In which a hyper-obscure Honolulu-based not-quite-ever-a-band’s 1973 debut and only record is given tremendously abrupt second-life by a reissue on a label as famous as Drag City. Bands like These Trails are more like blips, hardly ever existent, and always operating on a microscopic scale, their inevitably miniature catalog is celebrated by a small, but enthusiastic, group of fans of a fringe scene, in this case, the prehistory of psychedelic folk. The core duo of These Trails played no official gigs nor recorded anything deeper than the twelve songs on their solitary and self-titled album. Given the mystery, the quirky music, and the band’s oddball history, it’s easy to see why they’ve earned themselves a reissue. Potentially not out of musical ingenuity, but as a constant reminder that the dense annals of pop still retain some funny little secrets that ought to be rediscovered.
The songs here generally run their gambit before the two-minute mark, and given the ostensibly divine environment around the group, most of them are about as buoyant as any potential comparisons. The music here is essentially percussion-free, floating on the backs of Patrick Cockett’s goldenrod guitar and Margaret Morgan’s bright-eyed sing-song. A lot has been made of sheer earnestness of the band’s songwriting – mirroring the benefits of recording with absolutely zero expectation – and that unaffected honesty might be the band’s greatest aesthetic. They wrap in kitschy islander staples (petite flute-pipes, thick conga pounding) without any narrative or commentary, on ‘Our House in Hanalei’ they croon their chorus in a delicate Hawaiian cadence and sing lines like ‘Banana tree we grow for eating’ completely disengaged from any potential ego damage. As mentioned, it’s hard to worry about those sorts of post-consumer criticisms when you’re in a studio awaiting nobody’s reception.
The collector’s fetish comes in with the actual compositions of some of these songs. According to legend the band got a hold of an Arp synthesizer, which adds a dramatically warped filter on the band’s already-dreamy folk-pop. This is especially prevalent on the band’s babbling instrumentals and odysseys – the synth angling hard, and weird, over the cyclical ‘Psyche II’ or growling ominously under the otherwise peppy ‘Rusty’s House.’ It can sound like These Trails discovered the trademark of psych-folk on accident; the right state of mind, the right collection of sounds, and the right number of people in the studio resulting in a precursor paved under the more obvious inspirations like, say, The Incredible String Band.
It is interesting that this reissue is arriving in 2011, long after the original ascendance of former hot-topics like Devendra Banhart fell out of critical favor and more multifaceted acts like Animal Collective moved beyond their acoustic crush. As such it’s easier to think of These Trails as more of a reminder than anything else; some reissues offer a well-deserved re-look, while others simply highlight a strange, if miniscule part of music history for those eager for diversion. Unfortunately These Trails offers more on the latter. Their quirkiness is seductive, so is the notion of completionism – but it won’t change the unflattering wish that the music was more engaging.