigo labels). Of course, 30 years on, most of what Harvest released no longer fits any of those descriptions, if in fact they ever applied at all. Listening to these CDs today, it seems clear that Harvest was an interesting, if somewhat flawed, pop label.

Of course, this is due largely to the set's selective focus. As the surprisingly honest liner notes state, a good deal of Harvest's output, especially from the early days, falls squarely into the category of "We suffered for our art, now it's your turn." While there are occasional clunkers of this variety -- the heavy band Quatermass is particularly lame -- Harvest Festival focuses on the label's two more successful styles.

First there's the folkier side, comprising ardent traditionalists like Shirley and Dolly Collins, Martin Carthy, and The Albion Band; folk-influenced individualists like Michael Chapman and the great Roy Harper; and exceedingly twee folk-poppers like Panama Limited Jug Band, Third Ear Band and Gryphon. Between them, this lot contribute many of Harvest Festival's most appealing moments, especially if you have a taste for finger-picked acoustic guitars and hand percussion.

But the majority of Harvest Festival is devoted to post-psychedelic artists who were able to skew pop-song conventions just enough to turn them into something totally unique. Syd Barrett, Kevin Ayers, Be-Bop Deluxe, and the grand Roy Wood dynasty -- The Move (was a better single than "Do Ya" released in the '70s?), the Electric Light Orchestra, Wizzard and his solo records -- are the true stars of Harvest Festival. It's their songs, not those of their better-selling brethren like Deep Purple and the Barrett-less Pink Floyd, that make it sound like simply the next step, not a revolution, when the buzzsaw pop-punk of the Saints and the thorny experimentalism of Wire appear late in the set with classics like "(I'm) Stranded" and the seven-minute beautiful-noise soundscape "A Touching Display."

But punk was pretty much the final nail in Harvest's coffin. Although some of the best-known punk bands signed to major labels, most of the most interesting music of the late '70s and early '80s was coming from true indies like Virgin and Rough Trade, not corporate-funded pseudo-indies like Harvest. The label's stateside office lasted until about 1983; the American debuts by Duran Duran and Thomas Dolby came out on Harvest, but when those albums were reissued in the wake of their MTV success, the new versions were on EMI's main U.S. arm, Capitol. Now the British label exists almost entirely as a reissue imprint. But for those first 10 years, Harvest was one of the greats, and this gorgeous, lavishly packaged set, with a 120-page foot-square book, is a compelling overview.

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