The Pretty Things’ 1967 album ‘S. F. Sorrow’ is the tragic story of the life of Sebastian F. Sorrow (“nobody knew what the ‘F’ stood for, and nobody really cared”); from humble beginnings, interrupted by war and destroyed by the death of his life-long love. It has been referred to as “the first rock opera” – having been released the year before the Who’s ‘Tommy’. Despite not being acknowledged by Pete Townshend as the inspiration for his work, the album remains influential, if not well-known. Produced by former Beatles and Pink Floyd producer Norman “Hurricane” Smith, the album “stretched the technical limitations at the time” according to Pretty Things’ lead singer Phil May.

Fruits de Mer’s ‘Sorrow’s Children’ came in to being as a few tribute cover-versions, but eventually snowballed in to a full-blown reproduction of the original album by bands associated with this rather idiosyncratic record label, including Langor and Jay Tausig, who appeared on the Fruits de Mer/Regal Crabomophone Christmas compilation, which I reviewed last year (read here).

As with other FdM releases, the album will only be released on limited edition colour vinyl. Hopefully the rest of the artwork and liner notes will live up to the quality of the sample front-cover which was sent with my demo, which is a nice reworking of the minimalist original. Another addition I hope for is the inclusion of the set of chapters from the original which appear between the song lyrics, fleshing out the story told in the music.

Unfortunately, another characteristic of FdM’s records (and, in fairness, most independent record labels), is that the production isn’t top-drawer. This is especially noticeable on some of the drum sounds, and there are one or two little niggles in a couple of the performances, but this all lends it a certain charm – and certainly contributes to the retro feel this album has – indeed, once I got past the surface imperfections, this album has really started to grow on me.

From the off, Sorrow’s Children sounds more than a little reminiscent [prescient?] of Tenacious D, especially ‘S. F. Sorrow is Born’ and ‘Baron Saturday’, with their acoustic guitars and narrative lyrics. This lyrical directness occasionally seems a little bit trad, but it’s totally necessary for the storytelling involved in a rock opera. Overall though, this is a nicely varied album, with much to recommend it, and an overarching story which certainly adds to the gravitas of the lyrics – and to a large extent making up for the occasional flirtation with the mundane.

There are some definite highlights: High Fiction Science’s rendition of ‘Private Sorrow’ reminds me of the Lovemongers’ excellent version of ‘Battle of Evermore’; lyrically ‘Trust’ is touching, and the Gathering Grey do a great job of it the multi-layered vocals, sounding in parts like Treefight for Sunlight. The blend of psych-rock and full-on garage in ‘Balloon Burning’ marks it out, and the second side of the album really tips the scale toward the psychedelic, with three excellent examples back-to-back: ‘The Journey’, ‘I See You’ and ‘Well of Destiny’. Unfortunately, early track ‘Bracelets of Fingers’ strays a little too far in to the prog and misses the driving ‘oomph’ of the rest of the record – which on the whole is marked with a lot of very good and prominent bass guitar work, typified by Sidewalk Society’s version of ‘She Says Good Morning’. A mention is due for the final track ‘Lonliest Person’, which in the new Loons version channels the spirit of the Animals – but which also appears as an exclusive 2010 live recording of the Pretty Things.

The tracks that don’t stand out are still all solid, nicely varied and haven’t dated badly at all. Even at this early stage, I would say that Sorrow’s Children is in with a fair shout of being one of the best records I review this year – and I’m fairly certain I won’t get anything else that sounds as original – in fact, I’d be pleasantly surprised if I get anything quite like it.

Release Date mid-April (Fruits de Mer Records)

Chris Oliver

I've been playing bass guitar and guitar for over half my life. I last played bass in in a band called Electromotive and as a singer-songwriter I have written songs about cheese and vajazzles (separate songs!). I started out listening to 60s, 70s and 80s rock as a kid and I was in to grunge and U.S. punk and ska in the 90s. Since then, I've broadened my tastes and I like the best of all styles of music, even country. I've been writing for Silent Radio since it started.