Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Glaring Oversight Number X

OK, OK, I don't really want to get into a whole litany of omissions from Rolling Stone magazine's "Top 500 Albums" list any more than you do. However, when a great album so obviously fits what I would think was all their ultimate criteria, I just might express my shock that it didn't find a home anywhere on the list. Exhibit A: Traffic's MR. FANTASY (1967). (Actually, my U.S. release on Island Records says 1968. However, Wikipedia says December 1967, which I believe was the UK release date.)

While thinking a bit more about the whole Sgt. Pepper's deal, I thought of this record. Imagine my shock and outrage (OK, "outrage" is a stretch, but...) when I searched for the streaming audio on my handy new ultimate website, and this album was not on the list! Here was a record that was released chronologically about 6 months after Sgt. Pepper's. In my opinion, it is every bit as experimental, without being derivative. The primary difference is that the experimentation is way more about instrument choice, and incorporation of a jazz style, and much less about sound effects (though there are some) and studio gimmicks. Another difference is that these guys were UNBELIEVABLE musicians. [The Beatles, for all their professed virtues, could NEVER be confused for the type of accomplished musicians in Traffic.] Now, normally, I wouldn't give two shits to say someone I liked was "an accomplished musician". But, these guys could play with feeling too.

Traffic, on MR. FANTASY, was Steve Winwood (organ, guitar, bass guitar, piano, harpsichord, percussion, and vocals), Jim Capaldi (drums, percussion, and vocals), Chris Wood (flute, saxophone, organ, and vocals), and Dave Mason (guitar, meletron*, sitar, tambura, shakkai, bass guitar, and vocals).

*that's the spelling on the liner notes of my LP

The songs are as follows:

1. Heaven Is in Your Mind (Winwood/Capaldi/Wood) - 4:16
2. Berkshire Poppies (Winwood/Capaldi/Wood) - 2:55
3. House for Everyone (Mason) - 2:02
4. No Face, No Name, No Number (Winwood/Capaldi) - 3:31
5. Dear Mr. Fantasy (Winwood/Capaldi/Wood) - 5:39

1. Dealer (Capaldi) - 3:10
2. Utterly Simple (Mason) - 3:17
3. Coloured Rain (Winwood/Capaldi/Wood) - 2:41
4. Hope I Never Find Me There (Mason) - 2:06
5. Giving to You (Wood/Mason/Winwood/Capaldi) - 4:17

"Heaven Is In Your Mind" opens the album, and was its 1st single. It's a piano-based tune with a hip, eastern philosophical bent, but without the eastern instrumentation (What a concept!). Now, they do turn on the sitar/tambura/Indian-sounding vibe at other times, most notably on "Utterly Simple". I just think it's nice that you could sing about an eastern-based view of spirituality without having to actually load up the sitar for that song. This is unlike, say, The Beatles' "Within You, Without You", which announces its eastern bent with the sonic equivalent of a hammer to the head, as if to say, "Hey, dummy, I'm singing about eastern thought, so here's the sitar."

The absolute masterpiece of the LP, however, is the 2nd single, "Dear Mr. Fantasy". What a seminal piece of psychedelia, but in an almost understated way. There's no long, "Whole Lotta Love" sound effect break. It's still fundamentally just a rock and roll song at heart. And, man, what a killer fucking example of bent-string, guitar-soloing glory! It's not quite Bari Watts on "Once More", but it is absolutely as good as you will EVER hear on the radio! There is no detail on who played which instrument on which song. However, since Dave Mason is the only member NOT given a writing credit on this song, I've always operated under the assumption that Winwood was doing the honors on lead guitar. Mason was an accomplished guitarist, but was much more likely to play acoustic guitar (trivia: he played 12-string on the Hendrix version of "All Along The Watchtower").

One of the more experimental songs is "Berkshire Poppies", with its sound effects, background conversation noise, and multiple musical changes. "House for Everyone" features some great horn work. "No Face, No Name, No Number" has a mellow, acoustic start, before the accompaniment joins, and features some plaintive vocals (the title apparently describes the type of female companion Winwood wishes to meet). "Coloured Rain" is a slow-paced, but solid rocker with a great keyboard/guitar mix. The finale, "Giving to You" is practically a free-form jazz piece, with a crazy, faux-hipster-conversation cacaphony of an intro (and ending).

In the end, I can only suppose this album falls short in Rolling Stone's eyes because it was an album by a UK band that only sold in the UK. Its sales fell flat in the U.S. (Now, had it been a New York band that only sold in the UK, or a UK band that sold well in the USA...) Of course, subsequent releases, including their eponymous follow-up sold much better stateside, and they're nowhere to be found in the "Top 500" either. I don't know. I guess I just don't get it.

Bottom line: This is a great piece of '60s experimentation that's actually interesting to listen to after all these years! And, damn it all, "Dear Mr. Fantasy" is worth the price of admission by itself. It just sucks that this album didn't make the list, because I can't stream the audio at work. But, at least it gave me an excuse to dust off my old vinyl copy at home last night!


Blogger Keith Kennedy said...

Great album, but my favorite is John Barleycorn Must Die with Low Spark Of The High Heel Boys coming in a close second.

Very cool band with absolutely no commercial overtones.

High art.

Keep 'em comin'.

8:24 AM, April 11, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

I have their 1st four LPs: Mr. Fantasy, Traffic, Last Exit, and John Barleycorn Must Die. I know I've heard the title track of Low Spark..., but I'm not sure if I've heard the rest of it.

I would agree, though, that John Barleycorn Must Die is their best album (that I've heard). I just like the comparison between Mr. Fantasy and Sgt. Pepper's better. Plus, I wanted to proclaim my love for the guitar solos in the song "Dear Mr. Fantasy"!!!

8:47 AM, April 11, 2006  
Blogger rabidt said...

Definitely agreed on the genius of the guitar solo on "Dear Mr Fantasy." Great song all around. It is Winwood on the guitar solo - many years ago I saw a live clip of him playing it (probably on an episode of "Closet Classics" on MTV, and that goes back a long time at this point).
I was surprised when I saw it - too bad Winwood didn't go more that direction. But, with this info, at least you can say Blind Faith had a good guitar player in the band!

This is a great LP - the only Traffic lp that I've heard all the way through, and I really like it.

11:51 AM, April 11, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

Great shot. And, there's no doubt in my mind that Winwood was the driving force in the Blind Faith project. I once commented on another blog that he "carried Clapton's sorry ass", and was met with more than a little hostility. My opinion remains unchanged.

Anyway, I would definitely recommend checking out the Barleycorn LP. It's probably a bit more overtly jazz-influenced, yet more conventional sounding (by today's standards, at least) than Mr. Fantasy. I'll have to listen to it again myself, though...it's been YEARS. I'm remembering only 3 (somewhat long) songs per side, at least 1 instrumental-only. I can't recall any song titles, except possibly there's a title track (?)

I just get the feeling that I thought it was really good "back in the day" (to use the parlance of our times)! Speaking of "back in the day"..."Closet Classics"...wow, that is going back!

1:18 PM, April 11, 2006  
Blogger Thrasher said...

I've always been quite partial to John Barleycorn, as well. What with all the references to amber waves of grain, hops, barley and wheat fields. especially THE wheat.

2:09 PM, April 11, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

LOL! I should've made that connection myself...grain-related LPs go over well with Thrasher's Wheat...sounds like a natural fit to me!

2:48 PM, April 11, 2006  

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