October 28, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

EW reviews four lost psychedelic folkies

Still listening to Nick Drake but want alternatives to playing Pink Moon one more time? An all-new batch of sad sacks are ready to serve. The late ’60s—early ’70s was a golden age for idiosyncratic, lone-wolf singer-songwriters, and Drake was hardly the only one ignored during his lifetime only to be rediscovered decades later. Eccentric indie bohos like Devendra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens, Six Organs of Admittance, and Joanna Newsom routinely talk up even more obscure psychedelic-era folkies like Judee Sill, Vashti Bunyan, Biff Rose, and Gary Higgins — all of whose music, by way of reissues or new recordings, has suddenly returned.

In the new-Nick sweepstakes, let’s start with breathy-voiced British folkie Bunyan, who shared a producer (Joe Boyd) with Drake. Her overly precious first album, 1970’s recently reissued Just Another Diamond Day, overflowed with imagery of lily ponds and hippie caravans, sung in the voice of an especially virginal fairy. Now, 35 years after she chose to raise a family instead of pursuing her career, Bunyan’s resurfaced with a sequel, Lookaftering. Her voice is only a little deeper than it once was, and the production (which includes backup from Banhart and Newsom) is as genteel as ever. Maturity does add weight to a few tracks: ”Wayward” hints at regret over her choice of children over music, and ”Brother” finds her revisiting her childhood home in London after her brother has died. But Bunyan’s wispy soprano lacks nuance, making for music that’s ultimately more numbing than emotive.

Biff Rose, a onetime Hollywood comedy writer, may or may not have ”went to join the circus,” as he sings on the twofer reissue of his two underground-fave albums, The Thorn in Mrs. Rose’s Side (1968) and Children of Light (1969). But he sure sounds as if he did. With his puckish voice and Old West saloon piano, Rose was, along with Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, one of the founders of that short-lived genre we can call vaudeville rock. It’s easy to hear why oddballs like Banhart adore Rose’s romantic-madcap delivery and the cinematic orchestrations of his songs (Rufus Wainwright is surely a fan too). But, boy, is Rose maddening. His heartbreaking love songs (”Molly,” ”To Baby”) can bring you to tears — they have a Drake-ian beauty and simplicity — but his pothead novelties (cop falls in love with hippie chick in ”Buzz the Fuzz”!) will make you grit your teeth.

Connecticut had its own Nick Drake wannabe in Gary Higgins, whose strummed drones had a hypnotic stoner quality. Too much so, perhaps: Shortly after recording his only album, Red Hash, in 1973, Higgins began serving a year-plus sentence for pot possession. Eventually, Higgins became a registered nurse and completely disappeared from the music world, but Red Hash grew into something of a collectors’ darling. Starting with its cover photo of a bearded, bushy-haired Higgins, the reissue of Red Hash, on the indie-weirdo haven Drag City, looks very much like a period piece. Intoning his Earth Day lyrics (plenty of references to skies and wind), Higgins sounds like an especially sensitive hippie who’s found himself stranded in the colder, less sympathetic ’70s. But Byrdsian mantras like ”Windy Child” and ”Lookin’ for June” are subtly mesmerizing, and the recurring sense of apprehension and impending doom makes the album feel significantly more modern than its copyright date.

Like Drake, the late Judee Sill wrote ambiguous lyrics, set them to flowing-river arrangements intertwining guitar and strings, and sang in a becalmed voice that hinted at a damaged psyche: In ”The Lamb Ran Away With the Crown,” one of several radiant songs on her rereleased 1971 debut, Judee Sill, she sings how ”a demon lived in my brow.” (Also like Drake, Sill wasn’t around terribly long, succumbing to a drug overdose in 1979.) Her troubles spill over into songs in which she always falls for cads (like her best-known number, the shimmering ”Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” the Hollies’ cover of which is heard in Elizabethtown) and others in which she seeks out God to ease her mind. But Sill’s gifts for melody and quiet innovation (the vocal fugue in ”The Archetypal Man”) never let her down. Someone call Volkswagen.

Judee Sill: A- Lookaftering: C+ The Thorn in Mrs. Rose’s Side/Children of Light: B Red Has: B+

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