Sunday, July 03, 2011

John Ylvisaker: You've heard of him, haven't you?

UPDATE: The 1st 3 albums by John Ylvisaker have been released in pristine digital format and are availible on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, etc. Preview them in their entirety on the following playlists:

Cool Livin':

A Love Song:

Follow Me:

...meanwhile, in America the Dylan of the bible scene, John Ylvisaker, was 'gently rocking the American churches from coast to coast with some new electric sounds'. Albums like 'Cool livin' (1967) and 'Follow me' (1968) swapped unquestioning praise for Lutherian folk songs and sardonic Dylanesque lyrics, and Ylvisaker became a hero to young '60s Christians who wanted to be hip and praise God." (Mojo magazine June 2001)

(Video: "Who Cares For The City" - John Ylvisaker)

Quite frankly, I don't care  what you do and don't think is cool.

We all have our roots, our inspiration and influences that have made us what we are today. We take a little from here and a little from there. Sometimes we brush with things that don't seem to fit in the overall scheme of what we deem worthwhile. Music is very much this way. I think of this kid who I witnessed mouthing off on MySpace Music forums yesterday that The Ramones & The Sex Pistols were shit, and holding up a here today gone tomorrow entities like Madball & Agnostic Front as something important. But that's off topic. 

What was my point again? Oh, yeah... My point is I, having been exposed to his music sometime after leaving High School, confess to being captured buy the music of ...John Ylvisaker.


Back in the fall of 1983, or somewhereabouts (is that a word?) that time, I took a job managing a Christian Radio Station. Glamorous as that may sound, it wasn't. I found myself way out in the middle of nowhere in some jerkwater dive in Northeastern Utah, in a dilapidated double-wide trailer that didn't even have running water! There was in fact, an FCC licensed station set up in where most people would have had the bedroom. It did broadcast a signal. It also conflicted with the local educational TV channel. I got complaints that someone heard my broadcast on the one day I did in fact run a broadcast, that they heard me over the TV as well. Nice. Obviously a job going nowhere. One of these days I'll have to share more of this story, as it explains how I came to be more and more on different sides of the planet with the so-called Christian Right.

(Video: "Cool Livin" - John Ylvisaker)

But in a cardboard box of albums left there for my use, was a few vinyl offerings by the illustrious Mr. Ylvisaker. When I returned home to Oregon, I took one of his albums with me. Months later I was house sitting for the Pastor of my parent's church, and being alone and needing to fill up the time, I took John's album Cool Livin' and put it on the turntable. Back in the days of turntables. 

I was instantly hooked. 

The sound started out with a a country-ish acoustic finger-picked vibe that quickly shifted to a groovy 60's folk-rock beat. In comes the velvety baritone of John Ylvisaker, backed on instrumentation by his wife Amanda. The voice- well it's magnificent, even if it doesn't fit for Rock 'N' Roll. (As one Blogger describes it: "Perry Como on acid.") By the time the harmonies on the Chorus come around on "It's cool, cool livin' when a person lives forgiven," I'm ceasing to even care. Prior to this time I hadn't heard such moving acoustic guitar work since Randy Stonehill's 1976 Welcome To Paradise LP. In fact, John Ylvisaker's Cool Livin' was actually released in 1967, sometime before Larry Norman's Upon This Rock, generally considered by many to be the 1st Christian Rock album. 

But getting back to Cool Livin' - if you like Dylan, Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, The Byrds and other 60's music, it's hard not to like this as well. Or maybe even more. It's a feast for the ears for fans of 60's Folk/Psychedelic/Garage Rock. Think David LaFlemme (of It's A Beautiful Day) doing Donovan covers. In fact, Cool Livin' came out a full 2 years before It's a Beautiful Day's 1st album and their single "White Bird." It's interesting how John's own song "Despair" sort of foreshadows "White Bird" in a way. Other notable tracks (but by no means the only ones) on this album: "Who Cares For the City" sporting a demented Doors-like keyboard solo and an an aggressive garage-rock beat. "Do You Know What I've Done" - a bizarre re-telling of the story of Christ washing the Disciples Feet over a repetitive guitar riff and a Byrds/Doors kind of psycho-sitar sound. "Let Loose" the album closer which puts thing son an up note with the chorus "Hey let loose your love, let loose the love of God in you." 

I found his shifting from overtly religious language to veiled metaphor that told stories or "parables" to be fascinating, quite liberating compared to the box that Calvary Chapel and other mainstream fundamentalist churches take when approaching music (that even if it's Rock, it has to be up-front lyrics because supposedly that "ministers" more.)  

(Video: "Let Loose" - John Ylvisaker)

I actually covered one of his songs on a Sunday night church meeting in a mainstream quasi-charismatic kind of fellowship. The song was called "The Man And His Dog" which John recorded as a sort of jazzy number with spoken lyrics. I transformed it into a blues type of song. The metaphors of the unsettling nature of  God's persistent forgiveness represented in a dog was lost by most people in the audience. It's what happens when you constantly serve baby-food and insist it's fillet mignon.' (However, that experience is not universal. I also performed the same song at a talent show put on by a different Evangelical Church, and it was better received at that time.)

