By Dave Thompson
There’s something about Traffic’s The Studio Albums 1967-1974 (Universal) that demands you pay attention.
Maybe it’s because, of all the bands that flourished during that particular time period, Traffic were always among the most intriguing. They could be one of the most annoying, as well… particularly later in life, there was always that one track that left you wondering “why?” Or even “what?????”
Ah, but when they were on, they were very very on, to the point where they genuinely deserve this box. Original U.K. artwork reborn in all its glory. Applicable inserts tucked inside their host albums. Posters within every album. Gatefolds yawning wide. Authentic first pressing Island Records labels. Die-cut sleeves, heavyweight vinyl.
Okay, one complaint, and it’s unclear whether this a systemic problem or just a one-off, but the glue that’s supposed to hold the sleeves together isn’t doing a great job on Spin Cycle’s copies. But if that’s the worst thing one can say about the box...
What do we get? Mr Fantasy, Traffic, John Barleycorn Must Die, Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys and When The Eagle Flies. Pedantically, we could mourn the absence of the compilation Last Exit, or even a newly-compiled collection of all the odds and sods that littered Traffic’s discography. Completists might wonder why the subtitle wasn’t changed a little, to allow the inclusion of the two live albums. (Because they’re not very good? Hush at the back.) But the box set does what the box set does, and in that respect, it’s flawless.
Sonically, too, it impresses. It’s a lot easier, these days, to find people complaining about new vinyl releases than praising them—everything from pressing defects and shipping disasters, through to brittle sound, manic compression... visit any of the audiophile forums online, and they have an entire vocabulary to describe all the things that the rest of us just think “sound a bit weird.”
Not here. “Low Spark...” has long been one of Spin Cycle’s “go to” tracks when it comes to testing the dynamics of a new turntable or amp, and it has rarely worn those boots with such pride. There’s been grumblings, again in the forums, about an excess of crackles through side one of that album, and they were present on Spin Cycle’s copy. But a wipe with an anti-static cloth removed them, so there’s a lesson for us all. Always clean new vinyl before you play it.
Throughout the box, there’s a clarity that even early original pressings can’t compare with. Overall, of course, the occasional murkiness that marred Traffic albums remains the same as it ever was—maybe they just liked murk. But short of discovering a still-sealed cache of original U.K. pressings, and playing them on the highest-end set-up you can find, The Studio Albums 1967-1974 is as good as this catalog has ever sounded.
Warner’s Run Out Groove imprint has been busy lately, with three albums drawn from across the aural spectrum. For the jazzers among us, Sonny Stitt’s Lone Wolf - The Roost Alternatives looks for all the world like a classic ’60s reissue but is, in fact, a well-chosen and annotated collection of, indeed, alternative versions of tracks from sessions recorded between 1952 and 1957. It looks great and sounds great, too.
There’s a fresh airing, too, for Cher’s 3614 Jackson Highway, recorded at Muscle Shoals in 1969 and featuring, among others, her versions of “For What It’s Worth,” “Dock of the Bay,” three Dylan covers and a stellar “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.” To which is appended a bonus LP featuring what would have been her next album, before it was cancelled for reasons unknown. Some of the tracks have leaked out over the years, but this is the first time it has been recompiled in full.
Maybe you can see why it was canned. If the main album is Cher at her most adventurous, both vocally and in terms of song selection, its successor would have been a fairly lightweight collection of nothing-in-particular—do we really need to hear her sing “Danny Boy”? (Actually, yes. She does a great job of it.) Certainly there’s nothing here to compete with 3614’s finest moments, and given that album’s commercial nosedive, one shudders to think how this one would have fared.
And so, to the Revolting Cocks, whose Linger Ficken’ Good … and Other Barnyard Oddities is a riot of bad taste, crude jokes, industrial rhythms and one of the two funniest covers of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” you’ll ever hear. (The other was by the Hybrid Kids, back in 1980).
It’s a bit of a time-and-place album, really; on release back in 1993, with industrial threatening to become the next big thing, this maniacal Ministry spin-off was as adventurous as it was light-hearted. A quarter of a century later, it just feels quaint. But it’s still fun and, if you were among its fans way back when, this double album repressing sounds crunchier and cruder than it ever has before.
New music from the PNW’s Prana Crafter is always welcome, and Mind Stream Blessing (Eiderdown Records), the follow-up to last year’s Enter the Stream, does not disappoint. Released in your choice of black or green/pink vinyl, a collection of guitar-led instrumentals drifts from the bucolic acoustics of “At Agartha’s Gate” to the almost angrily-phrased “As the Weather Commands,” and that’s just the first two tracks.
Last time out, Spin Cycle compared the sound to a cross between Ummagumma and an acoustic Tangerine Dream. That still holds true (check out “Luminous Clouds”). But we could also add early Anthony Phillips and even a taste of John Fahey to the blend. Either way, it’s a milestone album that really has no peers in the modern arena, and one-man-band William Sol remains one of 21st century America’s most criminally unsung heroes.
But maybe you want something more energetic? In which case, Caddy’s Ten Times Four (Sugarbush Records) comes over like a collision involving the Flaming Groovies at their growling best, post-punk power pop at its most enthusiastic and, oddly, Simon & Garfunkel through the gloriously understated “In the Basement.”
Seriously imbibed with ’60s pop swagger, Caddy shake and shimmer through the kind of record that could have been released at any point in the past 50 years, picking up references from as far afield as REM at their Byrdsiest and The Monkees at their munchiest, and then stirring them into one glorious burst of noise.
Sugarbush have also rereleased the fifth and final album by Help Yourself, a band whose close ties to the Man family tree are probably as well-known as their music. Recording of the LP began in the summer of 1973, as the group schemed the successor to that same year’s The Return of Ken Whaley. But the band dissolved with the album still incomplete, and it would be 20 years before the tapes were finished. 5 duly appeared on CD in 2004; this is its vinyl debut, and it’s fabulous.
There’s so much to listen out for. A guesting Deke Leonard gifts a trademark guitar solo to the opening “Light Your Way”; Sean Tyla drops by from his then-current band, Ducks Deluxe, to add axe to three more numbers, including “Duneburgers,” an almost Beatle-y melody that closes the album in hymnal, impassioned style.
There’s not a dull moment across the entire album—of course there isn’t, it’s Help Yourself. Their lack of commercial impact be damned; the four albums they released between 1971 and 1973 represent one of the most solidly excellent legacies any band of the age could muster, and any opportunity to enlarge that canon has to be welcomed. The fact the band went out with as much grace as they came in is simply a glorious bonus.
Finally, for 45 lovers, The Maniacs’ “I Don’t Wanna Go To Work” (NDN Records) is a green vinyl pressing for the legendary London punks’ contribution to the 1977 Punk Kebab movie.
It captures the group in the same tumultuous three piece form as the “Chelsea 77” single back in the day. Flip it over, however, and the original two-man Maniacs are heard live for the first time since 1976, stripping “White Light White Heat” back to its darkest basics. No matter that it’s one of the Velvet Underground’s most frequently covered, and brutally butchered, songs. The Maniacs will make you see it in a whole new (white) light.