This is an experiment in which your clueless reviewer will attempt to play and review 2 or 3 entire albums ALL THE WAY THROUGH, which I'm told is a unique new way to listen to music -- a method I haven't thot of in years. Should also be a challenge in light of my short attention-span and tendency to stop listening to something as soon as I get bored.
Renaissance -- (first album) (1969).
But first, some background: This classical-folk-rock band was formed by former Yardbirds singer Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty. Their first album -- produced by another ex-Yardbird, Paul Samwell-Smith (who later produced Cat Stevens, America, Jethro Tull) -- wasn't a huge success, tho they issued a follow-up, ILLUSION, a year later. Then the band fell apart, and Relf was later electrocuted. By the time Renaissance's third album PROLOGUE came out in 1972, their line-up was completely different, tho McCarty kept writing songs for them, and these are included on PROLOGUE and 1973's ASHES ARE BURNING.
The original lineup (tho with McCarty now on acoustic guitar and vocals, John Knightsbridge on elec gtr, and Eddie McNeil on drums) reformed as Illusion for OUT OF THE MIST (1977), the best Renaissance-style studio-album that band never did. They followed-up in 1978 with ILLUSION, which was quieter, and the lyrics were forgettable.
Renaissance continued into the 1980's with a string of albums, the best and liveliest of which seems to be LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL (1976). Some of their studio work is rather stiff and self-conscious, tho "Rajah Khan" on PROLOGUE is great swirling psychedelic noise, and "Northern Lights" on A SONG FOR ALL SEASONS (1977) is a charming lovesong.
Whew. OK, onward....
* Kings and Queens -- Pretty gutsy, leading off your debut album with one of its longest songs. It needs to be a killer. Not sure this one is. It was included on that WONDEROUS STORIES 4-CD "history" of progressive-rock that I grabbed a few years back, in an edited version (I think), and I wasn't impressed then. And this runs almost 11 minutes....
Opens with some quick grand-piano moves and other attempts at drama, then moves into a more bass-heavy, driving approach. That's the first four minutes, and nothing's happened yet. Then Keith Relf starts singing, symbolic lyrics vaguely applicable to today's political situation. Some nice keyboards by John Hawken.
Then they slow it down a little. More drama, more show-offy piano. So far, Hawken's riffing piano is the best thing here, tho Relf's singing isn't bad. Nice riffing, and McCarty's a good, dramatic drummer. Getting better as it goes, gaining in drama just by the playing and singing, without the extra atmospheric messing around. But not a total success.
* Innocence -- The lyrics are kinda silly late-'60s hippy mush, and Relf isn't a strong-enough singer, but again Hawken's keyboards are strong. He's clearly the star here. This is quieter than the first track, tho not as memorable.
* Island -- At last, Jane Relf starts singing. She has a high, clear voice that's captured beautifully on OUT OF THE MIST. This song has some of that album's magic. Hawken breaks loose for a classically-inspired keyboard solo in the middle, which ain't really necessary. A little overdone, but OK. Edited, this could have been a hit. Nice, soft symphonic-rock. The best thing here.
* Wanderer -- More showing-off by Hawken. He's great, but was this group formed just to show him off? They get better every time Jane Relf sings, but this is actually over too fast.
* Bullet -- 11-1/2 minutes. More piano-based drama, followed by group chanting and silly lyrics. Keith picks up the harmonica, making this a classical-folk-blues jam. And he's OK on the harp. And there's still too much dramatic messing around. If these folks could have focused a bit, they might have been awesome. Long bass solo.... More atmospheric messing around at the end, no real ending.
Overall, eh. "Island"'s the best thing here, an edited version would be great.
Richard and Linda Thompson -- I WANT TO SEE THE BRIGHT LIGHTS TONIGHT (1974).
True Confessions: For the longest time I couldn't HEAR these folks. Bought their ISLAND YEARS best-of a few years back and couldn't get into a single song, not even the heavy-guitar outro on "Calvary Cross," not even the pretty-great "Dimming of the Day." Don't know what I was thinking. But they were SO DOWNBEAT! This surprised me, because I love Fairport Convention, where Richard's downbeat vocals and loud guitar were a key part. Even grabbed Richard and Linda's SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS a few years back and couldn't get into THAT, even with all the marriage-breaking-up drama included.
