Checklist to capitalize on a burgeoning psychedelic renaissance:
1- Obtain rights to a bargain bin curiosity by first generation folk-rockers, a jug band, or weirdo collective? Check. (Even better?the ubiquitous solo record).
2- Accompany said reissue with overt comparisons to well-known, but misunderstood geniuses of that era?s song craft? Check. (In this case, Syd Barrett and Scott Walker).
3- Establish an outsider back story? Check. (A stay in a medical facility for mental illness aggravated by alcohol and LSD. That directs us back to the second point?too bad they missed out on an obvious Roky Erickson reference).
4- Release four decades later, explaining away lukewarm contemporaneous reviews and hope for hipster neophytes and obscurantists to act as critical revisionists? Check. (Well, at least the first part).
Actually, divorced from context?this 1968 record is a benignly pleasant listening experience. But to peg former Blue Things? frontman Val St?ecklein?s one and only solo record as a post-summer of love, pre-Woodstock lost classic perpetuates both an injustice to both the material and the would-be consumer. If you are looking for acid-drenched, interplanetary meltdowns, prepare to be overwhelmed in disappointment. Instead, St?ecklein presents a maudlin song cycle filled with lush strings (arranged by Dick Hieronymous) dripping with anticipation for AM radio and the Nashville leanings of producer Ray Ruff. No Erickson here, but a spirit more akin Engelbert.
Inspired by the end of a romantic relationship, St?ecklein?s warm voice croons, pleads, and cries for the return of his beloved?named as Rochelle in one track. A choir of violins and cellos overwhelm the songwriter?s simple plucking of a 12-string guitar, seemingly competing with the already typically high vocal mix for this style of baroque pop. At his most upbeat, ?Color Her Blue? recalls ?Bryter Layter?-era Nick Drake without the inimitable finger-picking technique. Another relevant sonic comparison would be the earliest work of David Bowie, but lacking the exuberance or optimism found on his first BBC sessions.
Following the release of ?Grey Life? to unflattering reviews, St?ecklein decided not to tour. Other speculation suggests his disappointment in not only the record?s reception, but also the actual product. Without the strings, ?Grey Life? becomes a quiet, stark meditation and while it might not have saved it then, removing the Countrypolitan schmaltz would have potentially preserved it for future listeners. Due to Ruff?s influence, a handful of St?ecklein?s songs would later be recorded by Pat Boone and Hank Williams, Jr. Tacked at the end of the original LP, his follow-up single ?All The Way Home/I Wonder Who I?ll Be Tomorrow? offers more of the same.
For a nostalgia piece, you could do a lot worse. 5/10 -- Brandon Miller (31 July, 2007)