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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Relatively Clean Rivers - s/t (1976) [Original US Private Press]

 Relatively Clean Rivers - self-titled

Original 1976 USA private pressing LP
Pacific Is PC 17601  (Discogs)
~ThePoodleBites rip in 96kHz / 24bit FLAC + full high-res scans!~

"[Relatively Clean Rivers] is the most flawless snapshot of the California seventies underground scene
you will ever hear." ~Clark Faville

"[One] of the most admired albums among rare LP collectors... which could be taken as a harmonious summing up of the whole psychedelic era... as told by one of the surviving believers." ~Patrick Lundborg 

I am so glad to finally release my restoration of this folk-psych masterpiece to the world. While most people "in the know" will agree that this is one of the finest records ever produced, its sheer rarity means that Rivers has too long awaited a proper digital transfer. Though it was made in the mid-1970s, this unique SoCal alt-rural trip has deeply-seated American '60s influences, and with closed eyes the line blurs between listening to music and journeying from the vibrant Pacific coastline to the high California desert. For such an obscurity, this album certainly has everything one could hope for (and more).

Relatively Clean Rivers is so good that I can't believe it took so long for me to hear it; I came upon this rather casually some years back, but even upon initial impressions it cut quite deep. The style has been compared to Neil Young, the Grateful Dead, and even Van Morrison, among others, but really it is because of its own original style that it leaves such a unique impression. The album was carefully assembled, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, where at one moment you'll be listening to a soft acoustic guitar prelude and the next you're thrown into the cacophonic whirlwind of distortion and backwards-recorded effects, finally erupting into a chorus of, "so where have you been today, and what have you done; have you asked for an answer anyone?" The headspace is extraordinary and its ever-changing feel is not choppy and random like some raw, mid-century musique concrète assemblage; rather it is a smoothly-flowing, social and, yes, environmental message which unfortunately resonates more than ever today.

Major thanks to our friend C.F. for his immense help and research. Without him this post certainly would not exist. Also thanks to Psych Trail Mix for his constant encouragement for me to finish this important project.
Finally, thanks to Phil Pearlman for his endorsement to share his music freely here!

Original front cover artwork, created by famed artist Jim Evans a.k.a. T.A.Z.

The story of Relatively Clean Rivers begins after the dissolution of The Beat Of The Earth, Phil Pearlman's earlier psychedelic recording act based in Orange County, California. 1969 had seen the recording of The Electronic Hole, and its "release" in 1970 was quickly abandoned after the club of the same name came to naught. The era that followed lacks clarity; the likely story is that Phil, disheartened by the commercial failure, decided to focus on other aspects of his life for several years before the appearance of Rivers, though of course it could be possible that there is yet another album in the Pearlman archives which has yet to make an appearance.

Pearlman, whose father was Jewish and mother Protestant, remained apparently areligious until a fateful stroll along the ocean shore, where he randomly stumbled upon a copy of the Holy Bible and decided to start reading. By his account, this day marked Pearlman's conversion to Christianity -- and subsequently, his music began to absorb its deep spiritual influence. Don't worry, there is nothing preachy about Relatively Clean Rivers; if you weren't paying attention, you wouldn't even notice the subtle religious allusions that are at play amongst the larger, more existential context. "Easy Ride," Pearlman writes, "the inevitable journey we all must take (past, present, or future) through the vast Orwellian wilderness; a prayer of hope, living; unknowing pawns in the ever evolving spun web of international non-détente; achieving relative perfection in our own special tiny corner of the universe; a struggle not only to relate to where we're at, but to where we're not at besides..."

[A historical note: US President Gerald Ford had signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975, but President Carter ended Cold War-era détente with the USSR only a few years later, after Rivers had already been released. A futuristic vision, perchance?]

