THE SAVAGE ROSE

OVERVIEW:

Easily on my short list of the all time most underrated bands (at least in the USA), this Danish group moved from incredibly creative psych-pop into dynamic and soulful 70s roots rock – and they did it with total grace and flair. Their main attraction was leader singer Annisette and her bizarre and absurdly powerful vocals. But they were also great writers, and they could really ROCK when they wanted to. Serious rock fans owe it to themselves to hear the debut and some of these other records. These guys just kick too much arse to go ignored. I’m only concentrating on their 60s and 70s work here – it’s the English Language major label period for the band.

THE ALBUMS:

Savage Rose  *
In The Plain
Travelin’  *
Your Daily Gift
Refugee
Dodens Triumf
Babylon  *
Wild Child
Solen Var Ogsa Din

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SAVAGE ROSE  (1968)

A+

A stone-cold psych-pop classic in a class of its own. 35 minutes of brilliant, melodic, and uniquely atmospheric 60s pop music that expertly combines jazz, cabaret, baroque pop, psych rock jamming, and girl group-isms. In other words, these guys are totally original and way ahead of their time. This album certainly deserves to be better known where I live (the States), as does the band, but since you’re reading about them anyway, I won’t start waxing TOO poetic about how this is one of the all-time underrated rock albums.  Allow me to say, however, that it IS one of the best debuts I’ve ever heard. And Annisette’s Kate Bush/Bernadette Peters/Janis Joplin hybrid voice destroys nearly every other arty front-lady who every picked up a microphone. Frankly, this is a much better and more exciting debut than contemporary and more famous psych debuts like The Doors first record or Surrealistic Pilllow by Jefferson Airplane (OK that last one was a sophomore record, but it might as well have been their debut). And speaking of the Airplane, this band is somewhat similar but SO SO much better!!! Maybe too much better – this record is so expertly played and melodically exciting, it may have already been too sophisticated for Americans to get high to. Every song on here kicks ass, and the band sounds great (though their instrumental prowess wouldn’t quite come to forefront of their sound for another couple records). The otherworldy jazzy psych atmosphere here shares a lot in common with the era’s typical sounds, but these guys push far beyond the norm with their great sense for hooks and their twisted arrangement notions. And that voice! Let’s talk highlights. The big single was “A Girl I Knew,” and it’s definitely the the bombastic show-stopper right in the center of the record. But other tracks blow me away just as much – there’s the intensity of psych rocker “Open Air Shop” and the gorgeous cabaret lullabye “Sleep.” There’s dark bouncy opener “Your Sign – My Sign” with it’s haunting and incredible melody. There are two amazing lighter psych-pop numbers with male vocals complimenting Annisette – “Oh Baby Where Have You Gone” and “White Swan’s Marriage Clothes,” both utterly genius. The whole record rules. Sadly, the band would move away from this psych-pop atmosphere almost immediately, and they’d never release another record QUITE this great. So in certain respects, this is only Savage Rose record demanding your attention. I challenge you not to find the beauty and magic in these grooves. A near perfect album.

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IN THE PLAIN  (1968)

B

A major letdown and a pretty big sophomore slump. Oddly enough, this often gets labeled as the go-to Savage Rose record! I don’t understand that at all. To my ears, this is almost obviously an underwritten and hastily produced follow-up to the genius debut. It lacks the hooks, the novelty, and the flow. The atmosphere has transformed from smartly dark psych-pop cabaret to meandering druggy psychedelic jamming. Annisette isn’t given nearly as much to do here, and for whatever reason, the arrangements and playing is far more boring and normal sounding than on the debut. That being said, there are a couple fantastic tracks on this record and one major classic – “Evening Star.” That tune, wedged into the middle of Side 2, could hold it’s own next to anything on the debut, and it’s certainly one of the all-time great Savage Rose tracks. It begins with a gorgeous country-pop acoustic/tack piano verse and opens up magically into a jazzy majestic chorus with Annisette asking, “Where Are You Going?” A beautiful and powerful pop song. Nothing else on the record reaches that level of brilliance, but there are indeed other nice cuts. The stomping opener “Long Before I Was Born” showcases a more muscular, menacing side of the band that would open to full blossom on the next record. It’s a solid song,  though a bit overly repetitive and undercooked (like a lot of this album). The epic doom-ridden closing track “A Trial To Our Native Town” must be given its due – I’m not crazy about the song itself, but the arrangement and performances sound remarkably ahead of their time. There’s pretty much no difference at all between the atmosphere on that dark, long, evil sounding tune and the atmosphere of a post-punk group like Siouxsie & The Banshees. I mean – the Rose literally presages the entire post-punk movement by almost ten years with that track. The band totally goes for it in the scary nearly industrial guitar department, and the claustrophobic arrangement offers no respite during its 7 minute running time. Annisette screams, the band lopes along, the melody is drawn out to the point of madness….With that track, and a few others (like the unfocused “I”m Walking Through The Door”), one gets the sense the band was perhaps a bit too taken with Mary Jane or LSD or whatever other drugs they might have been doing back in 1968. Granted, that’s just an assumption. But where the first record felt like perfectly controlled pop with psych overtones, this feels like chaotic and messy psych with some pop sneaking in. There are some nice songs here I haven’t mentioned – like the dark lounge jam “Let’s See Her”   – but the album fails to make an impression on me. It’s a must-hear if only for “Evening Star” though – and it’s definitely the work of an excellent band. Just don’t expect a repeat of the debut.

