Friday, April 16, 2010

Time And A Word


There was a time, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s specifically, when rock bands routinely hooked up with orchestras. Think of it as a rather high-brow jam session. The bands (made up of many classically trained, artsy-fartsy British musicians) figured it was a good way to pump up their artistic street cred. Thus, bands like The Moody Blues, Deep Purple, The Nice and others pursued this risky musical experimentation at least for one album. And not always with a great deal of success. Another such band was Yes. After their somewhat tentative yet brimming-with-potential debut album, the self-titled Yes, it was time to ratchet things up in the “serious” and “deep” departments. In other words, time to call the guys in tuxedos. Now, in the case of previously mentioned Deep Purple and their Concerto for Group and Orchestra album, rock band and orchestra simply fought each other like two extremely loud pugilists duking it out in the ring. With Time and a Word, the orchestra tends to just get in the way. And, as with things that get in the way, there’s a possibility you’ll stumble over them. The album gets off to a promising start with opening track “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed,” as frantic strings and bombastic horns immediately propel the music forward. But once we get to the Big Valley-ish western theme music in the middle section, the orchestra becomes more of a drag (as in a drag on the forward motion of the track). This sense of drag is indicative of the entire album. Although the band/orchestra combination is slightly more seamless in subsequent epics like “Then,” “Everydays” or “The Prophet,” you’re still left with the feeling that if the band could just get that orchestra off its back, things would really heat up. And, as evidenced by bonus tracks minus the orchestra on the recently remastered CD, that feeling is probably accurate. There’s a noticeable energy and vibrancy to the tracks sans orchestra and one can only wonder what the entire album would have sounded like. Oh, well. It was a valiant experiment in its day. However, regardless of the orchestra issue, Yes had come a long way from their debut in terms of songwriting and performing. The classic Yes template was starting to seriously gel, with ingeniously arranged multi-section tracks, recurring musical themes, indecipherable lyrics and those choirboy vocals/harmonies of Jon Anderson. Chris Squire’s dominating Rickenbacker bass is right were it belongs – up front and in your face – while guitarist Peter Banks (this would be his final appearance on a Yes album) plays some of his most explosive fret work. Evidently it was his dismay over the orchestra drowning out his guitar in the album’s final mix that caused Banks to ultimately leave the band. Organist Tony Kaye and drummer Bill Bruford would also be gone within a year or so. But Yes rebounded nicely from the misstep that many believe Time and a Word to be. By late ’71, they would release their masterpiece Fragile, the album that catapulted them to the upper echelons of rock star fame and fortune. By then, Yes would no longer need the heavy-handed orchestration that hampered Time and a Word. New keyboard man Rick Wakeman – with his Mellotrons and synthesizers – would be able to handle the orchestration just fine by himself.

Recommended tracks: “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed” “Then” “Sweet Dreams” “The Prophet” “Astral Traveler”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Love Beach

Emerson, Lake & Palmer/1979

Let’s cut right to the chase: the album cover. Here we have Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer. Three progressive rock gods. The first progressive rock super group. They stand amidst the tropical fauna, the sun romantically setting on the horizon. Dressed in shirts right out of the Saturday Night Fever wardrobe department, unbuttoned in front to show their manly, woolly chests. It’s as if the photographer said “Dudes, before you head out to the disco to pick up some chicks, let’s get a cover shot for the next album.” This one definitely belongs right up there in the What the Hell Were They Thinking Hall of Fame. Might as well nominate the album title, too, while we're at it. Love Beach? Really? Love Beach?? Let’s move on to the music. The first half of the album contains a selection of mostly short, radio-friendly (at least in their minds) tracks with such awe-inspiring song titles as “All I Want Is You,” “Taste of My Love” and “The Gambler.” Heard enough? These insipid little ditties – from the band that brought you prog masterpieces like “Take a Pebble,” “Tarkus” and “The Endless Enigma” – well, this stuff is just embarrassing and not really worth discussing. The second half of Love Beach at least makes a somewhat valiant attempt at respectability. A four-part song suite entitled “Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman” tells the story of a young English lad enlisting in the army to fight for crown and country. Granted, the concept is a bit over the top in its stuffy air of Victorian gallantry, but there are echoes of ELP greatness past: the melodic bombast of “Prologue: The Education of a Gentleman,” the classic Emerson grand piano flourishes in “Love at First Sight,” and the punchy synth riffs punctuating “Letters from the Front.” The final section, “Honourable Company (A March)” recalls previous ELP instrumentals “Aquatarkus” or “Abaddon’s Bolero” with Emerson building the arrangement around a catchy, repetitive main synth melody. One can almost visualize our honorable soldiers marching off into the sunset to this track…when, in reality, it was ELP marching into musical infamy. Love Beach received deservedly scathing reviews all around, got zero radio airplay (not surprisingly) and further fueled the argument of late-‘70s punks and new wavers that prog was a dead dinosaur. Also not surprising was the fact (to come out later) that Love Beach was merely a contractual obligation to Atlantic Records. ELP owed the label one more album, even though they were planning to call it quits. Which explains the “Let’s just go into the studio and get it over with so we can put an end to this fiasco” vibe of the entire project. Once the album was completed, the three band members then went their separate ways, slinking off into the island wilderness and signaling an end to a classic era…while leaving us with a musical document (and hilarious album cover) that would haunt them forever.

Essential tracks: “Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman”