The first of a projected four-part series devoted to the exploration of obsolete recording technologies, The Wilderness Years, Vol. 1 was recorded at the Thomas Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, NJ, on an 1898-vintage hand-cranked spring-motor phonograph using original Edison wax cylinders. No microphones or electricity were used in the recording, and Chris Butler had to tailor the songs to the recording process, with one cheat: because the wax cylinders can only hold two minutes' worth of music, the four-minute B-side is two cylinders edited together. Unfortunately, in this case, the process is more interesting than the songs themselves. "A Hole in the Sky," with Butler accompanying himself on what sounds like an autoharp, is largely tuneless and slightly off-key, although that part might be the fault of the inconsistent recording speed of the hand-cranked motor. The B-side, "Davey's Sister's Home From College," is much better, a lyrically evocative tale of bored teenage angst set to a terrific steel guitar melody. This track has the opposite problem of its flip; it's so good that it would be better served by a full-band arrangement and a less lo-fi production. Unfortunately, The Wilderness Years, Vol. 1 is more interesting in concept than it is in execution. Inspired by Butler, his friends They Might Be Giants recorded their own Edison wax cylinder song, "I Can't Hear You," for 1996's Factory Showroom.
AllMusic Review by Stewart Mason