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Monday, July 17, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: The Heart Of The Blues Is Sound

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: THE HEART OF THE BLUES IS SOUND (1969)

1) My Baby's Coming Home; 2) You Rascal You; 3) No Tomorrow; 4) The Heart Of The Blues Is Sound; 5) The Japanese Special; 6) Hard Feeling; 7) Blues From 1921; 8) Don't Mistreat Your Woman.

Another alumnus of John Mayall, drummer Aynsley Dunbar, has been recruited by the endlessly charismatic Champion for these sessions, held in London in August 1969. Having actually been fired from the Bluesberakers, Dunbar had only just formed his own band — appropriately called «Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation» — and, apparently, they are all here backing Dupree, except for the first track which, in a rare stint of mind, he prefers to sing a cappella. Notable members of the band include Victor Brox, whom most people probably remember as the metallic-evil voice of Caiaphas in the original recording of Jesus Christ Superstar — in fact, he'd already been a pro­fessional blues singer and player by that time, although on this album he sticks to keyboards and harmonica; trombonist Nick Evans, known for a brief stint in Soft Machine; and guitarist John Moorshead, known for very little in particular, yet capable of grinding as mean an axe as any alumnus of the John Mayall school.

As for Dupree himself, he takes a slightly more experimental approach on the record. The tunes are fewer in number and shorter in length, leaving plenty of space for jamming and improvisation (keeping up with the spirit of the times), and there is also a pronounced jazz influence: the only song not credited to Dupree on the album is ʽYou Rascal Youʼ, credited to Louis Armstrong (in reality, it was written by Sam Theard, but Dupree was not much of a sucker for detail), and then there is the oddest thing the man ever took part in so far — ʽThe Japanese Specialʼ, a tribal groove featuring a discordant, almost atonal battle of trombones, saxes, guitars, and organs: sur­prisingly energetic and delightfully chaotic, it could be defined as «Soft Machine meets Jack Dupree» (referring specifically to Nick Evans' participation in it), except that there's really very little Dupree-ish about the track in general. Honestly, I'm not even sure if the Champ plays on it in the first place. But even if he is not, it is pretty cool to encounter four minutes of free jazz on an LP by a pre-war urban blues specialist, is it not?

Elsewhere, it is mostly the same schtick: super-slow 12-bar electric blues (ʽHard Feelingʼ; ʽDon't Mistreat Your Womanʼ), old-fashioned blues balladry (ʽNo Tomorrowʼ; title track), and a cute attempt to do a regular jazz-blues oldie with a piano and a blaring trombone over it (rather bla­tantly called ʽBlues From 1921ʼ). The sound is nice, and altogether it feels as if the band gels together much better than any of Dupree's previous white-boy outfits in London. However, that is because the band is a band, rather than a motley crue of vaguely interested guest stars — and the album might as well have been called «The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation Feat. Champion Jack Dupree», given that his role is consistently diminished throughout the record. He does sound quite charming on that vocal-only number, though.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Pretty Things: Get The Picture?

THE PRETTY THINGS: GET THE PICTURE? (1965)

1) You Don't Believe Me; 2) Buzz The Jerk; 3) Get The Picture?; 4) Can't Stand The Pain; 5) Rainin' In My Heart; 6) We'll Play House; 7) You'll Never Do It Baby; 8) I Had A Dream; 9) I Want Your Love; 10) London Town; 11) Cry To Me; 12) Gonna Find A Substitute; 13*) Get A Buzz; 14*) Sittin' All Alone; 15*) Midnight To Six Man; 16*) Me Needing You; 17*) Come See Me; 18*) L.S.D.

Drummer Viv Prince was kicked out of the band right before the release of their second LP — in fact, relations with him had reached breaking point during the sessions, so that many tracks fea­ture session player (and the band's producer) Bobby Graham instead. Although Viv was not that much involved in the band's songwriting, it may be argued that this first out of many lineup changes was the most significant one — think of The Who firing Keith Moon as an awful ana­logy. Somehow this initiated a shift of image, as The Pretty Things began to drop the «wildness» aspect and turn towards more soulful, psychedelic, and artsy matters: fortunately, not before relea­sing their flawed masterpiece of the «wild thing» period.