Then awhile back I heard Richard's LIVE (MORE OR LESS) while browsing at Tacoma's HI-VOLTAGE RECORDS and was knocked out. (Of course everything sounds better on THEIR sound system....) Course LIVE is rare and they didn't have a copy to sell me, but most of the songs I heard are on BRIGHT LIGHTS, so we'll see how it holds up....
* When I Get to the Border -- The usual great vocals and stinging guitar I expected, plus half of Fairport Convention is on this album! And Richard Harvey and Brian Gulland from Gryphon! Now that I have a decent turntable that plays albums at the right speed and a stereo with actual bass and decent speakers, it makes a big difference to the listening experience. Before, I thot this was kind of a lame song. Instead it's a decent bouncy-enough album-opener.
* Cavalry Cross -- The usual grim stuff, with nice stinging guitar. Too bad this is edited for vinyl, no big guitar-explosions finale.
* Withered and Died -- The title sounds just like Richard Thompson, only Linda sings it! And she sounds just like Sandy Denny! Pretty downbeat, tho not depressing.
* I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight -- This sure contrasts with "Withered and Died," and the horn-band adds charm. Richard's lyric is pretty twisted and funny, too. This is nice, tho it could maybe have been lighter and more fun....
* Down Where the Drunkards Roll -- More of Richard's low-life obsession, tho of course Linda sings it beautifully and the acoustic guitar's just fine. Ends too soon.
* We Sing Hallelujah -- Downbeat holiday song, with added recorders.
* Has He Got a Friend for Me? -- Lonely, downbeat dating song, with nice acoustic guitar and recorders. Linda sings it beautifully, tho she threatens to hang herself in the second verse....
* The Little Beggar Girl -- Cutesy, knowing, Cockney-sounding madrigal with great lyrics: "I love takin' money off a snob like you...."
* The End of the Rainbow -- Stark, depressing lullabye, beautifully sung by Richard.
* The Great Valerio -- Stark and dramatic, just Linda's vocal and Richard's acoustic. There is a stunning live version of this on Linda's best-of, DREAMS FLY AWAY.
Overall: Stark, dramatic, icily controlled. Impressive, but definitely not light listening.
Time to lighten up. Next up, Crack the Sky's LIVE SKY (1978).
Don't know much about these guys, except their live "Lighten Up McGraw" is a rockin' classic, and they do a loopy live "I Am the Walrus," too! Their only studio album I've heard bits of, SAFETY IN NUMBERS, seemed a little self-involved and seemed to strain for dramatic effects.
* Hold On -- Opens with flashy guitar, and a riff straight out of "Lighten Up McGraw." Clever lyrics.
* Maybe I Can Fool Everybody Tonight -- More flashy guitar, followed by dreamy verses. OK, not great. After a strong opening, the audience drifts off.... Then an upbeat ending, but it takes a long time to get there....
-- In the interest of time, I'm going to skip "Lighten Up McGraw," but trust me it's great. You should track it down. Great funny lyrics, nice choruses, great guitar, driving attack.
* She's a Dancer -- "McGraw" goes directly into this 9-minute track. The lyrics are ... slightly funny: "When I look into her eyes, I can see through his disguise, but am I surprised?" When there are no lyrics, these guys again seem to be relying heavily on their guitars to create the drama their songs seem to need. There's a long break with more show-offy guitar here. They are better at playing than at song-construction.
* Ice -- 11-minute guitar showcase. Nice, atmospheric, icy. These guys had some talent -- the key might have been channeling it into some more concise forms.
* Surf City -- No, not THAT "Surf City." Not when the second line is "Here come the sharks." Includes more flashy guitar and riffs from "God Save the Queen" and "The Lone Ranger Theme."
-- I'm gonna skip the encore, "I Am the Walrus," but it's a lot of loopy fun, and almost as weird as the original.
...OK, I'm done for today, folks. Thanx for sittin' in.