Rear cover of Relatively Clean Rivers, including a telling Pearlman poem

The formation of the band also seems to be shrouded in some mystery. There does not appear to be any evidence for public performances, so they were likely a studio act only; the band probably hoped that their album would gain some major-label attention, which it never did. Not for Pearlman's lack of trying, of course; after spending more than a year completing the album and getting around 1000 copies pressed, paid out of his own pocket at surely no small expense, Pearlman utilized his own novel style of advertising. He left copies of Rivers on park benches, on college campuses, and even smuggled them into stores to neatly place amongst the stock (a process he dubbed "reverse-shoplifting") all around the L.A. area -- and all to little avail.

In an attempt to advertise the project's release, Pearlman had green promo banners printed, reading "RELATIVELY CLEAN RIVERS IS COMING." These were hung on street corners around Los Angeles some weeks or months beforehand (humorously, one record store clerk apparently recognized the album from memory of that banner during an aforementioned deposit). But without the proper distribution channels at his fingertips, and with no major-label connections, the project disappeared as swiftly as it emerged.

And the award for least effective advertising slogan ever goes to...

Musically the album certainly deserved more recognition, between the classic-rockin' intro of "Easy Ride," the stoned desert mood of "Valley Of O," the flipped-out psych jams of "Babylon" (an allusion to the biblical city, where Nebuchadnezzar forced 4,600 Jews into exile after destroying all of Judah)... On the flip a reversed-tape excerpt from "Last Flight" quickly fades into "Hello Sunshine," the shimmering ode of jubilation and eye-of-the-storm for this otherwise sociologically critical LP. "The Persian Caravan" even incorporates a surprising middle-eastern influence and trippy drum effects... It's impossible to pick a favorite moment from a never-ending flow of greatness, but the closer, "A Thousand Years" is perhaps Pearlman's golden memorandum. Lyrically it juxtaposes cynicism about Western "rushed life" ideals with Armageddon imagery and resolves this dissonance with the uplifting / optimistic closing verse, where we're told the clouds are beginning to clear.

"Behold, He is coming with the clouds," as John wrote in the Book of Revelation; this is the end which Pearlman foresaw, and so it is no surprise that he once tried producing eye-catching stickers that read "APOCALYPSE" to affix upon a few of the album covers. Once he learned that Mahavishnu Orchestra had released an album by the same name, though, this idea was discarded. In the end this abandonment was probably for the better, since the raw cover artwork is untouchably phenomenal. 

Replica of the "Apocalypse" sticker using the album's characteristic Windsor typeface

I think part of what gives Rivers its uniqueness, though, is its level of production. There is no jarring wall of studio effects when the needle drops, and while stereotypical psychedelic sounds do appear (including the aforementioned backwards tape, middle-eastern instruments, and vintage fuzztones), they are delicately balanced within the songs and seem completely natural. There is also a degree of rustic crudeness which when woven into the tapestry dramatically increases the album's depth. Homegrown technique manifests in the guitar solos via the slight echo of the studio booth picked up by the mic'd amp; or endearing realness from the drummer's slight tempo fluctuations in "Hello Sunshine." This is not sloppiness, but authenticity, and gives the impression of musicians who are not necessarily after a hit single, nor some slaves to executive puppeteers after a dollar; rather, the band creates music out of sheer desire and naiveté, content to remain in the underground, preferring to openly caricaturize and question an over-technologized, over-produced lifestyle. I mean, who wants to have relatively clean rivers? As the river flows, where is its mountain, and where is its sea?

Content with anonymity, Phil Pearlman's design for the album cover featured no photos of the band; however, his bandmates did desire some recognition for their efforts. To quell them, Pearlman designed and printed up photo inserts on thin paper and stuck them inside the covers. Kurt and Dwight's photos are bright and clear, whereas Pearlman's is dark, with his face mostly obfuscated. Pearlman's original cover design also featured a plain greyscale gatefold without any lyrics, but when the printing facility informed Phil that they would add color for free to test out their new printing press, Phil rushed home to add green squares with lyrics, creating the design which was eventually released. After this run was completed, Phil paid for an additional run of 100 covers with just his garden photo and no lyrics, since he was "curious what they'd look like," and "thought they should exist." Neither cover design nor the photo insert earned anyone any fame, but they have become interesting collector items nonetheless. 