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TRAVELIN’  (1969)

A

A bounce right back to brilliance after the weak “In The Plain.” This is the band’s most rocking and energetic album ever! Here we see the group beginning to push out of strict psychedelia and into a straighter classic rock territory. The focus is on the playing and singing here more than ever before – there are barely any production tricks or psych touches. But it helps that the playing and singing DESTROYS on here, with drummer Alex Riel’s heavy jazzy work standing out in a major way. And Annisette has never sounded better. This album is quite brief – 35 minutes – and though mostly consistent, it has three very obvious peaks for me. The band storms out of the gate with incredible, melodic, hard rocking opener “I’m Satisfied Mr. Captain,” one of their all-time great tracks. In addition to that short blast of pop genius, there are two epic classics on here. The first comes at the end of Side One – “You Lifetime’s a Fairytale,” a huge showcase for the band’s instrumental virtuosity. Everybody just kills on that one, and though things are amped up to big jazz rock levels, we’re still dealing with a powerfully melodic composition. The band has definitely pushed back from the unfocused hazy psych of the previous album and focused both their sound and their writing this time around. Finally, the album ends with it’s most famous track – the lyrically bizarre and totally inspired “My Family Was Gay.” Super memorable chorus on that one. The rest of the album can’t measure up to those three classics, but it’s still very solid. The rousing “Look Out” injects some gospel-like soul into the band’s sound, pointing the way towards the upcoming Rose albums. “Sailin’ Away” is a beautiful keyboard driven ballad with a great vocal performance (try to avoid those bizarre lyrics about chickens). “Life’s Other Side” rocks a wacky vocal melody and some classical keyboard sounds – it’s one of the proggier moments in the catalog. There’s also the breezy boy-sung title track, a very West Coast hippie-esque tune with a nice hook. I love this record, but it’s quite different from the debut. The band would unfortunately never deal in that psych-pop sound again – and from now on Annisette will seriously dominate the band’s sound. But this is super high quality and immensely well performed rock music.

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YOUR DAILY GIFT  (1971)

B

A left turn from the aggressive attack of “Travelin”  that takes the band into an oddly unfocused pop singer-songwriter R&B territory. There’s basically no psych left in the band’s sound at all – and stylistically they deal here mostly in folksy miniatures, country pop, and soulful gospel numbers. This record feels a bit like a mish-mosh to my ears. The band doesn’t really fully assume their new muscular R&B sound until the next record, and there are still elements here that seem married to the energy and vibe of “Travelin.” But they are clearly moving in a direction that puts the focus almost entirely on Annisette’s powerhouse vocals – all of the arrangements here are scaled back and simplified (especially the rhythm section), and the melodies are far more direct. This is barely even an art-rock record. I have to assume this was a commercial bid at the time, but the album is hardly a sell-out. First of all, lots of side 2 is taken up by an 8 minute free-form sonic-collage jam called “Tapiola.” It’s a giant stain on a record that already seemed slight without it. I appreciate the band’s desire to experiment, but 8 minutes of pastoral noodling with Annisette nowhere to be heard could hardly have pleased their big fans back in the day. And it doesn’t please me now. An atmospheric cascade of keyboard and “out” percussion, with a lot of ebb and flow and swelling and retreating…it’s really just your standard druggy improvisation. Ultimately, It’s 8 minutes of filler and adds to my suspicion that this was the result of an exhausted band pooling together a bunch of leftovers to make something resembling a real album. And strangely, most of the rest of the record could have USED a little of that odd experimentalism. But enough of the negatives. There are some real classics on here, and all the proper songs work well, though they’re mostly less immediate and enthralling than the highlights of the previous trilogy. “Unfold” and “Speak Softly” are the two major winners. The first is a country pop tune with a great melody and a very memorable rolling harpsichord riff. The song nails its breezy atmosphere.  The latter is an epic gospel pop song in the Laura Nyro vein. It’s a style the band would run with for their next couple records, hugely different from their psych-pop roots and very distinctly American. Obviously Annisette has the vocals to make it soar, and the slightly European flavors in the keyboard arrangement adds a uniqueness to what might have been a more standard piece of 70s roots rock. I adore the sound of the layered Annisettes making up the girl-group backing vocals on that track (a very Nyro-esque effect). The other big gems here are the lounge-y accordion drenched title track that closes the record, sort of a more subtle and less dynamic version of “A Girl I Knew.” It’s got a typically gorgeous vocal performance and a memorable refrain. “The Waters Run Deep” and “Sunday Morning” are both solid R&B ravers that totally point the way to the follow-up record. “Lightly Come Lightly Go” is a cute if lesser attempt at a “Oh Baby Where Have You Gone” type track, with Annisette singing the verse and the boys handling the chorus. All of these tracks are strong and well performed, but they occupy an unfortunate middle ground between the early and later sound – the band doesn’t seem committed enough to either one to warrant this album’s recommendation to a new fan. This is certainly worth it for the highlights, but it’s a letdown when taken as a whole.

