Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Strawbs - Ghosts 1975

Ghosts was the last album by the Strawbs to appear while the band was on its upward curve of commercial success; a more lyrical follow-up to Hero and Heroine, it was the group's last thrust at wide-audience appeal, with a hoped for-hit ("Lemon Pie") that didn't materialize. The group's mix of acoustic guitars, electric lead and bass, and Rod Coombes' heavy drumming was very compelling on this, their smoothest album. The title track introduction, mixing multiple overdubbed harpsichords, acoustic guitars, and church bells was a gorgeous beginning, and the melodies only got better further into the album. The hauntingly beautiful "Starshine/Angel Wine" was a magnificent successor to "Lay Down" off of Bursting at the Seams, with a moment of Led Zeppelin-like flash from Dave Lambert's playing in the break, while "The Life Auction" was a bigger, bolder follow-up to "The Hangman and the Papist." The original finale, "Grace Darling," is probably the prettiest tune Dave Cousins ever wrote. Alas, Ghosts would be the group's last record to be released before the changes in music -- with the introduction of punk rock in the middle of the '70s -- began hemming them in, and they never again put out an album with as much panache as this. Previously available on CD only from Japan, in 1998 Ghosts was reissued by A&M in England with a sharp, clean digital sound that greatly enhanced the rich textures of the playing, and one bonus track, Coombes' unexpectedly lyrical "Changes Arrange Us," which had previously been available only as a single B-side. (British import) AMG.

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Caravan - In the Land of Grey and Pink 1971

In the Land of Grey and Pink is considered by many to be a pinnacle release from Caravan. The album contains an undeniable and decidedly European sense of humor and charm. In addition, this would mark the end of the band's premiere lineup. Co-founder David Sinclair would leave Caravan to form Matching Mole with Soft Machine drummer and vocalist Robert Wyatt in August of 1971. As a group effort, In the Land of Grey and Pink displays all the ethereal brilliance Caravan created on their previous pair of 12" outings. Their blending of jazz and folk instrumentation and improvisational styles hints at Traffic and Family, as displayed on "Winter Wine," as well as the organ and sax driven instrumental introduction to "Nine Feet Underground." These contrast the decidedly aggressive sounds concurrent with albums from King Crimson or Soft Machine. In fact, beginning with the album's title, there seems to be pastoral qualities and motifs throughout. Another reason enthusiasts rank this album among their favorites is the group dynamic which has rarely sounded more singular or cohesive. David Sinclair's lyrics are of particular note, especially the middle-earth imagery used on "Winter Wine" or the enduring whimsy of "Golf Girl." The remastered version of this album includes previously unissued demos/alternate versions of both tracks under the titles: "It's Likely to Have a Name Next Week" and "Group Girl," respectively. The remastered disc also includes "I Don't Know Its Name (Alias the Word)" and "Aristocracy," two pieces that were completed, but shelved in deference to the time limitations imposed during the days of wine and vinyl. The latter composition would be reworked and released on Caravan's next album, Waterloo Lily. The 12-page liner notes booklet includes expanded graphics, memorabilia, and an essay penned specifically for the reissue.AMG.

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Camel - Mirage 1974

With their second album, Mirage, Camel begin to develop their own distinctive sound, highlighted by the group's liquid, intricate rhythms and the wonderful, unpredictable instrumental exchanges by keyboardist Pete Bardens and guitarist Andy Latimer. Camel also distinguish themselves from their prog rock peers with the multi-part suite "Lady Fantasy," which suggests the more complex directions they would take a few albums down the line. Also, Latimer's graceful flute playing distinguishes several songs on the record, including "Supertwister," and it's clear that he has a more supple technique than such contemporaries as Ian Anderson. Camel are still ironing out some quirks in their sound on Mirage, but it's evident that they are coming into their own. AMG.

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Nick Lowe - Jesus Of Cool 1978

On the cover of his solo debut album Jesus of Cool, Nick Lowe is pictured in six rock & roll get-ups -- hippie, folkie, greasy rock & roller, new wave hipster -- giving the not-so-subtle implication that this guy can do anything. Nick proves that assumption correct on Jesus of Cool, a record so good it was named twice, as Lowe's American record label got the jitters with Jesus and renamed it Pure Pop for Now People, shuffling the track listing (but not swapping songs) in the process. As it happens, both titles are accurate, but while the U.K. title sounds cooler, capturing Lowe's cheerfully blasphemous rock & roll swagger, Pure Pop describes the sound of the album, functioning as a sincere description of the music while conveying the wicked, knowing humor that drives it. This is pop about pop, a record filled with songs that tweak or spin conventions, or are about the industry. Only a writer with a long, hard battle with the biz in his past could write "Music for Money" and much of Jesus of Cool does feel like a long-delayed reaction to the disastrous American debut of Brinsley Schwarz, where the band's grand plans at kick-starting their career came crumbling down and pushed them into the pubs. Once there, the Brinsleys spearheaded the back-to-basics pub rock movement in England and as the years rolled on the band got loose, as did Lowe's writing, which got catchier and funnier on the group's last two albums, Nervous on the Road and New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz.

In retrospect, it's possible to hear him inch toward the powerful pop of Jesus of Cool on the Dave Edmunds-produced New Favourites, plus the handful of singles the group cut toward the end of their career -- it's not far cry from the Brinsleys' stomping cover of Tommy Roe's "Everybody" to the shake and pop of Jesus -- but even with this knowledge in hand, Jesus of Cool still sounds like an unexpected explosion as it bursts forth with blindingly bright colors and a cavalcade of giddy pure sound. Lowe is letting his id run wild: he's dispensed with any remnants of good taste -- well, apart from the gorgeous "Tonight," the only time the album dips into ballads -- and indulged in a second adolescence, bashing out three-chord rockers and cracking jokes with both his words and music. This reckless rock and pop works not just because the tracks crackle with excitement -- not for nothing did Nick earn the name "Basher" in this period; he cut quickly and moved on, the performances sounding infectious and addictive -- but because it's written with the skill that Lowe developed in the Brinsleys. He knows how to twist words around, knows how to mine black humor in "Marie Provost," knows how to splice "Nutted by Reality" into a brilliant McCartney parody, knows how to pull off the old Chuck Berry trick of spinning a tune into two songs, as he turns "Shake and Pop" into the faster, wilder "They Called It Rock." That latter bit picks up a key bit about Jesus of Cool -- it's self-referential pop that loves the past but doesn't treat it as sacred. It is the first post-modern pop record in how it plays as it builds upon tradition and how it's all tied together by Lowe's irrepressible irreverence. It's hard to imagine any of the power pop of the next three decades without it, and while plenty have tried, nobody has made a better pure pop record than this...not even Nick (of course, he didn't really try to make another record like this, either). AMG.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Wishbone Ash - Wishbone Ash 1970