Phil Pearlman's original "no words" gatefold design with a plain photo from his garden

That is, unfortunately, the birth and death of Relatively Clean Rivers -- though it is not quite the end of the story.

Scenery from the Phil Pearlman goat farm
After the downfall of Rivers, which probably felt like yet another musical disappointment in his life, it seems that Phil Pearlman gave up his creative aspirations for good. In the early 1980s, Pearlman proved again that his barebones yearnings were genuine by upending his uncomfortable, chaotic city life and moving with wife Jennifer, young daughter, and sons Adam and Omar to a tiny town in Riverside County amongst the withered foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains. An attempt to find his own Garden Of Eden, it was there he took up, of all things, goat farming. Pearlman claims to have invented a more-humane method of slaughter; this surprised several of his later-reconnected friends, who said that they didn't think Pearlman's gentle spirit was capable of killing anything at all.

I won't remark on the pursuits of Pearlman's eldest son Adam, as they are (I think) quite tragic and of little relevance here, though widely known amongst a larger crowd. The relevant New Yorker article is here.

Original Relatively Clean Rivers paper insert, with Pearlman's dark photo on the right

Phil Pearlman's reclusive Eden
Fast forward to the early 1990s, when the album is rediscovered by a set of dedicated collectors. The hunt to track down the elusive Pearlman -- who had lived totally off-grid in a self-built cabin without such amenities as running water, a telephone, or a mailing address -- began. It was common in those days for dealers of these obscure albums to track down artists, buy their remaining stock of original LPs for cheap, and then peddle them at exorbitant prices to whoever would pay, usually Europeans. The first to succeed with Rivers was record dealer Michael Piper, who discovered through Pearlman's father the previously-unknown connection to The Beat Of The Earth. Armed with that knowledge, dealer and Rockadelic label owner Rich Haupt, who had already tracked Pearlman down for The Beat Of The Earth debut as early as 1986, made the second connection.

When contacted in the mid-1980s, Pearlman sold a quantity of his remaining Beat Of The Earth LPs for around $25 each. A few years later, curious of its true value, Pearlman visited a local record store and enquired as to the going price (without, of course, revealing his identity). After being informed by the shop owner that The Beat Of The Earth was worth $300 or so – which had to be quite surprising – he came to the conclusion that the $25 price for which he'd sold them "just wasn't equitable."  As a result, when contacted in the early 1990s about Relatively Clean Rivers, his negotiations were more well-informed. By the late 1990s, Pearlman had begun the practice of letting out only a limited number of LPs per year. The number of Rivers sold per year has decreased from around 10 sold through two separate dealers in the 1990s to x-out-of-5 for any LP connected to Pearlman (combined total) through his remaining California-based dealer acquaintance.

The enormous demand coupled with the miniscule supply has caused the prices for these albums to skyrocket over the decades, with most routinely selling for thousands of dollars. With such a demand, bootlegs began to appear, first on James Plummer's Radioactive / Phoenix / Fallout axis of labels, which still appear in regular circulation today. One has to wonder, then, with such popular demand, why has Pearlman not reissued his albums to the masses? Is he not happy that he has finally achieved the acclaim he so yearned for?

The final gatefold design for Rivers, including all of the album's lyrical content

One reason is apparently the fear that some record dealer might buy up all copies of a new reissue and bring the price from something cheap and reasonable to something equally exorbitant, which could not be prevented; this surely has occurred in the past, but if I were in the drivers' seat, I would say, "great! Sell them all, then I'll call up the pressing plant and order another run, and this time we'll sell them for one dollar cheaper than before." Clearly, the bootleggers are having no such problem.

