Thursday, 26 January 2017

"5 Classic Albums" by TRAFFIC [feat Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Dave Mason] (2017 Universal/Spectrum 5CD Mini Box Set Of Remasters) - A Review by Mark Barry...









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"...Sure Took Me For One Big Ride..." 

I suspect Traffic fans will say 'about bleeding time mate' - and they'd be right. Other artists like Fairport Convention, Pat Benatar, Scott Walker, The Jackson 5, Status Quo, Sandy Denny, Bob Marley & The Wailers, Dusty Springfield and even Graham Parker have received one of these '5 Classic Albums' multipack releases from Universal/Spectrum's monster back catalogue. But we've had to wait until January 2017 for that most brilliant of British groups - TRAFFIC. But at least we've been given five of their best and their remasters too. To the nitty gritty...

The packaging has good and bad points. The naff-looking outer card slipcase is flimsy and very easy to damage. In fact my shrink-wrapped set was already creased when I received it in the post. Each of the repro cards is a single sleeve (using UK Stereo artwork) with no inners. Back in the day the first three albums were gatefolds originally and the last two had cut-corner shaped packaging with inner sleeves. Bit much I suppose to expect faithful accuracy – but as a cheapo reissue (less than two quid per album) – the five front and rear sleeves are clear and the colour is very, very good. Another nice touch is that each CD label uses the differing Island Records logo designs as they progressed through the years - the pink label with the orange and black eye logo on the "Mr. Fantasy" debut from 1967 through to the pink-rimmed palm tree label of "Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory" in 1973 (see photos below).

The two albums missing are "Last Exit" from 1969 (partially Live) and the double live set "Welcome To The Canteen" from 1971 and those poppy but (let's face it) horrible singles "Paper Sun" and "Hole In My Shoe" (many will feel that all of these are losses we can do without). But the best news is that these are Remasters (doesn’t say what date) – each sounding absolutely toppermost. I suspect these are the 24-bit digital transfers done in 1999 and later in 2005 by Ellen Fitton for the much praised "Gold" double. Whichever – they sound great. Here are the Pearly Queens...

UK released January 2017 – "5 Classic Albums" by TRAFFIC on Universal/Spectrum 5374164 (Barcode 600753741641) is a 5CD Set Of Remastered CDs housed in a card slipcase with singular repro art sleeves and plays out as follows:

Disc 1 "Mr. Fantasy" (34:39 minutes):
1. Heaven Is In Your Mind
2. Berkshire Poppies
3. House For Everyone
4. No Face, No Name And No Number
5. Dear Mr Fantasy
6. Dealer [Side 2]
7. Utterly Simple
8. Coloured Rain
9. Hope I Never Find Me There
10. Giving To You
Tracks 1 to 10 are their debut album "Mr. Fantasy" – released December 1967 in the UK on Island ILP 9061 (Mono) and ILPS 9061 (Stereo) and April 1968 in the USA on United Artists UAL 6651 (Mono) and UAS 6651 (Stereo) – the Stereo Mix is used. It was originally called "Heaven Is In Your Mind" in the USA when released on United Artists UAS 6651 with different artwork front and rear. It also featured two extra tracks – the hit singles "Paper Sun" and "Hole In My Shoe". This 2017 CD reissue uses the British 'fireside' cover artwork and the UK track list of 10.

Disc 2 "Traffic" (40:47 minutes):
1. You Can All Join In
2. Pearly Queen
3. Don't Be Sad
4. Who Knows What Tomorrow Might Bring
5. Feelin' Alright?
6. Vagabond Virgin [Side 2]
7. Forty Thousand Headmen
8. Cryin' To Be Heard
9. No Time To Love
10. Means To An End
Tracks 1 to 10 are their 2nd studio album "Traffic" – released October 1968 in the UK on Island ILPS 9081T and in the USA on United Artists UAS 6676 (Stereo).

