Cotton Mather – Kontiki: Deluxe Edition

Here’s one that got away, kids.

Austin psych-pop legends Cotton Mather – named after the Puritan minister/Salem witch trials bon vivant – shone promisingly throughout the ’90s, although the ascendancy and takeover of corporate alt-rock and nü-metal eventually doomed them and other likeminded outfits to obscurity. Three full-lengths plus a couple of EPs, and they were outta there, with bandleader Robert Harrison enjoying moderate fame during the next decade fronting Future Clouds and Radar (profiled a few years ago in S&S). Had 1997’s brilliant Kontiki, their second album, gained wider distribution and press attention, perhaps the story would have been different, but despite notching rave reviews in the British press and support from the likes of Noel and Liam Gallagher, in the U.S. only a handful of tastemakers heard the record. Even yours truly, working in a record store at the time, has only the vaguest of memories of Kontiki; it’s likely a copy or two found their way into our bins, but as released by budget-challenged indie label Copper, it never stood a chance.

Returning to the Kontiki well for this two-disc Deluxe Edition, however, Harrison aims to re-route the fickle currents of history, resurrecting one of the most riveting – and in certain corners, revered – powerpop artifacts of the modern era. Awash in Beatlesque harmonies, jangly-but-scorching guitars, and the kind of dense, headphone-beckoning arrangements that’d make Todd Rundgren and Andy Partridge blush, the 14 tracks of the original album are psonic sunspots of timeless tunesmithery. From first cut “Camp Hill Rail Operator,” which opens with a telltale burst of backwards-tape playfulness before catapulting headlong into a muscular slice of Big Star/Superdrag anthemism, through winsome finale “Autumn Birds,” an acoustic-powered Lennonesque ballad, it’s as if Harrison & Co. had unearthed a secret trove where pop maestros from the last three decades had been judiciously stashing away their best material.

In a sense, that last comment’s not so far-fetched. The self-produced and -recorded Kontiki was, in fact, stitched together painstakingly from stacks of ADATS and four-track cassettes the band (which went through several lineup changes during the protracted sessions) had amassed. At a friend’s advice Harrison enlisted Nashville’s Brad Jones to mix the record, although as Harrison’s copious liner notes outline, Jones pitched in to such a degree with editing and re-recording duties that he earned an additional “assistant producer” credit. And considering the tunes’ modest provenance, the final product seems all the more astonishing: witness, for example, “Spin My Wheels,” widescreen and luminous, and reminiscent of “Here Comes the Sun”; or the brash, swaggering “Vegetable Row,” with its crisply-rendered Dylan-like vocals colliding against jagged, distortion-lined guitars and fat, echoey drums.

Harrison could have left things at that and still had one of the year’s best reissues with this remastered album. But then we wouldn’t have gotten the dozen demos, live and acoustic tracks of the second disc. Among the gems encountered are a four-track early take of “Homefront Cameo,” here more overtly John, Paul, Dirk and Barry than the subsequent album version; the previously unheard “Little Star,” another song very much in a Big Star vein (it was written in Memphis during sessions for Cotton Mather’s first album); and “The Gold Gone Days,” a shimmery bit of psychedelia originally slated for Kontiki. The sound quality of the bonus material is uniformly good, and in some places equal to that of the mothership. Rounding the package out is a 28-page booklet boasting Harrison’s lines, remembrances penned by band members and Brad Wood, and candid photos.

I’ve sometimes questioned the wisdom of resurrecting the oeuvre of long-forgotten bands who barely registered a blip on the public radar; aside from friends and family, who’s going to buy an archival collection from an artist that didn’t sell the first time around? In the case of Cotton Mather, however, you can throw that pseudo-rule out the window, ‘cos Kontiki – funded via Kickstarter by devoted fans with long memories – is a keeper. Stop presses: the band’s doing a reunion concert at SXSW in Austin this March, and you can bet the S&S crew will be on hand.

Cotton Mather
Kontiki: Deluxe Edition
[The Star Apple Kingdom]