Once again, reviews of complete albums -- because it's Sunday, I'm a dummy, and I haven't had enuf coffee yet.
First up, Renaissance's ILLUSION (1970).
ILLUSION shows Renaissance in transition from their original lineup to the one that became moderately famous in progressive-rock circles in the mid-'70s. Headed by ex-Yardbirds Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, this classical-rock-folk band recorded their first album in 1969 (reviewed last Sunday in "All the way"), and then started this follow-up. But the band was already falling apart.
Keyboardist John Hawken is replaced by Don Shin on one track here, and on another piece there's an almost-entirely-new lineup. This album also marks the first appearance of acoustic guitarist Michael Dunford and Cornwall poet Betty Thatcher -- who would both be part of Ren over the long haul.
So this album is sorta a patchwork. It's copyrighted 1970, but one rock-and-roll reference book claims the album was only released in West Germany that year, and not issued in England until much later. Plus one track included here ("Face of Yesterday") was re-recorded later on Illusion's pretty-great OUT OF THE MIST (1977). And Illusion was basically the first version of this band, minus Keith Relf. You can see how confusing this all gets....
Enuf background. What does it SOUND like?
* Love Goes On -- This is already lighter than the first album. Airy la-la-la group vocals and strummed guitar, then picks up a bit as Jane Relf sings the lyric. Not rock and roll, way closer to what they used to call adult-contemporary back in the '70s. Pleasant, harmless -- and really short.
* Golden Thread -- Opens with long show-offy piano. If the first album had a flaw, it was mainly that the band had too much room to play -- and no idea how to fill the space. The shorter, more structured stuff was better -- like "Island." This drifts into airy piano-and-wordless-vocals stuff, sounding like the NEXT Renaissance album, PROLOGUE (1972), which includes none of these people. Three or four minutes in, Keith Relf starts singing. He's OK, but they're so much better with Jane singing. ...Pleasant, harmless, a little long.
* Love is All -- More light, airy pop-song stuff. The lyrics are hippy mush. Not much of a debut for lyricist Thatcher.
* Mr. Pine -- This is the track with the mostly-new lineup. Sounds unfinished. The opening is hippy blather, under-produced, almost laughable. The keyboard-led mid-section was recycled note-for-note in Renaissance's later "Running Hard"! ... Develops into a four-part suite. Doesn't seem like it was worth the trouble. These folks had talent, the question was how to channel it.
* Face of Yesterday -- The version on their later OUT OF THE MIST is a small masterpiece. This seems a little too delicate. Some extra added subtle electric guitar that mainly just calls attention to itself. Jane Relf's vocal is a little unsure. The later version is in a lower key and just seems more confident. This isn't terrible.... Maybe my problem is this just doesn't rock enough. It's pretty, tho.
* Past Orbits of Dust -- This closer runs 14 minutes. Keyboardist Don Shin takes the spotlight from the start. Vocals are rather low-key. This is looser and more relaxed than the rest of the album.... This riffs along in its nice, harmless, electric-piano-fueled way ... but then there's a Drum Solo. But at least it's brief. This has a little rock power behind it -- or at least as much power as you can get out of an electric piano, which ain't much -- but not TOO much, that would be rude. Uh oh, then there's a sorta spacey bass solo.... So a spacey riffer that stretches on for 14 minutes. Not bad, and they've got talent, but....
Is that all? Oh well, as Gentle Giant once said, "We didn't know what we were doing until our fourth album."
OK, next up, the Stories' first album (1972).
I picked this up because Stories later released a semi-classic English pop-rock album ABOUT US (1973) which had half an hour of pretty great stuff on it -- punchy, catchy, melodic, memorable pop songs. Best were the dramatic "Please Please" (which would still sound great on classic-rock radio), the sweet shoulda-been-hit "Love is in Motion,'" the mysterious "Words," and the wistful "What Comes After." But the group was breaking up at the time -- half the album is merely average, and some tracks are just filler. Oh, and the Number One 1973 hit "Brother Louie" is on there, too.
Keyboardist/songwriter Michael Brown started with The Left Banke back in the '60s. Singer/bassist Ian Lloyd had a spotty solo career and sang backing vocals for bands like Foreigner. Onward....
* Hello People -- Opens with sweet piano and Ian singing in a lower key than usual. This is a plea for brotherly love and peace -- still works today. Slowly gains in punch as it goes. Ian sounds pretty relaxed. ...OK, doesn't get that much better....
* I'm Coming Home -- Basic homecoming lovesong. Features Mike Brown's ragtime-ish piano that sometimes appears on ABOUT US. OK, not stunning.
* Winter Scenes -- Brown and Lloyd wrote all the songs. This is a lighter wintry mood-piece. More nice show-offy piano in the middle. So far this album seems much more modest and lower-key than ABOUT US.
* Step Back -- Little more of a rock punch here. Still nothing magic yet.
* You Told Me -- Basic breaking-up lovesong with added strings. Nice light touch here. Could grow on me.... That was a quick side.
* St. James -- Rockier. Some OK tho brief show-offy guitar from Steve Love in the middle. Ian sounds a bit off-key in places. Gains in catchiness as it goes.
* Kathleen -- This is lighter, moodier, more contemplative. They have a pretty good touch with the lighter stuff. Some nice harpsichord from Brown in the middle. Seems like ABOUT US played-up their strengths -- here they were still finding out what those strengths were....
* Take Cover -- This is heavier. Added guitar and keyboards and more vocal harmonies really make a difference. And then it's over, too soon.
* Nice to Have You Here -- OK, this is a little soupy. Too much mournful keyboard.
* High and Low -- Big finish? Not really. OK choruses, but not a total success. More grandiose piano. Brief attempt at a big coda.
Overall: Promising, but probably not worth the cash. Go get a copy of ABOUT US at Goodwill and pick out your favorite parts.
* Turtles -- Earth Anthem, from BATTLE OF THE BANDS (1968). Wow, cosmic! Opens with gorgeous horns and strummed guitar, followed by nice breathy vocals. Builds with a choir and strings. They may not have been entirely serious, but it works. "This is not an island...." Still perfect for Earth Day. Ends a little anti-climactically....
* Dukes of Stratosphear -- You're My Drug, from PSONIC PSUNSPOT (1987). XTC in disguise. Not bad. Very 1968-ish psychedelic. An impressive reproduction, especially the phasey spaceship-"whooshing" sounds....
* Dukes of Stratosphear -- Shiny Cage. OK, the last one was good enough, we'll try this ... which isn't that different from other XTC I've heard....
* Byrds -- The World Turns All Around Her, from TURN! TURN! TURN! (1965). Oh yes. This is great. So nice you'll want to hear it twice. How about that Gene Clark?