Disc 3 "John Barleycorn Must Die" (34:35 minutes):
1. Glad
2. Freedom Rider
3. Empty Pages
4. Stranger To Himself [Side 2]
5. John Barleycorn
6. Every Mother's Son
Tracks 1 to 6 are their 4th studio album "John Barleycorn Must Die" – released July 1970 in the UK on Island ILPS 9116 (Stereo) and in the USA on United Artists UAS 5504 (Stereo). Produced by CHRIS BLACKWELL and STEVE WINWOOD -

Disc 4 "The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys" (40:27 minutes):
1. Hidden Treasure
2. The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys
3. Rock 'n' Roll Stew
4. Many A Mile To Freedom [Side 2]
5. Light Up Or Leave Me Alone
6. Rainmaker
Tracks 1 to 6 are their 5th studio album "The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys" – released November 1971 in the UK on Island ILPS 9180 and in the USA on Island SW-9306. Produced by Steve Winwood – it peaked at No. 7 on the USA LP charts (didn’t chart UK).

Disc 5 "Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory" (37:24 minutes):
1. Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory
2. Roll Right Stones
3. Evening Blue [Side 2]
4. Tragic Magic
5. (Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired
Tracks 1 to 5 are their 6th studio album "Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory" – released January 1973 in the UK on Island ILPS 9273 and in the USA on Island SW-9323. Produced by Jim Capaldi and Steve Winwood – it peaked at No. 6 on the USA LP charts (didn't chart UK).

The debut album is a hippy beast - all Psychedelic soundscapes as the boys romp around the countryside in afghans and tie-die shirts with poppies in their hair and joints hanging out of their mouths - shagging anything that looks cute and grows mushrooms. The sound is unbelievably good - that wound up clock at the beginning of "House For Everyone" - Winwood's aching vocal accompanied by acoustic guitar on the lovely "No Face, No Name And No Number" and the sexy, sly 'tune' in "Dear Mr. Fantasy". Check out the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young cover version from 1980 of the long and slow "Dear Mr. Fantasy" that turned up on their 1991 4CD Box set as a Previously Unreleased Track - it's unbelievably good with Stephen Stills stretching out on Guitar. The 'Summer Of Love' Sitar and spoken voice in "Utterly Simple" (you do understand that Lewis is Alice) is evocative stuff too. Overall a great beginning...

The improvement in songwriting for the second self-titled "Traffic" album is amazing (and who hasn't had that Island Records sampler LP "You Can All Join In" on Island IWPS 2 in their homes at one point - Traffic get the titular track at the end of Side 1). Comparing "Pearly Queen" on this CD to the 1995 Mobile Fidelity version I have (an Ultradisc II audiophile disc) holds up well - but there's no doubt the MF version is better. I'd forgotten how good "Don't Be Sad" is - that Harmonica and Saxophone combo - that 'Traffic' sound they made. The double-combo of "Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring" and the mucho-covered Mason winner "Feelin' Alright?" confirm the album's greatness. "Feelin' Alright?" (with its question mark intact) is one of those Rock songs that lends itself to other artists - Joe Cocker, Grand Funk, Lulu, David Ruffin, The Chairmen Of The Board, Three Dog Night, Rare Earth, Hubert Laws, Wade Marcus - they're just some who've had a go (what a song - lyrics from it title this review). But it’s surely the flute and shakers of "Forty Thousand Headmen" that has cemented the album into hearts – a wickedly good groove with Steve Winwood 'soaring high above the clouds'. The harpsichord in "Cryin' To Be Heard" is clear as are the band when they kick in - drums and organ taking off. "No Time To Live" is amazingly accomplished - sounding just spiff - a big wheel of fortune ace. The funky Rock of "Means To An End" is similar to the vibe of "Feelin' Alright?" and at times the guitars sound so Delaney & Bonnie or Derek And The Dominoes...

If "Traffic" was an indication of greatness impending - 1970's "John Barleycorn Must Die" landed it. Right from the opening of "Glad" (a song that sounds like its title) – there’s a swagger in the Funky Rock on offer. In this near seven-minute instrumental (penned by Winwood) - Saxophones alongside Organ and Piano vie for the listener’s attention as they engage in cheery runs up and down the scales like time is of no consequence. LP3 almost sounds like another band compared to LP2 – Happy Jazz Hour meets Mellow Prog Rock and wins. This is confirmed by the Winwood-Capaldi sophistication of "Freedom Rider" – Chris Wood's Flute and Saxophone playing added a Jethro Tull/Blodwyn Pig feel to the song – Capaldi's drumming anchoring Winwood's piano runs and world weary vocals as he cries "...here he comes..."

