Notes from across the Pond

Evening all, here’s a round up of some prime slices of American rock from our good friends over at Esoteric Recordings.

One of the countries foremost reissue specialists, Esoteric Recordings (part of the Cherry Red family) specialise in ‘crate digging’ & remastering albums that have been out of print for a while, and their cross genre approach is best reflected in the reissues I am looking at today.


The Byrds

Esoteric Recordings WECLEC2658

Recorded in 1972 & released in 1973, this was the last studio album released by the legendary American band, and also saw the reunion of the five original members, recording together for the first time since the Turn1 Turn! Turn! album. One of the great American bands, and purveyors of quality Americana, the reunion of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, David Crosby & Michael Clarke should have been greeted with acclaim, as in their first flush they were untouchable.

However, as Chris Hillman candidly admits in the sleeve notes to this 2019 remaster, ‘Well, I’ll be honest I contributed my worst material because I was getting ready to do a solo record..and I was saving my good stuff for that’, as with reunions sometimes they seem like a better idea on paper than in studio, although listening to this record, there is no sign of discord, with songs contributed by Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, David Crosby & Roger McGuinn all contributing 2 songs each, with a great cover of Joni Mitchells For Free & 2 Neil Young covers (a fantastic cover of Cowgirl in the Sand) and the closing (See the Sky) About to rain.

The vocal harmonies, so much of the bands trademark, are still in fine form, and the sound on here is more mellow, definitely mining that rich seam of Americana that bands like Manassas and Crosby, Stills & Nash & artists like Gram Parsons were bringing to the fore.

The sound of the prairie, that widescreen music with room to breath and languid solo’s, and  breathy harmonica’s.

Standout tracks on this wonderful album are the brilliant Gene Clark opener Full Circle (which can be seen as a metaphor for this album) David Crosby’s stirring Long Live the King with it’s funky beat & McGuinns Born to Rock and Roll, with it’s great sound.

Despite the bands disatisfaction over later years (and indeed, as Malcolm Domes meticulous sleeve notes suggest) some degree of regret for not doing the project justice, to these ears it sounds like a mighty fine piece of American rock, and with the quality of the performers on here it couldn’t not be a mighty album.

It might not have set the world on fire back in 1973, but it’s ripe for reinterpretation and recognition of what a charming album it is.

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Spirit: It Shall Be (The Ode & Epic recordings 1968-1972)

Esoteric Recordings ECLEC52619

It seem’s quite appropriate that this review is of spirit for Spirit, and we’re staying with America, this natty 5 disc clamshell box (from the tail end of 2018, apologies for the delay in reviewing) collects the five albums (1968’s Spirit, 68’s The Family That Plays Together, 1969’s Clear, 1970’s The Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus, & 1972’s Feedback, as well as the mono version of the debut album, never available on CD before, the soundtrack Spirit recordd for the 1968 film The Model Shop and a-sides/b-sides,rarities and the alternative mixes from 1991’s Time Circle) with superb sleevenotes from Malcolm Dome, this covers a prolific period for this influential West Coast band.

Formed by guitarist Randy California, with school friends Mark Andes on bass & vocals, Jay Ferguson on voclas and percussion, John Locke on keyboards and Randy’s step-father jazz drummer Ed Cassidy joining the band. California, born Randy Wolfe, he met Jimi Hendrix, and ended up playing with Hendrix aged 15, bunking from school to do so, Hendrix also gave him the name Randy California (as that’s where he was from to differentiate him bassist Randy Texas) when Hendrix was discovered by Chas Chandler and brought over to the UK, he wanted California to join him, however California’s parents insisted he continue his education, good job they did really!

Their debut Spirit, created quite a stir, released on Lou Adler’s Ode label and was the start of an incredibly prolific period for the band. Opening with Jay Fergusons Fresh Garbage,a powerful psych piece, the band sound confident and powerful on this album, from tracks like Uncle Jack, Topanga Windows, and Straight Arrow. However controversy still surrounds one of California’s finest musical moments, a beautiful piece called Taurus, which has an uncanny similarity to Led Zeppelins Stairway to Heaven (1971), and a court case around authorship of Stairway is still ongoing.

Legal shenanigans aside, it’s the first moment when California’s obvious talent, and ear for a melody and subtle playing was revealed. Meanwhile the mix of blues and folk on the album see’s the subtle Water Woman, with some fine harmony vocals, and nice little folk melody from California.

The epic closing Elijah at it’s ten minutes plus power, is a real statement of intent from Spirit.

As debut’s go, this is a pretty impressive way to introduce yourself to the world, and within the year, the band followed it up with The Family that plays together stays together.

Building on what the band had started with their debut, this see’s the fluid mix of rock, blues and jazz flowing through the performances, the confidence shows, as the wonderful It Shall Be flows into the bluesier Poor Richard with some stirring guitar work from California, the piano riff of Locke bouncing along in the background, and of course that drumming from Cassidy and the great harmony vocals of Andes & Ferguson.