Get The Picture? is a massive improvement over the self-titled debut, largely because much of the material is now self-written, with Phil May and Dick Taylor emerging as a competent and convincing songwriting duo — still not on the Jagger/Richards level if you average out the results, but not so much because they did not have an ear for melody as it is due to inferior technical aspects of the performances and recordings. Every time I listen to something like ʽCan't Stand The Painʼ with its decidedly Stonesy atmosphere (in some ways, predicting the slightly cavernous mystical-sexual sound of Aftermath), I can't help but wonder if it could be hailed as a timeless classic of longing-and-yearning with Mick on vocals and Keith on guitar.

And there are aspects where The Pretties would indeed go farther than their chief superior com­petitors. You only have to get past the opening number (ʽYou Don't Believe Meʼ is a mix of over­playe R&B ecstasy with crude Byrdsy jangle guitars) to hit the jackpot: ʽBuzz The Jerkʼ is, I believe, not only the very first pop song to feature the word "jerk" in the title (only two years earlier, the Stones had to guiltily censor the word in their cover of Chuck Berry's ʽCome Onʼ), it is as heavy and as uncompromising as it ever gets (at least, in 1965) in a song seemingly dedi­cated to problematic issues of rough sex. The rhythm section is on an adrenaline kick here: John Stax plays a broken-up bass riff that does things to your girl that even whacky perv Bill Wyman, all gentlemanly on the outside but EVIL on the inside, would never dream of, while Viv (I do hope that's Viv, I don't think Bobby Graham would dare play with that much aggression) goes so heavy on the cymbals and snares that Keith Moon could be his only competition. Throw in a mean fuzzy tone from one of the guitarists, and the entire tune is a two-minute explosion of garage rock wildness that ranks together with the greatest nuggets of the decade. Finally, by get­ting their act together and achieving tight focus, The Pretty Things explode.

The title track, when you take a detached look at the verse, is just one of those simple Britpop tunes, à la Dave Clark Five, that is usually supposed to put you into a jovial mood; but with May's breathy-beastly vocal onslaught and Taylor's crisply roasted guitar, it is only a tad less wild than ʽBuzz The Jerkʼ. "I ain't gonna quit ya / Get the picture?" predates The Troggs in its brief musical summary of the life of the Neanderthal lover. Later on, you are informed that ʽWe'll Play Houseʼ, obviously a nod to Elvis' ʽBaby Let's Play Houseʼ because of the title, but taking the metaphor to a whole new level. But the top prize is ʽYou'll Never Do It Babyʼ, a song originally recorded by the little-known UK act Cops & Robbers in a weak, piano-centered version: it took the Pretties to open up its full potential — the shotgun-style «blast 'em and pick up the pieces» riff and May's bluntly threatening lyrics give the song a bit of murderous feel, as in, she'll never do it, baby, because I've got a knife and I know how to... oh, never mind, just toying around with the dark side for a moment.

Not everything is equally exciting: as long as they keep up and nourish the sinister vibe, the re­sults are cool, but a few of the songs are second-rate R&B grooves (ʽI Want Your Loveʼ) that pale in comparison; besides, on this front they are natural losers in comparison with the Stones, and their version of Solomon Burke's ʽCry To Meʼ is nothing compared to the slower and far more turbulent commotion of guitars and vocals that the Stones had going on Out Of Our Heads. But they are also treading different types of water, such as melancholic folk rock (Tim Hardin's ʽLondon Townʼ) and soulful blues-rock — ʽCan't Stand The Painʼ is a very adventurous type of song, alternating between slow, moody, dreamy folksy passages with groaning, echoey slide guitars and fast, chugging, paranoid verses. I don't think there was anybody else in Britain in 1965 who'd be making that same sort of music: it's like an amalgamation of the soft melancholy of The Searchers with the raw aggressive energy of the Stones.

The expanded CD edition makes things even better: without getting overboard in terms of length (throw in all those bonus singles and you still get only 45 minutes of music), it fattens up the record with such classics as ʽGet A Buzzʼ (this is basically ʽBuzz The Jerk Vol. 2ʼ, although a tad less explosive), ʽMidnight To Six Manʼ (one of the band's catchiest singles ever and one of the greatest affirmations of Night Power), and, oh my God, ʽL.S.D.ʼ — actually, correction: ʽ£SDʼ, so the song formally refers to currency, but they do sing it with an L: "everybody's talking about my LSD... yes I need LSD, yes I need LSD"! Sometimes, you know, it helps being second class: neither the Stones nor the Beatles would probably be allowed to issue anything like that, but since nobody cared that much about The Pretty Things, these guys could get away with everything next to murder. They just wouldn't be paid for it.

