South Atlantic Blues
(Saint Cecilia Knows/Lil’ Fish)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Obscure by even the most liberal definition of that word, Scott Fagan’s 1968 debut may only be recognized by astute bargain bin hunters of 40 years ago. While South Atlantic Blues, lauded by critics on its release, is clearly a unique, visionary work combining chamber folk, jazz, blues, pop and some world music influences, it was too quirky for the masses. The disc’s belated reissue on CD featuring remastered sound, extensive liner notes and demos fleshing out the original 10 tracks provides a fresh perspective and new lease on life.
In terms of backstory, Fagan, who lived in St. Thomas, visited New York City with his saxophonist father, quickly made an impression on no lesser icon than songwriter Doc Pomus with whom he co-wrote a song. Producer Bert Berns was also involved for a few tracks as were the Beatles (Fagan lost to James Taylor as their first non-Beatles Apple signing).
The result was this 40-minute song cycle, vaguely about his challenging life growing up in the Virgin Islands. Adjectives such as “bewitching, “intimate” and “hypnotic” effectively describe this curiosity piece. Though it’s impossible to argue against the obvious artistry, it’s important to emphasize the dated production and overall approach. That may account for its allure, others may find it too musty, wordy, melodramatic and plain odd. Liberal use of strings, horns, harpsichord and steel drums combine with Fagan’s Bowie/Donovan styled voice and occasionally histrionic presentation of coolly poetic lyrics. Fagan’s wise beyond his years emotional, velvety vocals are prominent in the mix, giving the plush, elaborate backing instrumentation the sense of being recorded in the next building.
The horn basted blues of “Tenement Hall” finds Fagan moaning then giving way to avant-garde strings before returning to the ballad, challenging listeners with music that was out of reach for most at a time where flower power and psychedelic rock ruled. While “lost classic” might be overstating the album’s charms, it’s worth a listen for the crate digging, inquisitive music historian.