For a band that quickly evolved into a radio-friendly prog-leaning outfit, it's a wonder that Wishbone Ash started out as the boogie and blues-based group that this debut reveals. If the term "jam band" existed in 1970, Wishbone Ash surely would have been a major player in that genre. As it was, this album stacked up nicely when compared with other British hard rock releases that year. Not as complex or calculated as Led Zeppelin's Led Zeppelin III but definitely more focused than Mott the Hoople's Mad Shadows, Wishbone Ash more closely resembled Benefit by Jethro Tull, a group that hadn't yet adopted its own progressive elements. The dual lead guitar attack of Andy Powell and Ted Turner was a component that none of the above bands possessed, but unfortunately their (shared) lead vocals lacked the punch and authority necessary for hard rock bands to be taken seriously. So while they could rock as loudly and convincingly as virtually anyone, their lead singers, perhaps, held them back from being the force they should have been. The follow-up, Pilgrimage, took steps to rectify Wishbone Ash's odd position, but this album nevertheless opened eyes and ears and revealed to the rock & roll community a band with incredible potential and talent. AMG.

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Wishbone Ash - Pilgrimage 1971

Wishbone Ash's sophomore release, Pilgrimage, unveiled their creative genius after a debut that merely presented them as a boogie- and blues-based rock outfit. The opening track, "Vas Dis," with its jazz bassline, slicing rhythm guitar, and gibberish vocals was their answer to "Hocus Pocus" by Focus (or vice versa as both were released in 1971). "Jail Bait" has gone on to become a Wishbone Ash staple as well as possessing one of the more memorable guitar riffs of '70s rock & roll. A conscientious effort seemed to be in place for this band to write and perform material better suited to their gentler vocal tendencies. Where Wishbone Ash essentially went full tilt throughout, Pilgrimage is a moodier affair that includes beautiful, slower melodies like the brief instrumentals "Alone" and "Lullaby" along with the chilling "Valediction," which should have been an Ash classic but is rarely featured on live and hits collections. Even though this band toned it down a bit for this album, their impressive guitar playing was heightened due to the variance in their songwriting. Next to Argus this is the Wishbone Ash album to judge all other Ash albums by. AMG.

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Wishbone Ash - Argus 1972

If Wishbone Ash can be considered a group who dabbled in the main strains of early-'70s British rock without ever settling on one (were they a prog rock outfit like Yes, a space rock unit like Pink Floyd, a heavy metal ensemble like Led Zeppelin, or just a boogie band like Ten Years After?), the confusion compounded by their relative facelessness and the generic nature of their compositions, Argus, their third album, was the one on which they looked like they finally were going to forge their own unique amalgamation of all those styles into a sound of their own. The album boasted extended compositions, some of them ("Time Was," "Sometime World") actually medleys of different tunes, played with assurance and developing into imaginative explorations of new musical territory and group interaction. The lyrics touched on medieval themes ("The King Will Come," "Warrior") always popular with British rock bands, adding a majestic tone to the music, but it was the arrangements, with their twin lead guitar parts and open spaces for jamming, that made the songs work so well. Argus was a bigger hit in the U.K., where it reached the Top Five, than in the U.S., where it set up the commercial breakthrough enjoyed by the band's next album, Wishbone Four, but over the years it came to be seen as the quintessential Wishbone Ash recording, the one that best realized the group's complex vision. AMG.

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Love Sculpture - Forms and Feelings 1969

A British blues-rock band of the late '60s that, despite being very good, would normally be relegated to footnote status if it were not for the fact that the lead guitarist of this trio was the soon-to-be-famous Dave Edmunds. Like many similar bands of the times, Love Sculpture was really a showpiece for Edmunds' guitar-playing talents (which on the first LP are considerable), and little else. The covers are well-chosen, slightly revved-up, but mostly reverent versions of blues classics. They had a fluke hit in 1968 with a cover of the classical piece "Sabre Dance," rearranged for guitar. After two LPs, Love Sculpture split up in 1970. Edmunds went on to solo success ("I Hear You Knockin'") and a long, sometimes contentious relationship with ex-Brinsley Schwarz bassist Nick Lowe, which culminated in the great band Rockpile. Still, Love Sculpture, though slightly dated, is a hoot to listen. And Edmunds, full of youthful bravado and dazzling technique, certainly knows his way up and down a fret board.

Forms & Feelings essentially replicates the high-voltage attack of Blues Helping, only with a notable lack of energy and an eye on the charts. It's no coincidence that the group chose to revamp L'Arlésienne's "Farandole," given that "Sabre Dance" was the only thing that distinguished Love Sculpture from the legions of British blues bands. But this time around, "Farandole" and all of Forms & Feelings sounded tired and redundant, with only a fraction of the passion that made the debut worthwhile. AMG.

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Mi-Sex - Graffiti Crimes 1979

Even in the often strange and incestuous history of New Zealand rock, few bands enjoyed a more bizarre career than Mi-Sex; led by onetime cabaret singer Steve Gilpin, the group emerged from art-rock beginnings to later reinvent themselves in the style of the new wave. The Mi-Sex story begins with Gilpin, who rocketed to national fame in 1972 as the winner of the "New Faces" television talent contest; in the years to follow he became a fixture of the provincial hotel circuit, providing cabaret entertainment to lounge patrons. Taking a much different path were the members of Father Thyme, a hippified prog rock band comprised of vocalist Steve Grant, guitarist Don Begdegood, keyboardist Alan Moon, bassist Don Martin, and drummer Lindsay Brook; a frustrated rocker himself, Gilpin saw them play in 1976, and befriended Moon and Martin, whom he felt had considerable potential.

When Father Thyme split a year later, Moon and Martin contacted Gilpin, and the trio decided to form a band. Enlisting guitarist Kevin Stanton and drummer Don Smart, they first christened themselves Fragments of Time, quickly building a fan base thanks in large part to Gilpin's past TV fame. Moon soon exited, however, and Smart was then let go as well; with the addition of keyboardist Murray Burns and drummer Richard Hodgkinson came not only a new name -- Mi-Sex -- but also a new image. Clad in tank tops and leather pants, the group immersed themselves completely in the music and style of the new wave, adding songs by the likes of Elvis Costello, Mink DeVille, and Graham Parker to their repertoire; however, with their laser light shows and tight choreography, Mi-Sex seemed to belong to the pre-punk era, missing the point of the post-punk era entirely. Still, when EMI came looking for a local new wave band, Mi-Sex was the group they selected, and in 1978 they issued their debut single, "Straight Laddie."

The record sank without a trace, and although they maintained a strong fan following, Mi-Sex was viewed with derision by their local new wave compatriots; however, a move to Australia proved highly successful, and in 1979 they issued their debut LP, Graffiti Crimes. A single, "Computer Games," topped the Australian charts, and the group made a triumphant return to New Zealand. A second album, 1980's Space Race, was also a hit, but when a planned American tour fell through, Mi-Sex's momentum took a serious blow; even at home, audiences were dwindling, and 1981's Shanghaied made little impact. Hodgkinson soon exited, to be replaced by ex-Coup D'Etat drummer Paul Dunningham; a few minor hits followed, including "Castaway" and "Blue Day," but after 1984's Where Do They Go? failed to crack the charts, Mi-Sex disbanded. Steve Gilpin died in 1991. AMG.

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Uriah Heep ...Very 'eavy ...Very 'umble 1970

Seething proto-metallics blended with organ-whipped psych and blues, Very 'Eavy Very 'Umble finds the infant Uriah Heep still attempting to escape from the all-pervading influence of Vanilla Fudge and early Deep Purple. But David Byron's vocals are already among the most distinctive around, and Mick Box's guitar is already shredding eardrums. In other words, it was certainly very ‘eavy, but ‘umble was never a term that one would associate with Uriah Heep, not even in early 1970, fresh out of the youth center where they used to rehearse alongside the young Purple. Three songs opening side one of the band's debut album tell you everything you need to know about Uriah Heep's ambition -- the still-staggering "Gypsy," the mighty "Walking in Your Shadow," and, changing the mood without altering the intensity, the balladic "Come Away Melinda" -- add in "Lucy Blues," included on U.K. pressings of the album (it was replaced by "Bird of Prey" in the U.S.), and Heep stepped fully formed into being with this disc, and needed only to refine their vision to emerge triumphant. Unless, of course, you believed what you read in Rolling Stone. "If this group makes it," wrote Melissa Mills, "I'll have to commit suicide. From the first note you know you don't want to hear any more." AMG.

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Uriah Heep - Salisbury 1971

On their second album, Uriah Heep jettisons the experiments that weighed down Very 'Eavy Very 'Umble and works toward perfecting their blend of heavy metal power and prog rock complexity. Salisbury tips the band's style in the prog direction, containing one side of songs and one side dominated by a lengthy and ornate epic-length composition. Highlights on the song-oriented side include "Bird of Prey," a soaring rocker that blends furious, power chord-fuelled verses with spacy, keyboard-drenched instrumental breaks, and "Lady in Black," a stylishly arranged tune that builds from a folk-styled acoustic tune into a throbbing rocker full of ghostly harmonies and crunching guitar riffs. The big surprise on this side is "The Park," a ballad-style song built on a light blend of acoustic guitars and ethereal keyboards. It has a gentle, appealingly psychedelic feel that is topped off by David Byron's falsetto vocal and some soaring harmonies from Byron and Ken Hensley. However, Salisbury is undone by its title track, the 16-minute track that dominates the album's entire second side: it feels more like a lengthy jam session instead of a prog epic with distinctive and carefully crafted sections. Another problem is that the overly busy brass and woodwind arrangements that have been grafted onto it intrude on the group's sound instead of fleshing it out. All in all, Salisbury is too unfocused for the casual listener but offers enough solid songs for the Uriah Heep completist. Collector's note: The American version of this album had different cover art (the tank on the British edition was replaced by a gruesome image of man tearing out of his own skin) and replaced "Bird of Prey" with a bluesy B-side entitled "Simon the Bullet Freak." AMG.

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Uriah Heep - Look at Yourself 1971

The third time proved to be the charm for Uriah Heep: on Look at Yourself, the group perfects its fusion of heavy metal power and prog rock majesty, and the result is one of the best albums in the Heep catalog. The gauntlet is thrown down on the title track, a powerful rocker that layers its relentless hard rock attack with ornate vocal harmonies and quicksilver organ runs before climaxing with a tribal-sounding drum jam. The remainder of Look at Yourself presents an effective blend of gutsy guitar rock and organ-fueled prog excursions. In the rock arena, the gems are "Tears in My Eyes," a powerful rocker driven by an almost rockabilly-style riff that stops midway for a surprising vocal harmony break supported by smooth wah-wah guitar, and "Love Machine," a short, punchy slice of hard rock built on an infectious, stomping rhythm. However, the best track on the album is one of the more prog-oriented ones: "July Morning" starts with a pastoral organ riff, then builds into a heavy yet symphonic rock tune that divides its time between gentle acoustic verses and emotional, organ-fueled choruses before climaxing in a monstrous jam dominated by a swirling Moog synthesizer lead. Special note should also be taken of David Byron's vocal performance; his multi-octave, operatic style was no doubt an influence on later metal vocalists like Rob Halford. All in all, Look at Yourself is both one of Uriah Heep's finest, most cohesive albums and a high point of 1970s heavy metal. AMG.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

The Doobie Brothers - Minute By Minute 1978

With Tom Johnston gone from the lineup because of health problems, this is where the "new" Doobie Brothers really make their debut, with a richly soulful sound throughout and emphasis on horns and Michael McDonald's piano more than on Patrick Simmons' or Jeff Baxter's guitars. Not that they were absent entirely, or weren't sometimes right up front in the mix, as the rocking, slashing "Don't Stop to Watch the Wheels" and the bluegrass-influenced "Steamer Lane Breakdown" demonstrate. But given the keyboards, the funky rhythms, and McDonald's soaring tenor (showcased best on "What a Fool Believes"), it's almost difficult to believe that this is the hippie bar band that came out of California in 1970. There's less virtuosity here than on the group's first half-dozen albums, but overall a more commercial sound steeped in white funk. It's still all pretty compelling even if its appeal couldn't be more different from the group's earlier work (i.e., The Captain and Me, etc.). The public loved it, buying something like three million copies, and the recording establishment gave Minute by Minute four Grammy Awards, propelling the group to its biggest success ever. AMG.

