Band members Related acts
- Robb Kunkel (RIP 2015) -- vocals, guitar, keyboards
- Jimmy Bond -- bass
- Ray Brown -- bass
- Victor Feldman -- percussion
- Gregaory Hammel -- drums, percussion
- Danny Holien -- guitar, backing vocals,
- Diana Lee -- vocals
- Ed Michel -- air hammer
- Howard Roberts -- guitar, banjo
- WIlly Selzer -- vocals
- Stephen Swenson -- bass
Rating: *** (3 stars)
Catalog: TWS 111
Country/State: Wilmington, Delaware
Grade (cover/record): VG/VG+
Comments: textured sleeve; cut out hole left corner; minor ring wear; crease lower left corner
Catalog ID: 4333
This was one of those mystery albums I picked up at a flea market. About all I remember is not knowing anything about the artist (thinking he might be related to bassist Russ Kunkel), or even the label, but thinking the cover (looking like something out of a bad 1980s sci-fi film) was too weird to pass up. It was even more intriguing given the LP was apparently recorded in 1973. That said, the album sat in my 'to listen to' pile for over a year.
Can't say I know much about Robb Kunkel. After spending time traveling the world, he worked as a promo man for ABC/Dunhill Records where one of his bosses was Larry Ray (then head of ABC's promotions department). By the early '70s, with financial backing from Gulf and Western, Ray and producer Bill Szymczyk had started their own small Colorado-based label - Tumbleweed. Denver, Colorado was apparently picked as the spot to start their label as both men were fearful of an earthquake ravishing Southern California. Remember this was the early-'70s ... Kunkel was original hired to help set up Tumbleweed. He helped find office and recording space in Denver; recruited staff and scouted many of the acts that were signed to the label - Danny Holien, Pete McCabe and Dewey Terry. He also wanted to record some of his own music.
Working with noted jazz producer Ed Michel, 1973's "Abyss" wasn't half bad for what proved to be Tumbleweed's final release (Gulf and Western cutting off funding after losses of over $1 million). Like most of the Tumbleweed catalog the set sported good sound quality and some interesting production effects - Kunkel had an affinity for ocean sounds. Nine of the ten tracks were credited to Kunkel; the one exception being the atmospheric leadoff ballad 'You Were the Morning' which was credited to Thomas Stockwell. Having listened to the album a dozen times it's still hard to slap it with a label. Much of the set had a laidback, slight lysergic acoustic singer/songwriter feel to it. The songs were often punctuated by Howard Robert's jazzy lead guitar and/or Kunkel's percussive keyboards. 'Whispermuse' was a perfect example. For the first couple of moments in it flowed along as a pretty acoustic ballad before Kunkel and Roberts kicked in at the tail end. In contrast the title track and 'Turn of the Century' (the latter being the standout effort) were fairly conventional (and enjoyable) rock numbers. Full of pretty melodies and some nice harmony vocals (courtesy of Diana Lee and Willy Selzer), I can see why it's become something of a sought after collectable. The only real missteps were a couple of country-flavored throwaways including the forgettable 'Country Blues'.
In case you were curious about why the LP is so rare, in an interview with the late Patrick "The Lama" Lundborg for his Acid Archives website, Kunkel mentioned the album's commercial end - "I think 500 copies of 'Abyss' were pressed but it could be more. The company went under just at the time of it's release." "Abyss" was literally the last release by Tumblweed.
"Abyss" track listing:
1.) You Were the Morning (Thomas Stockwell) - 4:15 rating: *** stars
'Opening up with some relaxing ocean wave sound effects and eastern-influenced acoustic guitar, 'You Were the Morning' took a while to get out of the Kasbah, but eventually morphed into kind of an interesting slice of singer/songwriter folk with pretty harmony vocals and some first-rate lead guitar from Howard Robert. I'm guessing the song's exotic sounds were a reflection of Kunkel's world travels. Kunkel did an interview with the late Patrick "The Lama" Lundborg for his Acid Archives website and here's what he had to say about the song: "You Were the Morning' was written by Thomas Stockwell and I learned the song near Chicago in 1964. When session guitar master Howard Roberts was doing the banjo part at the end of 'You Were the Morning' he had done many lines and glasses of Remy Martin and had to keep doing re-takes. He looked up at the window to the control room and said, 'I will get this right if it takes all the money Tumbleweed has got."
2.) Whispermuse (Robb Kunkel) - 5:08 rating: *** stars
A pretty, but fragile acoustic ballad, 'Whispermuse' showcased nice harmony lead vocals - kind of Crosby and Nash vibe with more of a folk-orientation. My only complaint was the violin solo distracted your attention from the prime melody. Kunkel's late-inning piano gave the song a surprisingly taunt undercurrent. Shame it didn't start out that way. Kunkel's recollections on the song: "[it] was based on the writing of Baudelaire who I was reading at the time. My upstairs 4 rooms had leaded glass round windows which I put in the lyrics: 'times magic sunlight dances through a round window'."
3.) Country Blues (Robb Kunkel) - 1:43 rating: ** stars
Well give Kunkel credit for honesty in terms of song titles. A straightforward country number, 'Country Blues' didn't do much for me. Nicest thing I can say is that Howard Roberts turned in a nice Telecaster (?) performance.
4.) O Light (Robb Kunkel) - 4:15 rating: **** stars
The orchestrated ballad 'O Light' served as a nice showcase for Kunkel's attractive voice. Yeah, it was a bit heavy in the sensitive singer/songwriter mode, but had a beautiful melody that crept into your head and wouldn't leave. Shame more of the album didn't follow this path. Lovely cello backing ... how often will you see that in one of my reviews?
Abyss (Robb Kunkel) - 5:02 rating: **** star
1.) Monterey Parable (Robb Kunkel) - 4:19 rating: **** star
'Monterey Parable' opened side two with a nice west coast-meets-jazzy vibe. Lots of cool Howard Roberts jazz-lead guitar on this one.
2.) Ten Summers (Robb Kunkel) - 3:33 rating: ** stars
'Ten Summers' found Kunkel returning to piano-based singer/songwriter mode. The keyboard sections have always reminded me of something Vince Guaraldi might have recorded for a Peanuts soundtrack. Not a bad song, especially when it kicked into gear (okay the sax solo wasn't necessary), but still kind of disappointing after the previous couple of more conventional rock-oriented numbers.
3.) Airhammer Eddie (Robb Kunkel) - 2:31 rating: *** stars
'Airhammer Eddie' was the album's most straight-ahead rocker. If you heard the song on another album it probably wouldn't have made much of an impression (okay, maybe the jackhammer sound effect would have stuck with you), but surrounded by the slower singer/songwriter material it made a nice change of pace.
4.) Playa de Bagdad (instrumental) (Robb Kunkel) - 2:41 rating: ** stars
The orchestrated instrumental 'Playa de Bagdad' was apparently intended to showcase Kunkel's experimental side. To my ears it sounded like something lifted from one of those pompous and dull 1970s-era French art films.
5.) Turn of the Century (Robb Kunkel) - 4:31 rating: **** star
My pick for best song, 'Turn of the Century' was certainly eclectic incorporating cocktail jazz, pop and rock elements. Parts of the song actually sounded a bit like something The Raspberries might have recorded with backing vocals from The Association, while the keyboard sections again recalled Vince Guaraldi.
Kunkel subsequently began working with the Carlsbad, California-based jazz/experimental outfit Pataphysic. I've long looked for a copy of their 1974 album "Divination" (Malarky catalog NR 6375) and 1980's "Pataphysic" (private press catalog number KM 5327).
Only 64, Kunkel died in August 2005 about a decade before the collection was reissued by the US Future Days label (catalog number FDR 634). The Future Days released was limited to 500 copies.
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