Ultimately, Get The Picture? gets my vote for the most «badass-nasty» recording of 1965, which is, of course, absolutely not the same as its «best» recording — in any case, on their second try the band totally got it right, and carved a proper niche for itself that everybody else was either too afraid or too shy to try out. Not even The Who were that nasty: with Townshend's «thinking» approach to songwriting, those guys were far more happy, from the very start, to dress in Union Jacks rather than Neanderthal furs. The problem was that — at the time, at least — it was unclear how they could take this thing further, and so Get The Picture? remains the unsurpassed pin­nacle of The Pretties' nasty phase. Their glory days would be far from over, yet it can also be argued that this was their single most important «individual-identifying» moment, placing them in nobody's category but their own. A glorious thumbs up here — do not waste any time trying to buzz the jerk, now.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Al Kooper: Fillmore East - The Lost Concert Tapes

AL KOOPER & MIKE BLOOMFIELD: FILLMORE EAST - THE LOST CONCERT TAPES (1968; 2003)

1) Introductions; 2) One Way Out; 3) Mike's Introduction Of Johnny Winter; 4) It's My Own Fault; 5) The 59th Street Bridge Song; 6) (Please) Tell Me Partner; 7) That's All Right Mama; 8) Together Till The End Of Time; 9) Don't Throw Your Love On Me Too Strong; 10) Season Of The Witch.

For those who have thoroughly enjoyed the Fillmore West shows of Kooper and Bloomfield, released in 1969, the Legacy label now offers a generous bonus — here are the same dudes playing Fillmore East now, with a good selection of numbers from shows played on December 13–14, 1968, three months after the Fillmore West gigs. Despite not spending a lot of time toge­ther to rehearse new stuff, the young guitar wiz and the idealistic organ pro were still on an adven­turous kick, and there are only four tracks that overlap between the two shows, making The Lost Concert Tapes a solidly new piece of the old puzzle and a must-have for...

...well, actually, let us not get carried away. Most of the people who even heard of the release of this record, let alone bought it or reviewed it, were probably major fans anyway, so the few gene­ric reviews of it that you might be able to read are likely to be ecstatic. I, however, am doing this from more of a completist angle, and it is a rather unfavorable angle to Fillmore East. The album is shorter, lacks the element of surprise, does not quite give the same impression of a sympathetic chaotic mess, and, simply put, is far more boring.

The biggest problem is that out of the album's 60 minutes, almost half are given over to stereo­typical — and deadly slow — 12-bar electric blues. It does not help matters much that the first of these boasts the participation of young Johnny Winter, who had just had his first album released and attracted the attention of Bloomfield: Mike advertises him ecstatically, then recedes into the background for much of the time while Johnny struts his cool Texan blues stuff, sounding more or less like what he always sounds like — a post-Clapton, pre-Stevie Ray type of middleman. I actually find more fire in Bloomfield's response solos, although the best moment of ʽIt's My Own Faultʼ is probably nearer the end where they finally decide to trade some lines between each other. But yeah, good technique and all.

Unfortunately, this is soon followed by ʽPlease Tell Me Partnerʼ, another ten-minute blues that sounds exactly like ʽIt's My Own Faultʼ; and towards the end, we have Albert King's ʽDon't Throw Your Love On Me So Strongʼ because, apparently, there is nothing Fillmore East audien­ces enjoyed better than slow blues-de-luxe played at tortoise speed. Somehow, this abundance of the slow blues template never seemed particularly annoying at the Fillmore West shows, so I am guessing that they may have wanted to vary their setlists for the next set of gigs, but did not have the time to do it properly, and settled upon blues improvisation instead (ʽPlease Tell Me Partnerʼ definitely sounds like a last-minute filler piece, especially considering its inane lyrics).

Other than the blues stuff, three songs here completely overlap with the Live Adventures setlist (including yet another super-slow performance of ʽThe 59th Street Bridge Songʼ), and the only pleasant surprise is a sharp take on ʽSeason Of The Witchʼ at the very end: Bloomfield does not exactly put Steven Stills to shame, but his own proto-punkish guitar language agrees very well with the song's fuzzy ominousness, and watch out for fine session bass player Jerry Jemmott's fretline-exploring bassline, too.

