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John de Roo's "Holy Cow" | jawjawjaw
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John de Roo’s “Holy Cow”

Posted on | May 28, 2010 | Comments Off on John de Roo’s “Holy Cow”

[starreview tpl=16 size=’16’]
[Another piece from the archives–written in 2008. You can purchase Holy Cow at CDBaby.]

Picture of Holy Cow Album CoverBack in the mid-1980s, folks didn’t know everything about everywhere. There were no online virtual communities. Home computers weren’t multi-track recorders in waiting. DIY home recordings weren’t ubiquitous. We flew a lot more blind, because it wasn’t all a keystroke away. You had to know people who knew things. If you didn’t, you had to hope you could find some people who did. If you couldn’t, you made do with what you had.

In this Paleolithic era of the cassette porta-studio, every thirteen-year-old kid didn’t have one yet. In fact, you were lucky if you even knew someone who had one. And notwithstanding Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, the conventional wisdom was clear: People didn’t make records on a porta-studio. “Real” records were made by professionals in big fancy studios that cost lots of money to rent. Even so-called “Indie” records involved open reel tape of some sort.

Those folks audacious enough to make a record on a porta-studio were in for an uphill climb. The available knowledge about recording was spotty and mostly passed on by word of mouth. Equipment was hard to come by. Nobody took you very seriously, either, especially if your musical vision didn’t sound like Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight,” with gated digital reverb on the toms and thick layers of Yamaha DX-7 digital synth filling in all the cracks. If you deigned to release the finished product on cassette, well, how could you even really call that a “record”?

But some determined people did–people like John de Roo of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Often, these folks simply didn’t know any better. They had something to say, and they just wanted to capture it before it slipped away forever. So they used the available tools–in this case, Dirk Richardson’s Yamaha 4-track cassette recorder and whatever other gear they happened to have. And when it all came together, well, a little gem called Holy Cow was created.

Today, there are whole genre categories like “Lo-Fi” and “Freak Folk” that describe this homemade approach to music making. Nobody questions its legitimacy. When you use those terms, people in the know immediately understand what you mean. But when John de Roo recorded Holy Cow, that stuff was still being figured out.

Guided By Voices hadn’t even released their first porta-studio album. So when a friend gave me this cassette and said it was John de Roo’s “solo album,” I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. To be honest, I was probably in the camp wondering how anything available only on cassette could even be viewed as a legitimate record.

But as I listened to it, I overcame that bias. Maybe it wasn’t as slick as Van Halen’s 1984, or even Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, but between its great songs and arrangement choices, it made a virtue of its limitations. Be it the ethereal beauty of the opener, “Castle in the Water,” the acoustic earthiness and pond sounds of “Snapping Turtle,” the inspired cover of Abba’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” or the outright weird psychedelic pop of “Elizabeth Loves Orange Soda,” Holy Cow delivers from start to finish.

It turned out to be one of my favorite records of 1986. I’m happy to find Holy Cow sounding better than ever in digital format. I’m also hopeful this reissue will help it to find a wider audience. It’s most definitely worthy. Stuff like Phil Collins sounds dated today, but Holy Cow is strangely timeless. It almost makes more sense right now than it did back in the day. Whether you’re hearing it for the first time, or getting reacquainted all over again, you’re in for a treat. Enjoy.


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