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Bob Dylan - Blonde On Blonde 1966

If Highway 61 Revisited played as a garage rock record, the double album Blonde on Blonde inverted that sound, blending blues, country, rock, and folk into a wild, careening, and dense sound. Replacing the fiery Michael Bloomfield with the intense, weaving guitar of Robbie Robertson, Bob Dylan led a group comprised of his touring band the Hawks and session musicians through his richest set of songs. Blonde on Blonde is an album of enormous depth, providing endless lyrical and musical revelations on each play. Leavening the edginess of Highway 61 with a sense of the absurd, Blonde on Blonde is comprised entirely of songs driven by inventive, surreal, and witty wordplay, not only on the rockers but also on winding, moving ballads like "Visions of Johanna," "Just Like a Woman," and "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." Throughout the record, the music matches the inventiveness of the songs, filled with cutting guitar riffs, liquid organ riffs, crisp pianos, and even woozy brass bands ("Rainy Day Women #12 & 35"). It's the culmination of Dylan's electric rock & roll period -- he would never release a studio record that rocked this hard, or had such bizarre imagery, ever again. AMG.

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Beach Boys - Friends 1968

Released when Cream and Jimi Hendrix were at their apex, the low-key pleasantries of Friends seemed downright irrelevant in mid-1968. Today it sounds better, but it's certainly one of the group's more minor efforts, as the members started to divide the songwriting more or less evenly among themselves, rather than letting Brian Wilson provide most of the material. The title track was a charming, if innocuous, minor hit. The bossa nova "Busy Doin' Nothin'" was a subtly subversive piece of rock Muzak, though hindsight reveals a rather worrisome indolence in the lyrics, as penned by Wilson, who was starting to withdraw into his own world. The production and harmonies remained pleasantly idiosyncratic, but there was little substance at the heart of most of the songs. The irony was that Smile had collapsed, in part, because some of the Beach Boys felt that Wilson's increasingly avant-garde leanings would lose their pop audience; yet by the time of Friends, the Beach Boys had done a pretty good job of losing most of their audience by retreating to a less experimental, more group-based approach. [Friends/20/20, a Capitol two-fer CD, combines this and the follow-up 20/20 onto one disc, adding five bonus tracks also cut in the late '60s, highlighted by the minor hit "Break Away," Dennis Wilson's oddly spacy "Celebrate the News," and a cover of "Walk On By."] AMG.

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Norman Greenbaum - Petaluma 1973

Best-known for his 1970 hit "Spirit in the Sky," singer/songwriter Norman Greenbaum was born November 20, 1942, in Malden, MA. He began his musical career while a student at Boston University, playing area coffeehouses before relocating to the West Coast during the mid-'60s and forming a kind of psychedelic jug band dubbed Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band. After issuing the 1966 single "The Eggplant That Ate Chicago," which fell just shy of reaching the Top 50, the group disbanded, and Greenbaum subsequently formed a series of short-lived acts before finally returning to his solo career in 1968. A year later he issued his debut LP, Spirit in the Sky, releasing several unsuccessful singles before reaching the Top Three with the smash title track, which sold some two million copies. It proved to be Greenbaum's only hit, however, as follow-ups like 1970's "Canned Ham" and the next year's "California Earthquake" tanked; after the release of 1972's Petaluma, he retreated from music to focus on his California dairy farm, but returned to show business during the mid-'80s in a managerial capacity, also promoting a number of concerts.

Named in honor of the California town home to his dairy farm, Petaluma was Norman Greenbaum's final studio effort, and is highlighted by the sensational guitar work of Ry Cooder. AMG.

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The Temptations - Wish it Would Rain 1968

This is another entry in the 21st century British two-on-one reissues of the Temptations' classic albums. These are two of the most unalike of all of the group's albums, and also a completely natural pairing -- In a Mellow Mood was the Temptations' effort, urged by Berry Gordy, to push their sound toward an adult audience, while its immediate follow-up, Wish It Would Rain, was a return to their soul repertoire just a few months later, the prior album having done its job by getting them a much-sought gig at New York's Copacabana. Perhaps in deference to the tastes of most fans, the more soulful Wish It Would Rain tracks come first on this CD, and these are ear-opening in this new edition -- one even gets a sense of the action on the bells in the introduction of "Gonna Give Her All the Love I've Got," and the voices of David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks (and even Melvin Franklin in his basso showcase "I Truly, Truly Believe") are so close that the singers seem like they're in the same room with you. In a Mellow Mood fits together chronologically with its successor, but the musical textures between the two sets of recordings are so different that they're jarring to hear at first. This material -- for which the group had a genuine affinity -- has a bigger, more booming sound and, with a couple of exceptions, is nowhere near as exciting as the companion volume. The vocals are impressive for their virtuosity, however, and Paul Williams' rendition of "The Impossible Dream," in particular, benefits from the clean, sharp mastering of this edition, which only brings out greater radiance in the singing. AMG.

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Bob Dylan - Another Side of Bob Dylan 1964

The other side of Bob Dylan referred to in the title is presumably his romantic, absurdist, and whimsical one -- anything that wasn't featured on the staunchly folky, protest-heavy Times They Are a-Changin', really. Because of this, Another Side of Bob Dylan is a more varied record and it's more successful, too, since it captures Dylan expanding his music, turning in imaginative, poetic performances on love songs and protest tunes alike. This has an equal number of classics to its predecessor, actually, with "All I Really Want to Do," "Chimes of Freedom," "My Back Pages," "I Don't' Believe You," and "It Ain't Me Babe" standing among his standards, but the key to the record's success is the album tracks, which are graceful, poetic, and layered. Both the lyrics and music have gotten deeper and Dylan's trying more things -- this, in its construction and attitude, is hardly strictly folk, as it encompasses far more than that. The result is one of his very best records, a lovely intimate affair. AMG.