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REFUGEE  (1971)

B+

The tightest and most accessible little record the band ever made. And certainly the most “American.” Produced by Stones-man Jimmy Miller amidst arguably the best run of that producer’s career (I think he had just finished “Sticky Fingers”), this album pulls up all the loose strands of the group’s sound and balls ’em into a forceful 8 song R&B platter. Lester Bands had lots of nice things to say about this record at the time, comparing its quality to “Who’s Next” and calling this band saviors of rock music (or some other typically hyperbolic bullshit). But obviously, they remain incredibly obscure in the States – Lester seemed to have been shouting in the dark. You can understand his emotional reaction to this record, though. With Annisette’s insanely awesome singing, and the already great band totally sinking their hooks into some American roots music forms, this could be taken as a female fronted version of early 70s Stones. Or perhaps a mixture of early 70s Stones and The Band. It’s not sleazy like the Stones, and it’s not very academic in its intent like The Band – it’s somewhere in between. We know that the band is pushing out of their range here – while their very Euro-sounding psych-pop debut had indeed been gradually morphing into this streamlined rock ‘n’ roll sound, they’ve never before sounded so fully committed to the recording of what ultimately amounts to a classic rock record. The only eccentricities here come naturally – Annisette still has a weird voice, and the band is full of players trained in jazz and classical. But there are very few nods to their art-rock past on here – never do you feel like the guys are “experimenting” on this record, unless strict adherence to American roots forms could be considered an experiment. Another good comparison would be mid-period Procol Harum – the old sound is still sorta there, but the band is now way more concerned with blues and gospel forms than classical ones. NOW – there is a big problem with this style of record-making for a group like Savage Rose. The Stones and The Band are all about their flaws, their roughness, maybe even their drunkenness. Sure, the The Band had some virtuoso players and a similar two keyboard assault. But THIS band comes from a far stricter tradition – they sounded great performing pop songs with oddball melodies and artsy arrangements. But this record sounds a tad unnatural, a bit like an exercise. They approximate the sound they’re shooting for quite well, but it lacks the authenticity of those previously mentioned bands. It’s an emotional thing I can’t quite explain. In any case, even if there’s a bit of awkwardness here and there, the band pretty much owns throughout this record. My favorites are the rocking gospel tunes that bookend the show – “Revival Day” and “Walking In the Line.” Annisette rips it up, Alex Riel hits the skins with simple authority, laying back when he needs to and sequestering all of those jazzy chops we know he’s capable of from earlier records. There’s also the totally haunting and beautiful rootsy New Orleans-tinged balled “Granny’s Grave.”  The whole album works – there aren’t any pop songs on here, so nothing sticks out too much from a melodic or arrangement standpoint. It’s a “vibe” record – you’ve heard most of these tunes before, but you’ve never heard Annisette sing ’em. It’s not going to replace the debut for me anytime soon as the key Savage Rose record, but it’s probably the key “late-period” Savage Rose record. These guys had their act together to such a degree, I’m pretty stunned they couldn’t make any inroads in the US market. Perhaps that voice is just TOO weird for some folks.

