By Richie Unterberger

Like the stories of the author after whom they were named, H.P. Lovecraft’s music was spooky and mysterious, a vibe well-suited for the psychedelic times when their two albums were released in 1967 and 1968. Their remarkably eclectic balance of folk, jazz, orchestrated pop, and even bits of garage rock and classical music, was too fragile and ethereal to keep afloat for any longer than that, perhaps. It lasted long enough, however, for the group to gift us with two uneven, occasionally brilliant albums that are among the most intriguing obscure relics of the psychedelic age.

    The band’s none-too-stable personnel were about as diverse as could be in the milieu of 1967 Chicago, not a city known for hatching top-flight psychedelic outfits. Guitarist George Edwards, the leader of H.P. Lovecraft if anyone was, had been a folkie in the early 1960s, entering the rock scene in the mid-1960s on the Windy City’s Dunwich label. He cut a single of the Beatles’ "Norwegian Wood," as well as a cover (not issued until the early 1970s) of Bob Dylan’s "Quit Your Low Down Ways" with Steve Miller on guitar. He also sang backing vocals on a couple of Shadows of Knight hits, yet by late 1966 was playing in a lounge jazz trio at a local Holiday Inn.

    That experience did not go to waste, however, as another member of that trio was classically trained keyboardist and singer Dave Michaels. Michaels would sing backup vocals on the early 1967 single that served as H.P. Lovecraft’s debut release, "Anyway That You Want Me"/"It’s All Over for You" (added to this CD as bonus tracks). Essentially a vehicle for Edwards, the A-side was a fair pop-rock tune by Chip "Wild Thing" Taylor (which was a hit in the UK for the Troggs). The Edwards original on the flip was actually a solo outtake from 1966, sounding like a raw folk-rock derivation of Dylan’s "It’s All Over Now Baby Blue." Edwards and Michaels, however, determined to form a more permanent and ambitious H.P. Lovecraft lineup over the next few months. This eventually settled into the quintet of Edwards, Michaels, guitarist Tony Cavallari, drummer Michael Tegza, and bassist Jerry McGeorge (who had been rhythm guitarist in the Shadows of Knight). In late 1967, this lineup recorded and released their self-titled album, a wide-ranging mixture of covers and originals that unveiled a far more striking vision than had been apparent on the single.

    The group’s strongest asset was the superb dual harmony lead vocals of Edwards and Michaels, showcasing Michaels’ operatic four-octave span with a blend reminiscent of the Jefferson Airplane. Michaels’ multi-instrumental virtuosity on organ, harpsichord, piano, clarinet, and recorder-often bolstered by session players on horns, clarinet, piccolo, and vibes-gave the band a much wider range of timbres than much of their competition. Their seeming determination to plough different ground with every cut sometimes misfired, as with the too-cheerful version of Dino Valenti’s "Let’s Get Together" and the hokey old-time music of "The Time Machine." More often, though, H.P. Lovecraft devised a haunting ambience that lived up to their pledge on the back sleeve to make songs inspired by (author) H.P. Lovecraft’s "macabre tales and poems of Earth populated by another race."

    Most of the songs on H.P. Lovecraft, however, were not originals, but folk-rock covers. The Edwards-Michaels vocal blend was particularly stirring on their covers of  "The Drifter" (penned by folkie Travis Edmonson, half of the duo Bud & Travis) and the folk standard "Wayfaring Stranger." Their debt to cult folk-rocker Fred Neil was expressed in a gutsy, hard-rocking version of that singer-songwriter’s "The Bag I’m In," as well as "Country Boy & Bleeker Street," which combined two songs from Neil’s mid-1960s solo debut album. "I’ve Been Wrong Before," by a then-little-known Randy Newman, had already been done by Cilla Black (who had a British hit with the tune), Dusty Springfield, and California garage band the New Breed; H.P. Lovecraft gave it a particularly mystical, enchanting reading.

