Getting close to catching up. . .
This is the limited run that came out on the Sanctuary label last record store day that not only was pressed on super heavy white vinyl, but is two discs — the first of which is the mono mix of the album and the second is the stereo. Obviously, the proper album Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) is an irrefutable and enduring classic. But this mono/stereo gatefold package is absolutely gorgeous and the big draw for me was the mono mix. Noticeably different than my original US stereo pressing and just downright warmer, if you ask me. If you don't know this album, here's the first song and the last song from the album. Many more good ones, and even a few better ones, to be found in between. Good stuff.
Pink Floyd — Ummagumma (1970)
The Floyd gettin' all sorts of wacky in the early days. This is a two record set, in which disc one is live past favorites and disc two is all new studio material. The live stuff is long and jammy, the studio stuff is long and calm, all of it is very psychedelic and trippy. The live arrangements that the band had worked out really emphasized the quiet and meditative versus loud and chaotic dynamics in the songs. Have a listen to 'Careful With That Axe, Eugene' to get an idea of how they did it. The studio half of the album is mostly filled with curiosities, with each band member getting a half side feature. Not necessarily that great overall, as most of the material is more along the lines of a soundtrack (but without any direction) than actual fleshed out songs. Roger Water's excellent acoustic number 'Grantchester Meadows' is definitely the highlight of the entire album. Worthy stuff; and a fine overview of the band's early years.
Van der Graaf Generator — Pawn Hearts (1971)
This album has Robert Fripp all over it, so it's gained a bit of a reputation over the years as somewhat of a hidden proggy gem, if I'm to understand things correctly. It's a bit faster, more dissonant and not quite as subdued overall than the album that came right before it. It's just three long songs (one of which takes up all of side two). There's lots of shifting, weird turns in the songs, so you can never really get too comfortable when it's playing. The closest to conventional things get is on the otherwise spacey piano ballad 'Man-Erg', but even that has a moment of aggressive sax/Hammond B-3 riffing and Peter Hammill's shrieking vocals. Check out the big, twenty-three minute epic 'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers' and expand your head, square. There are too many passages in that song that are just downright amazing to start listing here. But it's worth the ride. Really "big idea" music. Cool.
Leo Kottke — Chewing Pine (1975)
Leo gettin' in a good groove and milking it for all it's worth. I've been going through these early and mid-70's Leo albums pretty easily all year long and this one's no different. It goes down smooth and easy, but gets better with every listen, as you start to notice the care in the playing and small nuances of songcraft. 'Standing on the Outside' continues Leo's tradition of indisputably strong side one/track ones. Couple more vocal numbers (one a Procol Harum tune, the other Marty Robbins) and the rest of the album is just Leo doing what Leo does. Some of the numbers pick up where Dreams and all that Stuff left off (like 'Venezuela, there You Go' and 'Monkey Money'), but the rest of the instrumental numbers point straight back to Mudlark and Greenhouse territory. Lots of slidin', quick pickin' and very tuneful riffs. I especially like the two ballads ('Rebecca' and 'Trombone') towards the end of the album. Certainly not the best of Leo's work from this period, but some moments here are just as strong as the best.
Fairport Convention — Babbacombe Lee (1971)
Fairport loses Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson and decides to go all high concept. It's about a boy, named John "Babbacombe" Lee, who goes off to serve and live with an old lady and leaves as soon as he can to be in the navy. He's successful and happy until he falls ill and is forced to return working for the elderly woman, loses his mind and brutally kills her. Not sure why the band chose this guy's story to tell, but the package that this comes in is pretty elaborate: a gatefold cover, a 10"x10" eight page booklet and full lyrics printed on the inner sleeve. Good fun — and hey, the music's not bad either! It's definitely more in the "rock" end of folk-rock here, as the guitars are the loudest and most amped up I've yet heard on a Fairport album. Still, even though there's little here that reminds of the Fairport I previously knew, check out the rather nice harmonies and catchy riffs on 'John Lee' or the gentle acoustic strum and brilliant vocal melody (and presumed Sandy Denny leftover) 'Breakfast in Mayfair' or even the genuinely eerie 'Dream Song.' Not a total winner, but a nice one to pick up if you like the early albums and aren't opposed to a little more rockin' out than usual.
Tom Rush — The Circle Game (1968)
Tom gets the big orchestrated treatment on a lot of other people's songs (three of which are Joni Mitchell's) and pretty amazing results ensue. Paul Harris' arrangements kick absolute butt throughout. Look no further than the absolutely bleak and beautiful charts on the album opening 'Tin Angel' for proof. There's a couple James Taylor songs here, but, amongst the covers, the Joni songs are the best. The final two tracks are both originals by Tom and they steal the show, easily. 'Rockport Sunday' is a rare solo acoustic instrumental that is just stunning in its scope and its virtuosity, while 'No Regrets' has become a Tom Rush standard in its own right for a very good reason. Have heard about this album for years, but I'd consider it a minor classic now that I've actually heard it; if for nothing else than side two.
The Turtles — Turtle Soup (1969)
Produced by none other than Ray Davies himself! Knowing that, and considering this was their preceding album, I was perhaps expecting too much. This is certainly not a total wash, but it's just generally a nice pop/rock album. Nothing embarrassing happens, but there's not a surprise to be found either, so take it for what it is. The 12-string jangle of 'She Always Leaves Me Laughing' is good 60's pop, while 'Somewhere Friday Night' is the sort of dreamy jangle, mildly folky thing that the Turtles seemed to promise all along (and yeah, it's probably the best thing here). As a last album by a should be legendary band, it's a bit low key and, some might argue, "safe." I would call it a dignified and appropriate addendum to Battle of the Bands (which, let's be honest, would have been the best way ever to end a career).
Tom Rush — Take a Little Walk With Me (1966)
The first half of this album is all renditions of old rock and roll favorites. Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, it's all here. Al Kooper produces and, as far as the first half of the album is concerned, it appropriately takes on a very similar tone to Bob Dylan's work of the time. Listenable, sure but nothing that special. Side two and Tom goes back to straight acoustic numbers and it's just glorious. Tom's version of 'Turn Your Money Green' is a clinic for someone wanting to take someone else's composition and making it their own. 'Galveston Flood' closes out the album and Tom is just showing off at this point, with his slide playing and soaring overdubbed harmonies. It's a perfect example of an album that starts off maybe a bit slow and just gets better and better as it plays.
Jon Hassell — Fourth World, Vol. 2: Dream Theory in Malaya (1981)
I buy any Jon Hassell I see, especially in the used bins. This one snuck up on me, in that regard. Guitar weirdo and all around thinkin' outside the box guy Michael Brook is pretty much co-billed here, as the album is basically Jon soloing over Michael's sound concoctions. And the musical backdrops over which Jon solos are very manic and repetitive for the most part. I'm not exactly sure why this was billed as part two of the series, because where the original was dreamy and cascading in sound, this one is amped up, aggro and quite challenging. Michael Brook's digital treatments and MIDI-synth arrangements are not exactly as smooth as I have come to expect Jon Hassell's backing band to be. Have a listen to the opening number to get a glimpse of what I mean. The title track is ten minutes of what I expected and easily the album's highlight. Brian Eno is about, playing drums and his influence reigns supreme over the album's closing number. Overall, probably the most challenging Jon Hassell album I've yet encountered. And still a really good one.