Overall, I am not calling the album any bad names: I just think that the few months separating Al's and Mike's West Coast gigs from their East Coast ones did not result in any new ideas, and that this particular setlist seems somewhat rushed and let's-try-it-out-and-see-what-happens to me; which, granted, is not always a bad approach by definition, but in this particular case, has resulted in a flawed experience. Mike Bloomfield is a magnificent guitarist, but he is really at his best when playing ʽTombstone Bluesʼ-like material: wasting his undeniable talent on one slow 12-bar blues number after another is barely forgivable. Therefore, proceed at your own risk.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Charlatans: Live It Like You Love It

THE CHARLATANS: LIVE IT LIKE YOU LOVE IT (2002)

1) Love Is The Key; 2) Judas; 3) Tellin' Stories; 4) A Man Needs To Be Told; 5) One To Another; 6) The Only One I Know; 7) Impossible; 8) North Country Boy; 9) You're So Pretty, We're So Pretty; 10) Weirdo; 11) How High; 12) Forever; 13) And I Fall; 14) Sproston Green.

One of the last things this world needs is a live album by The Charlatans. Actually, let us cast the net wider: few things in this world make less sense than any live album by any Britpop band — all these guys live for the studio experience, and their concerts are mainly an excuse for the fans to go wild, which is the obvious reason why they very, very rarely come out with official live recordings (even Blur, I think, had to wait until their reunion solidified their legendary status, and even then, made sure that the audio experience would be inseparable from the video image). Why The Charlatans, a band that was rarely perfect in the studio, decided to follow up the Wonder­land tour with a live album, I have no idea.

Quick question: Is this stuff any good? Quick answer: Absolutely not. If you are tepid about The Charlatans, stay away from it — life is too short. If you are rabid about The Charlatans... just go see The Charlatans in concert — life is too short. Here is everything about Live It Like You Love It that you need to know: (1) It is heavily biased towards Wonderland and post-Rob Col­lins material in general, which is understandable, given that it was recorded in Manchester on December 14, 2001, but also means that the album cannot really function as a «greatest hits live» type of package; (2) Most of the songs are played as close to the original version as possible, but the musicians sound sluggish, and the power of the original grooves is seriously reduced, also because (3) the sound quality is mediocre at best, all the guitars reduced to brown mush and the bass melodies barely noticeable. And Tim Burgess is Tim Burgess — just add some bum notes and slurred phrasings that are forgivable during an actual live show, but not really on a live re­cord. And now, think whether you really want to have this.

At one point, they give the fans a pleasant surprise and bring out none other than Johnny Marr himself to play guitar on ʽWeirdoʼ — nice, but since the guitar stays deep in the mix most of the time, you'd probably never notice in the first place, had they not pompously announced Johnny's arrival at the beginning. Another surprise is the last track of the encore, ʽSproston Greenʼ, which is stretched out to almost twice its original length with a huge jam; yet somehow, Tony Rogers just fails, I think, to generate the excitement that Rob Collins managed to produce on the original version. I don't want to say that the band plays all this stuff without any inspiration or deep invol­vement, but it does come across that way. Since I have not heard any examples of their stage performances in the Rob Collins days, there is nothing to compare with, but the conclusion re­mains the same: just stick to the studio records, as there is absolutely no way these guys can make their stuff more exciting, more energetic, more rocking, or at least more different onstage. Totally a thumbs down here, and the title of the album reeks of self-irony — if this is truly how they live it, I'm embarrassed to think of how they really love it.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Celeste: I Suoni In Una Sfera

CELESTE: I SUONI IN UNA SFERA (1974; 1992)

1) Hymn To The Spheres; 2) The Dance Of The Sounds; 3) The Gates To Consciousness; 4) In The Darkside; 5) Last Flight Of The Mind; 6) To Embark On A Love Affair; 7) The Rediscover Of The Traditions; 8) A Vision; 9) The Thought Flies High Again; 10) Eftus; 11) Favole Antiche; 12) Nadissea.

