During the '90s, the Parsons cult exploded anew, with every altcountry band from Wilco on down paying homage to the master. It's amazing, then, that the recordings on this disc -- rough demo tapes captured during Parsons' brief 1965 fling as a Harvard student -- didn't surface earlier. Longtime fans have a right to be skeptical, since Parsons' bluegrass phase was pretty well documented (and wasn't that riveting). Here, he plies his hand at straight, coffeehouse folk tunes, covering songs by Fred Neil, Tom Paxton, and Dick Weissman, and taking tentative stabs at his own original material. While the music is unabashedly derivative, Parsons' delivery is striking, and these tapes help illuminate his evolution into country-rock icon.
By the time of his later, best-known recordings Parsons sang with a fragility that teetered between vulnerability and disaster. The confidence he exudes on these bedside demos suggests that the frailty of his most famous work was in fact intentional, that the unevenness of his albums was a matter of theatricality rather than the result of stretching himself too thin.
What's most surprising about these older tracks is how solid Parsons' vocal performances are and how modern he sounds. The intense, introverted singing on Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Codine" could have been recorded by some modern-day lo-fi artiste such as Lou Barlow of Sebadoh. But when Parsons rolls out "Brass Buttons," one of his best-known and most beautiful ballads, it's obvious that this kid is going places. Maybe Parsons never lived to see his dream fully realized, but now the rest of us can see how he planned to get there.