Hello, Aldebaran…or more accurately, welcome back!
Farewell Aldebaran first arrived in 1969 on Frank Zappa’s Straight Records label from the duo of Judy Henske and Jerry Yester. Henske was the onetime “Queen of the Beatniks” whose distinctive, bluesy and big voice earned her legions of fans on the folk circuit. In 1963, Henske married Jerry Yester, a member of The Modern Folk Quartet and veteran of The New Christy Minstrels. When the MFQ broke up, Yester busied himself as a producer, helming albums by Tim Buckley and his brother Jim’s band The Association, and in 1967, he replaced Zal Yanovsky in The Lovin’ Spoonful. Henske and Yester joined forces for the first time on record with Farewell Aldebaran. Omnivore Recordings has returned the long-lost Farewell to print in its very first authorized reissue, and this remastered and expanded edition is befitting of its near-mystical stature as a cult classic.
An album of utter originality that still defies easy categorization, Farewell plays like the shadowy fever dream of two talented artists making music on their own terms. Imaginative and impeccably crafted, it’s a spellbinding journey, alternately graceful and harrowing, that defies pop and rock conventions by embracing the fantastic. Henske provided most of the lyrics with Yester contributing most of the melodies, yet the results of their collaboration were nothing like what one would have expected based on their other work. The unusual cover, a solarized negative photograph of Henske, Yester, their daughter and cat, hints at the oddness within; the standard color positive of the bucolic photo can be found on the back cover.
Henske and Yester welcomed co-producer Zal Yanovsky as well as musicians David Lindley, Paul Beaver (of electronic music duo Beaver and Krause) and jazz bassist Ray Brown along for the aural journey. Every element of the tight album opener “Snowblind” is marked with aggressiveness: the grisly lyrics (“Love shall make us all go snowblind” is about the nicest sentiment expressed), the driving melody, Henske’s snarling lead vocal, Yester’s acoustic accompaniment, Yanovsky’s lead guitar, Larry Beckett’s drums. It was selected as the album’s leadoff single, though a better choice might have been its B-side, “Horses on a Stick.” While Henske’s lyrics cast a carousel in a new light (or a cloak of darkness, more accurately), its merry-go-round melody and bouncy arrangement, complete with happy harmonies, would have made it the classiest and most subversive slice of bubblegum pop circa late ’69.
The baroque-tinged “Lullaby” is ironically titled, for its imagery would no doubt unsettle a child. There’s mordant humor in “St. Nicholas Hall,” a barbed Catholic school anthem that wouldn’t feel out of place in a stage musical. Henske’s full-throated lead is supported by a choir (including Yester, Beckett and Yanovsky) on this striking number. Strings gild the lovely, majestic “Three Ravens,” for which Yester set the lyrics of an old English folk ballad to music he composed in 1964 while still a member of the Modern Folk Quartet. (You can hear his prettily somber, almost hymn-like demo of the original version, “Moods for Cellos,” among the bonus material.)
A folk-country flavor permeates “Raider.” The unusual track epitomizes the album’s expansive musical experimentation, too, featuring guest David Lindley on bowed 5-string banjo and Solomon Feldthouse on hammered dulcimer joining Yester on piano, Jerry Scheff on bass and Toxie French on drums.
The specter of mortality looms over much of Farewell Aldebaran (happily, both Henske and Yester – now divorced – are alive and well and performing today!), with death taking a central role in “One More Time,” sung by Yester to a strong, beguiling melody and relatively spare arrangement. “Rapture” paints a bleak picture, as well, deeply and powerfully sung by Henske and featuring Moog synthesizer and a multitude of overdubbed instruments to create its dramatic, gospel-influenced soundscape.
The shimmering “Charity” is a beautiful respite, featuring a nautical-themed lyric over a strong pop melody composed by Yester during his MFQ days. (One can imagine The Association sinking their teeth into the tune as well as its abundant harmonies.) With much of the album in a stately, almost neo-classical vein, it’s surprising to find an otherworldly epic closing the LP, but that’s exactly what the title track does. “Farewell Aldebaran” is potent sci-fi rock, complete with sound and vocal effects. Yet it’s an appropriate ending to a trip unlike any other.
Five previously unreleased, fully-produced instrumental demos by Yester round out this remarkable first-time-on CD debut including embryonic versions of “Horses on a Stick” (“Merry-Go-Round,” composed by Yester on a pump organ), “Farewell Aldebaran” (“Zanzibar”) and “Rapture” (“Divers Asleep”). “Charity” is lovely even in its raw demo form, as Yester supplies wordless vocals to support his delicate melody, and “Farewell Aldebaran” takes on a wholly different, rocking quality as “Zanzibar.”
The digipak houses a 20-page booklet, wonderfully designed by Greg Allen, incorporating Barry Alfonso’s liner notes (drawing on a new interview with both Yester and Henske) and full lyrics as well as numerous images including the original tape box and other memorabilia. In addition to the expanded CD release, Omnivore has also reissued the original Farewell Aldebaran in a limited-edition colored vinyl edition (with a standard black vinyl version to follow). Are you an adventurous fan of sixties pop? As it encompasses all of the possibilities that the magical decade held, you owe it to yourself to check out Farewell Aldebaran.