Philip Pearlman / Gadahn in 2007
Another justification is that Pearlman, who is compulsive about controlling every part of the manufacturing process, could never allow an external company to reproduce his music in good conscience; he would need to be present in order to ensure that everything meets his artistic standards. Pearlman proved however that he is quite capable of releasing new material on his lonesome when Our Standard Three Minute Tune appeared in 1994. It is quite the shame that, given his high artistic standards, he has only made available lo-fi pressings of his LPs from the 1960s / 1970s.

It is an unfortunate fact that seemingly every copy of Relatively Clean Rivers on Earth is, to some degree, warped. They range from mild edge warps, to dish-like warps, to wild, needle-hopping-out-of-the-groove warps, but they're all warped. Pearlman sold sealed copies of Rivers for years through Michael Piper, who did not offer any returns when buyers found them to have such issues; these days Pearlman opens and plays them on a relative's turntable before shipping them off, to certify that they are at least functional. The change-over to this procedure is when the rule of "5 copies per year" (of any Pearlman records combined) began, so presumably some non-negligible volume of Rivers are found to be totally unplayable. However, Pearlman still maintains his "no returns" policy on anything exported from the goat farm.

We should be grateful that Pearlman lets out records from his stash at all, but the fact that he annually sells his albums for thousands of dollars from a cache of warped, noisy LPs, while the master tapes rot away, is surely pretty distressing. In all fairness, Pearlman is a circa-75-year-old grassroots hippie, certainly not an audiophile, and has totally moved on with his life from these musical projects; but since he happens to have saved a stack of these old records which, to his surprise, have garnered interest worldwide, Pearlman is able to capitalize on forgotten projects of 40 years past as a sort-of surprise 401k. If I were in his shoes, I'd probably do the same thing; yet, while this business is totally justified, my inner audio freak is saddened that Phil prefers to maximize profits rather than ensure his music gets the proper reissue treatment it deserves. And one can only imagine his amazing collection of sessions, outtakes, and demos which will probably never be heard; though, perhaps this is all in the artist's intention, for better or for worse.  

At least the person who deals with Pearlman directly these days has been honest in paying him his fair share (and actually accepts returns if buyers are unhappy). There are too many multi-thousand-dollar LPs in existence featuring the art of musicians who remain in total poverty, or damn close, and Pearlman deserves to make some money from his work. Of course, people like myself could simply be the minority, as other experts who are personally involved have submitted. From a public forum:

In any case, from the man who asked, "whose face do you see on the coin? Not God's," Phil Pearlman has given permission for his music to appear online free of charge to the masses. Please avoid bootlegs of his music; the bootleggers have made huge strides with this one, and online marketplaces have remained typically tolerant of them. Nonetheless, as for any other album, I suggest we separate the man, and his family, from the music, which in this case really is a near-perfect artistic expression. I, for one, have made the conscious decision not to let any real or perceived corruptions of time and money dethrone this masterpiece from being one of my top-10 favorite records of any genre. And now it can be heard by all, freely, in quality unmatched anywhere else. 

Like the bootlegs of other Phil Pearlman-related LPs, the Radioactive / Phoenix releases have some serious problems. The artwork is hazy, and the vinyl dub was done off-center, introducing noticeable "wow" (sinusoidal speed & pitch variations) throughout. It was also dosed with a good amount of compression and a little CEDAR Quality Reduction System™ for good measure. Yeah, no thanks. 

I've searched for years to find a perfect copy of this album, including 4 unplayed copies from the goat farm. Thanks to our friend C.F., I now have one that is certainly the best of the bunch, actually one of the first ~100 pressed, which was used for this transfer. After properly centering and clamping down the record, there was still some ultra-light flutter. I applied some necessary corrections using a self-devised special technique along with Celemony's Capstan software, but nobody to whom I sent comparison clips could tell the difference anyway. So, I'm fairly certain that this remastering is not only the best out there, but as perfect as this album may ever be.

There are a few weird noises which appear at various points throughout this album. These include thumps from rough tape splices (e.g. in "Valley Of O,"), single-channel audio not mixed perfectly to the center, etc. I've left all these intact, except for some weird non-musical hiss/clicking artifacts in "A Thousand Years" which I removed individually, manually, without affecting the integrity of the actual music. Moments that are in true mono (including the entirety of "Easy Ride") were also corrected as such.

