For almost half a century, I’ve been waiting for the rest of the world to discover the charms of this record…tick, tick, tick…
I was lucky enough to discover Leon Russell at a very young age. Before I was thirteen, Leon was my favorite piano player, as he remained for years. I first learned of him while attending a Sunday matinee viewing of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” at a local theater. The movie featured live performances of Joe Cocker, supported by a band of hippie troubadours led by Leon as they toured America. It was an eye-opening experience for my twelve year-old self and it reinforced my desire to be a rock star (oh well…).
The music was great, but throughout the film, I felt constantly drawn to Leon. With his long blond air cascading past his waist, his on-screen presence was as strong and effecting for me as Elvis Presley might have been for the generation before me. From this experience, I branched out and started to discover Russell’s records. In a moment of inspired risk, I blindly picked up an older release that paired him with somebody named Marc Benno and brought it home.
From the very first listen, it was quite obvious that “Look Inside the Asylum Choir” was significantly different from anything else in Leon Russell’s catalog. There was precious little blues influence in these songs, and his penchant for gospel is nonexistent here. Instead, it is full of extraordinarily well-produced oddities featuring non-stop psychedelic imagery, accentuated with a significant amount of humor. His partner Marc Benno has a pure tenor vocal perfectly suited to the loopy imagery of songs like “Icicle Star Tree,” and the pair of songwriters interweave their vocals in ways that suggest true partnership in the songs’ arrangements.
There is just so much to love about this charming album, but the most endearing quality is how fun it is. While other ‘psychedelic’ albums struggled to get heavy with theoretical and thematic constructions, Russell and Benno seem satisfied to present a handful of awesome pop songs, all played with a nod and a wink to the hippie community. Yes, you could call it derivative psychedelia, but its creativity trumps any attempt to demean its originality. “Look Inside” has all of the ingredients of a mini-masterpiece, but I wonder if the creators now feel some desire to distance themselves from the album, since it sounds so distinctly different from everything else either had ever done.
June 1968 - Billboard: Did Not Chart
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