“You’re sick, and it’s wrong, and baby it won’t be long ’til they’re readin’ your will!”
[The] Human Expression was an Orange County, CA band that did teenage angst better than anybody. In their time, it was just a few singles released 1966-67, but other recordings have since surfaced, and while I’d had the CD it was one of those situations where I thought: Hey dummy, this will be a neat thing to get on vinyl. I dug the songs, but had no idea I would be as disproportionately troubled by Mississippi Records’ presentation of it as I am. The label’s cute, cut-papered collages incorporating a single photograph and stenciled lettering is okay for their blues and gospel compilations, and theoretically could work for a regional garage band, but the cover fails to reflect the dark undercurrents of the featured sounds. In an aim to demystify and avoid the clichéd psychedelic swirl, they go too far the other way with a just as lazy, too-cool antirock stance. Presumably this is the band’s leader Jim Quarles on the front, and also included amongst the track listing are some solo songwriting demos from him, but there’s little rhyme-or-reason to the song order and scant contextual information provided.
The unreleased “Readin’ Your Will” is every bit as snotty as the title promises. It’s actually a demo, as is one of two versions of “Every Night”—but it’s not clear which is from their first single, as the repeated songs are merely listed as “Alternate” versions. (Alternate to what, if the first appearances aren’t sufficiently defined? An alternate to me, suggests an unused take, but CD releases of this material call these “demo” or “promo” versions). The single version of their Pebbles-to-Nuggets classic “Optical Sound” is evident from the stinging guitar overdubs but is still pretty lo-fi. From that song’s “shattered mind” post-druggy comedown, to getting “all tense and hung up” in “Calm Me Down” these guys were a mess. The suburban nightmare continues with their last single, the bleak “Sweet Child of Nothingness” followed by the mopey but brilliant “I Don’t Need Nobody”—the latter ironically with the most loose and fun guitar solo here. “Outside Of It All” is clearly a Quarles home recording, with blipping effects that residually recall “Optical Sound.” The question is, why place the song here, as the side closer?
Inexplicably, one side of their first single is relegated to side two of this reissue. Far from their usual moody fare, “Love At A Psychedelic Velocity” is a 13th Floor Elevators-style rave-up (I swear I can even hear a jug) and is almost groovy—if it weren’t for the radical tempo shifts the kids probably coulda danced to it. The ‘alternates’ of “Optical Sound,” “Calm Me Down” and “Every Night” are all as spirited as the released versions, but none are revelatory either (honestly I still can’t distinguish a couple of them).
The LP proper closes out with four Jim Quarles intimate demos, of chief interest is “Room of Shadows” which confusingly is the same recording as “Your Mind Works In Reverse” that appears on another release. And here is where things get truly aggravating: there’s a bonus 45 of two more Quarles songs, but there’s no reason to have them banished on their own in this manner. The good news is that they are great, and while probably still solo recordings they have fuller instrumentation and the best fidelity of anything on the set. What bugs me is the arbitrary nature of how this is all laid out. Why not put all the singles together (rather than disrupt them with a solo demo at the end of side one) and do the same with the band demos and the Quarles recordings? Or, mix it all up into a non-chronological listenable sequence —I’d sacrifice a couple of the demos for a single disc all-killer record—but this reissue does none of these things particularly well. And then there’s the final annoyance of the 7” labels having the song titles swapped.
I sure have a lot of opinions on how these things should be done. It just seems to me if you’re gonna be beholden to the completist (by the way, there are other Quarles demos circulating out there, including a suspiciously 70s-sounding “You Need Lovin’ Too”) at least present it in a historically legible manner. Evidently such an approach wasn’t punk enough for Mississippi, and really all they offer is a readily available CD in a different format. And vinyl’s cool, right?