Thursday, June 10, 2021

Review: 6 Vinyl Reissues from Traffic

The Spencer Davis Group introduced the world to the precocious soul howl of teenaged Stevie Winwood. That singer and multi-instrumentalist did not fully explore his creativity until he veered out of Davis’s lane and into Traffic in 1967. With the co-leadership of former SDG-roadie Dave Mason, a more distinctly English and whimsical songwriter in the Syd Barrett mode, Traffic created one of the most delightful and imaginative debuts of rock’s most delightful and imaginative year. Mr. Fantasy pools hard rock jamming, raga rock, wyrd folk, spacey ballads, jazz parodies, woodwinds, sitars, harpsichord, and Mellotron without ever sacrificing fully developed songwriting for gimmicks or self-indulgence.


Such precision and concision was still in effect for Traffic’s self-titled second LP, though it was something of a less psychedelic affair. Mason had left the group after their debut due to standard-issue “artistic differences,” but rejoined to help Winwood, drummer Jim Capaldi, and woodwinds-player Chris Wood flesh out a skimpy selection of songs, the best of which is the surreal “Forty Thousand Headmen”. Interestingly, Mason’s contributions include “Feelin’ Alright”, a simple song more in line with the work of a soul outfit like the Spencer Davis Group than wacky Traffic. It became Traffic’s best known song and a genuine rock and roll standard. Winwood definitely should have been allowed to sing it, though. Mason’s vocals are rough throughout the record.


Mason was gone again after the album Traffic, and the band Traffic seemed deader than dead. However, sessions for what would have been Winwood’s first solo album in 1970 organically morphed into a new Traffic album when he asked for Capaldi and Wood’s assistance. John Barleycorn Must Die pointed out a new direction for Traffic. Now the emphasis would be on longer yet disciplined jams and more sincere jazz. Fortunately, the songwriting has recovered after the somewhat half-hearted Traffic and tracks such as “Empty Pages” and “Freedom Rider” rank among the band’s best. The instrumental “Glad” became a classic rock radio staple for decades to come.


Traffic expanded their ranks and vision with 1971’s The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys. Augmenting the core trio were Ric Grech, the Family bassist Winwood pulled over from his Blind Faith days; session drummer Jim Gordon, who’d recently played with Derek and the Dominos; and revered percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah. Because the mood is far wearier than that of previous Traffic discs, Low Spark is a grower, but it may ultimately prove to be Traffic’s best since their brilliant debut. The title track somehow manages to be a paragon of both languidness and tension, and it, “Hidden Treasure”, and “Many a Mile to Freedom” are all classics.


The Deep Purple-meets-Isaac Hayes title track of Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory implies that Traffic have regained a bit of their early chutzpah, but the energy and novel genre-meld are wasted on a non-song. By the 14-minute second track, the chutzpah is gone too. Titling the final track “(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired” made critics’ jobs all too easy.


Traffic regained their ability to craft a melodic hook just in time for what would be their last album for twenty years. “Walking in the Wind” is the stand out tune on When the Eagle Flies, though the title track earns points for its appropriately soaring feel and its potent, grim, and still relevant apocalyptic lyric. Yet Traffic still can’t seem to rein in their indulgences. When the Eagle Flies too often veers into fusion territory. The ostentatious Moog synth blurps instantly date some of the material, but it’s nice to hear them crack out the old Mellotron again. It’s a handy reminder of the more appealingly dated sounds of Traffic’s first and best album.


Two years ago, Island/UMe gathered these six albums in a lovingly made box set complete with authentically recreated album sleeves and sound remastered from the original master tapes. Now those albums are being released individually, but in somewhat more austere fashion. Despite being hyped as “deluxe editions,” each album is housed in a thin sleeve without any effort to reproduce the odd, cube-like shapes of The Low Spark and Shoot Out, the textured sleeve of John Barleycorn, or the gatefolds of Mr. FantasyTrafficBarleycorn, or Eagle (gatefold content is only included on paper inserts). The music still sounds excellent. Mr. Fantasy is a tad on the bright side compared to my original edition of the (superior) U.S. version, but the others are warmer. There is no inner groove distortion whatsoever, though there are a few instances of noise on Traffic that may be consequences of non-fill spots in the grooves. Overall, the clarity is extraordinary. Hunting down mint original copies of these albums or springing for 2019’s box set are preferable, but these individual releases still get the job done. Each album includes a download code.



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