(Video: "I Was There To Hear Your Borning Cry" - written by John Ylvisaker, performed by Ranger.)

Not only are John's lyrics a lot deeper and more Biblical than what some of the mainstream Christians responded to them as, but in time (and thanks to the Internet) I found out more about John Ylvisaker: He is a worship leader and hymn writer for the Lutheran Church. His song "Borning Cry" is a popular composition. It's true that the lyrics appear to support an Infant Baptism theological view. Would that most of us in the Believers'-Baptism tradition understand the depth of God being a part of all of life in some way, as much as this song reveals Him to be.  

I keep searching the Internet for his music. I discovered that over the years, Cool Livin' has developed something of a cult following among collectors of rare and obscure 60's Psychedelic Rock. I emailed with someone at a few years back (his wife Amanda Ylvisaker, perhaps?) I was told there was a possibility of  Cool Livin' being reissued. That seems to have never materialized, and we are pretty much left with what scraps we can find. (Or paying $150 for a vinyl copy since it has become a collectors item!) 

(Video: John & Amanda Ylvisaker- Wade In the Water)

Thanks to the advent of YouTube and the websites that are broadminded enough to include John Ylvisaker among worthy Sixties/Psychedelic artists who never quite made it, there's some good samples to be found. Heavenly Grooves has also made most of the early John Ylvisaker discography available for free download in the form of .mp3's take from the vinyl albums.

Also, John has recorded a few other albums worth noting:

(Video: "The Old Man And The New" - John Ylvisaker)

A Love Song Dammit, I know it was also in that box, shoulda grabbed it! ;-) This one has some definite gems. IMHO, there's also some artistically ambitious misfires (singing a bit too high for his range, for example.) Nonetheless, the Ylvisaker genius is more than present throughout. The song "The Old Man And The New" has a witticism worthy of Johnny Cash. "Palm Sunday" kicks up the quality of the psychedelic folk that was his trademark in these says with a a jazzy touch. You can hear these in the above and below videos.

(Video: "Palm Sunday" - John Ylvisaker)

Follow Me This one is credited to "John  & Amanda Ylvisaker" on the cover, but just to John on the label. In any case, some good sounding stuff is here. It more resembles  standard "praise & worship" music, but with personality. It's pretty much straightforward contemporary sounds, not a lot of the artistic innovation that graced earlier projects, but no less a display of great musicianship. Is that John playing those Spanish-Guitar runs on "The Song Of The Stable Boy?" Owwww...!  Highly recommended track: the Rockin' blues-folk Spiritual "Wade In The Water." 

Recorded At Housewarming For Fritzie (With David Blakeley) I'll let the Heavenly Grooves blog give the best description: 

"Prepare to be jolted right from the start with one of the most guttural growls imaginable. What is this - a pirate drinking song? Tom Waits with a throat infection? By golly if this custom isn’t one of the most down-home lps ever made! As the title indicates, this is a live recording of two guitarists, a wailing harmonica, and a handful of guests gathered around a living room microphone and hamming it up (with bass mixed in later). It’s a marvelous blend of back porch acoustic blues, spirituals, and folk originals - a complete about face from John’s Avant Garde lps. Lots of lengthy twangy raw bluesy jamming backed by a party atmosphere of hoopin’ and hollerin’, clapping, singing along - indeed I know of one collector that’s gone so far as to say they must have been stoned!" Indeed, it is here that John cops a vocal style most suited to the contemporary audience that most of his earlier Folk-adelic music seems written for. Shame that he didn't use it more often! For here on this live home recording, Ylvisaker is at the peak of his artistic edginess and passion. 

Don't Cut The Baby In Half You gotta love a guy who would name a Christian album this (based on the Bible story of King Solomon in 1 Kings 3:16-28.) In an age of play it safe bands like Switchfoot, you know this wouldn't be going on now! I wish I had a link to a free download of this one, but even the Heavenly Grooves blog is asking for it and John's own website lists it as sold out!

Anyone who happens to come across this rare gem, as I'm sure it must be, contact heavenly Grooves. Or better yet, you heard about it from me 1st. Contact me and I'll pass it along to the interested parties. 

Meantime, between the videos, the downloads, and other links, there's more than enough here for anyone who might be interested in discovering the hidden treasure known as the music of John Ylvisaker. [-}

BREAKING NEWS: I have just been notified via the John Ylvisaker Fan Club page on Facebook, that plans are in the works to release a compilation of his earlier albums. I had posted a question re the possible reissue of Cool Livin,' and this was given in reply via an intermediary:

"No plans for re-release of "Cool Livin'" in its entirety at this time. However, we are about to release "Ylvisaker: The Early Years", which will draw a few songs from each of John's early LPs. He also wants to record 25 albums, and is ahead of schedule."

Twenty-Five albums? Must be something lost in the translation. I think it means he will have had 25 albums altogether when he's through? Either way: You go, John.

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