Thursday, January 28, 2010

John Barleycorn Must Die


When the Traffic jam ended in 1969, upon releasing their final album appropriately titled Last Exit, the band shifted it into park, turned off the ignition and walked away from their brief but respectable career (after only three albums). Guitarist Dave Mason went on to hang out with other musicians, including pal Jimi Hendrix (that’s Mason strumming the acoustic guitar on “All Along the Watchtower”) before starting his own long and successful solo career. Vocalist/keyboardist Steve Winwood ventured on to what he assumed would be long-running superstardom with super group Blind Faith (joined by Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker from the recently disbanded Cream) but it wasn’t meant to be. After just one album and tour, Blind Faith lost faith…and that was that. Now wandering the English musical wilderness alone, Winwood began work on several tracks for a possible solo album to be called Mad Shadows. But after calling in his old Traffic buds Chris Wood (woodwinds) and Jim Capaldi (drums) to help out in the studio, everyone kissed and made up. The Traffic engine was getting revved up all over again. So, what the hell…let’s call it a Traffic album! It certainly couldn’t hurt record sales. If anything, John Barleycorn Must Die has to be one of the quickest “reunion” albums ever made, coming within a mere one year after the band actually broke up. Maybe the break did them some good, however, because what is also evident on this album is a renewed spark of creative energy. The old familiar Traffic sound, a kind of bluesy, whimsical Hammond organ-based British psychedelia, was still there. But now there was a looser, more jazzy vibe perfectly realized on the opening track “Glad” – a nimble instrumental held together by Winwood’s funky acoustic piano/organ riffs bouncing off each other, embellished with some nasty (in a good way) sax work by Wood. “Freedom Rider” cruises right along, again with Winwood’s piano/organ interplay (you can almost see his feet shuffling while playing lines on the organ’s bass pedals) and more killer woodwind workouts by Wood, especially the fluttering flute solo in the middle section. Once we get to the third track, “Empty Pages,” it’s obvious to anyone with ears that if this is indeed an official Traffic album, then it’s most likely going to end up being one of the best Traffic albums. This track harkens back to Traffic of old, with its thick, stately organ chords spinning madly through a rotating Leslie speaker and Winwood’s soulful vocals wailing "Staring at empty pages..." throughout the chorus. He stays firmly in the driver’s seat for the subsequent tracks, adding some tasty acoustic and electric guitar work to the funky piano-pounder “Stranger to Himself” as well as the searing lead guitar line that anchors “Every Mothers Son,” (minus the apostrophe) one of the album’s strongest tracks. Winwood gently plucks and strums some delicate, folky acoustic guitar on the rustic “John Barleycorn,” their reworking of a traditional English folk song dating all the way back to 1465. Its lyrics describe the efforts of townsfolk to kill off the symbolic John Barleycorn, thus destroying the sinful alcoholic beverages distilled from barley. But their valiant labors may have been in vain, according to the final verse:

“And little Sir John with his nut brown bowl
And his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John with his nut brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last…”

If they couldn’t do in poor little John Barleycorn and his evil brew, then Traffic merely upheld this grand English tradition. As in the case of John Barleycorn Must Die, you just can’t keep a great band down.

Essential tracks: “Glad” “Freedom Rider” “Empty Pages” “Every Mothers

Tuesday, January 26, 2010



Belying its shake-a-leg title, Foxtrot is most definitely not a good soundtrack for dance lessons. With the somber, droning mellotron chords of opening cut “Watcher of the Skies,” it becomes clear that this is more an album to be given a proper, serious listen with clear and open ears. No, you can’t dance to it. But once you become immersed in Foxtrot’s strangely beautiful, bizarre little universe, it won’t really matter. Many bands of the era, if they were lucky, would create the iconic album of their catalog – the one where everything magically comes together after several initial, yet not-quite-perfect stabs at greatness (in this case, the two previous albums Trespass and Nursery Cryme). Foxtrot is such an album for the then-relatively unknown (at least in the U.S.) Genesis. Brimming with musical self-confidence, strong songwriting and an insanely unique and creative musical/lyrical vision, Foxtrot in a way is the coming out party for Genesis…a musical statement that says “Go ahead, just try to ignore us now.” Anchored by the lush keyboard layerings of Tony Banks’ classically derived organ and mellotron phrasings (amazingly, he used no synthesizer on this album and his keyboard work still boggles the mind), these fractured fairy tales with titles like “Can Utility and the Coastliners” and the sidelong, multi-section epic “Supper’s Ready” wrap themselves around your head and take you for one intense, scary ride: Mind-warping time signatures that’ll have you beating your head against the wall trying to figure them out; Steve Hackett’s float-like-a-butterfly-sting-like-a-bee guitar attacks; Mike Rutherford’s massive, wall-shaking bass pedal notes; Phil Collins’ precision, rat-a-tat-tat stick work advancing things along; all topped off with absurdist, otherworldly lyrics sung by resident mime/madman Peter Gabriel in heavily caked white face makeup (as Gabriel had now begun to perfect his costumes/characterizations used in live performances). There are probably more scholarly discussions pertaining to these lyrics, but for now let’s just say this is stuff one might overhear whilst taking a stroll through your local British insane asylum:

"If you go down to Willow Farm,
to look for butterflies, flutterbyes, gutterflies
Open your eyes, it's full of surprise, everyone lies,
like the focks on the rocks,
and the musical box.
Oh, there's Mum & Dad, and good and bad,
and everyone's happy to be here."

"There's Winston Churchill dressed in drag,
he used to be a British flag, plastic bag, what a drag.
The frog was a prince, the prince was a brick, the brick
was an egg, and the egg was a bird
Hadn't you heard?
Yes, we're happy as fish, and gorgeous as geese,
and wonderfully clean in the morning."

Granted, those are from the wacky “Willow Farm” section of the “Supper’s Ready” song suite – the aforementioned epic that takes the listener on what could only be described as a guided tour through a biblical apocalypse, as seen through the eyes of an absurdist clown (who, BTW, morphs into the Savior upon the album-ending climax). Again, it’s all pretty heavy and makes more sense when listening, cross-legged on the floor, headphones cranked up, with album sleeve opened wide in your lap to read along with the lyrics. Genesis had certainly arrived with Foxtrot, and there was no turning back now. Subsequent albums would merely cement the band’s rightful place in the pantheon of the era’s prog giants. Personnel changes (the bane of many a prog band) would ultimately change the look and the sound of Genesis. And, if in 1972 you were to predict that the progressive juggernaut responsible for a masterpiece like Foxtrot would evolve into a slick, hit-making pop music machine of the 1980s…why, you’d have been considered just as mad as some of the characters in these songs.

Essential Tracks: “Watcher of the Skies” “Get ‘Em Out by Friday” “Can Utility and the Coastliners” “Supper’s Ready”

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Close To The Edge


Just how close can one safely crawl out to the edge…before falling over and plunging headlong into the dark abyss? Such was the precarious perch on which Yes found themselves when it came time to record their fifth album in the spring of ‘72. Having finally achieved high artistic and commercial success with their previous breakthrough album, Fragile – the one that cemented the classic Yes sound of mind-tripping time changes, extended multi-part arrangements, maestro-like musicianship and chirping, high-pitched vocal harmonies – it was now time to flex their newfound creative muscles and take it to another level altogether. Mind you, this was an era when the root of the word “progressive” (progress) actually meant something, inspiring bands to ignore commercial considerations, push the musical envelope to the max and milk the refreshing lack of creative restraints that had previously existed in rock music. So, what the hell, for starters let’s make the title track 20-minutes long, taking up an entire side of the (vinyl) album! Kicking off with a gradually fading-in trickle of burbling, tweeting synthesizer arpeggios, “Close to the Edge” explodes into a harsh, almost freeform dissonant attack, before settling down and morphing into a classic Yes pattern of segueing movements (many recorded separately and connected via tape splicing in the studio) and beautiful melodies. It’s all held together by soaring, recurring musical themes and Jon Anderson’s journey-up-the-spiritual-creek lyrics that generally made no sense to anyone but himself:

“A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace,
And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace,
And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar,
Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.”

Got that? Good. Now, in Anderson’s defense, it couldn’t have been easy to write lyrics for this high level of intelligent, sophisticated, head-scratchingly arranged music. Or even sing the lyrics, for that matter, at times being forced to spit out some real tongue-twisters at light speed:

“My eyes convinced, eclipsed with the younger moon attained with love.
It changed as almost strained amidst clear manna from above.
I crucified my hate and held the word within my hand.
There's you, the time, the logic, or the reasons we don't understand.“

Try saying that three times fast. Yet, surrounded by Steve Howe’s mind-bending fret work, Chris Squire’s metallic Rickenbacker bass thumping, Rick Wakeman’s organ/synth/mellotron arsenal and Bill Bruford’s busy-bee drumming…it all made perfect sense. Easing up on the intensity a bit for what was Side 2 of the vinyl album, Yes would devote this space to a whopping two tracks – the lush, shimmering “And You And I” with it’s sweet, crystalline vocal melody and the gorgeously symphonic-orgasmic mellotron-laden middle section; followed by the intensely aggressive, weirdest-song-title-on-the-planet “Siberian Khatru” based around Howe’s stuttering, woodpecker-on-acid guitar riffs and Wakeman’s galloping mellotron lines. In a sense, the heady Close to the Edge could be considered the first “green” album. Its Roger Dean-designed cover is, after all, literally green. And the water-world graphics inside its gatefold sleeve visually imply an environment of naturally flowing beauty while augmenting Anderson’s river-of-life lyrical/spiritual meanderings. The album has assumed legendary status over the years, topping many polls as The Best Progressive Rock Album of All Time. That would be a tough one to prove, but there’s no denying Close to the Edge remains an iconic testament to an era when rock musicians truly thought anything was possible (although it didn’t hurt to sell a few million albums while you were at it, just to keep those record label masters happy). There is an amazing freshness that continues to emanate from this music, almost as if it was still 1972 – if only you close your eyes, crank up the headphones, and put the last 38 years right out of your head. For this one, brief shining moment, though, Yes had taken their musical and philosophical pilgrimage to brave new heights, to the very edge of limitless possibilities – blissfully unaware of the murky Topographic waters in which they’d soon find themselves adrift.

Essential Tracks: “Close to the Edge” “And You And I” “Siberian Khatru”