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60 Seconds In Heaven

Jason Willett
(J. M. Giordano)

One of the dependable pleasures of visiting the True Vine Record store in Hampden is discovering what musical oddity is playing on the in-house speakers—especially when Jason Willett is behind the store's desk. A late Friday afternoon perusal of True Vine's stock in June was soundtracked by Débile Menthol, the late 1970s/early 1980s Swiss ensemble that welded the jazzier side of prog to irreverent rock and sprinkled eccentric glee on top.

The free-spirited True Vine co-owner and operator's musical output is as vast as his taste. Willett, who has called Baltimore home on and off since the mid-1990s, has collaborated with a variety of exploratory artists over the years—from Half Japanese's Jad Fair to Japanese noise duo Ruins, from French trumpeter Jac Berrocal to local joy geysers Tom Boram and Dan Breen in Leprechaun Catering.

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Back in 1988 Willett brought his outsider energy into the chain-record store at a mall where he worked in Frederick, Maryland. After getting fired from the mall's Sam Goody, he was hired by the mall's other record store when he convinced the manager that he would stock music that would distinguish the store from others. When Willett ordered records from non-mainstream catalogs and distributors, the manager started having second thoughts: "I'd put the music on [and] they'd be like, 'We didn't think it was going to be like this,'" Willett says. Around this formative time he came across an album that wasn't simply unusual but transportive: Morgan Fisher's "Miniatures."

In 1980 English musician Morgan Fisher, an organ and keyboard player who spent time with British R&B group Love Affair in the late 1960s and Mott the Hoople in the 1970s, started a label called Pipe Music. He solicited musicians he knew to send him one-minute-long sound pieces. The musicians he knew just so happened to be a who's who of fascinating people: the Residents, Soft Machine's Robert Wyatt, XTC's Andy Partridge, guitarist Robert Fripp, artist Ralph Steadman, the Pretenders' Martin Chambers, composer Michael Nyman, the Damned's Dave Vanian, songwriter Neil Innes (who penned musical parodies for "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and the Python movies), British wit Quentin Crisp, and this band from Carroll County, Maryland, called Half Japanese.

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In all, Fisher received 50 60-second clips. He took them and arranged them into a single album's worth of sound that is as odd as it is instantly engaging. "Miniatures," which Fisher issued in 1980, will be reissued on vinyl by Willett's Megaphone label next month, the first vinyl reissue of the album in the United States.

"It's one of the greatest things I've ever heard on a record," Willett says of "Miniatures." "I felt like I was experiencing a state of mind, that stuck out to me more than the music at first. I had never felt this state of mind before, a sort of an intellectual, playful surrealness. There's humor in everything. It's incredible."

That blend of the silly and the surreal is what makes the album so instantly appealing. It hits the brain's pleasure center that pop songs often do but adds so much more to the experience. Flurries of horns run into spoken-word immersions accompanied by organ hums. What sounds like a small string ensemble flowers into a ramshackle garage blues. None of the transitions are car-wreck jarring, and everything feels remarkably of a set.

"To me it's not really a compilation, it's more like a composition," Willett says. "And the strange phenomenon about it, no matter who's on it you feel like they're all on the same psychological wavelength. Maybe they were, but the illusion that it creates—it's just put together so brilliantly you feel that all these people were possessed by the same psychological wavelength."

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"Miniatures" yields a listening experience that is ecstatically genreless, and its singularity has helped make the album a cherished gem since its initial release. Fisher organized each side of the album into a series of "bands," each band a sequencing of four to six one-minute submissions that form tracks. Band three begins with guitarist Fred Frith's 'The Entire Works of Henry Cow,' which itself erupts with spark of small jazz combo free improvisation before spiraling into a wall of collaged sound that's meant to evoke the avant-rock British group Frith co-founded in 1968.

Frith's disorienting fuzz flowers into Maggie Nicols singing the gorgeous 'Look Beneath the Surface,' a soulful, mostly a cappella tune that includes the Scottish free-jazz vocalist offering an invitation to digesting the album, as well as a pretty good daily affirmation: "we're in this world, we're alive we exist/ and whatever we're seeing there's more that we miss/ so go beyond appearance/ do what must be done/ the world is in constant change, and it's changing everyone."

Still to come in this band: French composer Joseph Racaille's extremely brief vocal chant, followed by the Work's 'With Wings Pressed Back,' a jagged instrumental interlude that is as inviting as the interstitial cuts on a Pavement 7-inch, and then Neil Innes covering Slade's 'Cum on Feel the Noize' with his young son singing. The whole album follows this irrational logic that makes beautiful sense in the ears. There's really nothing else quite like it.

"Initial interest was good but as I was so small, so indie, there was no major promotion," Fisher says of "Miniatures" (which he abbreviates as "Mins") in an email from Japan, where he's lived for the past 30 years. "In 1984 when I arrived in Japan I found out that it had been released here and that there was a small band of diehard fans of the album."

The internet allowed Fisher to realize how much of cult following "Mins" had. "I learned of several other similar projects, but in my view they were inferior as they mainly stayed deeply in the underground/avant-garde vein and had much less variety than the original Mins," he continues. "I always loved albums like 'Sgt. Pepper' or early Zappa/Mothers albums for their amazing eclecticism, and that was a 'direction' (or lack of) that I wanted to pursue on Mins."

Willett recalls responding to that anarchic sophistication. "I'm sure the level of absurdity [on 'Miniatures'] only helped to fill that tank in me that already had been primed by things like 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' when I was a little kid, or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in 'Not Only,'" he says. "['Miniatures'] was just another installment of that [sensibility] but in a different format."

What's truly baffling about "Miniatures" is how contemporary it still feels. It remains quite eccentric, which might be a key to its enduring charms. And it keeps winning over new ears. Fisher made a second installment in 2000, "Miniatures 2," and he maintains a blog devoted to the albums (morgan-fisher.com/miniatures/), where he reflects on the artists, the album, and life itself.

In a sense, time's passage is "Miniatures'" true subject. Over the course of its nearly 50 minutes, it careens through a kaleidoscope of emotions, evoking life's turbulent turns without ever losing sight of the fleeting nature of fun that softens the lows and accentuates the highs. Whether listening to it for the first or 500th time, each journey through it unlocks doors that sends memories tumbling through the brain. It's, in a word, a trip.

"Minimal music pioneer Terry Riley (who appears on 'Mins 2') was a big fan of Mins, and once remarked, 'Morgan, surely you were on acid while you were making it?'" Fisher writes. "No—just the odd glass of wine now and again. I've never used drugs, but I took Terry's remark as a real compliment."

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