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The Return of Cotton Mather's Kontiki

Cotton Mather, Kon Tiki (Star Apple Kingdom label)

Gosh, was I amazed to read that Cotton Mather had amassed enough cash (through online donations) to reissue its 1997 album Kontiki. This is one of those CDs that I cherished because I thought if I lost it I’d never find it again. At one point, the disk was indeed misplaced in my vast collection, yet I vainly held on to the packaging in hopes it would reappear. When it did, there was much rejoicing, and constant replaying. This is an album which, upon first listen, had instantly leapt into my pantheon of “overnight” albums—CDs which I could happily listen to on repeat for 8 or 10 hours at a stretch while engrossed in an all-night writing session, intense carpentry project or insomniac frenzy.
I was unaware that any cult had sprung up around Kontiki, or that its creators cared enough to dig it up.
What makes it so special? Thanks to Kickstarter online fundraising, iTunes and other distribution sources, you can find out for yourself and not borrow my copy and never return it. The reissue even comes with a full disk of alternate tracks and outtakes. The extras hit both extremes of the Kontiki sound: there’s a pimped-up electric version of the essential track “Spin My Wheels,” whose added lushness makes it sound even more Badfingery than before, a frantically raw four-track work-out of “Church of Wilson,” and tender acoustic renditions of “Private Ruth” and “Camp Hill Rail Operator” and “Innocent Street.” The
The songs are wonderful power-pop examples of that era, when punchy trios ruled, pristine production techniques felt false and lyrics got dark. But the production is what’s truly extraordinary, working with feedback and other extremes and inflating these already strong songs into startling new shapes. It’s John Lennon living into the ‘90s (while remaining in his 30s). It’s The Raspberries deliciously soured. It’s power pop being recharged in the dark. It’s a validation of a lot of sounds and styles I remember some of the better local and regional bands around the country in the 1990s experimenting with—melodies descending into sound effects, faux-light lyrics that were cutting and cynical in their arch whimsicality, songs that were either absurdly short or unexpectedly grandiose, with exquisitely nonpretentious guitar solos and jams. It was Cotton Mather from Austin, Texas that got it right, got it on tape, and put it out there. Shortly afterward, the band broke up.
A couple of months ago I found myself playing Kontiki to death again, in its original form. Then I heard about the new deluxe reissue with bonus tracks which came out in mid-February. My coolth for digging it in its first impression will be forever altered. Not because I want to kept it my treasured secret but because it’s about time everybody else caught up with it.
Cotton Mather reunited Saturday night for a show at South by Southwest in their native Austin. I was unable to attend, and to me the fact that the band still lives is almost beside the point. Kontiki has been unearthed and redeemed, and that's already plenty. That its creators can stay together and equal it is almost too much to hope for.
I will dwell instead on Innocent Street, or Vegetable Row, in the grooves of this time-spanning ageless masterpiece.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun