Sunday, April 29, 2012

On The Road - Traffic

On The Road
Island ISLA 2

I've mentioned in the past how I spent the 1970s wishing it was still the 1960s.  Until the New Wave started, I paid little attention to the contemporary music scene and I had little interest in hearing about the musical tastes of my peers.  They could have their precious Frampton and the Eagles, I had the Beatles and the Byrds.  Occasionally stuff would filter through though.  I was a freshman sitting in Spanish class in high school when I heard a sophomore mention that his favorite group was Traffic.  My ears perked up.  I had yet to hear the band but I knew from my rock encyclopedias that they were a group from the 1960s.  This sophomore was smart so I respected his judgment more than most of the dunces at my school and I made a mental note of his favorite Traffic album which was a live double called "On The Road" that was recorded on the band's German tour in 1973.  He rhapsodized about the extended cuts and the superlative playing on the record.  I didn't rush out and buy it, I wasn't that easily swayed, but I kept my eyes open and when I came across a used copy a few years later I did buy it.  I was hugely disappointed.  I expected rock and roll jams, but this sounded like jazz.  I came close to getting rid of it.  Later I bought the earlier Traffic albums, in particular, "Mr. Fantasy" and became a modest fan of the group's early work.  I warmed up a little toward this album which bears little resemblance to the more psychedelic and folk-rock sound they had in the 1960s mostly because I started to like jazz.  Nonetheless it hasn't spent much time on my turntable even though I've had it for over 30 years.  Instrumentally the album is very strong.  Aside from the core group of Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood the group is supplemented by a formidable rhythm section of Roger Hawkins on drums, Reebop Kwaku Baah on percussion and David Hood on bass as well as Barry Beckett on keyboards.  These guys really cook when they get going, the problem is that don't get going that often.  There are only seven songs spread over four sides of vinyl, so there are some lengthy workouts but most of the jamming doesn't go anywhere.  The album opens with a nearly 16 minute long performance of Winwood's "Glad" that segues seamlessly into the Winwood/Capaldi song "Freedom Rider" both songs coming from "John Barleycorn Must Die."  "Glad" is an instrumental that begins with a fast paced section that I find exciting before slowing into a more subdued, melodic passage that I think is boring.  The uptempo portion of the song features some dynamic interplay between Winwood and Beckett's keyboards and demonstrates the propulsive power of the percussion section of the group, however Chris Wood's sax solos seem largely pedestrian to me.  With its percussive energy it reminds me a bit of Santana in their jazz-rock phase.  "Freedom Rider" is shorter and punchier and it features Winwood singing instead of just jamming which I prefer.  I even dig Wood's flute solo.  This is my favorite cut on the record (and not just because it is the shortest, although that helps.)  Side two features a pair of songs from "Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory".  Chris Wood's "Tragic Magic" is a meandering and monotonous instrumental that doesn't do anything for me and a ten minute version of the Winwood/Capaldi "(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired" just serves to remind me of how appropriate that title is for the song.  The song is partially redeemed by a searing Winwood guitar solo, but for the most part it is sheer tedium.  Side three is better with more rocking out.  The title track from "Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory" benefits from the percussive punch offered by the guest players.  It starts out rocking and I like Winwood's soulful vocal.  The inevitable ensuing jam is energetic although it goes on too long.  Capaldi's "Light Up or Leave Me Alone" (off "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys") features a vocal from Capaldi who isn't much of a singer but is adequate for the task.  At more than 10 minutes long, the song is twice as long as the studio version but some of that time is devoted to introducing the band.  The song is the hardest rocking song on the album and there is a greater emphasis on Winwood's guitar solos than on Wood's reed work which definitely meets with my approval.  Unfortunately the record takes a turn for the worse with side four and a seventeen minute long version of "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys."  The original song was not all that strong to start with and it doesn't offer much depth for extended soloing but that doesn't keep the band from going off the deep end anyway.  I find all the noodling around to be sleep-inducing although the song does finish with surprising force if you can stay awake that long.  I like this record a lot more than I did when I was a teenager, but I still have limited use for it.  If I want to hear jazz-rock I'd rather listen to Miles Davis or the Mahavishnu Orchestra and if I want to hear jams, I reach for the Grateful Dead or Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac.  Recommended for fans of Weather Report and Return to Forever.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gravity The Seducer - Ladytron

