Roger Rodier’s Upon Velveatur got me with the cover. Not so much the front cover, which features the disembodied head of Rodier, who looks kind of like the Quaker Oates guy if he let himself go, floating in a cloud of mist. But I flipped the album over and saw that, “often compared to the work of Nick Drake,” it was purportedly a “dense and mysterious French-Canadian folk-psych suite” released via Columbia in 1972 and relegated to cult status, only to be reissued by the Sunbeam imprint “in the gracefull [sic] year of 2006.” This was too good for me to pass up.
Rodier was weaned on Beatles records in Montreal in the 1960s. After playing in some bands with bad names (the Mockers, the Mike Jones Group), he cut several weird yet disarmingly pretty French-language psychedelic folk singles with names such as “L’Herbe” (“The Grass”), which were met by the public with general indifference. Undaunted, Rodier somehow talked his way into a record deal with Columbia. The result was the English-language Upon Velveatur, released in Canada only.
In the liner notes Rodier says he “didn’t give a hoot” if people bought the album, and that’s fairly obvious: Nick Drake was clearly a major influence, and his records weren’t selling gangbusters at the time. Rodier isn’t a lyricist of Drake’s stature (“Free your heart so you can breathe/ And shed some light upon the leaves”), and he wasn’t surrounded with the kind of production talent that Drake had. Still, he deserves some credit for expanding on Drake’s orchestral pop sound: “My Sprite’s Calling” gets strings and an awesomely spacey theremin, and “While My Castle’s Burning” and the impenetrably titled “Am I Supposed to Let It By Again (Above the Covers)” get bold rock arrangements and semi-virtuosic guitar solos, and choirs abound.
Unfortunately, all the choirs in the world couldn’t overcome the flaccidness pervasive here. Rodier’s lispy, fey delivery (think a less confident Neil Tennant) falls some measure short of selling the songs; wispier cuts such as “The Key” and “You Don’t Know What It’s Like” sound like they might blow away like the dandelion parachutes. The less wispy ones — I wouldn’t call them rockers, exactly — come on as sort of second- or third-rate All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison. It’s better than a lot of the stuff that came out in 1972, actually, but it goes some way toward explaining how this album (which was praised by Lester Bangs, incidentally) is only now seeing CD release.
The songs that work best are the bonus tracks, taken mostly from Rodier’s pre-Upon Velveatur singles. I find myself coming back to “L’Herbe” — partly because it’s in French, which I don’t speak, mostly because it’s the only thing on here as dense and mysterious as the back cover promised: a perfect, reverby whisper of a song, Rodier’s Nick Drake moment.
Roger Rodier Web site