Relatively Clean Rivers:
- Phil Pearlman: guitar, bass, vocals, English flute (alto recorder), bağlama (sahz), harmonica, synthesizer
- Kurt Baker: guitar, vocals
- Dwight Morouse: drums, special effects on 8 & 9

Additional accompaniment:
- Hank Quinn: drums on 8
- John Alabaster: conga on 8

Track listing
1) "Easy Ride" -- 3:49
2) "Journey Through The Valley Of O" -- 4:13
3) "Babylon" -- 5:52
4) "Last Flight To Eden" -- 2:44
5) "Prelude" -- 0:29
6) "Hello Sunshine" -- 3:36
7) "They Knew What To Say" -- 3:26
8) "The Persian Caravan" -- 3:49
9) "A Thousand Years" -- 5:33

Vinyl condition: M- (minor dish warp, clamped down)
Dynamic range: DR14

Equipment Lineage:
– Audio-Technica VMN40ML stylus on AT150MLx dual moving-magnet cartridge
– Audio-Technica AT-LP1240-USB direct drive professional turntable (internal stock preamp/ADC removed)
– Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 Ultra preamp with dedicated Zero Zone linear power supply
– Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 MkII (96kHz / 24bit)
– Adobe Audition CC 2020 (recording)
– iZotope RX 7 audio editor (manual declicking, EQ subtraction, additional adjustments)
– Audacity 2.3.3 (fades between tracks, split tracks)
– Celemony Capstan (occasional flutter fixes)
– Foobar2000 v1.5.1 (tagging, dynamic range analysis)

Full album on YouTube here:

Thanks for taking the time to read my posts and check out my blog. I'd greatly appreciate it if you leave a small comment below. Notes from my readers are what inspire me to keep going. Thanks!

Enjoy! :)   (and here are a couple more good photos that I couldn't manage to fit in...)

Phil Pearlman / Seth Gadahn in his private backcountry oasis, circa 2007

The gated entrance to Phil Pearlman's private residence, baked golden brown from the dry California heat


  1. Such a Classic album, thanks for another great rip.

  2. Thank you very much, man, your labour is always appreciated and we, your readers/followers are always grateful to hear your HQ vinyl rips of lost psychedelic masterpieces as this one!

    1. Thank you for the nice comment! It's nice to mark this one off the list; it's been in-progress for years now.

  3. Mant thanks TPB for another stunning rip, it's always a joy everytime you post, many many thanks

  4. Many thanks for this incredible share! I never thought I would hear it in full hi-res one day, this is a tough one to find. All the best.

  5. Thanks. I've never heard this one before and am looking forward to giving it a spin. Great work!

  6. Thanx very, very much - again - for this rediscovered treasure of music, TPB!

  7. Just.. wow. I never thought I'd hear an OG, much less a full restoration like you've done here sir. I listened to it before commenting here and it sounds absolutely heavenly. Hats off and thank you so much for your time on this, yes I would agree - masterpiece.

    1. Thank you for such a nice comment! Responses like this are what inspire me to keep this blog going. Enjoy & take care.

  8. What a nice treat -- thank you so much for this!!

  9. Thanks again for making amazing music available in superb quality. It makes a change from the slipshod releases that have purported to be state of the art audio restoration. Perhaps they are to people with tin ears, but yours are the real thing.

  10. Been waiting in anticipation a long time for this. Can finally turn my friends onto this lost classic properly. Gorgeous sound, worth the years of effort. Here's to hopefully finding a rip-quality copy of beat of the earth, rest of his music is beautifully restored thanks to you.

  11. Thank you very much TPB for this superb vinyl-rip, it sounds so much better than the cd-reissue. It's always great to see (and get) one of your rips - thx again, take care & stay healthy, Karl

  12. Wow, man what an album this is.
    Its totally perfect.
    Thanks so much for sharing the classic.