Gravity The Seducer
Nettwerk  0 6700 30924

Ladytron's show last year at the Wiltern was one of my favorite shows ever.  I took my wife who knew nothing about them and when she saw that there were four synthesizers set up on stage she groaned.  I could sympathize with that, I'm much more of a guitar guy myself, but I've loved this band ever since I first heard "Playgirl" on the radio about ten years ago.   Anyway the band completely won over my wife with their dynamic performance and I was putty in their hands.  It was evident that the band was embracing a new direction when Helen Marnie strutted out on stage in a vintage style elegant dress with an enormous bow in her hair.  She looked like a pop chanteuse from the 1940s, quite a change from the severe quasi-militaristic look the band favored in their earlier performances.  This shift in direction is also evident in this, the band's fifth studio album.  The first two Ladytron albums were classic synth-pop, a genre I'm not a big fan of, but I was drawn to them by their flair for catchy melodies and by the allure of Helen Marnie's singing.  She delivered the songs' dark lyrics with a breathy girlish voice that had all the warmth and empathy of a cyborg.  With their next albums "Witching Hour" and "Velocifero" the group embraced rock.  The music was harder and used real guitars and drums to bolster their sound without abandoning their synth-pop foundation.  The result was two astonishingly powerful albums that mixed the sonic complexity of shoegazer bands with the pop sensibilities of Brit Pop, a dazzling combination that I found irresistible.  These were two of my favorite albums of the last decade.  I had no idea how the band could follow up such perfect albums, but to their credit they pursued a new direction and delivered their most romantic and melodic album to date.  Their four previous albums featured a bleak, almost nihilistic vision of human relations emphasized by an icy detachment in their presentation.  In contrast this album is warm and seductive, it celebrates beauty and love.  This is evident in the lead track "White Elephant," when Marnie sweetly invites the listener to "surrender with me" I reach for my white flag.  With it's multiple layers of synthesizers, it's hypnotic riff and Marnie's soothing voice, the song envelops the listener with beauty and transports me to a state of pop bliss.  "Mirage" evokes the dysfunctional relationships that characterized earlier Ladytron records but the tone is less acerbic, the song is sad rather than cutting.  It also has a compelling riff coupled with a propulsive beat and the music oozes sensual beauty.  Marnie's heartfelt vocal cuts right through me.  "White Gold" rejects materialism.  It is a slow, atmospheric song that shimmers with sound and boasts one of Marnie's best vocals ever.  Despite its cold lyrics, it is a very sensuous song.  "Ace of Hz" pre-dates the album having been released as a single in 2010 and its lyrics are a throwback to the band's past as the song dissects a serial heart-breaker.  It displays Ladytron's skill at creating catchy, hook-laden songs and bolstering their impact with layers of sound.  It is my favorite song on the record.  "Ritual" is an instrumental, the best of the three on the album.  It has a simple riff driven by a strong beat upon which the band gradually adds layer upon layer of instrumental flourishes so that the song continually builds in strength.  I'm not much of a dancer, but when I hear it I want to hit the dance floor.  Mira Aroyo takes the mike for "Moon Palace" which is an enticing and dreamy song about desire.  Aroyo's heavily accented English enhances the exotic atmosphere produced by the song.  Side one of this album is flawless, easily as good as anything this band has ever recorded.  Side Two isn't as strong unfortunately.  It opens with "Altitude Blues" which is an enigmatic song that I think is about escape.  Mira Aroyo is again on lead vocal and apparently she didn't get the memo about the new warmer Ladytron because she intones the lyrics with all the warmth of a Bulgarian Commissar reciting agriculture statistics.  Aroyo provides the blues but the rest of the band delivers the altitude with some more soaring sonic splendor. "Ambulances" deals with the travails of love and breaking up.  Marnie's vocal is remarkably girlish, she reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Fraser on this song.  "Melting Ice" has a similar theme to "Ambulances" exploring issues of trust and the weight of past relationships casting shadows over current ones.  I'm really impressed by the colorful imagery of the song, particularly the metaphoric use of ice.  It has a highly propulsive melody and a dramatic instrumental sound, it would make a nice theme for a James Bond movie.  I think it is one of their best songs ever and it is my other favorite song from this album.  "Transparent Days" is an instrumental.  I find it a little dull but the synthesized wall of sound it generates has some appeal for me.  "Ninety Degrees" returns to the prevalent theme on the album of using the natural elements to describe human relations and its lyrics provide the album's mysterious title.  It is a slow song with a splendid Marnie vocal and a gorgeous densely layered instrumental backdrop that I find mesmerizing.  The album concludes with another instrumental, "Aces High" which is a reprise of "Ace of Hz."  It is superfluous but it doesn't bother me since I love "Ace of Hz" so much, I'm happy to have one more taste of it at the end.  This was one of my favorite albums of 2011 and I'm impressed that Ladytron continues to explore new approaches to synth-pop.  This high quality album comes in a very handsome record package with stunning graphics within and without (my cover photos don't do it justice.)  It is pressed on clear vinyl and it sounds great.  Recommended for fans of the Cocteau Twins.                  

