Album of the week: Definition (1968)

Would recommend if you’re a fan of: The Growing Concern, Apple, H.P. Lovecraft, Clear Light, Sunforest

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Source: Album artwork

Words by Matt Kessler

In 1968, New York band, Chrysalis, released their only album, “Definition.” Beckoning back and forth from being musically jovial, to heartbreaking, the lyrical abilities of the band were something to be envious of. The band featured vocalists Nancy Nairn and James Spider Barbour (who also played guitar),  John Sabin on guitar, Paul Album on bass, Dahaud Shaar on drums, and Ralph Kotkov on keyboards.

The album starts off with “What Will Become of the Morning.” The song moves like a circus, a kind of ‘merry-go-round’ tune. The carnival-like, celebratory nature of the song and the vehement harpsichord are two strong elements of the track. The hauntingly beautiful  “Lacewing,” is a hypnotic tune mixed with a lyrically tragic plot. All of this, added to singer James Spider Barbour’s desperation heard in his voice, really resonates with the listener. Like “Lacewing”, and equally beautiful, next track “Cynthia Gerome.” is just as tragic, but this time the protagonist can be pitied by her fall from grace. Once again, Barbour’s pleading vocals captures the listener’s heart.

Next, we have the delightful “April Grove.” Singer Nancy Nairn’s impressive and experimental vocals should really galvanize the listener, especially after going through two depressing tracks in a row prior to this one. The track then creeps into a more jazzy atmosphere, and then back again to its normal structure. I probably wouldn’t argue with somebody who claimed that this was the best song on the album so far.

Another emotionally charged track, “Father’s Getting Old,” contains a menacing guitar tone throughout and an obliviously ominous guitar solo, the track contains all of the right ingredients for a recipe of ’emotional downfall.’ It’s more sonically heavy than the previous songs, without shoving it down your throat.

With  half of the songs dealing with tragedy of some sort, it’s a relief to hear the emotionally refreshing “30 Poplar.” A Vaudeville influenced song, a nostalgic reflection of early 20th century American music, similar to Donovan’s “As I Recall It” or The Beatles’ “Honey Pie.”. It does briefly transition to an exhilarating ‘gasping for breath’ moment where vocalist Nancy Nairn cites:

“…A ring of smoke,
Wrapped around my finger,
A wasp without a stinger,
Buzzing in my ear”

“Baby, Let Me Show You Where I Live,” unfortunately, is a pretty big let down. In plain sight, it’s boring, with no redeeming qualities in sight. Maybe they should have had more of that flute to spice things up a bit. Even then, I doubt I would be raving about it. After what could arguably be called a disaster of a track, the album then goes into possibly my favorite track on it. “Fitzpatrick Swanson” contains imagery of life in the neighborhood. Lawns, lamps, and the neighbors themselves – a glimpse late 60’s suburbia. After a few songs in a row that were more upbeat, the album then goes into “Lake Hope.” It isn’t sorrowful like the other slower songs, it just paints a picture while proving once again what sensational lyrics the band provided.

If that was too tame for you, then shock will be your next feeling after listening to “Piece of Sun.” Another highlight on the album, it moves frighteningly throughout its course, with disturbing yet captivating vocals. What a unique way to seize the listener’s ear. I could listen to it over and over again with no problem at all.

The penultimate song on the record,  “Summer in your Savage Eyes,” is in my opinion, one of the weakest on the record, although it’s not completely without merit. The receptive combination of piano and flute inserted into the song gives it a much needed flavor. Other than that, there is not too much to brag about. Finally, we get to the album’s closer, “Dr. Root’s Garden.” An interesting track, it contains a powerful piano melody that carries the song back and forth between being optimistic and enlightening, to sounding to downright strange. A solid closer, it certainly demonstrates how versatile Chrysalis could be.

Even with all of the talent shown throughout the record, the band would never release another album. It’s a shame, given how many quality tracks are included on here, and how impressive Nancy Baird’s vocals are. However, I feel lucky enough to have heard at least one album by this fine band, even if I am desperate for more…

An original album isn’t too difficult to get hold of – with copies often cropping up on Discogs or Ebay. It’s also been reissued on CD.

And it’s on YouTube!

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