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DODENS TRIUMF  (1972)

B-

Not really a Savage Rose record, this is  an album-length Thomas Koppel composition written for a ballet. There are some Annisette vocals at the end – I’m not sure if those vocals were part of the ballet, or the result of a record company’s desire to release this as a Savage Rose album. This functions quite nicely as background music – I believe Koppel was the key visionary behind the original Rose sound, and he certainly has a way with creative keyboard arrangements. There are some repeated motifs on here that remind me of melodies from the vocal albums, and some more abstract sound-image passages. Nothing seems too avant-garde or progressive on this, though – it’s all very pretty and laid-back, with nary a rockin’ moment or overly complex section. The opening 6 and half minute “Byen Vagner” presents the piece’s main theme, an organ melody coupled with rolling piano arpeggios. It reminds me a bit of something off a mid-70s post-Gabriel Genesis record. It’s pleasant and very well arranged, but not a particularly riveting piece of instrumental music. To be honest, it sounds like the backing track for an Anisette vocal! Another organ instrumental, the melody of “De To Gamie” reminds me of “Unchained Melody.” I don’t think I mean that in a good way. The album ends with an alternate Annisette-sung version of “Dear Little Mother” from Refugee. I quite enjoy the way this record builds up to that concluding pop song, and the tune may even sound better in this context than arriving after “Revival Day” on the Refugee record. In the end, this is hardly mind-blowing stuff – melodic and relaxing, sure, and perhaps I’d appreciate it more if I saw the ballet (the title means “Triumph of Death” and the dance was performed in the nude). But unlike some people, I wouldn’t consider this a key Savage Rose record by ANY stretch of the imagination.

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BABYLON  (1972)

A-

Praise the Lord! That’s the band speaking, not me. Though I’ll say it too so as to get into the spirit – Praise the Lord! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, here we have Savage Rose’s full on, no holding back, completely focused GOSPEL album. No art rock left in sight – just the devotional blues, baby. And who better to raise her voice in prayer than Annisette? She sounds totally killer on this material. But let me be clear here – as far as I can tell, this isn’t the result of anybody finding Jesus. This is basically a secular gospel album, if such a thing could be said to exist. The songs sounds like prayers, but I don’t think the Lord’s name is even spoken once. So the record’s got the vibe and energy of gospel, and the basic lyrical bents (“Ticket To Paradise” “Help The Lonely Child” “Shine”), but we’re not talking Dylan’s “Saved” album or anything like that. Jesus is not the main character here. It took me a few listens, but I’m fairly convinced that this is one of the best products the band ever released. A couple items to note: unless my sources are inaccurate, the original band has now been whittled down to just Annisette and the keyboardists Thomas and Anders Koppel. No more crazy jazz drumming from Alex Riel, and actually there’s very little drumming on this platter. Percussion is more in the hand-clap foot-stomping vein. Remember what I said about “vibe” issues on the previous album? They’re totally solved on this one. The atmosphere and FEEL of this record blows my mind – it’s like a mix of New Orleans jazz and church music, with something vaguely European and folksy hovering over the mix. The group storms out of the gate with totally rousing opener “The Messenger Speaks,” the record’s defining track and one of my all time favorite Savage Rose productions. The two keyboard attack (artsy organ and barrelhouse piano, just like The Band), coupled with the gospel choir supporting Annisette’s typically powerhouse lead vocal, and some awesome N’Awleans horn parts – it’s a fucking winner. Next up is delicate jazzy lounge tune ‘What Do You Do Now,” a grower that seemed overlong and underwritten to me on first listen, but ultimately proved itself with its incredible vocal performance and lush, organic arrangement. “Ticket To Paradise” is another great groovy gospel tune, and again reminds me a lot of Laura Nyro. “Stagolee’s Victory” is one of the most unique tracks the band ever cut – a blues song that begins in totally free time for nearly three minutes, before dropping into a piano-handclap driven rag-timey shuffle. Great track – the sort of thing you wish Elton John might have moved into post-Tumbleed Connection. The only weak moment on this record comes in the form of “Links In A Chain,” which brings in a children’s choir to support a saccharine inspirational lyric. It’s the only part of the album that sounds forced – the rest is gritty and powerful. A truly exciting roots rock record, almost undeniably solid, and certainly one of the strongest uses of gospel forms by any rock band I’ve ever heard.