Once the floodgates are open, they usually stay open. Unfortunately for Celeste, it is not like they spent enough time together to be able to rival Zappa. It turns out, however, that they did manage one extra feat during their brief common tenure — namely, record a complete soundtrack for an Italian movie called I Suoni In Una Sfera, allegedly directed by Enry Fiorini (at least, so the Italian Wikipedia tells me). Nobody ever saw the movie, and there are reasons to suppose that it was never finished; the soundtrack, however, is quite physically real, with most of the individual tracks credited to Ciro Perrino, and judging both by the title and by the nature of music, it was intended to convey a cosmic-psychedelic atmosphere.

Which, by the way, it does — so, technically, Celeste are now the proud owners of three different albums in three different genres: pastoral symph-pop, lite jazz-fusion, and psychedelic-ambient. No mean feat for somebody as totally unknown as these guys, right? Except, of course, the music here is, as usual, so smooth and suave that it is unlikely you will ever remember anything other than a general feel of being wrapped in sweetness a-plenty. The record goes very heavy on organ-imitating synthesizers, with already the title track establishing a Cosmic Gospel feel (all that is lacking is a choir of little castrated angels to duplicate the melody); but there is plenty of pastoral flute, romantic piano, gentle folksy acoustic guitars, and echoey smooth-jazz saxes to diversify the mood as well. And in a way, this might just be the single best Celeste album of 'em all be­cause... you guessed it... there are no vocals anywhere in sight. Just the way the doctor ordered before silly ambitious people overrode the prescription.

Actually, sweetness aside, the boys did some serious work here, writing (or ripping off from clas­sical sources) plenty of different themes — including an Albinoni-stylized funeral march (ʽLast Flight Of The Mindʼ), a slightly Morricone-influenced bluesy piece with Jethro Tull-like flute (ʽThe Thought Flies High Againʼ), and a long medieval ballad, heavy on classical guitar but adding flute, synth fanfares, and what-not (ʽFavole Anticheʼ). If only the main themes of all this stuff were a little more memorable... but it would be unreasonable to expect from a movie sound­track that which turned out to be unachievable on a proper studio album. The best I can say is that every single track here sounds tasteful and pleasant — although the production and mixing leave a lot to be desired. (Apparently, moving to Abbey Road Studios was not an option.) Consequently, I give the record a modest thumbs up, and with this, we say a final farewell to Celeste.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

801: Listen Now

801: LISTEN NOW (1978)

1) Listen Now; 2) Flight 19; 3) Island; 4) Law And Order; 5) Rude Awakening; 6) Que?; 7) City Of Light; 8) Initial Speed; 9) Postcard Love; 10) That Falling Feeling; 11*) Blue Grey Uniform; 12*) Remote Control.

Although it is fairly hard to categorize the original 801, it is also quite clear that when the tour was complete and Manzanera took the band name with him, his next step was to use it for some­thing quite stylistically different. Essentially, this one and only studio album by 801 is a collabo­ration between Manzanera and Bill McCormick, with the rest of the original band only making sporadic friendly appearances — along with a host of other notables, such as Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, formerly of 10cc, and Tim Finn and Eddie Rayner of Split Enz. Throw in Mel Collins (King Crimson, etc.) on sax; Eddie Jobson (Roxy Music, etc.) on violin; Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention) on drums, and you get yourself quite a melting pot of music greats. Usually in such cases the final results do not manage to be particularly impressive — too much confusion, not enough unity — and, as a result, I am almost surprised that Listen Now, true to its name, is con­sistently listenable, though hardly more than that.

Unlike 801 Live, whose mix of crazyass Manzanera and Eno albums made it into a first-rate psychedelic experience for 1976, Listen Now is simpler, poppier, and almost jaw-droppingly straightforward for the usually audacious Manzanera. The songs here do reveal a strong influence on the part of 10cc, as well as Steely Dan, Supertramp, and other intelligent art-pop bands of the decade: vocal hooks are just as important as guitar riffs and keyboard passages, although a key element is genre diversity — the album goes from arena-rock to jazz fusion to disco to soft-pop quite effortlessly, even if none of the selections can really aspire to represent the respective top level in any of these genres. Compared to Diamond Head, Listen Now could even be called an unabashedly «commercial» offering — though, like Eno's pop albums, there is never any feeling that the musicians are trying to entice the listener, so the record never sold particularly well.