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The Impressions - This Is My Country 1968

Despite a few indications to the contrary, the Impressions' first record for Curtis Mayfield's new label, Curtom, didn't make for a large leap from their most recent work at ABC (1968's We're a Winner). The cover photo was radical enough, featuring the trio standing in front of a decrepit building (which shifted the meaning of the title from pride to accusation). Most of the arrangements were tight late-'60s soul rather than '50s doo wop, and the group spent less time harmonizing than before. Still, there were only two message tracks: the title track, which stood up for blacks' place in America, and an impassioned plea for education titled "They Don't Know." For the most part, Curtis Mayfield continued to investigate the vagaries of love and relationships, with the bombastic hit "Fool for You" leading the way. "Stay Close to Me" is a bright, bouncy track, more Motown than Chicago soul but as tight and joyous as some of the Impressions' other great material. The chugging ballad "Love's Happening" is another solid performance, while "I'm Loving Nothing" is utter heartbreak. Two of the minor songs featured writing co-credits from Donny Hathaway, then recording for Curtom with the Mayfield Singers. AMG.

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The Byrds - Ballad Of Easy Rider 1969

If Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde found Roger McGuinn having to re-create the Byrds after massive personnel turnovers (and not having an easy time of it), Ballad of Easy Rider was the album where the new lineup really hit its stride. Gracefully moving back and forth between serene folk-rock (the title cut, still one of McGuinn's most beautiful melodies), sure-footed rock & roll ("Jesus Is Just All Right"), heartfelt country-rock ("Oil In My Lamp" and "Tulsa County"), and even a dash of R&B (the unexpectedly funky "Fido," which even features a percussion solo), Ballad of Easy Rider sounds confident and committed where Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde often seemed tentative. The band sounds tight, self-assured, and fully in touch with the music's emotional palette, and Clarence White's guitar work is truly a pleasure to hear (if Roger McGuinn's fabled 12-string work seems to take a back seat to White's superb string bends, it is doubtful that any but the most fanatical fans would think to object). While not generally regarded as one of the group's major works, in retrospect this release stands alongside Untitled as the finest work of the Byrds' final period. AMG.

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The Small Faces - First Step 1970

The Small Faces were the best English band never to hit it big in America. On this side of the Atlantic, all anybody remembers them for is their sole stateside hit, "Itchycoo Park," which was hardly representative of their psychedelic sound, much less their full musical range -- but in England, the Small Faces were one of the most extraordinary and successful bands of the mid-'60s, serious competitors to the Who and potential rivals to the Rolling Stones.

Lead singer/guitarist Steve Marriott's formal background was on the stage; as a young teenager, he'd auditioned for and won the part of the Artful Dodger in the Lionel Bart musical Oliver! Marriott was earning his living at a music shop when he made the acquaintance of Ronnie Lane (bass, backing vocals), who had formed a band called the Pioneers, which included drummer Kenney Jones. Lane invited Marriott to jam with his band at a show they were playing at a local club -- the gig was a disaster, but out of that show the group members decided to turn their talents toward American R&B. The band -- with Marriott now installed permanently and Jimmy Winston recruited on organ -- cast its lot with a faction of British youth known as the mods, stylish posers (and arch enemies of the leather-clad rockers, sometimes with incredibly violent results) who, among their other attributes, affected a dandified look and a fanatical embrace of American R&B. The quartet, now christened the Small Faces ("face" being a piece of mod slang for a fashion leader), began making a name for themselves on-stage, sparked by their no holds barred performance style. Marriott had a uniquely powerful voice and was also a very aggressive lead guitarist, and the others were able to match him, especially Jones, who was a truly distinctive drummer.

The quartet was signed by manager Don Arden who, through his management company, got the Small Faces a record deal with Decca/London. The band's debut single, "What'cha Gonna Do About It," a blatant ripoff of Solomon Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," co-credited in this version to longtime British songwriter/producer Ian Samwell, was released in August of 1965 and reached number 14 on the charts; a second single, "I've Got Mine," failed to chart when released in November. Soon after its recording, Winston exited the lineup; he was replaced by Ian McLagan (organ, guitar, vocals). The group returned to the charts in February of 1966 with "Sha-La-La-La-Lee," which rose to number three in England. Three months later, they were back at number ten with "Hey Girl," a Marriott/Lane composition that inaugurated the songwriting team, a development strongly encouraged by their manager, who appreciated the enhanced earnings that original hits enjoyed. This single heralded their first album, a rather hastily recorded long-player entitled Small Faces. Their real breakthrough came with the next single, another Marriott/Lane original, entitled "All or Nothing," which topped the U.K. charts in the course of a ten-week run. Its follow-up, "My Mind's Eye," was successful as well, but its release infuriated the bandmembers, because as far as they were concerned, it was unfinished -- they'd furnished a demo to Arden who, in turn, had turned it over to Decca as a finished piece, and the latter had released it.

That release brought to a head the group's growing alienation from their manager, over his handling of their business affairs and bookings, as well as their relations with Decca. Despite their string of five hits, Arden was treating the group as a nonrenewable resource, booking them too many shows -- as many as three a night -- as though they had no future and had to earn fees while the fees were being offered. This, in turn, prevented Marriott and Lane from exploring their full potential as songwriters, and in 1966, with albums like Rubber Soul and Revolver emanating from the Beatles and Aftermath from the Rolling Stones, songwriting was becoming an essential activity for any band that could do it. Further, the group had evolved both musically and intellectually from their beginnings -- by the spring of 1966, in place of the occasional weed or amphetamine (the latter an essential part of the mod lifestyle), they'd begun experimenting with LSD and, like many other artists, found their work and sensibilities altered by it -- they could still do the soul numbers on-stage, and write passages in that vein for themselves to play and sing, but the subject matter of their songs, even when they did concern love, became decidedly more complex and experimental, along with their sound.

