Monday, 19 November 2018

Paul Simon - Paul Simon (1972)


Released January 1972

After the demise of Simon & Garfunkel the previous year, Paul Simon cast off the shackles off what Simon & Garfunkel had become - big, dramatic ballads like "Bridge Over Troubled Water" without the musical explorations and adventurousness that Simon so liked. He had tried to get them into the duo's work, subtly, but now has was free to do his thing.

Funnily enough, though, despite the convincing experiment with reggae on "Mother and Child Reunion" and Caribbean calypso-style rhythms and "world music" sounds on "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard" (the album's two big hit singles) the album was pretty low key. Quiet, gentle songs, intelligent, perceptive lyrics. Simon set his stall out for many subsequent albums. "Duncan" is a beguiling, interesting song, with a witty first couple of lines and "Everything Put Together Falls Apart" is a laid-back, walking pace acoustic number, of the type that would typify much of Simon's work over the next few years. "Run That Body Down" is wry and observantly astute. This is a long way removed from the grandiose, stately ballads of Simon & Garfunkel. The latter track has some fetching wah-wah style guitar in the middle. It is a "grower" of a song and one of my favourites on the album. Simon began a tradition that would serve him well over the years - employing the finest musicians.

"Armistice Day" sees Simon delving into the blues, with some impressive guitar backing another lyrically interesting song. These songs are proper, serious "adult" songs and now, nearly fifty years later they haven't dated at all. I have to say, also, that, for 1972, the sound is truly outstanding on the latest remastering. "Peace like A River" has a big, resonant bluesy slow tempo beat to it. Another very enjoyable cut. "Papa Hobo" is another observant, environmentally-consciousness song with some infectious backing. The song morphs into the short, bluesy instrumental "Hobo's Blues". Simon's exploration of the blues continues with the bottleneck guitar of "Paranoia Blues", which, after a reflective opening, launches into a huge, thumping chorus part. "Congratulations" is a suitably understated acoustic number upon which to end this gently appealing album.


Sunday, 18 November 2018

Eric Clapton - 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974)


Released July 1974

Yes, all of Eric Clapton's solo albums in the seventies were laid-back, but this is probably the most laid-back of all of them, and possibly the most appealing of all his albums. He had not recorded for nearly three years, going through a "drugs hell" period and sitting around, Elvis-style, watching TV. He then got his act together and started going back to his blues roots in his listening habits. People expecting "God"-like guitar solos, however, were to be disappointed.

Its influences are the blues, of course, but also country rock, r'n'b, soul and, notably, reggae, which was still not too popular with the rock fraternity at the time, although Bob Marley's "Catch A Fire", from the previous year, had helped to change that. Clapton's voice is laconic and understated throughout, as is the backing and overall, it is a most relaxing album. As beautifully low key as a sunny afternoon in the house on the cover. Incidentally, though, I always felt the cover should have been taken on a sunny day, as opposed to the milky white sky it had.

The rousing (comparatively) blues of "Motherless Children" kicks the album off, while "Give Me Strength" is a reflective, quiet slice of country-ish blues. The fifties shuffler "Willie & The Hand Jive" is as close to lively as Clapton gets on the album and "Get Ready" is an intoxicating, grinding piece of soul/rock, with slight reggae influences in the guitars, that almost "skank" at times. Clapton and the backing vocalist are in perfect sync throughout the track. "I Shot The Sheriff" covers Bob Marley's iconic reggae track quite convincingly, with Clapton and his band getting the bass, organ, guitar and drums right, which white artists often fail to do when playing reggae, like Led Zeppelin on "D'Yer Make'r", notoriously.

"I Can't Hold Out" is a sublime piece of gentle blues rock, with an addictive keyboard riff underpinning it. It is quite soulful too, and exemplifies a real change from the rock of his Derek & The Dominoes material from a few years earlier. The drum rhythm is almost funky at times. "Please Be With Me" is a beautiful, gentle acoustic number. "Let It Grow" continues in the same vein, a bucolic, almost folk-rock number that is nothing like any of his previous material. It ends with some evocative guitar from Clapton, but it is still pretty understated.

"Steady Rollin' Man" has Eric bluesily rocking on a grinding, shuffling serving of blues rock, that was of the style that would come to typify Clapton's work over the subsequent three or four decades. It is a great track, though, one of my favourites from the album. "Mainline Florida" closes the original album with another mid-tempo chugging rock number, full of atmosphere and understated riffs and vocals. Finally some guitar kicks in, but then it finishes, unsurprisingly. The whole album has been appealingly understated. You can just let it wash over you on a Sunday afternoon, as I am doing right now.


Tower Of Power - Tower Of Power (1973)


Released May 1973

This was Tower Of Power's third album and they underwent a few line up changes - Skip Mesquite left and was replaced by Lenny Pickett on saxophone. He sessioned for Elton, The Meters and the Brothers Johnson among others as well. The excellent, honey-voiced Lenny Williams was brought in to give them permanent lead vocalist. It was awarded a gold record for sales and is one of their most rounded, confident, fulfilled offerings. The band had thirteen musicians playing on this album and you can tell. It is musically most impressive.

The opener, "What Is Hip?" is a superb slice of Meters-style funk, with the band's punchy horn section at its best. "Clever Girl" is a laid-back, smooth piece of soul, while the jaunty, upbeat "This Time It's Real" has Northern Soul written all over it. "Will I Ever Find A Love" is an orchestrated, slow soul ballad, with sweeping strings and a confident, soulful vocal.

Just when you thought they had deserted the fun, it was back, big time, with the seriously cookin' "Get Yo' Feet Back On The Ground". However good the soul stuff is, it is on these down 'n' dirty workouts that you get the best of Tower Of Power, in my opinion. Just check out those irresistible funky rhythms, the drum, bass and organ interplay. Marvellous. Stuff like this was actually quite ahead of its time, although having said that, The Meters had been putting out seriously good funk since the late sixties. "So Very Hard To Go" was actually a hit single too, which was unusual. It has a Temptations feel to it, and a wonderful horn refrain. Memphis-style Stax-y guitars drive it along too.

"Soul Vaccination" is so deliciously funky it is making me hungry. It cooks to the nth degree. Those lilting, funky guitars are thoroughly addictive, as is the drum rhythm. It doesn't get much better than this, as for the saxophone break - wow. That is not even mentioning the beauty of the bass solo half way through. Musicianship of the highest quality, a band totally in tune with each other. "Both Sorry Over Nothin'" is pure Otis Redding soul, with added funk too. I know this was Tower Of Power's most successful album, but why they weren't huge is a mystery to me. There is some seriously great material on this album. The soul/funk brilliance continues on the impressive "Clean Slate".

The album closes with return to late-night soul with the beautiful "Just Another Day". If you like seventies funk and soul, you can't go for wrong with this. The sound quality, as on all Tower Of Power's albums, is excellent as well.

The Meters - Struttin' (1970


Released June 1970

This was The Meters' third album, By now you knew what you were going to get - their, at the time, quite unique brand of funky guitar, organ, drum and bass-driven workouts, like a series of extended studio jams, but quite intoxicating. That it was more of the same doesn't matter. If you like their sound you'll like it.

The opener, "Chicken Strut" gets aboard the contemporary "Funky Chicken" groove train, patented by Stax's Rufus Thomas, complete with obligatory chicken noises. "Liver Splash" is a classic Meters, Memphis-style, Stax-ish instrumental groove, driven along by some sublime bass, organ and insistent drums. The next cut is a bit of a surprise, to say the least - a cover of Glen Campbell's iconic, evocative ballad, "Wichita Lineman", full of telegraph-sounding guitar and a catchy upbeat, rhythmic drum part on the end of the verses, which, funnily enough, doesn't sound incongruous. The original is so perfect in itself that this doesn't really work, but, listened to while trying to forget the original, it's ok.

That addictive rhythm continues on the wonderful, bassy groove of the instrumental "Joog". "Go For Yourself" is a delicious organ-driven instrumental. "Same Old Thing" has them going very James Brown. The funk The Meters came up with is totally energising, I have to say. "Clap Your Hands" is similarly catchy, while "Darling Darling Darling" is a sumptuous slice of Stax-style soul, with a Sam Cooke-esque vocal and bass and organ riffs to die for. Look, the album continues in the same vein to the end - funky as hell instrumentals on the whole like the irresistible "Britches" that just take over as you listen to them. As I said earlier, you know what you're going to get and if it is to your taste, you're in for a treat. Their cover of Lee Dorsey's Northern Soul classic "Ride Your Pony" is given a sixties-style funky, pounding makeover. Great stuff. A highly recommended classic album of its genre. Check out the various solos on "Funky Meters Soul" for compelling evidence.


Little Feat - Little Feat (1971)


Released January 1971

Recorded in Los Angeles

Released in 1971, this debt album from Little Feat was not really like their subsequent albums, with their funky, rhythmic rock that became their trademark. This one was still influenced by late sixties/early seventies country rock on cuts like "Strawberry Flats", with its chunky riffs and Band-style vocal delivery. There were echoes of "Tumbleweed Connection" period Elton John too. There were also flavours of psychedelia and blues to the album in many places, such as on the opener, "Snakes On Everything". It is very much an Americana album (although to be honest I feel all their albums are) and a country one too. I guess it is an American roots album, like the early ones from the Band.

