Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I'd Love to Turn You On #9: Traffic - Traffic

Welcome to Twist & Shout’s “I’d Love To Turn You On” a fortnightly column by our deeply knowledgeable staff of hardcore collectors and music lovers who want to spend some time turning you on to some of their favorite releases of yore; titles that may have slipped out of the public favor, or perhaps never quite found the audience they deserve. Dig in to some terrific musical esoterica and enjoy the sounds.

Do you know the phenomenon of being in a record store and seeing an LP or CD cover and having that momentary pulse-quickening excitement where you think; “oh I gotta have that record?” Then the rational side of your brain takes over and you remind yourself that you already have it. The funny thing is that there is a moment of sadness as real as the excitement you felt at seeing it in the first place. You are sad because you can’t buy it and have the experience of listening to it for the first time again. Traffic’s self-titled second album is that album for me. Every time I see it in the racks or in a collection that I am buying I stop and pine for the day I first discovered this wondrous thing. Recorded in 1968, this album is everything I want out of a rock album. Start with the cover. Has a band ever looked cooler? The first time I saw Stevie Winwood’s outfit and Jim Capaldi’s beads and red socks and Dave Mason’s battered cowboy hat or Chris Wood’s knowing smile, I knew these guys were part of a club I had to join. That’s the least of it. Honestly, I can’t think of a more sublime album from start to finish. Let me break it down song by song.
“You Can All Join In” – Common wisdom is that the three-man line-up of Traffic (which produced the great John Barleycorn Must Die) is the ultimate version. Not in my opinion. I feel that Dave Mason’s contribution was key to the greatness of Traffic. It certainly is on this album. Opening with Mason’s upbeat anthem to hippie inclusiveness, “You Can All Join In” is as buoyant and pleasing as a slow boat ride on a summer day. Propelled by Mason’s roiling acoustic guitar and nursery rhyme lyrics it is a perfect opening. Winwood adds some beautiful electric guitar lines while Chris Wood chugs along in the background on sax and the whole thing sets the album off on a light positive note.
“Pearly Queen” – is another type of animal altogether. Starting with a snaky organ line, this masterpiece unfolds as a musical and lyrical tribute to Winwood’s greatness. He sings, plays guitar, organ and bass, and the song is probably the most persuasive argument that he is everything his fans think he is. Jimmy Miller’s woozy production (panning the guitar solos from speaker to speaker) adds a mystical quality to the song, but the complex lyrics (which my poor adolescent brain just couldn’t quite grasp) are everything the 60’s were about; insinuating, yearning, and ultimately confusion. The song unfolds like a coiled snake, both mesmerizing and threatening at the same time.
“Don’t Be Sad” – Another fine example of Dave Mason’s important contribution to the band. Mason’s pleading vocals are wrapped in a cocoon of his own guitar lines, lovely harmonica work and a layer of Winwood’s lush organ playing. The quadruple threat nature of Winwood’s talent (singer, songwriter, guitar, organ) was always central to Traffic’s appeal, but with the added bonus of singer, songwriter, guitarist Dave Mason the band was exploding with great songs and musical ideas.
“Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring” – When, in 1968, I heard the first lines of this song “We are not like all the rest you can see us any day of the week/Come around, sit down, take a sniff, fall asleep, Baby you don’t have to speak” I felt as though I found the club I wanted to join. I knew it wasn’t the Boy Scouts or ROTC - it was THIS place where people were free to come and go, and sniff things and the line between waking and dreaming was blurred. Yeah, this was where I wanted to be. Musically, it’s all Winwood. He plays everything but drums, and his musicianship is sublime. His organ playing is impossibly loose and precise at the same time. No player in rock has come close to Winwood’s mastery of this instrument. A stoned, funky groove from start to finish - this might be my favorite song on the album.
“Feelin’ Alright” – But then there is “Feelin’ Alright.” This song defines classic. Covered by everyone from Joe Cocker to The Jackson Five, it has a magical vibe about it that has made it one of the most beloved songs of the 60’s. It skirts the line between psychedelic wizardry and soulful strut with careful aplomb. It shows Dave Mason to be a great songwriter and his sly vocal is the best of all the many versions. When the song rounds the corner and Mason and Winwood are both wailing on vocals, it’s a pretty strong argument for this lineup of Traffic. This song is all about the details: Jim Capaldi’s cricket-like percussion, Chris Woods’ woodwind work, Winwood’s subtle piano. At their best, Traffic were not about individuals soloing, it was about an almost baroque ensemble form of playing.
“Vagabond Virgin” – Side two opens with this charming slice of English folk, anchored by Chris Wood’s snaky flute playing, some tasteful acoustic piano and Mason’s great lyric about innocence and lack thereof, it is the pastoral side of Traffic.
“40,000 Headmen” – One of Steve Winwood’s most mysterious and very best songs, it’s hard to overstate what a profound effect it had on me as a youth. I would listen to this song over and over trying to understand the lyrics - following along in the lyric book included with the album. That’s something else worth mentioning. The package of the original LP was just amazing. It had a 10 page booklet with great photos of the band (were they passing a joint in that one photo?) and all the lyrics, and information about who played what. You could really spend some time with this record and then you felt like you knew the band.
“Crying To Be Heard” – Dave Mason’s last song on the album starts with an explosive chorus and masterful organ and harpsichord flourishes by Winwood. There are lyrical hints at the tensions between Mason and the rest of the band. Producer Miller again employs some crazy special effects for some very trippy results.
“No Time To Live” – A slow, moving Winwood ballad, it is a showcase for his otherworldly vocal abilities. Chris Wood adds some spooky soprano sax wailing and Mason takes a turn at the organ to pretty good effect. This song should be a standard among soul singers. Ray Charles could have killed with it.
“Means To An End” – A very soulful Winwood offering with his own exciting guitar work and Jim Capaldi’s propulsive drumming and percussion pushing it along. When I read the final lines “O sweet silence without kings and queens/No one here has ever reached your centre/Better to be quiet than to speak/without a thought or you may loose/ The meaning of your venture/Save as who knows” I knew I had my work cut out for me.
It was clear that I could now spend some of my life (the rest of my life as it turned out) exploring and trying to understand music. As much as any album I’ve heard, Traffic by Traffic is responsible for that quest. If you don’t have this album and are going to buy it and hear it for the first time today, I envy you.

--Paul Epstein

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