Monday, April 16, 2012

Every Mother's Son - Every Mother's Son

Every Mother's Son
Every Mother's Son
MGM SE-4471

When I was a kid, "Come On Down To My Boat" was one of my favorite songs.  In my late teens when I started going to used record stores, I came across the album that contained it and I was mortified by the pictures of the clean cut guys on the cover.  This group seemed so square, that I instantly lost all regard for their lone hit single.  As I got older I stopped worrying so much about what was cool.  I just wanted to hear my old childhood favorite again.  I finally broke down and bought this album to see if anything on it was as good as the single.  Not really but I enjoy most of the record.  I still like "Come On Down To My Boat" (which is actually listed as "Come and Take A Ride In My Boat" on the back cover.)  It has a catchy bass line, hyperactive drumming, a punchy organ riff that reminds me of the Animals and a chorus that is a classic bit of sunshine pop that insidiously sticks in your head once you play it.  It was written by Jerry Goldstein and the album's producer, Wes Farrell.  The rest of the songs on the album are credited to band members Lary and Dennis Larden.  "Didn't She Lie" is my favorite song on the record after "Come On Down To My Boat".  The song features pretty vocal harmonies and a driving beat.  I also like "I Won't" which has a big hooky bass riff from Schuyler Larsen who lists the Yardbirds and "raga music" as things he likes in the band bio which might explain why his bass playing is the most compelling music on the album (assuming it is not some session musician playing bass.)  "Allison Dozer" is the hardest rocking song on the album.  It is not entirely convincing, but I like the dynamic shifts in the music and the instrumentation although the guitar line sounds like it was lifted from the Kinks "All Day and All of the Night."  "Ain't No Use" is a catchy pop song with interesting instrumental sounds that border on psychedelia without actually taking the plunge.  "What Became of Mary" is a quiet song with ornate keyboard accompaniment, it reminds me of the chamber pop of the Left Banke minus the verve.  Less appetizing to me are "Ain't It A Drag," "Sittin' Here (Peter's Tune)" and "Come On Queenie" which are good-time type songs reminiscent of the Lovin' Spoonful or Sopwith Camel, not a genre that I like all that much.  "For Brandy" is a sappy love song with strings akin to the Association at their mushiest.   "I Believe In You" is in a similar vein minus the strings.  Unless you are really into sunshine pop, you can probably skip this record but it does have its virtues.  The vocal interplay between the Larden Brothers is very appealing, their voices mesh together really well.  Although the lyrics are mundane, the songwriting is otherwise above average for the genre, the Lardens have a knack for catchy choruses.  Recommended for pop fans who think the Turtles were degenerate hippies. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Beatles in Italy - The Beatles

