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Seventeen Years Later, The Blue Shadows Reach U.S.

It was a good year for songs like Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" and Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)," but 1993 was not a kind year in which to release an album of densely textured country-rock songs like On the Floor of Heaven by the Vancouver band 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.

The title song on On the Floor of Heaven features 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 musican who'd enjoyed success with other bands. Billy Cowsill was something different: He was part of The Cowsills, an American pop act who'd had a No. 2 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 and sister Susan -- still very much active -- plus 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.

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 "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 during the song "Is Anybody Here."

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 existance, 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.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.