58 of 58 people found the following review helpful
, 30 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Original Album Classics: Spirit / The Family That Plays Together / Clear / Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus / Feedback (Audio CD)
In `65 there was really only one LA pop/rock band and that was the Byrds. By `67/'68 the Byrds were still there but they were grandaddies to the newer generation of LA bands. The big three then were the Doors, Love and Spirit in descending order of popularity. Perhaps the main reason for Spirit never really achieving anything like the popularity of the other two bands despite being, arguably, the cleverest and perhaps most technically proficient of all three is that they were very difficult to categorise. The Doors started as a blues band and even on their trippier or Brecht inclined work you knew there were hints of blues underneath. Love started more as a garage punk band but somehow were able to pick up some of the Byrds LA audience which helped them when Lee and Maclean got turned on by Johnny Mathis and who knows what else, and produced distinctly more exotic sounds. Spirit were well, what? There were very clear chunks of jazz in their output with both drummer Ed Cassidy and pianist John Locke having spent time in jazzy outfits. But there wasn't enough for anyone to easily drop them into a jazz rock bracket. They weren't blues, country, folk, garage, or even psychedelic (insofar as it applied to the SF bands anyway). They could, when they wanted, rock out with hard guitar lead but that didn't occur very frequently. They could do delicate acoustic stuff but it wasn't really folky or even singer-songwriter. They could do harmonies like the best LA bands but weren't a Beach Boys pastiche, nor were they a budding Crosby, Nash & Stills.
What they were able to do was create interesting, dense songs often with multiple ideas involved. It wasn't unusual to get time changes and breaks that might bear little relation to songs that contained them. But were they prog rock? No, they did stick with the songs, not usually going off into umpteen different "movements" and they didn't do really long numbers - the ten minutes plus of the near straight jazz of "Elijah" on the first album was the exception (and an example of lack of integration of their ideas on that album).
The first albums here are the first four of their albums in sequence pre-disintegration which, in part, was caused by lack of chart success. In reality these are the only Spirit albums you need. There was a later Spirit assembled and led by Randy California, sometimes with others like Cassidy and Locke on board but the sound they made was distinctly unlike the original Spirit; it was more a vehicle for California.
Album 1 simply titled Spirit was the one with five different portions of heads all forming one on the sleeve. If this was meant to convey the multiplicity of input from all five members then I'd say it succeeded superbly. The album also seemed to point in multiple directions. There was the aforementioned long jazz instrumental authored by John Locke - he was one of the pair with just this background. All the other numbers bar one were authored by Jay Ferguson, the vocalist and seemingly main ideas man. But those ideas covered a wide range, angular melodies, unusual subject matter like "Fresh Garbage", nice acoustic touches, etc. Randy California contributed a whole range of effects from his guitar, from rock-out fuzz to smooth and jazz inclined.
Album 2, "The Family that plays together" again emphasised the togetherness of the band. In some respects this was more accessible than "Spirit". California contributed five songs this time, some with co-writers. The album's opener, "I got a line on you", one of the California songs was a straight ahead hard rocker with good harmonies and stinging guitar from Randy - a great example of its kind. The final track, "Aren't you glad" was also close to a conventional rock number - one suspects deliberate programming here. In between the songs were varied but overall it was more integrated than its predecessor and chopping and changing of genres was less apparent.
I recall that when I originally purchased album 3, "Clear" it did take me some time to get into it. The near easy listening jazzy instrumentals put me off a bit a first but I grew to love them. "Dark Eyed Woman", the opener, was as good as "I got a line on you". "Give a life, Take a Life" was a great song again with superb harmonies almost out of Brian Wilson's top drawer. Overall it worked. It just took longer to grow on me.
In contrast, "Dr Sardonicus" hits you immediately. Whilst on one level it's flashier than anything on the previous albums, at the same time it's deeper. It's more conventional but also more unusual, contradictorily. Maybe this was the guys' "Sergeant Pepper". It's certainly a crying shame that this album didn't achieve anything remotely like the sales it deserved - it's genuinely up there with all those classic late 60's, early 70's, albums .
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