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WILD CHILD  (1973)

C+

The band’s final English pop album of the 70s, this is a very disappointing and mostly lifeless work. Save for a couple great moments, it sounds to me more like a collection of outtakes and leftovers rather than a genuine Savage Rose album. Perhaps as a result of criticism regarding their recently acquired gospel sound, the band mostly sheds those R & B influences here for a more boring version of their earlier sound. The only major addition to the atmosphere comes in the form of guitarist Peer Frost, who lends some neat solos and sounds to the tunes. But Annisette and the Koppel brothers just sound tired here, and this album lacks the muscle and passion of their earlier albums. It gets off to a great start though! The 6 minute title track opens the record, and it’s easily the best song – the rockin’ gypsy flavors and accordion sounds, coupled with the folk song structure, remind me a lot of Rolling Thunder-era Dylan. It’s probably too long, but it’s got an excellent and very memorable refrain (“I’m a WIIIIIIILD CHILD”). The following track is almost as good – “Stewball Was So Tired” – a raggy accordion driven European folksy blues rocker. Unfortunately, the rest of the album falls pretty flat. “Madhouse Wedding” is five minutes of Rose-by-numbers, with a boring melody and nothing new to say musically. It almost sounds like it could have been on the debut, but it lacks the innocence and haunting atmosphere of that earlier record. The second side of this record is a total throwaway. “The Shoeshine Boy Is Dead” is a weaker version of “Stagolee’s Victory” from Babylon. “Screams of Captured Birds” has an awesome title and some great guitar work, but it’s a strangely unmemorable composition. I SORT of like “Ain’t My Baby Beautiful,” but again – the band really seems like they’re spinning their wheels on this platter. Though that song has a nice vibe and melody, it’s just not distinct enough. It doesn’t sound inspired to me – which is odd coming just a year after the supernaturally inspired “Babylon” record. It makes sense to me that the group would essentially dissolve after this record, and I don’t recommend it unless you’re already a big fan of the major albums.

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SOLE VAR OGSA DIN   (1978)

B-

5 years later Savage Rose returned with this mostly Danish language album. I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It never even tries to rock in the typical sense, there’s practically no R & B influence whatsoever, and none of the individual tracks seem designed to make huge impressions on the listener. It’s not really a pop album at all – more of a Psych-Folk record. It’s got probably the most psychedelic atmosphere to grace a Rose record since “In The Plain,” but the writing here is quite different to that of the early material. Things are far more subtle now – even Annisette sounds relatively subdued. The arrangements are very free sounding much of the time, as if the record was the result of a series of jam sessions rather than serious sessions intended to bring the name back into the limelight. That being said, the vocals are still excellent. The keyboard playing is creative and slightly “off” in the old Koppel way. There’s a very breezy and comfortable feeling to this record, as if the band felt they had nothing to prove and could just smoke some grass and mess around a bit. None of the songs REALLY go anywhere – witness the nearly 9 minute “Johnny Don’t,” where Annisette endlessly repeats the same pretty low-key folk vocal melody while the band noodles about behind her.  It’s hypnotizing in a way, but if you pay too close attention you might just find it dull as diapers. Same goes with the slow burn psych jam “You’ll Know In The Morning,” which is the other English language track here (along with “Johnny Don’t”). It could have been in Swahili for all I care since it’s just the title phrase repeated over and over again. The Danish songs range in quality a bit, and they’re mostly super simple melodically, but there’s usually something interesting enough about them to capture my interest. My favorite comes right near the end of the record – “Inuit Nu” – a gorgeous stripped down folk song with Annisette singing a haunting melody atop only an acoustic guitar. I know the band moved into protest folk territory on their handful of Danish language 80s records – I haven’t heard those albums, but if they sound anything like this song I’d love to check ’em out at some point! I don’t know what Annisette is singing about on much of this record, as I don’t speak the language. But other minor highlights include the “Dodens Triumf”-esque “De Vilde Blomster Gror” and the jazzy title track which sports a fantastic vocal and some fusion-y guitar work. The tune sneakily works in a Latin rhythmic vibe, especially as concerns the phrasing of the memorable chorus hook. A neat track. And a neat little record. A step up from “Wild Child,” and a sign that there was still life in the band even after a 5 year break. The band took another big break after this one – at least, as far as studio records go. They were touring and working throughout the 80s, mostly concerning themselves with political music and Danish language protest records (though I think only Annisette and Thomas Koppel remained the constant members). There are a couple 90s and 2000s English language pop records. But I think it’s safe to say the end of the 70s marks the end of “classic” era Savage Rose, and so that’s where I sign off.

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    • mlg
    • April 4th, 2014

    thank for this post !

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