"Truck Stop Girl" brings to mind The Rolling Stones' "Beggars Banquet" work and The Band, once more. The plaintive, piano-driven ballad "Brides Of Jesus" is very influenced by early Neil Young. The next track, "Willin'" is very country-ish slide-ish blues, while the more typical Little Feat rock sound is present on the muscular guitar of "Hamburger Midnight", the heaviest cut on the album. It has some searing guitar on it in the middle. The blues is present, big time on the six-minute Howlin' Wolf medley of "Forty Four Blues/How Many More Years" which is packed to the brim with blues harmonica and slide guitar.

"Crack In Your Door" is a rousing Band-esque number, while "I've Been The One" is very Jackson Browne-like in its vocal delivery, melody and lyrics. "Takin' My Time" is similar in its quiet piano/vocal atmosphere, very Elton John-esqe and the short closer "Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie" is a brief return to rocking Americana. Overall, this is an enjoyable, retrospective and evocative album. Although it didn't do particularly well at the time, its influence has been greater over the years.


Saturday, 17 November 2018

War - The World Is A Ghetto (1972)


Released October 1972

In 1972, black consciousness was all over the place - Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, The Temptations, The Undisputed Truth. War were another exponent, but they were more of a funk/ jazz/rock outfit as opposed to soul. Along with The Meters and the underrated Tower Of Power, they were one of the great pioneering funk bands. A seven piece full of excellent instrumentalists, this was a superb, cooking album of "blaxploitation" ghetto living early seventies style.

The album only contained six tracks - the pulsating, energising funk of the comparatively shorter "The Cisco Kid" and "Where Was You At" lead us into the laid-back funky groove of "City, Country, City", which meanders her, there and everywhere, seemingly allowing all the members a solo piece, from relaxing, soulful harmonica to frantic jazzy keyboards and funky percussion. A bit like Santana's "Caravanserai" album, this is intense, serious adult instrumental music, nothing remotely commercial about it. The bass, drums, percussion and keyboard passage around ten minutes in is intoxicating.

"Four Cornered Room" is an inscrutable, slow-tempo workout, with occasional backing vocals before leading into some dreamy, hippy verses about sitting in my four-cornered room. Then we get a spoken, seventies-style "rap" about consciousness and understanding. For 1972, stuff like really was adventurous and boundary-pushing, both musically, lyrically and conceptually. This cut is brooding, soulful, portentous and sombre. The title track is in its full ten-minute version here. It has a captivating soul vocal and a pulsating, insistent slow groove to it. Throughout this album there are elements of jazz, blues and even psychedelia left over from the sixties. Check out the jazzy saxophone on the title track over that rumbling bass. Brilliant stuff. It doesn't sound at all dated, even all these years later.

The album closes with "Beetles in The Bog", a slightly incongruous, chanted vocal number that has a funky rhythm but a bit of a Sly Stone "There's A Riot" era somewhat drunken-sounding vocal. This is a minor thing, though, overall, this was a most credible effort.


Santana - Caravanserai (1972)


Released October 1972

After three ground-breaking albums of red hot fusion of latin salsa rhythms and rock electric guitar, Santana changed their line-up slightly and also their style, slightly, releasing this now classic album of extended jazzy, stream of consciousness largely instrumental workouts. Yes, the trademark percussion is still there, particularly on frenetic cuts like "La Fuente Del Ritmo", but much o te material is quite trippy, meandering but infectious journeying into slowed-down jazzy guitar sounds, freaky keyboards, man, and intoxicating rhythms, such on the captivating closer, "Every Step Of The Way". It is almost classical in its powerful, dramatic execution, full of surging keyboard riffs, wonderful Carlos Santana guitar and frantic percussion.

There are only three tracks with vocals, the evocative "Stone Flower",  the psychedelic "All The Love Of The Universe" and "Just In Time To See The Sun". The album had no hit singles and, listening to it, you feel that sense of intense seriousness. I remember at school when this came out, I was fourteen at the time. There was one boy who carried this album around under his arm. Looking back, that was a remarkably mature choice for a fourteen year-old. The album is full of musical complexity but it utterly uncommercial. After their triumphs at Woodstock in the late sixties, the release of this started a downturn in Santana's popularity. They became a band for the discerning members of the cognoscenti for a while, until a renaissance in the late seventies with their cover of The Zombies' "She's Not There" and a further one in the late nineties with "Supernatural". That said, listen to this a few times and it starts to get into your bloodstream. Its pulsating rhythms, improvisation and sheer musical adventurousness have gained it considerable critical kudos in subsequent years.

The album is unpredictable, beguiling and highly listenable. Just don't expect a singalong - sit back and try to absorb its sheer brilliance. Take two tracks like "Waves Within" and "Look Up (To See What's Coming Down)" as examples, then the power of the intro to  "Just In Time To See The Sun". That guitar on "Song Of The Wind" and the cymbal work behind it. Phenomenal stuff. Highly recommended. They really don't make music like this these days. Wonderful cover art too.