Enter The Baroques: yet another troupe of minor characters from the world of 60s psychedelia. A Milwaukee Wisconsin band, their garage/psych/blues reputation rested on a few accidents of their career. They were signed to Chess for their sole album in 1967, a blues label that needed a token act that would represent a more rock ‘n’ roll sound. A single of theirs, “Mary Jane,” got pegged as a drug song, and was banned. Nothing concrete was uttered to dispel the rumors at the time, allowing The Baroques to claim their place in the misappropriated archives of hazy psychedelia.
In actual fact The Baroques did exactly what they advertised they would do. They were moody, crabby, and minor in every sense of the word. Their intentions were baroque enough that they used a harpsichord, as if to prove that the contents of the tin were as described. Granted, they checked many of the boxes indicating psychedelia; for example their lyrics named objects in the environment as ‘purple’, or ‘tangerine.’ But only a few of the songs were true freakouts, like “Musical Tribute to the Oscar Meyer Wiener Wagon” – the closest The Baroques got to the loose, baggy, psychedelia of, say, The Red Crayola. “Iowa, A Girl’s Name” was a stab in this direction too.
Though it may seem redundant to narrowly define psychedelia during the gold-rush of experimentation that was the 60s, the reason for making the distinction is that The Baroques’ ambitions deserve credit for being of their time (only just). Growly freak-outs were not toppling off the bandwagon in 1967 as they were by the time ’68 and ’69 had made it obligatory to carry souvenirs of Eastern music and Jazz around as evidence of musical adventuring. The Baroques got their own sound by adding dimensions, rather than extensions, to the simpler structures of early 60s rock. This meant that the token tambourine player in the band was an effete and stylized gloom personified. There were fuzz guitars, there was frontman Jay Berkenhagen’s deep, toneless voice. The jaunty “Rose-Colored Classes” was like the portentous opposite of Nancy Sinatra’s 1967 hit “Sugar Town,” lyrically speaking (“She thinks that everything she does will turn out better in the end… she’s looking at the world through rose-colored glasses”).
In the end, The Baroques were harbingers not only of gloom itself but of gloomy musical movements to come. Those fuzz guitars are redolent of the innovations of lo-fi folk rockers of the 90s, whose stamp was felt in the sound, not necessarily the structure, of their songs. These were folk songs dipped in a tarry bloom, as if weathered by a less bucolic experience — updated from their origin, but not significantly altered. They were to folk as The Baroques were to 60s pop. Sixties bands were called a lot of wacky and unrepresentative things, so how could Chess have known that their first non-R&B act would dourly set out to do exactly what they had said on the tin and produce singular rock ‘n’ roll: neither fish nor fowl, neither foul, nor fair? The reason that The Baroques remain an interesting listen today is that they manage to bypass a dated sound with a good helping of ornery originality; a palpable curmudgeonliness that is difficult not to enjoy for its own sake.