TERRY GROSS, host:
Here's an album you've probably never heard of, "On the Floor of Heaven." It was the debut album by the Vancouver-based band The Blue Shadows, and was released in 1993. It consisted primarily of country rock songs by the group's leaders: the singer guitarist Jeffrey Hatcher and Billy Cowsill.
"On the Floor of Heaven" was widely praised and sold well in Canada, but it was never released in the U.S. until now.
Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(Soundbite of song, "Deliver Me")
THE BLUE SHADOWS (Country-Rock Band): (Singing) Driving at midnight and the moon is looking right at me. I can feel it settling down on me, over me. Come deliver me from this night. When I left you standing so alone...
KEN TUCKER: 1993 was the year of hit songs such as Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" and Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)." It was not a kind year in which to release a debut album of densely textured country-rock songs like "On the Floor of Heaven" by the Vancouver-based quartet, The Blue Shadows.
The dozen original songs on this debut album owed more to "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," the 1968 album by The Byrds, than it did to anything current in 1993. Heard now, however, the songs sound timeless, reaching back and forth across decades of pop music, from the '50s to the present.
(Soundbite of song, "On the Floor of Heaven")
THE BLUE SHADOWS: (Singing) On the floor of heaven, with their heavenly hands, speaking to no one, knowing they'll understand. All the love letters written, not a one ever sent. But the time for regretting has come to an end. On the floor of heaven...
TUCKER: That's the title song of "On the Floor of Heaven," featuring the plaintive harmonies of group leaders Jeffrey Hatcher and Billy Cowsill. I hear some of the Everly Brothers in those harmonies, as well as a lot of hardcore country music in the pedal-steel guitar playing.
Hatcher was a journeyman Canadian musician who'd enjoyed some success with other bands. Billy Cowsill was something different. He was part of The Cowsills, an American pop act who'd had a number two hit in 1967 with "The Rain, the Park and Other Things."
The Cowsills were a family act: at their maximum group size, five Cowsill brothers, a sister, Susan - still very much active - and their mother, Barbara. If you're of a certain age, you may know that The Cowsills were the inspiration for the popular TV-show pop-music act The Partridge Family.
(Soundbite of song, "When Will This Heartache End")
THE BLUE SHADOWS: (Singing) When will this heartache end? Why won't it die? How will I love again? Should I even try? She felt so real to me. Guess I was wrong again. Oh, someone tell me when will this heartache end? When will my heart be free...
TUCKER: By the time Billy Cowsill came to Jeffrey Hatcher and Canada, however, The Cowsills had long since faded, and Billy was prone to substance abuse. He was quoted as saying that The Blue Shadows consisted of quote, "three vegetarians and a junkie." Certainly, there is some deeply felt pain - a blue shadow - that spreads across much of this music. Cowsill, who died in 2006, seems to be standing in that shadow on this song, "Is Anybody Here."
(Soundbite of song, "Is Anybody Here")
THE BLUE SHADOWS: (Singing) Is anybody here, to hear this song that I've been crying here, all night long? This feeling so alone, it feels so wrong. Is anybody here to hear this song?
TUCKER: It would be exaggerating the importance of The Blue Shadows to say that "On the Floor of Heaven" is a lost masterpiece. What it is is yet another example of the way pop music is frequently crafted within the isolation of a group's existence, heedless of the trends of its time, and at its best, in stubborn pursuit of nothing more than the sounds the musicians hear in their own heads. In this sense, "On the Floor of Heaven" is a complete, and frequently exhilarating, success.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "On the Floor of Heaven" by The Blue Shadows. You can hear three songs from the album on our website freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.