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Ed Askew (1968)


One of ESP-Disk's true acid folk classics, up there with their Pearls Before Swine and Fugs albums, Ed Askew's Ask the Unicorn is one of the most unique singer/songwriter albums of the '60s. Rather than the usual guitar, Askew plays the tiple, a Latin ten-stringed instrument that's sort of a cross between a lute and a ukulele. It's a loud, trebly instrument with a lot of sustain and some interesting harmonics created by the way the strings resonate together, and it adds an intriguing instrumental texture to the album. Askew has said that the tiple also affects his vocal style on this album; because the instrument is so difficult to play, there's a strained quality to his vocals. Indeed, on the opening, "Fancy That," Askew sounds like the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano trying to sing North African rai. Lyrically, Ask the Unicorn is nowhere near as hippie-dippy as the title suggests. Askew is a gifted, confessional lyricist, and the songs are emotionally engaging in a way that many psychedelic records are not. In a particularly interesting element of the album considering its pre-Stonewall recording date, Askew's lyrics address his homosexuality in an admirably matter-of-fact way, neither ducking the point nor focusing on it exclusively. Other tracks use a number of floral metaphors in a way similar to Georgia O'Keefe's codedly erotic flower paintings. The simply produced live-with-no-overdubs feel of Ask the Unicorn gives the album a folk-like immediacy even on the most out-there songs, like the seven-minute drone "May Blossoms Be Praised." Askew never did another commercial release after Ask the Unicorn, although a 1970 follow-up on ESP-Disk made it as far as a test pressing. In the decades since, the New York-based Askew has pursued a relatively successful career as a painter and poet, and has self-released several cassettes of new material that can be found on the fringe music tape-trading underground. --- Stewart Mason

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