Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Amazingly Wrong

One fine day in 1978 when I was alphabetizing my collection of vinyl records, I noticed that quite a few of them had notches cut in the cover, about a half-inch long and an eighth of an inch wide. First I thought it was the work of my younger brother, but then I realized that for someone to cut that many notches in the exact same fashion would have required the diligence, precision, and devious mind of a crop circle maker, and that just wasn’t his style.

Eventually I learned that I was the owner of several “cut-out” records, which, as I understand it now, were records that didn’t sell well during their first release and were thus notched and marked for the bargain bin.

That explained how I could afford so many records. “You mean this copy of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s ‘Works Volume 2’ didn’t sell out the first time? Gee, I just thought it was a temporary price reduction.”

It was in the bargain bin that I found an album, incredibly cheap, by a group I’d never heard of called Amazing Blondel. There were vague references to English folk music and Elizabethan instruments on the cover, so I figured for 99 cents I couldn’t go wrong.

I took the record home and slapped Side One on the turntable, and what came out was the dreariest, most soulless, most godawfully boring music I’d ever heard. I actually checked to see if I’d accidentally switched the turntable speed from 33 1/3 rpm to 16.

My brother came in and had a listen, and fell asleep standing up.

For the next 25 years, he and I shared an in-joke: Whenever the subject of bad music came up, we’d look at each other and say “Amazing Blondel.”

We spent a quarter of a century defaming the name and sullying the reputation of a group we assumed split up and took non-musical jobs shortly after recording that tedious first album.

But a couple of months ago I was surfing around the All Music Guide site, and just out of curiosity I looked up Amazing Blondel’s page. They hadn’t given up music. In fact, they’d put out quite a few albums and were still appearing at festivals throughout Europe. This can’t be true, I thought—you can’t build a career on a fan base of insomniacs.

So I listened to a couple of samples from the group’s second and third albums, “Evensong” and “Fantasia Lindum.”

And damn. They were good. They were, I hate to say, amazingly good—good enough for me to get out my debit card and order both CDs. For the next three weeks, that’s all I listened to in my car. They harmonized beautifully, and they played their Elizabethan guitars, lutes, citterns, harmoniums, and ocarinas with a light airy touch that made you feel as if you were romping through the English heather with the stablemaster’s daughter.

Well, that’s how it made me feel, anyway.

I called my brother and had him listen to one of the songs, “Spring Season,” to see if he could guess who was playing it. He didn’t have a guess, but said it sounded good and asked for a hint. When I said “I believe in second chances,” he didn’t miss a beat: “Amazing Blondel.”

So I don't know what I was expecting from that bargain bin album, and frankly I don't even remember now what I heard. I can't guarantee someone didn't slip an Elizabethan garage band's demo disk into an Amazing Blondel sleeve. But now, as reparation for past snap judgments, let me go on record as saying those Amazing Blondel CDs have enhanced my music collection—and, what the hell, they’ve enhanced my life as well.

When I’m wrong I’m amazingly wrong, often for 25 years at a time.

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