The Beatles In Italy
The Beatles
Parlophone 1A 062-04632

This is a Dutch pressing of this classic bit of Beatles' ephemera.  According to the Beatles discography book, "All Together Now," this album was issued as a souvenir of the Beatles' June 1965 concerts in Italy and released in Italy to help promote the movie "Help!" later that year.  John Lennon mentioned the album in an interview thinking it was a live album and Beatles collectors sought the record out.  To accommodate collectors' demands (or to rip them off depending on your perspective) EMI reissued this obscure record in the 1970s.  It is of course not a live album, simply a compilation of previously released songs.  Supposedly the album reflected the set list of the Beatles Italian concerts, but the set list of the 1965 European tour documented by Mark Lewisohn as well as the bootlegs of the Rome concert reveal that only four of the twelve songs on the album were actually performed in Italy.  (They are "Long Tall Sally," "She's A Woman," "Ticket To Ride" and "I Feel Fine" in case you are wondering.)   Original copies of this album were in mono, but the reissue is listed as being in stereo (although several tracks still appear to be mono.)  It is an oddball collection containing some of the group's hit singles and their B-sides from 1963 to 1965.  At the time of the album's release, only "Ticket To Ride" had appeared on a Parlophone album so the record would have been useful for Europeans, in fact several cuts on here didn't appear on an English album until 1978.  However by 1965 the enterprising hucksters at Capitol had released all of these tracks on albums in the U.S. except for "From Me To You" so for Americans this is basically useless as a comp, although the songs are all good and it is fun to listen to, but then again what Beatles album isn't fun to listen to?  The version of "I Feel Fine" on here does start a second or so earlier than the version on "Beatles '65" so you can hear some clicking sound and someone mumbling before the feedback starts and the version of "Thank You Girl" is the mono mix which has a significantly different ending than the stereo version on "The Beatles' Second Album."  Other than that there is no real reason for Beatles fans to buy this record aside from the cool pictures on the cover.  Of course true Beatles fans will probably want it anyway despite the exorbitant price it often commands.  I was lucky enough to get it at a bargain price and I'm very happy to have it even if I rarely play it.  Recommended for Beatles fans who collect their Parlophone albums instead of their Capitol ones.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Mass In F Minor - The Electric Prunes

Mass In F Minor
The Electric Prunes
Reprise RS 6275

The third album by the Electric Prunes, arguably the most pretentious rock album of the 1960s.  I first encountered it watching the movie "Easy Rider" as a young teen.  The movie was over my head, I couldn't figure out what they were looking for, but the music impressed me particularly "Wasn't Born to Follow" by the Byrds and the excerpt from this album's "Kyrie Eleison" that was used.  The album was the brain child of David Axelrod who has become an unlikely cult figure and who has been much sampled by hip-hop artists.  He composed the entire record.  The album is a departure from the psych-garage band sound of the group's first two albums but you can still hear some similarities.  Although the group's lead singer James Lowe sings throughout the album, only the first side is performed by the actual Prunes.  On side two only a couple of members play augmented by session musicians.  The record basically destroyed the band who broke up shortly afterward (although two more albums would be released by a bogus band.)  I have mixed feelings about the record as a result.  As a big fan of their earlier work, I resent that this record was imposed on them, but on the other hand I really like the record.  It is indeed a religious album, delivered entirely in Latin using classic texts from Roman Catholicism.  The opening song "Kyrie Eleison" is my favorite.  With its heavy reverb, sizzling psychedelic guitar solo and prominent bass riff, it sounds the most like the Prunes classic recordings.  I think it deserves to be ranked with their best songs.  Liturgical organ opens up "Gloria" which is augmented by orchestral accompaniment.  There is another smoking guitar solo with lots of feedback, yummy.  Mark Tulin follows up with a lengthy bass solo which calls to mind Jack Casady's jams with the Jefferson Airplane.  "Credo" opens with more orchestra before the band kicks in with some heavy riffing.  The band and orchestra awkwardly battle each other through the song, although I kind of enjoy the cacophony that results.  The latter part of the song is extremely psychedelic.  Side two starts with "Sanctus" which also begins with just voice and orchestra before the rhythm section joins in.  The orchestra is dominant on this song, but the session guitarist does get off a nice high flying solo.  "Benedictus" gives the guitarist more space to stretch out supplemented by a keyboard and bass solo as well.  The lack of reverb and feedback results in a jazzier sound, recognizably different from the ferocity of side one.  The song picks up some heaviness at the end for the riff on the repeated line "Osanna in excelcis."  The final song "Agnus Dei" is also built around a strong riff delivered both by the band and the orchestra.  There is lots of feedback, relentless drumming and the song rocks out as strongly as any on side one.  It is my other favorite song on this album.  I can't deny that this record is ridiculous, but it is also a lot of fun.  I'd rather listen to it than many of the more respectable records released in 1968 and from a psychedelic standpoint this album delivers in spades.  I think if this music had been used in actual masses, I might still be going to church.  Recommended for ex-Catholics who dig the Jefferson Airplane and the 13th Floor Elevators.