Jim Sullivan

U.F.O.

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U.F.O. is one of those albums whose backstory looms so large that it threatens to overwhelm the actual music, which would be a shame, because it's a bit of a lost classic of the singer/songwriter realm. Southern California troubadour Jim Sullivan -- not to be confused with British guitarist Big Jim Sullivan -- was a big man with a big voice who built up a small regional following in the late '60s and convinced an old friend to start a label for the sole purpose of releasing his debut album in 1969. The limited-run release eventually became a high-priced holy grail for record collectors, partly because of its quality and rarity, and partly because of the mysterious Sullivan story. In a nutshell, after recording only one more album, Sullivan took off on a road trip in 1975, during which he literally disappeared, never to be seen again, despite the best investigative efforts of family, friends, and admirers. His car was found still containing his wallet, guitar, and other possessions, with no trace of their owner. Several theories about his fate sprung up, from murder to alien abduction.

Despite the album's humble origins, it sounds more like a major-label recording than a lo-fi D.I.Y. effort. This has a lot to do with Jim's benefactor hiring top-flight L.A. Wrecking Crew musicians Don Randi, Earl Palmer, and Jimmy Bond, and then there are Bond's string arrangements, which bring an atmospheric, orchestral feel to Sullivan's simply conceived, acoustic guitar-based tunes. Sullivan's deep, bluesy singing falls somewhere between Fred Neil and Tim Hardin, as does his songwriting, which subtly tweaks conventional folk-blues templates without veering into psychedelic, post-Dylan excess. The lyrics are those of a man with wandering on his mind, especially the title track, in which Sullivan's mind's eye moves out among the stars. It's probably this track that inspired the aforementioned alien abduction theories about Sullivan's disappearance, and as unlikely as that scenario may seem, it's nice to imagine Sullivan smiling down from some unearthly plane.

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