    Yet the finest song H.P. Lovecraft ever did was the group composition "The White Ship." The six-and-a-half-minute opus had a wavering, foggy beauty, with some of Michaels’ eeriest keyboards, sad dignified horns, lyrics that fit in well with the album’s constant references to drifting and wandering, and even the ringing of an "1811 Ship’s Bell" (by Bill Traut). In yet another stylistic twist, Edwards and Michaels put their lounge jazz chops to good use on the suave but moody "That’s How Much I Love You, Baby (More or Less)."

    By the time H.P.Lovecraft II came out in September 1968, the group had replaced McGeorge with bassist singer Jeff Boyan; moved from Chicago to Marin County; and shared bills with Donovan, the Pink Floyd, Procol Harum, the Jefferson Airplane, the Buffalo Springfield, Big Brother & the Holding Company, and other top psychedelic acts. Their music had become more psychedelic, but also less focused and more self-indulgent, sounding at times like an acid trip starting to go awry. This prevented the album from being the equal of its predecessor, though at its best it still packed quite a punch.

    Michaels’ keyboards in particular were moving into gossamer spaciness that undoubtedly made H.P. Lovecraft a good match for sharing the bill with Pink Floyd. (Not released until the 1990s, the Live May 11 1968 album proved that H.P. Lovecraft, unlike many psychedelic bands with mighty ambitions, could execute their complex arrangements well in concert.) "At the Mountains of Madness" was certainly a highlight of the group’s psychedelic free flights, skittering close to, but never falling into, an abyss of menacing distortion-ridden chaos, with especially acrobatic vocal tradeoffs. "Mobius Trip" gave the lounge jazziness of "That’s How Much I Love You, Baby (More or Less)" a far, well, trippier gloss, its vocals evaporating into the mist at the end of the verses, its lyrics soaked in disoriented hippie euphoria.

    More disorganized outings like "Electrallentando," however, indicated that the drug experience might be getting the better of them. "Keeper of the Keys" had a pseudo-operatic vocal so stentorian that it was difficult to tell if it was over-reaching earnestness or parody. (The forty-second Zappaesque link "Nothing’s Boy," by the way, was written by radio wordjazzmeister Ken Nordine, who also provided the spoken narration.)

    For all its ephemeral weirdness, H.P. Lovecraft II looked back to folk music with its radical psychedelic reinterpretation of Billy Wheeler’s "High Flying Bird," the early folk-rock classic that had been recorded by Judy Henske and the Jefferson Airplane. There were also adept close-harmony covers of "Spin, Spin, Spin" and "It’s About Time," both of which utilized Michaels’ flair for classical-flavored keyboard lines. The latter of these had especially Airplane-ish vocalizations and almost tortuous shifts of musical settings, veering between dissonant psychedelia and strident strings. Both songs were written by Edwards’ friend Terry Callier, the folk-jazz singer whose cult was small enough to make Fred Neil’s following seem huge. (Callier, incidentally, had recorded "The Drifter," as "I’m a Drifter," in the mid-1960s, prior to H.P. Lovecraft; Edwards would co-produce a half-dozen of Callier’s tracks in late 1969.)

    Although H.P. Lovecraft were well-received on the psychedelic concert circuit, neither of their two albums sold well enough to make the charts. Edwards has recalled (in Ptolemaic Terrascope magazine) that the second LP was something of a rush job, without as much time for writing or recording as they would have liked. Dissension and the pressures of touring caused the band to split in 1969. Although Edwards and Tegza did re-form the group in 1970, Edwards left before their album came out, by which time the band were simply called Lovecraft, and bore little musical resemblance to the H.P. Lovecraft of the 1960s. A final Lovecraft album came out in 1975. But the true H.P. Lovecraft, of psychedelic sailors on white ships drifting on who knows what uncharted waters, is contained on this CD, which includes all of their 1960s studio recordings. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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