By Richie Unterberger

Cyrus Faryar was already well known to insiders in the folk and folk-rock world for a good decade or so before he issued his debut solo album, Cyrus (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music), on Elektra in 1971. A gentle but idiosyncratic singer-songwriter album, it didn't sell well, perhaps in part because of a lavish release party (at Faryar's house, where the album was recorded) that might have eaten up a lot of the promotional budget. That didn't stop Elektra from giving the green light to a second album, Islands, which appeared a couple of years later. 

    Like Cyrus, Islands was recorded at Faryar's home studio in Los Angeles. Whereas Faryar had produced Cyrus himself, however, Islands would be handled by John Simon, who'd recently worked on records by the Band, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Big Brother & the Holding Company, and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Simon also played piano, organ, steel drums, and horns on the record, as well as penning one of its songs, "Livin' in a Land O' Sunshine." Otherwise Cyrus retained many of the sidemen who'd played on his first album, including drummer Mike Botts, bassist Brian Garafalo, guitarist Dick Rosmini, and Collin Walcott of the jazz fusion group Oregon.

    "The principal difference was that I basically kind of produced the first one myself, just as a wonderful, joyful exploration, in my living room," comments Faryar today. "The second one, same living room, had a real serious producer, John Simon, who was so experienced, and had produced so many different kinds of people and artists. He was a good friend, and an arranger and an accomplished musician, and had a sense and knowledge of structure, and was able to pull it together. I could never have done what John did. And we had a lot of fun."

    As on Cyrus, there was a similarity to some of Fred Neil's work in the baritone vocals and placid ambience. In fact, Faryar even included one of Neil's songs, "Dolphins," from the classic Fred Neil album, on which Cyrus had played as a sideman. This time around, however, he favored somewhat longer songs, never more so than on the ten-minute opener, "Bright Island & So We Sailed." The track actually segued together a "Bright Island" prologue of sorts—written by Bill Martin, who'd penned one of the songs on Cyrus, "Evergreen (Earth Anthem)"—with Faryar's own "So We Sailed." "The song itself was actually inspired by a Sufi parable," Cyrus discloses. "Somebody had given me a book, and there was this sketch in the front. It was a Sufi parable of, I guess, creation, or something. And it describes how people's souls, [or] something, were cast into this void and journeyed across the void to some place where they took form. I mean, if that isn't a song, I've never heard one. Or movie, even! It turned out great. It was supposed to start with, in my mind, a vision of, like, 100 ukuleles—don't ask me why. But we only had one, so we had to overdub it lots of times. But it got the message out there."

    Though Faryar wrote about half of the material on Islands, he tapped a couple of other outside sources as well. "Paradise," credited to Harry Nilsson, had first been recorded back in the mid-1960s by the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, even before Nilsson's debut album, and was chosen in part because "it kind of fit the theme of the album, which was Islands." "Ghosts" was contributed by Faryar's wife of the time, Renais, who'd also composed a track on Cyrus's first LP, "Kingdom." Renais also played piano and sang  on "Kingdom," and formed part of the Ettes, a quartet of women who sang backup vocals on "So We Sailed" and "Paradise." The Ettes also included Oona Austin, now wife of Phil Austin of the Firesign Theatre, whose 1969 album How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All Faryar produced.

    The good vibes also leaked into John Simon's trombone part on the LP closer, "At Sunset." "By that time of night, there'd been a few beers, or a couple of tequilas, or something," remembers Cyrus. "John was pretty well lubricated by the time he got into the hallway with the trombone, and it was pretty hysterical. A slightly intoxicated guy with a trombone in his hand is not something you see every day." The multi-talented Simon, adds Faryar, "caused all of  the strings to occur. To him, it was an everyday affair to write parts for anything in the orchestra, to put on or take away." The strings were contracted, incidentally, by Harry Lookofsky, father of the keyboardist and principal songwriter of the Left Banke, Michael Brown. In his low-key way, however, Faryar remains somewhat dissatisfied with some of the final mixes. "There are mixes that emerged on the two albums which were not the mixes chosen," he observes. "There was a mix of 'Dolphins' which was really way better than the one that got on the album."
    There's no question that Elektra president Jac Holzman was a staunch supporter of Faryar. Holzman got an "album concept and guidance counselor" credit on the back cover, and even took the back cover photo in Maui, where Jac had moved to live in 1973, when Islands was released. "Jac and I were friends, and it pleased me that his involvement was more than just across a desk," points out Cyrus. " It was in the nature of Jac's relationships with his artists that they were personal. Jac would be at my house. It was part of the context of the album itself. In a way, I made it for Jac and my other friends. And whether it would be a commercial success was probably never considered," he laughs loudly.

    Indeed Islands, like Cyrus, made no commercial impact, and both LPs are among the rarest Elektra releases of the era. As Holzman acknowledges, "The reason they're hard to find is they didn't sell all that well, so there weren't that many copies out there to begin with." And Faryar would not record for Elektra again. "It was just those two [albums], and then the tides of time shifted," he summarizes. "The venues shifted. Jac moved to Maui, I moved back to Hawaii, he sold the company. My energies were always with the MFQ [the Modern Folk Quartet, with whom he'd recorded in the mid-1960s]. We got back together, and then I produced a couple of things, stuff like that. And just basically came back to Hawaii and did as many other artists do, disappeared into my life."

    Not that Cyrus has many regrets about the way things turned out. "I never wanted to be famous," he states. "I feel particularly gifted that I had such a splendid time with so many great people. It's not a solo effort by any means. My gratitude goes out to everybody who made it possible. That's what it's all about—in my case, particularly wonderful times spent in my house with my dear friends. You couldn't ask for more." -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 unless otherwise specified.