Review by Patrick The Lama (Acid Archives) :
"One of the more curious phenomena I have encountered during 15 years of probing the underbelly of American psychedelia and hardrock is what I call "the Ohio River effect". This refers to the unexpected and statistically significant number of great private press 1970s albums that emanate from the tri-state area of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. While I'm not suggesting that some local Prankster branch had dosed the water with a gallon of Hofmann's finest, the Ohio River link is as good an explanation as any for this regional outbreak of St Anthony's fire, which produced acknowledged classics like Zerfas, Anonymous, Hickory Wind, McKay (all from IN), Stone Harbour, One St Stephen, Estes Bros, Dragonwyck, Morly Grey (all from OH), and Kristyl, Top Drawer, Marcus (all from KY).
The above roster of 12 deadly discs is what comes up after 5 minutes of brainracking, and a more thorough analysis would yield dozens more, while a few unknowns seem to pop up on the radar screen every year. The seldom discussed album by Indiana college band HOI' POLLOI is an example of a local obscurity with qualities as strong as any famous act from either coast, yet its origins made it a concern mainly for friends and family. If it hadn't been for the unhealthy curiosity of record hounds it probably would have remained unheard of, but after Hans Pokora listed the LP in one of his "Collector Dreams" books it only took a few months for a copy to find its way to me. Better still, I was able to trace the record back to its roots and connect up with some of the guys involved in it, which lead to a piece on them at the Lama Workshop site (link above). For this review I'll concentrate on just the music.
There aren't many albums I know with such a gap between the message the sleeve artwork sends out, and the vibe rising from the vinyl grooves. Looking at the "Hoi' Polloi" front cover and factoring in that the back cover is blank you'd be excused for thinking it was a crude hardrock excursion like Poobah or Soup, while it comes in fact from the completely opposite end of the spectrum; a refined and sophisticated music project painstakingly put together despite limited resources. Apparently the recording and pressing emptied the budget on hand, which is why the cover came out as it did. There is an insert with personnel and session details, but no band photos or images of any kind. If nothing else this anonymity directs full attention to the music, and the music deserves it.
Opening with Charlie Bleak's undeniably catchy "Who's gonna help me", side 1 is a delight from beginning
to end. Several things hit you as it progresses; the skill of the arrangements, the quality of the musicianship, the originality of the songwriting. A number of possible references arise in the listener's mind but fail to take hold, the reason being that more than anything else the Hoi' Polloi album resembles itself, as its' distinctive style unfolds over the song cycle. A friend I played it for invoked the "late Beatle-psych" tag-line, and there are indeed traces of "Abbey Road" on this album, just like there is on Zerfas. The smooth vocal harmonies and extensive use of piano may recall the Dialogue LP from Pennsylvania (which in turn resembles a later-day Left Banke), while a couple of tracks remind me quite a bit of Merkin. Band member Bruce Wallace mentions Traffic and Procol Harum in our recent interview, and once clued into it I was able to hear traces of both bands. This hopeless jumble of references helps to illustrate the originality of Hoi Polloi through my incapacity to nail it down short and sweet. This is a good sign, of course.
The second track, Bruce Wallace's "Old Bootstrap" is perhaps my favorite on the LP, and one which explores the band's deft use of piano/organ/guitar interplay in full. Great moody chord shifts and naked vocals project a nocturnal mood of that particular Indiana kind, like a college kid staring out into the night-empty streets of Middle America, wondering what goes on elsewhere in the world. This alone makes the album memorable. After an atmospheric guitar section that extends the late-night mood things get downright psychedelic on "Last Laugh" with its startling backwards vocal effects, a path explored further on an impressive sound collage that may recall the experimental sides on the first Pink Floyd LP. Cool-jazz elements recur throughout the LP and lead into the extended "Satisfaction Guaranteed" by Charlie Bleak and Dan Mack, which also has some of the band's best lyrics, perfectly matched by a confident, understated instrumental build-up that is allowed to fade out as the side closes. Impressive on many levels, with intelligence and taste walking hand in hand, this opening half of the LP had me in a pretty excited state after the first spin.
Side 2 of "Hoi' Polloi" is similar, only not quite as strong. There is a keyboard/saxophone light-jazz excursion about halfway through which, although enjoyable, jars a bit with the song-oriented nature of the rest of the LP. Similarly, "15 miles" is a good LA-style countryrocker, but somewhat out of step with the band's smooth late-night mood. The other tracks are excellent and more typical, but the coherent song-cycle experience of side 1 cannot be recreated in full on side 2. This may keep the LP from attaining full "classic" status, but it's nevertheless an excellent collection of songs and moods whose smartness and maturity is likely to surprise most listeners."