NOTE: THIS REVIEW APPLIES PRINCIPALLY TO THE MAY 2012 SUNDAZED CD OF THE US MONO VERSION OF TRAFFIC'S HEAVEN IS IN YOUR MIND.
Sorting out the early Traffic catalog is about as confusing to the average listener as working out the Beatles' US and UK libraries for the low-level fan, and much for the same reason, mostly having to do with the differing philosophies about albums and singles on the two sides of the Atlantic. In America from the early 1960s onward, singles were often used to promote accompanying albums as well as careers, and there was every reason to throw the single that everyone presumably already knew (and liked) from the radio onto whatever album was issued in connection with it. In England, however, albums and singles were usually treated as completely separate entities by the record labels -- issued on different occasions, and often a bit (and in this case, quite a bit) later than any singles. The only place where they normally intersected was on "greatest hits" and "best of" compilation LPs.
And so the MR. FANTASY album, as their debut on Island Records was known in England, did not have the group's first two singles, "Paper Sun" and "Hole In My Shoe," on it -- which was just as well from the group's standpoint, as most of the album was recorded a bit later than those singles, and mostly after the point where they had pretty much abandoned the sitar, and at a moment where, in terms of direction, the group were sorting out their internal dynamics by casting their lot with Steve Winwood rather than with Dave Mason. And in that connection, another complicating factor was Mason's departure following the completion of MR FANTASY -- the result was that by the time that album was issued in England in December of 1967, it was a snapshot of the group that, essentially, was no longer valid. By the time the group's US label, United Artists Records, was preparing the American release, however, they saw no reason not to include "Paper Sun" and "Hole In My Shoe" on the album -- the presence of which, as two eminently accessible pop/psychedelic numbers, could only help sell a long-player by a band that was still mostly an unknown quantity in America -- and, in the process, remove a pair of Mason's songs, as he didn't seem to figure in the future of the group at that point. That doesn't mean that the US version is necessarily "better" than the UK original, or even preferable, although a case could be made that it is easier to absorb with the two single A-sides present. But it did mean that the US album, retitled HEAVEN IS IN YOUR MIND (with some variations, which made for still more confusion in retrospect), which was the way many longtime US fans first heard the group (though it only reached No. 88 on the American charts), had a distinctly separate identity. (The UK version didn't show up on American shores until much later). And if one thinks about it a bit and recalls the box set craze of the early 1990s, it's just possible to visualize a box set devoted to the different permutations of this album (stereo/mono -- US/UK etc.).
Sundazed Records previously had the US mono version of HEAVEN IS IN YOUR MIND out on vinyl, and there was a CD version of the US mono album issued on a UK Island CD (see how complicated this is starting to get?) around 1999 -- counting the different cover art on both sides of the Atlantic, it gets very difficult to keep track of what one may have heard, or which version(s) one may already own, or which is better. But whatever way one got (or gets) to hear this record, it is a lot of fun and pretty intense, a strangely progressive and spaced-out mix of psychedelia, jazz, folk, and pop-rock, done in a truly freewheeling spirit, all very trippy and very British and mostly played superbly. Concerning the playing, that's more complicated here than it would be on the UK version of the album, owing to the presence of those two single sides (and, with them, Dave Mason's considerable influence on the early group). Mason's use of the Mellotron on a pair of tracks ("Hole In My Shoe," "No Face No Name And No Number") also comes off very strikingly vivid in the mastering of this CD, as much as the drums and bass on "Heaven Is In Your Mind," or Winwood's organ elsewhere. And for the uninitiated, there will be surprises -- between the sitars, the flutes, and the Mellotron and the trippy ambiance in a lot of this material, a neophyte listener might expect this record to intersect with the work of such pop/psych bands as, say, the Moody Blues, of the same era; but it doesn't -- if anything, with the playing as solid as it is here from the rhythm section on up, a lot of HEAVEN IS IN YOUR MIND is closer in spirit and impact to the Rolling Stones' subsequent BEGGARS' BANQUET (which, no coincidence, was the work of the same producer), but mostly with a richer sound palette than the Stones mustered, even with Brian Jones still in the lineup.
Even on this freshman effort, these guys were playing circles around most of the competition, and Traffic's approach to music was all their own and completely experimental in structure and content. Heard today, at its most accessible the album comes off as experimental pop, and not like too much else that was around (or crossing the Atlantic) in late 1967/early 1968. Only the music hall-influenced numbers, such as "Berkshire Poppies," seem a little weak, and that's only when heard out of context with the rest of the album.
This particular edition was made off of the original Philips Records masters, and even the most twee and spacy moments have some serious intensity to the playing and singing, and the overall production, that sets it apart from light psychedelia of the era. It's a masterful job, and just as good in 2012 as it was in early 1968.