Surprisingly, the title track is an eight-minute funky groove, verging on disco, but with a gray, heavy, depressing atmosphere, enhanced by grim melancholic vocals, grim melancholic basslines, and angry bluesy solos. This is the most in-yer-face soulful mood that Phil had allowed himself to generate up to that point, and the mournful arrangement works well, although overall it is too smooth to compete with, say, Pink Floyd — more like late period 10cc (without Godley and Creme, so I am tempted to believe that it was really Stewart and Gouldman, infiltrating Manza­nera's studio by pretending to be Godley and Creme). Another very long number is ʽCity Of Lightʼ, a mope-rocker riding all the way on one ominous piano chord and, in a way, atmospheri­cally presaging Peter Gabriel's ʽIntruderʼ, though the vocals are fairly weak.

Although I have not been paying serious attention to the lyrics, the overall mood of the album is lightly pre-apocalyptic — it is as if Manzanera intentionally ditched the decadent sinner-boy glitz of Roxy Music and completely concentrated on exposing this rotten world for what it really is, instead of reveling in its rottenness. Sad vaudeville numbers like ʽLaw And Orderʼ and particu­larly the near-gorgeous final ballad ʽThat Falling Feelingʼ churn out waves of depression; the only means of escape are occasional instrumentals, such as ʽIslandʼ (a romantic interlude with a good touch of Brian Wilson's SMiLE to it) and the jazz fusion exercise ʽInitial Speedʼ that sounds almost exactly like classic Brand X, despite the lack of Phil Collins on the album. (Jud­ging by the paranoidally fussy style, I'd bet it is Simon Phillips behind the kit).

Does it work? Not on a grand scale, but it does. 801 Live played out like a once-in-a-lifetime concert by The Spiders From Mars — Listen Now is far more grounded in the realities of this here planet, and I am pretty sure that many Eno and Manzanera fans must have received it as a major disappointment back at the time, expecting something completely different. I must confess that I expected something completely different, too, and it took a few listens to warm up to the idea that a «straight» Phil Manzanera could still make a solid artistic statement. What clinched it for me was the odd Seventies mix — from 10cc to Brand X to Steely Dan to Eno to Supertramp to... Little Feat? (ʽPostcard Loveʼ has distinct country-rock elements), it's all there, drenched in clouds of gloominess and Phil's trademark guitar style.

At the very least, this is intriguing, so I heartily invite everyone to try out the record without any prior expectations — thumbs up guaranteed. On a final note, the CD edition adds two bonus tracks from the session, one of which, ʽRemote Controlʼ, is a catchy riff-rocker whose riff is amu­­singly melodically similar to ʽEnter Sandmanʼ, though probably not enough for Manzanera to be able to sue his Californian competition.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Cat Stevens: Tea For The Tillerman

CAT STEVENS: TEA FOR THE TILLERMAN (1970)

1) Where Do The Children Play; 2) Hard Headed Woman; 3) Wild World; 4) Sad Lisa; 5) Miles From Nowhere; 6) But I Might Die Tonight; 7) Longer Boats; 8) Into White; 9) On The Road To Find Out; 10) Father And Son; 11) Tea For The Tillerman.

Since Tea For The Tillerman is commonly regarded as the highest peak of Stevens' career, this is as good a place as any to confess that I have a hard time recognizing Cat as one of the «all-time greats». As a composer, he is but barely experimental and adventurous, with most of his melodies on about the same level of compositional originality and complexity as, say, James Taylor or any other soft-rocker of the decade. As a lyricist, he is competent, but not exceptional — most of his texts make very explicit sense and largely manage to avoid the usual clichés, yet remain way below Dylan or Joni Mitchell. And while his charismatic personality is undeniable, at times the sentimentality can be overbearing: being too nice can sometimes ruin the experience.

Nevertheless, there is one art that Cat Stevens had mastered to near-perfection — telling simple stories of human relationships and painting simple portraits of human emotions in simple, but stunningly tasteful ways. Walking a fine path between the challenging intricacies of the afore­mentioned Joni Mitchell and the cringeworthy platitudes of the also aforementioned James Taylor, he writes songs like ʽSad Lisaʼ — simple and direct, but with a small, barely noticeable twist that gives the tune a special angle: for this tune, it is the use of the Leslie cabinet to give his piano a «watery» effect, and its combination with a baroque violin part. It's just a song about a depressed girl and vain attempts to console her, but there is something subtly doom-laden about that piano tone, implying that not only does ʽsad Lisaʼ not stand a single chance of ever finding happiness, but also that ʽsad Lisaʼ probably stands for something bigger than just one weeping lady.

