Sunday, September 9, 2012

Second Album - Curved Air

Second Album
Curved Air
Warner Bros.  WS 1951

I learned about Curved Air from the Logan/Woffinden "Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock" which was extremely influential on my early record collecting.  The book has a British perspective which is a good thing as far as Curved Air is concerned since they never made any impact over here.  To this day I don't think I've ever heard them on the radio and I rarely see their albums in the record bins.  I guess American prog-rock fans preferred to listen to Keith Emerson butcher the classics than to listen to Sonja Kristina Linwood sweetly crooning this band's pop-oriented version of arty rock.  The songwriting on this album is divided evenly with Linwood and the band's violinist Darryl Way writing all of side one and Francis Monkman (guitar and keyboards) writing the three songs on side two.  "Young Mother" establishes the band's prog credentials right off the band with Way sawing away at his electric violin while Monkman goes nuts on his synthesizer.  The narrative portion of the song gives way to a lyrical instrumental passage with a soaring synth line that I find exhilarating.  The song is a statement of independence.  Bassist Ian Eyre joined Linwood and Way in writing "Back Street Luv" which was a hit in England and should have been here too.   Linwood sings of the perils of romance in a cool, reserved voice, she reminds me of Fairport Convention's Judy Dyble crossed with a young Marianne Faithfull.  The song features a more stripped down sound than most of the record, it sounds like a conventional pop record.  It has a strong hook and features hard rock heaviness in the verses contrasting with the lightness of the chorus.  I consider it one of the best songs of its era.  Art rock rears its fearsome head with "Jumbo" which is entirely synth and string driven.  Linwood's icy vocals suit this ponderous song quite well.  The title appears to be a reference to the jet plane the singer is flying home on.  Straight ahead rock returns with "You Know" which I think is about the double standard among the sexes.  The song has a heavy riff and even a couple of guitar solos.  Side one ends with one of the artiest songs on the album, "Puppets" which is some sort of allegory about free will and conformity I believe.  Linwood lifelessly intones the lyrics as if she were a puppet herself with Way's piano offering most of the instrumental color.  Side two's opener, "Everdance" wakes me up again.  It is another allegorical song about the roads people choose in life.  It is a fast-paced, riffing rocker with a Middle Eastern flavor particularly in Way's violin lines.  I can't believe I'm actually writing this, but I dig the dynamic interplay between the violin and Monkman's synth.  "Bright Summer's Day '68" sounds like the title of some lyrical paean to hippie bliss, but it is instead a satirical portrait of a dysfunctional family.  It is another rocker with a light, poppy chorus that ends with a surprising amount of guitar noise in the concluding instrumental passage.  Then comes the grand finale, the nearly 13 minute long "Piece of Mind."  With its shifting tempos, multiple musical themes, lengthy instrumental passages and numerous keyboard and string solos, the song is easily the most proggy one on the album, it sounds like the Nice jamming with It's a Beautiful Day.  The song is about madness, nightmares, distorted perception and despair and is just as awkward and pretentious as you might expect, Monkman even name checks Berlioz's "Harold in Italy."  Linwood can't do much with these lyrics although she gives it a game try.  I doubt that even Sandy Denny could make me care about these words.  Despite all that, I like the song, some sections of it are quite engaging.  I just wish the song had a stronger finish than just petering out the way it does.  Nonetheless if there has to be prog-rock, let it be like this.  This is a very underrated album, one of the better albums of the early 1970s.  The pop sensibility that Curved Air applied to progressive rock resulted in some complex yet enjoyable music.  I'll take a good hook and a solid riff over a rock symphony anytime.  Recommended for prog-rock fans looking for something a little sexier than their usual fare.

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