Monday, January 5, 2015
Songs for a Tailor - Jack Bruce
ATCO SD 33-306
I was sorry to read about the passing of another one of the idols of my youth, Jack Bruce, who died back in October. I was a huge Cream fan as a teen. I had all of their albums and "Disraeli Gears" was one of my 10 favorite albums of all time. My enthusiasm for the band diminished as I got older, nowadays "Disraeli Gears" would not even crack my top 100 album list. I seldom listen to them anymore but I haven't forgotten what they once meant to me and how influential they were on my early musical tastes. My enthusiasm for Cream was the reason why I bought this album over 30 years ago and it is also why for most of that time I hardly ever played it. I was disappointed when I first got it because it sounded nothing like Cream. I had too much respect for Bruce to get rid of it, it just sat in limbo on my shelf. About ten years ago I started listening to it again and found I liked it. When Bruce died and I wanted to pay my respects, this was the album I reached for rather than Cream. It definitely has its flaws, most notably Pete Brown's pretentious and obscure lyrics, but I admire its eclecticism and the quality of the music. The album was named in honor of Jeannie Franklyn who designed some of Cream's clothing. She was also the girlfriend of Richard Thompson and was riding in the Fairport Convention van with him when it crashed killing her and drummer Martin Lamble. I'm touched that Bruce chose to honor her memory with his first solo album. The album opens with "Never Tell Your Mother She's Out of Tune" which I believe is about shunning work for freedom. The song is augmented with noisy trumpets and saxes for a jazzy flavor that approaches cacophony at times. George Harrison plays unobtrusive guitar on the track under the pseudonym L'Angelo Misterioso. The song is energetic and benefits from a strong vocal from Bruce. "Theme for an Imaginary Western" is Bruce's best known song as a solo artist. It is easily the best song on the album, but I have to confess that when I want to hear it I generally reach for Mountain's cover version. The song is full of imagery from western films strung together to evoke impressions of searching and of loss. Fitting the theme of the song the music is expansive and majestic particularly in Bruce's organ lines. "Tickets to Water Falls" finds Pete Brown waxing poetic with lines like "trained your bicycle to dance, told it tales of window boxes." I guess the track is a hippie love song. Befitting its arty lyrics, the music sounds like prog rock with flashy tempo shifts and melody changes driven by virtuoso bass riffs and lots of keyboards. "Weird of Hermiston" despite its oddball title is actually a tender song about heartbreak. The title is pretentiously derived from an unfinished novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. I like the dynamic melody and Bruce's authoritative vocal. Side one concludes with the moody "Rope Ladder to the Moon" which is an ambivalent love song that stresses the negative consequences of a relationship. I can't decide if the song is prog rock or jazz rock which probably means it is neither. Given the prominence of Bruce's cello playing in the instrumentation of the song, I suppose it could also be considered chamber pop. "The Ministry of Bag" features a series of nonsensical verses reminiscent of Lewis Carroll. The song benefits from a propulsive rhythm and blues style melody punctuated by blasts from the horn section. "He the Richmond" was apparently inspired by Shakespeare. The Richmond is probably a reference to Henry in "Richard III" and the opening line "there comes an affair in the tides of men" is a distortion of a line in "Julius Caesar" where Brutus declares "there is a tide in the affairs of men." Brown's version of the line makes little sense and I would say the same for the rest of his lyrics for the song. The annoyingly obscure lyrics are partially redeemed by the music which is trippy folk-rock that reminds me of early Traffic. "Boston Ball Game, 1967" has little to do with baseball. It features two sets of lyrics with Bruce singing a verse from one followed by a verse from the other not unlike Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair/Canticle." Since Bruce sings both sets of lyrics it is hard to tell them apart and the song sounds like nonsense. Actually it doesn't make much more sense when you look at the two sets of lyrics separately. The track is jazz rock largely driven by the horn section. The title of "To Isengard" is evidently a reference to Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" which features a fortress of the same name, but the song itself is devoid of Hobbits being yet another abstruse love song. The song starts out gentle and folky with Bruce delicately crooning in a high voice. The idyllic mood lasts for the first two stanzas and then the song abruptly shifts direction for the final stanza becoming frenzied jazz rock that culminates in a jam with some exciting bass work from Bruce coupled with plenty of guitar noodling. "The Clearout" is a song about confronting rejection. It is the only song on the album that sounds like a Cream song with its heavy riff and with Jon Hiseman's hyperactive drumming which is reminiscent of Ginger Baker. It gives the album a strong finish. This song and "Weird of Hermiston" were originally intended for "Disraeli Gears" and would have made that album better. According to Bruce they were rejected by the ATCO bigwigs for being weird and noncommercial although I'm flabbergasted that someone actually thought that "Mother's Lament" and "Blue Condition" were better songs. Listening to this album it is abundantly evident that Bruce was a gifted musician. In Cream he was overshadowed by the excesses of Clapton and Baker, but here he has space and opportunity to shine in his own right. His bass playing and keyboard work are consistently engaging and stimulating. His vocals are also very fine. It makes we wonder why Bruce did not have a more successful solo career. I think it was partly because he really didn't have anything to say. Relying on another person to write the lyrics is bad enough, but choosing a poet more interested in esoteric wordplay than communicating personal thoughts and feelings is even worse. I like complex and surreal word play on the printed page, but I generally don't like it in rock songs. I think rock music should be direct and emotional in its effect. I don't mind having to think, but I don't want to have to study a printed lyric sheet to figure out what a song is about. I get the impression that Bruce didn't care about the words, he just needed a framework for his music. Empty musical virtuosity is what turned me off about Cream and I feel like this is more of the same only subtler. Bruce probably would have been better off sticking with jazz. Despite that I do like this record and feel that it is an excellent representation of Bruce's musical legacy. Recommended to Procol Harum fans.