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Henry Jacobs, "The Wide Weird World of Henry Jacobs/The Fine Art of Goofing Off"

This CD/DVD set of Henry Jacobs' work has a lot to offer for  anyone who decides to crack it open and spend a few hours exploring. The CD does a marvelous job of illustrating the breadth and variety of Jacobs' sound art, contained in 39 digestible little nuggets while the included DVD is also a fantastic historical artifact, collecting all three episodes of a surreal television show assembled in a free-associative manner.

Henry Jacobs was part of an explosively creative confluence of artists and cultural pioneers that also included Ken Nordine, Alan Watts, Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsburg, among others. This was San Francisco of the 1950s and '60s, and Henry Jacobs was an avid sound recordist and musical improviser, and was in a unique position to document this scene. Jacobs also hosted several radio shows, curated a number of experimental labels releasing musique concrete records, and expanded his archive of his own sound art, field recordings, ethnic music loops and bizarre comedy skits. This CD is drawn partially from Henry Jacobs' past releases (some of which have resurfaced on the Locust Music label), but largely from a considerable stash of reel-to-reel tapes and 45s discovered hidden beneath a Mill Valley house a few years ago. The Wide Weird World of Henry Jacobs CD is a 54-minute journey through Jacobs' archive, selected and edited by Jack Dangers, who is reportedly a big Henry Jacobs fan. This fantastic archival package from Important Records also includes a DVD containing all three episodes of The Fine Art of Goofing Off, an experimental animated program that aired on San Francisco public television in 1972.

The CD serves two purposes, it seems. The first is for people who have never heard the work of Henry Jacobs. The disc is brilliantly sequenced and never boring, cycling through a kaleidescopic array of sound bites that are alternately funny, charmingly nostalgic, bizarre, psychedelic or inexplicable. From the odd verbal tennis of Jacobs and Ken "Word Jazz" Nordine on tracks like "Cigarette Yoga," to a soft-spoken public radio DJ introducing the listening audience to the "new sounds of musique concrete," to the spooky psychedelic brain shivers of "Telephone Therapy," or the numerous excerpted bits of the wacky "Laughing String" sketch, listeners unfamiliar with Jacobs' work are in for a treat. Unlike more familiar works of tape collage from this period, Jacobs in unconcerned with formalism or overworking his sources too much. Instead, he seems to favor a more free-form approach, with an ear tuned towards less academic pursuits, and a musical sensibility that seems to have been informed by exotica and cartoon soundtracks, the radio landscape and early television. Because Jacobs experienced the tail end of the beatnik movement, which quickly transformed into proto-psychedelia, many of the sketches feel dated, satirizing then-current beatnik, mod and hipster cliches. That's also part of what makes the album feel charmingly analog and retro, not unlike the experience of listening to classic Firesign Theatre LPs, and often just as hilarious.

The second purpose this CD serves is for Henry Jacobs enthusiasts, who will delight in hearing never-before-released recordings from the same time period of his best work. Though this CD unquestionably fills a void for new material from Jacobs, it also creates a lot of questions. Like, for instance, what happened to the rest of the material in that reportedly huge archive of tapes and LPs? Though its great to hear this record, and the editing and sequencing are wonderful, I can't help but be really curious about what was left on the cutting room floor. I suppose what we as listeners get from The Wide Weird World is not truly archival, but rather a highly subjective trip through Jacobs' discarded tape library. And while this doesn't reflect negatively in any way on the people who put this collection together, I'd really like to hear the rest of the material, too. Releases like this make me wish that the full, unexpurgated tapes will one day be released; I'd imagine that the entire library could fit on a couple of DVDs, using the MP3 format.

Putting concerns like this aside, Wide Weird World is a great set, and a great value as well. The TV programs on the included DVD were produced by Henry Jacobs, animator Bob McClay and producer Chris Koch. Strange audio cues of various interviews and spoken-word bits set different primitive animations into motion, using a stream-of-consciousness editing style to meditate, albeit very abstractly, on the subject of leisure and leisurely activities. Stop-motion claymation, experimental film techniques, Terry Gilliam-style cutouts, subliminal image juxtapositions and psychedelic animations complement an eclectic soundtrack of music, jarring sound effects, and a series of narrators ruminating on leisure, delivering anecdotes and reading from funny "social engineering" pamphlets. It's undeniably reminiscent of early episodes of Sesame Street in its attempt to marry the surreal and psychedelic to family-friendly, educational programming. However, it takes this concept several steps further out than Sesame Street or most television shows ever would or could, making it a very interesting short-lived exploration of the more esoteric potentialities of the medium. I also have a feeling that the guys in Boards of Canada would really cream their pants over these programs, as they share the oddly nostalgic patina and whimsicality of the '70s public educational film works that the duo adores so much. 



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