Monday, March 12, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On #52 - Ten Years After - Cricklewood Green

Released in 1970, less than a year after their triumphant and star-making performance at Woodstock, Cricklewood Green is Ten Years After’s most sophisticated album with their most interesting songs and very memorable production by Andy Johns. One of the more misunderstood groups of the late 60’s, Ten Years After are contemporaries of and similar to Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Mountain. Like those bands, leader Alvin Lee and his band occupy that wonderful space that falls between psychedelic experimentation, blues reverence and crunchy proto-metal. Cricklewood Green showcases this better than any of their albums (and they made plenty).
Kicking off with a one-two punch of road songs, “Sugar On The Road” and the frenetic “Working On The Road,” the tone is set for a high-energy ensemble affair that showcases each member of the band as a whole while never letting the focus slip away from Alvin Lee’s charismatic abilities on guitar. “50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain” might actually be my favorite song on the album as it really utilizes the atmospheric production that Johns brings to the table to shroud an amazing Lee solo in clouds of heavy day-glow fog.
In the original liner notes for the album Alvin Lee talks about the “layered” approach to recording, “thus giving separation to the varying frequencies as opposed to each instrument.” Andy Johns creates a thick, soupy broth of a sound that colors the air with chugging Hammond Organ, a drum/bass attack that might give Cream a run for its money and, of course, Alvin Lee’s hyper vocals and Guinness-book-of world-records blinding lead guitar style. If you are unfamiliar with Lee’s brand of guitar work, fasten your seatbelt. Lee’s speed and clarity were unmatched in rock music. Certainly Jimmy Page played with more experimental panache, and Clapton had such fabulous taste and succinct phrasing, but Alvin Lee plays faster and with more balls than anyone else. He’s on a par with John McLaughlin in the notes-per-minute category. If you doubt it, listen to his solos on “Year 3,000 Blues” whereby he brings together country-picking, blues chords and cosmic lyrics to create an absolute psych masterpiece.
The centerpiece of the album however is the seven and a half minute “Love Like A Man” which pretty much is the ultimate expression of the Alvin Lee ethic; tough, ballsy blues-rock with a macho swagger and a very cool 60’s feel. “Love Like A Man” is the classic slow-burn opening with a plodding wood-block rhythm and killer guitar riff, which works its way to a climax whereby Alvin busts out with the monster solo for about two solid minutes of firecracker notes before he returns to the memorable opening riff at double time, embellished by the rest of the band playing their asses off.
After the anthemic wonder of “Love Like A Man” it is hard to imagine what they could follow it up with, yet they produce another masterpiece. “Circles” showcases the acoustic, ballad side of Lee’s talent with a real-world look at existentialism surrounded by roiling acoustic guitars, melodic lead bass and a blanket of warm Hammond organ. The album closes with the sci-fi epic “As The Sun Still Burns Away” which finds Andy Johns panning the band back and forth between the channels with deep space special effects while Alvin solos like an acid-fried monk on Mars.
Cricklewood Green is a very special album in my cosmology. When I moved from New York City to Denver in 1968, I really felt disconnected for a little while. I took solace in rock music. Certain albums became touchstones. In fact, certain buying trips to record stores with my brother Alan became touchstones. It was on a vacation back to New York City when we bought Cricklewood Green. Everything about it seemed exotic and incredible to me. I studied the cover, I read the liner notes, I listened to it over and over and made every note of this album part of my DNA. When I listened to it to write this review, it immediately took me back to that place: where a rock album could completely change my life. It is still a great album and one of my favorites.

- Paul Epstein

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