This is where Arden and Decca Records' treatment of them really began to grate on the bandmembers, because their manager didn't feel like budgeting for anything more than the standard, union-dictated three-hour sessions with breaks, hopefully yielding at least a song per session, and they had songs in mind now, and sounds to go with them, that were too bold to be worked out in three hours. Despite four hit singles to their credit, they'd been given less time to complete their debut LP than the Rolling Stones -- who'd abandoned Decca's studios, with their iron-clad union rules and engineers who wouldn't let them play at full volume, in favor of RCA Studios in Hollywood -- usually got to complete one of their singles. And, finally, between the recording costs at Decca and Arden's way of handling their finances, the Small Faces weren't seeing much money, considering their chart successes to date.

By the end of 1966, the Small Faces had severed their ties with Arden which, in effect, ended their relationship with Decca (though the two sides would argue and debate that point for a while), and in early 1967 moved under the wing of Rolling Stones manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham. At the time, Oldham was one of the top three or four producers in England, thanks to his work with the Stones (and a few other acts such as Marianne Faithfull), and his management of that group was considered one of the most successful business relationships in pop music. Oldham had started his own label, Immediate Records, which was so far devoted to a few licensed American masters, the work of promising neophytes, and a few unwitting contributions by star guitarists -- including Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck -- who thought they were cutting demos and jamming with producer/guitarist Jimmy Page. Getting the Small Faces as clients was the first step to getting them onto his label, thereby providing the label with the anchor of a proven hitmaking outfit (the Rolling Stones were locked into their Decca Records contract and, in any case, usually seemed to keep themselves at arm's length from Immediate's activities, beyond any informal obligations they felt they owed Oldham). By mid-1967 he had succeeded in doing precisely that, signing the group to Immediate -- and with the shift in management and label, the Small Faces suddenly found themselves with a drastically reduced touring schedule and vastly increased time available in the studio, and their sound immediately became looser.

They started things off of just right for the new era with one of the most quietly subversive drug anthems ever to tiptoe its way into the U.K. charts, "Here Comes the Nice." A cheerful, unassuming ode to a drug dealer, it somehow escaped the notice of censors and became one of the finest above-board expressions of appreciation for recreational drug use of its era. There were other drug songs to follow, including "Green Circles," that ended up on their albums -- they remained a top-flight R&B-driven band, but a much wider array of sounds and instruments began figuring in their music. Their first Immediate album, entitled Small Faces (known in the U.S., where it was released somewhat belatedly through Columbia Records' distribution, as There Are But Four Small Faces), was issued in mid-1967, and was an instant hit. In August of that year, two months after "Here Comes the Nice" wafted its way to the airwaves, they released "Itchycoo Park," a lilting, lyrical idyll to the Summer of Love, loosely based on a hymn known to Ronnie Lane and featuring Marriott in his gentlest vocal guise -- this ode to a psychedelic sunny afternoon captured the hearts of listeners on both sides of the Atlantic and became the Small Faces' sole claim to fame in the United States.

Ironically, although they were always glad to have a hit, the bandmembers weren't entirely pleased with the single's success, because they felt the song didn't represent their true sound, and it was also extremely difficult to play on-stage, owing to its acoustic guitar sound and varied musical textures. What's more, the band had bigger aspirations than doing more hit singles -- the Beatles' success with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had set the album up as the new primary medium for musical expression, and they were eager to get to work on a canvas that size. Across five months during 1968, in at least four different studios, they recorded what proved to be their magnum opus, Ogden's Nut Gone Flake. A mix of Cockney whimsy, spoken word recitations (courtesy of actor/recitalist Stanley Unwin), hard rock, blue-eyed soul, and druggy freakbeat sensibilities, it was probably the most English and the most ambitious of the concept albums that followed in the wake of Sgt. Pepper's, and further enticed potential purchasers (and confounded record distributors and retailers, not to mention American listeners totally unfamiliar with the actual Ogden's tobacco tins) with its round-sleeve-in-a-square-frame packaging.

The resulting album -- which the group only performed in its entirety once (although numbers like "Rollin' Over" became permanent parts of their stage set), in a live-in-the-studio television broadcast called Colour Me Pop -- was a critical and commercial success, and has received new cycles of rave reviews across the decades since. The group's fortunes didn't match the reception for the album, however -- in June of 1968, to announce the release of the album, Immediate took out an ad in the music trade papers that included a parody of the Lord's Prayer that managed to offend several million people before an apology from the band was issued. Their relationship with Immediate was further strained when, over the objections of Marriott, the label released the song "Lazy Sunday" -- which he'd recorded as a joke -- as a single. Its subsequent rise to number two on the British charts did nothing to ease his unhappiness, as the record really had nothing to do with the band's real sound. Their previous single, "Tin Soldier" -- which was a hit as well -- was much more what they were about, a love song mixing wrenchingly soulful vocals by Marriott and almost psychedelic sensibilities in the lyrics, with a dazzling, pounding, driving performance by McLagan at the keyboard.

The group members were also beginning to have their doubts about Oldham and Immediate. The producer/manager had parted company with the Rolling Stones in mid-1967, with the result that the Small Faces became the creative core of the label (and the sole cash cow in Oldham's orbit). Whereas the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards songwriting team had contributed songs to some early Immediate acts, suddenly Marriott and Lane were being asked to come up with songs and serve as producers, which would have been OK except that, even with a fresh string of hit singles and a pair of LPs that sold well, they were getting no royalties -- Immediate was keeping much of what their recordings earned, all charged against their studio time at very high rates, though the group was at least getting more money from fewer but much better-paying gigs. The reality of the record business is that, to some extent, every label pads the books -- as in the film industry, where expenses from box office bombs, or for ordinary day-to-day operations, somehow manage to get written off against the revenue generated by the hits, the record labels all manage to shift some losses to money-making acts' fees. The problem for the Small Faces was that they were the only money-making act on Immediate. Everything else was hit or miss (and most often miss), some records by the Nice at one point and some early singles by P.P. Arnold and some American-licensed sides by the McCoys, Van Morrison, et al., succeeding, but most losing money.

And the label itself literally hemorrhaged money, in ways that paralleled the debacle at Apple Records. In one of the more famous anecdotes, attributed to various artists under contract and also to former employees, the typical daily operation went like this: artists and would-be artists hanging out and major stars popping in and out, and then at 4 p.m. or so Oldham would arrive in a limo, dressed in a kaftan and sandals, accompanied by an entourage, and his business partner, Tony Calder, would show up separately, go into the office, look at the bills, and start muttering about breaking people's legs. The Small Faces' royalties mostly vanished into that black hole up until the inevitable bankruptcy, and then simply vanished for 30 years.

"The Universal," a single released in the summer of 1968, was to have been Marriott's most serious effort in that vein in over a year, incorporating a more laid-back, quasi-acoustic, and jazz-like sound (complete with clarinet accompaniment) and his most subtle, serious lyrics, in contrast to the jocular "Lazy Sunday"; it subsequently failed to crack the Top 20, and much of his interest in continuing with the band seemed to falter as a result. The group worked on a planned third Immediate LP and continued to tour (Immediate even recorded one of their live sets from Newcastle Town Hall early in the year, which showed a band as good as any in England), and Marriott tried to institute some changes -- he even proposed that a new friend, singer/guitarist Peter Frampton, a teen idol who had lately quit a successful pop/rock band called the Herd in a quest to be taken more seriously as an artist, be brought into the Small Faces lineup, but the others were content to continue as a quartet. The end came soon after, in the final hours of 1968, when Marriott suddenly left the stage while the band was jamming to "Lazy Sunday" during a show at the Alexandria Palace; within hours, he and Frampton began mapping plans for a band of their own called Humble Pie, bringing aboard Greg Ridley on bass and Jerry Shirley -- a Marriott musical protégé, Kenney Jones admirer, and former member of a Small Faces-influenced band called the Apostolic Intervention -- on drums. The Small Faces did carry on into 1969, and Immediate tried to salvage its situation by issuing a double-LP career retrospective called The Autumn Stone, which made it out a few months before the company closed its doors.

With Marriott gone, the group needed a replacement singer and lead guitarist and divided up the two jobs, finding artists to fill them in Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. Immediate having sunk below the waves in a sea of long-delayed bankruptcy proceedings, the new group moved to the much bigger and more stable auspices of Warner Bros. Records; the name "Small Faces" endured, attached to one Warner album before they officially morphed into the Faces, an incarnation under which they went on to international glory for a time, before Rod Stewart finally eclipsed them as a solo act. During the mid-'70s, the Small Faces reunited (with a somewhat limited participation by Lane) for two albums, Playmates and 78 in the Shade, that attracted a lot of press attention but nothing resembling the chart action of their earlier releases, and, like their 1960s work, those records failed to find an audience in America, despite being released on Atlantic Records. Ironically, at the very same time, the charts and the press on both sides of the Atlantic were filled by punk and power pop acts whose respective sounds and images often owed a huge amount to the Small Faces' groundbreaking work.

Lane recorded with Pete Townshend, among others, before contracting multiple sclerosis, which ended his career as a musician (he later organized the ARMS benefit concerts to raise money for research toward a cure for the disease). Jones subsequently joined the Who, having been recommended by Keith Moon as his replacement ahead of the legendary drummer's sudden death in 1978, and did a couple of tours and a pair of albums with the band. Humble Pie became bigger in America than the Small Faces had ever been with their brand of high-energy rock & roll, which soon alienated co-founder Frampton but led to massive sales and an enviable string of tours, until their breakup in 1975. Steve Marriott's career languished a bit in the years that followed, but he always seemed poised for a comeback -- with that voice and history, he was always a potential contender for stardom -- and in 1991 it looked as though he was going to finally pull it off. Alas, he died in his sleep when fire swept his home in England, tragically just a couple of days after beginning work on a new album in America with his former bandmate Frampton. Ronnie Lane died at his home in Trinidad, CO, on June 4, 1997, after battling multiple sclerosis for nearly 20 years. In 1998, Ian McLagan -- who'd gone on from the Faces to record and perform with Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, et al. -- published All the Rage, a very frank and revealing autobiography covering his 35 years in professional music.

The Small Faces' catalog languished for a time, largely as a result of the bankruptcy of Immediate Records in 1970. Some of their stuff was reissued on vinyl in Canada in the early- to mid-'70s, and later on reissue labels such as Compleat, but their legacy was generally in a shambles. That wasn't helped in the early part of the CD era when the licensors of the Immediate catalog sent out a lot of substandard masters, made from sources a long way from first-generation studio tapes, to their clients. In 1990, Sony Music Special Products became the first label to reissue any part of the Small Faces' catalog mastered from decent tapes, utilizing the duplicate masters that Immediate had furnished to Columbia Records -- the predecessor to Sony -- in the late '60s. The results were better, if not ideal, but eventually, a combination of consumer complaints and better vault research in England, coupled with better digital technology, led to major improvements in their CD library; anything dating from much after 1995 is acceptable by early 21st century standards, and some of the 2002/2003 issues from Sunspots sound amazing.

At the same time, that tape research led to a massive amount of confusion -- evidently, in order to drive up fees from Columbia in America and other 1960s licensees, Immediate issued undubbed backing tracks and unfinished outtakes with newly attached titles; even the surviving bandmembers were confused by some of these titles and tracks, though as of 2003 they were helping to sort out their real legacy, including a set of live television appearances released by NMC. Additionally, thanks to deals negotiated with the successor labels to Decca and Immediate, with the release of Sanctuary Records' Ultimate Collection in 2003, the members and their estates were collecting full royalties for the very first time. AMG

