One of the most unique albums of the 1970s, R. Stevie Moore's debut long-player is an uncategorizable mess that somehow keeps from falling apart completely, kind of like a one-man band version of the Beatles' White Album cross-pollinated with late-1960s Frank Zappa at his most antic. Yet just as the album seems hopelessly self-indulgent and bizarre, Moore suddenly veers into some of the sweetest and catchiest pop songs of the pre-punk '70s. That dichotomy is what makes Phonography special. Recorded in bits and pieces over the course of two years of living room sessions, with Moore playing and singing every part, barring the tambourine on the Soft Machine-like opening instrumental "Melbourne," the album shares much with such one-man band predecessors as McCartney, Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything?, and Roy Wood's Boulders. However, having been made on a cheap four-track with one microphone, a borrowed guitar, and no mixing deck, Phonography also has a funky lo-fi charm that anticipates post-grunge D.I.Y. savants like Guided By Voices and Pavement. (Also, the wordless vocals and skittering analogue synths in the middle section of the lovely closing track, "Moons," sound uncannily like Stereolab would over a decade and a half later.) The album is split down the middle between quirky but capable pop songs and strange interludes. Of the former, "Goodbye Piano," a falsetto music hall ditty that suggests a major Bonzo Dog Band fixation, is among Moore's most famous tracks, but it's the more serious tunes, like the beautiful Brian Wilson-inspired ballad "I've Begun to Fall in Love," the bouncily Beatlesque "I Want You In My Life" and the trippy "Showing Shadows," that are more indicative of the artist's estimable skills as a songsmith. The spoken word interludes are uniformly surreal, with the Harold Pinter-like talk show parody "The Lariat Wressed Posing Hour" a particular highlight, but the album is organized to such an off-the-wall blueprint that it's impossible to imagine it without even its most inexplicable elements. Originally released in 1976 in an edition of 100 copies, Phonography was reissued in 1978 and again in 1998 on a limited-edition CD featuring eight bonus tracks recorded during the same 1974-76 sessions.
by Stewart Mason