When I was about 16 I had a girlfriend that I spent most of my time with. I eventually moved into her house with her family. Unfortunately, I was kind of a dick, but didn’t really know I was a dick, so…there was that. But across the street from her house lived a large, gray-haired, burly man named Jim. Jim was larger than life, reminded me of an overweight Gandalf, and was the coolest mother-fucker I knew at the time. We would sit on his porch, I would watch him carefully pack weed into a mysterious clear pipe and we would talk about music.
Jim was a chemist, and a connoisseur and collector of records. Jim turned me onto all kinds of great bands: KMFDM, Elvis Costello, Prince, Janis Joplin, Hendrix, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, it was crazy. He would make me mixed tapes of different songs, which were like gold to an impressionable teenager with bright, red hair and a strong distaste for authority. There was stuff I knew I liked and would ask for him to put it on the tapes, and then there was music that Jim would hand pick for me to open my eyes a little bit and drive a better perspective to the possibilities of good old rock and roll. God forbid I leave my punk and metal roots, but he understood my teenage angst more than most, and put a lot of thought into the tapes he made me, and I loved every one of them.
On one of those mixed tapes, a song by the band Audience revealed itself to me. It was called “You’re Not Smiling” from the record The House on the Hill. Audience was an early 70s band from England that fused classical guitar, progressive rock, a clarinet, a flute, and a singer with passion in his bones. I was immediately hooked. “You’re Not Smiling” rolls through the hills like a dramatic, white wedding with unhinged vocals, from Howard Werth, and a simple observation about a man who had been away from his wife for too long..
Audience never got their due eventually breaking up in 1972, but The House on the Hill deserves to be pulled from the dustbin and given a hard listen. They were truly original without going overboard. Their arrangements hovered a line that stood firmly on the experimental side, but I really just think they may have wanted to jump over that line and make equally stellar pop music for the masses. Regardless, the album is timeless, has a fault line type depth to it, and a sense of sexy / not sexy music that sticks in the cerebellum.
Album opener “Jackdaw” is as dirty disco as a clarinet can get with Werth leading a singalong, bluesy chorus, with Werth’s equally impressive classical guitar, and a flute solo from multi-instrumentalist, Keith Gemmel thrown in for good measure. The slow-burning light of “I Had a Dream” showcases Werth’s vocals as if driving a long curvy country road at sunset. A well-placed horn section gives the song some extra breadth. The instrumental, “Raviole” is a nylon-guitar orchestration piece written by Werth that segues from classical composition to barn stomping, folk, family singalong. “Eye to Eye” is as poppy as the record gets with a hook-heavy chorus, still finding a good spot to place a well-intentioned Gemmel flute solo. There is a wonderful, diminished version of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic “I Put a Spell on You”, with equal passion and less strength. The record ends with the only single the released from the album in “Indian Summer”, which tells the story of a man and a woman who have both lost their significant others.
Audience released three other records, and reformed for a time in 2004, but have been relegated to the footnotes of lost 70s bands. The House on the Hill is definitely worth a trip to the record store. It opened up a young punk’s eyes with fond memories of sitting on the porch discussing the philosophies of life with Big Jim.