Not that the song itself, or the album in general, falls in the category of «depressing». Stevens is troubled here, but he is also actively searching — most of the songs are energetic call-for-action tunes, and even on ʽSad Lisaʼ he is trying to do something rather than just stand in the corner and watch, although he does admit that chances of success are slim. Obviously, ʽSad Lisaʼ is not his ideal of a ʽHard Headed Womanʼ, a song that slowly, but decisively builds up towards a small explosion of acoustic guitars, strings, and drums that frame the songwriter's pledge to find a "hard-headed woman / One who'll take me for myself" — notice the cool lyrical twist, because before that day, a ʽHard Headed Womanʼ was most commonly associated with the Elvis song of the same title, and there was no talk about "taking me for myself" in that one. In any case, the tune reads very convincingly as a personal diary statement, and this is the point of the album: to serve as the songwriter's personal diary, rather than as a collection of detached pop songs that have no personal relevance for the songwriter.

And thus, we learn that Cat Stevens: (a) is very much worried about the fate of the planet that puts technological progress before the well-being of its individuals (ʽWhere Do The Children Playʼ); (b) has plenty of women problems, as his previous woman is leaving (ʽWild Worldʼ) and his next woman still remains an unreachable ideal (ʽHard Headed Womanʼ); (c) is looking for spiritual enlightenment and will probably stop at nothing to reach it one way (ʽMiles From No­whereʼ) or another (ʽOn The Road To Find Outʼ); (d) has serious Dad issues, but is willing to try and look at the issue from both sides (ʽFather And Sonʼ); (e) is cool with the Taoist knack of locating beauty and transcendence in the simplest things, from barely rice to red-legged chickens (ʽInto Whiteʼ). How many people have told you so many details about themselves in 1970? Not that there's anything particularly brave or scandalous about these disclosures, but the important thing is that Stevens' style makes them all believable. Above all, Tea For The Tillerman flaunts its sincerity and anti-commerciality — despite many of the songs being catchy enough to the point of becoming hits.

Ultimately, only ʽWild Worldʼ became a hit, and, honestly, it is probably the corniest song of the lot — at least, as a single, outside the general context of the album, it can be easily perceived as just another generic breakup ballad, and indeed there is something rather troubadourishly bland about the man's delivery of "now that I've lost everything to you / you say you wanna start some­thing new...", something more suitable for a seductive pop star than a sincere singer-songwriter, which is exactly the reason why the song so quickly caught on. The much more interesting ʽFather And Sonʼ, sung by Cat as a dialog of two voices, failed to chart in comparison — because it has no obvious hooklines to speak of — but it endured, I think, as a far more popular choice for Cat's devoted fans than ʽWild Worldʼ.

I find myself more intrigued by those of the man's songs that are not so easy to decode: ʽLonger Boatsʼ, for instance, which is about his fear of UFOs — something you won't be able to under­stand by simply listening to the repetitive, cheery chorus that makes the whole thing sound like a work song: "Longer boats are coming to win us, coming to win us..." as if this were not only inevitable, but not even very regrettable. It is certainly a more curious endeavour than ʽOn The Road To Find Outʼ, equally cheery but a bit too close in spirit to proverbial gospel.

And still, like I said, there is not a single song here that prompts for the word "great", simply because this is not an album that aspires to any sort of greatness in the first place. It is a humble, friendly, sincere record that has just enough depth to not come across as primitive, yet stops pre­cisely at the point upon which somebody could label it as pretentious. It could benefit from a bit of humor — not Stevens' forte, really — but it does not have any particularly «heavy» moments that would scream and beg for comic relief, either. It has the word Tea in the title and it features the Tillerman tilling tea on the cover — enough of a hint for you that you should probably have yourself a cup of tea while listening, taking a break from routine work and relaxing together with the artist, lightly pondering the fates of mankind, the future of your own spirit, and the grim fate of Sad Lisa. It gets a thumbs up, yet it is not one of the great, turbulent, monumental master­pieces of 1970: it is the album to which you turn for calm and comfort once you've made it through all the turbulence and your nerves are in desperate need of a cooldown. Of course, you could always choose James Taylor instead — but cooling down nerves is one thing, and going down dying from boredom is another.