Quality: 3 out of 5
Trip-O-Meter: 3.5 out of 5
This collection of unreleased songs and alternate takes from Syd Barrett's two 1970 albums appeared almost 20 years after Barrett jumped ship form the music world to lead a more reclusive life in Cambridge. It's safe to say that the man himself did not have a hand in this compilation. As such, this is basically a clearing house for Barrett's music, and not so much of an album. And the quality here ranges from completely spectacular to unlistenable.
The title track and "Swan Lee" are the major revelations here. Both of them could have easily replaced some lesser tracks on The Madcap Laughs (I'm looking at you, side two!). "Opel" has an unfinished feel as there are about two minutes of guitar chords just waiting for some overdubs. Still the melody and lyrics are so great that this doesn't detract at all from the song. Barrett's vocals really work here, and they tend to be extremely hit-or-miss on his solo performances. The abstract lyrics are some of his best ever, not at all succumbing to pretensions or silliness.
"Swan Lee" is a more finished product sounding like a submerged surf song, complete with a few Ventures'-like guitar fills. Actually except for the lead guitar and vocals, everything here sounds like it's been reversed, buried underground for 15 years, dug up, and then re-reversed. It's a strange, completely psychedelic sound that I haven't heard anywhere else. Other than the fact that the backing track occasionally threatens to fly off the rails and become completely un-synched (which I find charming), I have no idea why this one stayed in the vaults. The American Indian narrative that makes up the lyrics is fun too, although not on the order of "Opel."
Just a notch under these stellar tracks is "Milky Way." It's a great song with a fine demo-quality acoustic performance, but it really could have been fleshed out a little more with some overdubs. Barrett armed with only an acoustic guitar was a risky proposition in the late 60's.
It's not hard to see why "Birdie Hop," "Let's Split," "Dolly Rocker" and "Word Song" stayed unreleased. They aren't particularly well composed and the performances are unhinged in a bad way. Those of you who hang on every one of Barrett's words and fractured performances will probably love these. I just can't bring myself to do so. Well, I do have a strange affinity for "Dolly Rocker."
"Lanky, Pt. 1" is the last of the new tracks present here. I believe the idea here was to create something in the mold of the Barrett-led Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive." Unfortunately, by this time Barrett's mental state did afford him the attention needed to do this. This track is basically a five-and-a-half minute long mess. But it is almost the only glimmer of Barrett's signature lead Telecaster that we get in his solo career.
The rest of the tracks here are alternate takes. Many of them resemble the album versions, but simply without the overdubs. I tend to prefer the more complete versions on the albums. "Wouldn't You Miss Me (Dark Globe)" is a little different as Barrett sings it in a much lower register, but I miss the singing in the shower quality of the Madcap version.
The standout alternate take here is "Clowns And Jugglers," a completely different version of "Octopus." Unlike "Octopus," Barrett is backed here by the Soft Machine. They struggle to follow Barrett even more than the cuts that they appear on on Madcap (which I guess is why it was unreleased), but it's still a lot of fun. I particularly love Robert Wyatt's drumming on this cut. Since he can't really stick with a beat as Barrett keeps changing it, he has to be particularly ingeneous.
There's enough here to warrant obtaining Opel, along with two of Barrett's very best songs, but it's definitely a mixed bag. This is a must for fans of Syd, but listening to Opel often feels more like an archeological exercise than an enjoyable listening experience. Also, the cover image creeps me the hell out.
Syd Barrett - Opel