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Tractor - Tractor 1972

Guitarist/vocalist Jim Milne and drummer Steve Clayton of Tractor originally came together in Rochdale, England, in 1966 when they were members of a beat group called the Way We Live. By 1970, the quartet -- which also featured bassist Mick "Slim" Batsch and founding member, lead vocalist Alan Burgess -- were down to just Milne and Clayton. They continued to make recordings in the bedroom studio of their friend, sound engineer John Brierley, and soon had transformed themselves into a heavy psych rock group, with Milne playing all of the guitars, bass, and lead vocals, while Clayton provided drums and bass. On the strength of their demo tape, Elektra U.K. A&R man Clive Selwood signed them to Dandelion, a label he and BBC Radio One DJ John Peel had started. The group was booked into London's Spot Studios and finished its first album sessions in two days' time. In January 1971, Dandelion released the Way We Live's debut, A Candle for Judith, named after Clayton's girlfriend. The album earned critical praise if little in the way of sales. Peel and Selwood soon convinced the duo to change their name, and it was Peel who, looking out of his kitchen window, spied a tractor on his farmhouse property and recommended it to them. Tractor's first release was an EP -- "Stoney Glory"/"Marie"/"As You Say" -- for Dandelion. They also backed up a Dandelion act called Beau -- led by C.J.T. (Beau) Midgley -- on the album Creation. The duo's first full-length follow-up was released in 1972. By January 1973, the album was earning rave reviews. Longtime sound engineer John Brierley was eventually replaced by former the Way We Live singer Alan Burgess and along with Milne, Clayton, and new road manager Chris Hewitt, the group began building a studio in Heywood. Tractor eventually left the struggling Dandelion label and recorded a demo for CBS Records. A new deal was not forthcoming, however, so the band released their next single, the reggae-tinged "Roll the Dice," on Jonathan King's UK records. In the summer of 1976, Milne and Clayton recruited bassist Dave Addison and teamed up again with Brierley, now the owner of Cargo Records. They recorded one more single -- "No More Rock 'n' Roll"/"Northern City" -- which was issued on Cargo, but parted ways after its release in November 1977. In 1980, Milne, Clayton, and Addison re-grouped once again, this time adding blind musician Tony Crabtree on keyboards/guitar. They recorded another single -- "Average Man's Hero"/"Big Big Boy" -- this one for Roach Records, but by the end of 1982, Tractor finally called it a day. The duo's two albums have been reissued on numerous reissue labels, including Repertoire and See for Miles. AMG.

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Buffalo Springfield - Last Time Around 1968

The internal dissension that was already eating away at Buffalo Springfield's dynamic on their second album came home to roost on their third and final effort, Last Time Around. This was in some sense a Buffalo Springfield album in name but not in spirit, as the songwriters sometimes did not even play on cuts written by other members of the band. Neil Young's relatively slight contribution was a particularly tough blow. He wrote only two of the songs (though he did help Richie Furay write "It's So Hard to Wait"), both of which were outstanding: the plaintive "I Am a Child" and the bittersweet "On the Way Home" (sung by Furay, not Young, on the record). The rest of the ride was bumpier: Stephen Stills' material in particular was not as strong as it had been on the first two LPs, though the lovely Latin-flavored "Pretty Girl Why," with its gorgeous guitar work, is one of the group's best songs. Furay was developing into a quality songwriter with the orchestrated "The Hour of Not Quite Rain" and his best Springfield contribution, the beautiful ballad "Kind Woman," which became one of the first country-rock standards. But it was a case of not enough, too late, not only for Furay, but for the group as a whole. AMG.

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Tom Waits - Closing Time 1973

Tom Waits' debut album is a minor-key masterpiece filled with songs of late-night loneliness. Within the apparently narrow range of the cocktail bar pianistics and muttered vocals, Waits and producer Jerry Yester manage a surprisingly broad collection of styles, from the jazzy "Virginia Avenue" to the up-tempo funk of "Ice Cream Man" and from the acoustic guitar folkiness of "I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love With You" to the saloon song "Midnight Lullaby," which would have been a perfect addition to the repertoires of Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. Waits' entire musical approach is stylized, of course, and at times derivative -- "Lonely" borrows a little too much from Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" -- and his lovelorn lyrics can be sentimental without being penetrating. But he also has a gift for gently rolling pop melodies, and he can come up with striking, original scenarios, as on the best songs, "Ol' 55" and "Martha," which Yester discreetly augments with strings. Closing Time announces the arrival of a talented songwriter whose self-conscious melancholy can be surprisingly moving. AMG.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Master's Apprentices - A Toast To Panama Red 1972

One could easily make the case for designating the Master's Apprentices as the best Australian rock band of the '60s. Featuring singer Jim Keays and songwriter/rhythm guitarist Mick Bower, the band's earliest recordings combined the gritty R&B/rock of Brits like the Pretty Things with the minor-key melodies of the Yardbirds. The compelling "Wars or Hands of Time" and the dreamy psychedelia of "Living in a Child's Dream" were undiscovered classics, although the latter was a Top Ten hit in Australia. Bower left the group after suffering a nervous breakdown in late 1967, and the Masters grew steadily less interesting, moving from flower pop and hard rock to progressive and acoustic sounds. Plagued by instability (undergoing eight personnel changes between 1966 and 1968), the group moved to England in the early '70s, achieving some cult success with progressive rock albums before breaking up in 1972. AMG.

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Fairport Convention - Liege & Lief 1969

In the decades since its original release, more than one writer has declared Fairport Convention's Liege & Lief the definitive British folk-rock album, a distinction it holds at least in part because it grants equal importance to all three parts of that formula. While Fairport had begun dipping their toes into British traditional folk with their stellar version of "A Sailor's Life" on Unhalfbricking, Liege & Lief found them diving head first into the possibilities of England's musical past, with Ashley Hutchings digging through the archives at the Cecil Sharp House in search of musical treasure, and the musicians (in particular vocalist Sandy Denny) eagerly embracing the dark mysteries of this music. (Only two of the album's eight songs were group originals, though "Crazy Man Michael" and "Come All Ye" hardly stand out from their antique counterparts.) Liege & Lief was also recorded after a tour bus crash claimed the lives of original Fairport drummer Martin Lamble and Richard Thompson's girlfriend; as the members of the group worked to shake off the tragedy (and break in new drummer Dave Mattacks and full-time fiddler Dave Swarbrick), they became a stronger and more adventurous unit, less interested in the neo-Jefferson Airplane direction of their earlier work and firmly committed to fusing time-worn folk with electric instruments while honoring both. And while Liege & Lief was the most purely folk-oriented Fairport Convention album to date, it also rocked hard in a thoroughly original and uncompromising way; the "Lark in the Morning" medley swings unrelentingly, the group's crashing dynamics wring every last ounce of drama from "Tam Lin" and "Matty Groves," and Thompson and Swarbrick's soloing is dazzling throughout. Liege & Lief introduced a large new audience to the beauty of British folk, but Fairport Convention's interpretations spoke of the present as much as the past, and the result was timeless music in the best sense of the term. AMG.

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