Monday, 11 February 2019
Curved Air - Second Album (1971)
Released September 1971
I was twelve in September 1971. I was vaguely aware of Curved Air, as they played at the rock club in my town - Friars in Aylesbury and they had a singer in Sonja Kristina who older boys went "phwoor" over. They actually had their only hit single in the same month - "Back Street Luv" got to number four, but I have no memory of it. I preferred T. Rex, Rod Stewart, The Tams and Diana Ross. As I got older I enjoyed the idea of Sonja, but considered their music to be uncategorisable and tarred with too much of the accursed "prog rock" brush. Later years have found me exploring the music of this band that certainly were difficult to pigeonhole. Maybe that was what made them interesting.
For a band that, while critically-acclaimed in certain quarters, have slipped under quite a few people's radars, their influence on others/influences on themselves can be discerned far and wide on this album - the avant-garde synthesiser sound and beguiling lyrics of Roxy Music; the melodic miserableness of The Velvet Underground; the haughty vocal delivery of Siouxsie Sioux; the madcap electric violin of early Cockney Rebel; the progressive adventurousness of Greenslade and The Strawbs; a funky organ sound from funk/soul music; even some cadences of The Who in small places. Quite a list. Furthermore, Sonja Kristina has countered the "folk influences" question by saying that fellow band members Darryl Way and Francis Monkman would not have countenanced such a thing, considering folk far too simplistic for their grand musical ambitions. However, you can hear the versatility of Pentangle and the vocal tones of Fairport Convention's Sandy Denny on this album, for me. There are even just the odd note here and there that bring to mind Steeleye Span.
So, that is a whole lot to be getting on with when considering just what Curved Air were all about. On to this most quirky, oddly captivating album.
1. Young Mother
2. Back Street Luv
4. You Know
7. Bright Summer's Day '68
8. Piece Of Mind
"Young Mother" is a mysterious opener, full of some wild proggy ELP-style organ sounds and a sonorous classical influence. Sonja's voice is beautifully haunting and that electric violin swirls all over the place, together with some delicious Eno-style keyboard noises. Every now and again it breaks into an intoxicating drum/bass/organ rock rhythm. As one who used to instinctively reject progressive rock, I have to say that this is up there with the best of it. The afore-mentioned single, "Back Street Luv" begins with the sort of keyboard/drums intro that Roxy Music would use a lot on their first album. It also has an appealing funky grind to it. Sonja's vocal, while sixties-influenced in many places would, I am sure, have had a huge influence on Siouxsie Sioux in its staccato delivery. There is also something really post-punk in the grinding organ riff. As I said earlier, for some reason, this single slipped completely under my personal radar. I love it now, however.
"Jumbo" is a piano-driven, plaintive, classically-influenced number that, despite its obvious beauty, sits just a little incongruously with the rest of the album's material, for me. I am missing the proggy stuff - can you believe it? No, I can't, either. "You Know" is gloriously riffy, with some sumptuous guitar flying around and the sparse "Puppets" is once again an enigmatic song. It has a bit of Kate Bush about it I feel. Nice bass on the track too. I love the lively, vibrant, violin-powered "Everdance". It is full of short, sharp folk-ish rock energy and a catchy, quite irresistible melody. This material really is quite unique. It is a shame that Curved Air always split critics and most that was written about them seemed to be negative. Listening to them now, considering this album is getting on for fifty years old, it actually seems quite ahead of is time and definitely adventurous.
"Bright Summer's Day 68" annoys some listeners. I actually find it quirkily fetching. I hear hints of mid seventies group Fox in it in places. Maybe Sonja's voice had that same breathy quality as Noosha Fox. Finally, "Piece Of Mind" is a thirteen minute plus slice of prog perfection. Full of experimentation, changes of mood and pace, infectious vocals, churchy organ, psychedelia, rocking piano and basically the kitchen sink. Near the end are some quacking duck sounds. It is decidedly pretentious, of course, but also deliciously bonkers.
The sound quality on this new 2018 remastered edition is much better than previous releases. The John Peel session bonus recordings, mainly from the band's debut album, are an interesting document, although the sound quality on these is a little bit hit and miss. I have to admit that I find the final track, "Vivaldi" pretty much unlistenable, however. Overall, though, this is an invigorating, challenging and ultimately enjoyable listen from what my esteemed fellow reviewer Mark Barry called a "difficult band". That sums them up quite succinctly, I guess, but it also makes them worthy of attention.