I mention the harmony vocals qute a lot, but the way Andes and Ferguson work together is as vital to the sound of the band, as the vocals and the guitar of California that really sings.

The brilliant piano driven blues of Darlin’ If, with some lovely piano flourishes and a smooth solo, that glides before bringing the rest of the band in, is sheer musical class.

Meanwhile the songwriting gets more experimental with Jewish, which had lyrics based on Psalm 133, sung in Jewish, with another of Californias languid solos. Built around the bands confidence, this is a worthy succesor to their debut and showcases more maturity and experimentation.

They were incredibly prolific during this period, being asked (during the recording of the Family that plays together…) to contribute music to the film Model Shop by Jacques Demy, The twelve tracks here aren’t up to the standard of soundtrack work from bands like Pink Floyd, being a pretty entertaining diversion, and the titles are obviously written to coincide with moments in the film, hence works like The Moving Van, fog, The Rehersal Theme.

In a chilled out easy listening kind of way they aren’t bad songs, but more of a diversion than a next album proper, the one gem here is the demo version of Aren’t You Glad from The Family that plays together, with that great keyboard riff, and is a bit more immediate and in your face than the original.

The Model Shop material is probably one for more completists, as I don’t see myself revisiting it too much.

October 1969 saw the bands third album proper Clear released, with an unchanged line-up, and utilisiing some of the material from the Model shop reworked, is described in the sleevenotes as a çompromise’ and a ‘holding operation’ however I think that does the album a disservice.

Whilst it’s not as in your face as it’s predeccesors, it still has a charm of it’s own, there’s Jay Fergusons wonderfully piano driven cold Wind, the California/Lou Adler composition, Give a Life, Take a Life and the Ferguson/California title track all stand out as great songs, given by what was to follow, Clear is very understated, however from a band as talented as Spirit, an album that isn’t their greatest, is still better than albums by plenty of sub par bands, and is worth returning to.

Its the 1970 masterpiece The Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus that really is the stand out album here, and is an absolute masterpiece, it mixes the free flowing jazz of John Lockes Space Child, the opening brilliance of California’s Prelude, the manificence of Why Can’t I be Free and mixes the bands influences into one cohessive whole, an album that is as full of rock influences as it is with jazz and blues, and of course that amazingly fluid guitar sound that Randy California had.

The Twelve Dreams.. Is rightly hailed as a rock masterpiece, and is a real treat for these ears, with some powerfuldriving guitar passages during when I touch You, the brilliant vocal harmonies of Andes & Ferguson, the taut precise and versatility of Cassidy on drums, John Lockes powerful keyboard presence acting as counterpoint to california’s wonderful guitar work, and the way the album hangs together is a testament to Spirit’s vision and their musical ability to pull all the strands together to create this masterpiece.

As with most bands, splits are inevitable, and so by the time of 1972’s Feedback from the original members there was just Cassidy & Locke left with Andes & Ferguson forming Jo Jo Gunne and Randy California being unable to tour due to a head injury from a horse riding accident. They recruited Al Staehely on bass and lead vocals, and his brother J Christian Staehely on guitar and vocals, a new Spirit (briefly) rose from the ashes of the old.

Understandably with such a change in members, the direction on Feedback is totally at odds to it’s predeccesor, as if the band couldn’t follow on in that direction. Instead at the hands of Cassidy, Locke and the Staehely brothers the bands sound is paired down and far more direct rock and roll, with Al Staehely providing most of the songs, there is a real edge of driving music here.

Plenty of direct rockbeats and sounds, and titles like Chelsea Girls, Ripe and Ready, are more direct, punchy rock songs, and whilst there’s plenty of Locke’s piano work, the band are channeling blues rock here, and it marks the difference between the two line ups, particularly as on this set it’s on the same disc as Sardonicus, so it goes from the last line-ups masterpiece to an album chock full of bar room boogie and good old fashioned American rock and roll.

Not to say it’s not a good album, it is, it’s a classic 1970’s rock album, full of the riffs, the keyboard work and the immediate songs, however it doesn’t have that Spirit feel to it, with some songs having a more Deep Purple vibe particulalrly with Locke’s keyboards and Al’s big riff soloing, this would have probably worked better as an album if they hadn’t called the band Spirit.

With an interesting mono mix of the debut making it’s appearance here on CD for the first time, the a and b sides, including the brilliant 1984, and the alternative mixes from 1991’s Time Circle compilation provide an interesting alternative to the originals, and the fact there’s two extra discs of material over and above the original albums show just how prolific the band were during their first flush, and the price of this box, complete with contents is an absolute bargain, and well worth a punt.

That’s all from the Edge this week, see you soon.

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