You can almost feel Winwood's 'solo career' start with "Empty Pages" - a decidedly upbeat and commercial little bopper that at times feels like Charisma Genesis in its signature sounds (thumping Bass too). Side 2 gets all Bluesy with the brilliant "Stranger To Himself" - another Winwood/Capaldi funky one with a fuzzed-up guitar solo and a fabulous Stevie vocal. Things mellow into Folk with the ancient tale of "John Barleycorn" where Traffic sound like Fairport Convention - a tale of 'solemn vows' and 'bleeding' poor JB and 'men with pitch forks' doing their worst. The piano and flute are very clear - those voices harmonising beautifully - there's an amazing warmth to this transfer. It ends on yet another sound - treated guitars and keyboards wrapped around Winwood's impassioned vocals where Traffic almost sound like Joe Walsh’s James Gang impersonating Traffic. "Every Mother's Son" (like so many tracks on this album) has an epic feel that's hard to describe – it’s near seven minutes floating over you as that huge organ sound builds and builds and then crescendos – working those notes and guitars to the big finish (Winwood plays most instruments including guitar). Brilliant - I love this album...

"...There's a lot you can learn...if you listen..." - Winwood advises on "Hidden Treasure" (the band now a six-piece). A floating Acoustic/Flute melody that feels older than 1971 – "Hidden Treasure" is a song that feels smarter than us all. While that opener is good it's followed by Rock brilliance – one of my fave-rave Traffic songs – the 12-minute title track "The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys". I never tire of this stunning groove and even at such a duration – it doesn't feel like the song overstays its welcome - huge organ notes drawn out over a bopping piano. If I ever want to convince of the band's greatness to my kids (22 and 19) - I play this slinky little number and they nod approvingly. Island USA tried "Rock 'n' Roll Stew" as a 45 (in two parts) on Island 1201 and were rewarded with a No. 93 placing in january 1972 for what is a rather plodding 'on the road again' riff (like a weedy Free). Things improve a bit with "Many A Mile To Freedom" but that guitar solo is weak. "Light Up Or Leave Me Alone" feels like Frankie Miller walked in off the street and took over at the microphone - a funky rock 'n' roll stroller (the audio is amazing on this one). The albums ends on the 8-minute "Rainmaker" - an excellent return to Traffic's sound of "John Barleycorn..." - another cool tune that's all flutes and lolly-gagging guitar strums as the voices harmonise beautifully. But while "The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys" didn't deserve an inexplicable 'no placing' in the UK Top 50 LP charts - there is a sense already of a band winding down. I personally think it's worth another listen.

Finally we get to the short "Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory" from 1973 with only five songs. It opens with the hooky guitar of the title track that at times bears an uncanny resemblance to that riff in Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water". I've always liked its six-minutes of wah-wah guitars and funky feel. We then get a bit 'do do dah' with nearly twelve-minutes of "Roll Right Stones" - clearly trying to capture that "Low Spark" vibe. Winwood sings of 'spaces between my eyes' and 'standing stones in circles' that after centuries are all 'ancient torn and weather worn'. It's good but about six minutes in and the obvious endless solo makes it begin to feel like a Fairport Convention 'Liege & Leaf' experiment that should have ended twenty minutes ago. Side 2 opens with the Acoustic peacefulness of "Evening Blue" where our life-traveller hasn't slept for days - but the setting sun comes to save him. It's actually a rather lovely little cut (and the bass is gorgeous in the transfer). Musically "Tragic Magic" has always felt like an instrumental waiting to be lyric'd by its creator - personally I love that slow band-enjoying-itself-being-mellow vibe it exudes. The album ends on a song that at times sounds like its title "(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired)" - seven minutes of weary ache from Winwood where he talks of his room 'being wired' - but then turns it around with a pick-yourself-up chorus (great guitar work throughout too).

Despite the craziness, the line-up changes, the "Welcome To The Canteen" album not even bearing their name for legal reasons - TRAFFIC were magic throughout it all and made a sound that reaches out over the decades and casts a long shadow.

Capaldi, Mason and especially Steve Winwood would go on to long and eventful solo careers - but this rather brill little '5 Classic Albums' set reminds us why we loved them and their band so. Sure took us for one big ride indeed...

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