Rock Review: Yes, ‘Close to the Edge’ – Close to being perfect.

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The Classic 1972 Progressive Rock Album.

Probably my favourite all time prog rock album, ‘Close to the Edge’ (Elektra/Rhino CD) by Yes.

I was quite young when this came out in 1972 and didn’t actually hear it until later in the following year, when my elder brother brought it home. I think I had heard ‘Fragile’ by then too, the band’s 1971 release, which kicked off with ‘Roundabout’, one of Yes’ more ‘accessible’ numbers for a young boy. Nevertheless, I remember being pretty impressed by the whole album.

Spiritual sound

However, when my brother put ‘Close to the Edge’ on our family hi-fi, at first I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The slow start of planetary, naturalistic sound, the incredible weaving together of all the different movements of side one, took some time for me to appreciate, but now it’s like one epic poem, a vast spiritual movement of sound that is hard to describe, in words. It just has to be experienced, let it take you somewhere.

I still particularly like the ‘I Get Up I Get Down’ section, so beautiful, bringing together all the singing talents of the band, not just Jon Anderson, but also Steve Howe and Chris Squire.

Five virtuosos

Which leads me to a major point. Has there ever been a better example of five incredible talents working together, at the top of their game, producing such a masterpiece? I would doubt it.

Jon Anderson’s unique voice and inspirational lyricism; Bill Bruford’s peerless percussion; Steve Howe’s sheer virtuosity on six and twelve strings; Chris Squire’s uniquely lyrical bass and underrated singing; Rick Wakeman’s pure genius and dexterous flair.

It would prove to be a small window, sadly. Very soon, Bill Bruford would be on his way, followed soon after by Rick Wakeman. But what a beautiful, ornately made window it was. It was of its time.

Woven together

Side Two for me is equally impressive. I can still quite easily listen to ‘And You And I’ on repeat. I love the start, with Steve Howe hitting the harmonics on his twelve string, the way Rick’s synth plays over the top is so joyful, full of life. And like all Yes tracks, it’s difficult to envisage how they all put this together, so differing are the elements, but they come to together beautifully, woven by lyrics which are both hard to fathom, yet totally fitting – a Yes trademark.

And the final track, ‘Siberian Khatru’. Heaven knows what it’s about but if I had just one track to take to my desert island, I think it would be this.

Atmospheric

Great, catchy guitar riffs to start off and great rock playing by the whole band, but soon the wonderful group singing harmonies come in to play, adding a great atmospheric and naturalistic feel.

Then all the virtuosity of the band kicks in – indescribable. Especially, towards the end when they sing pairs of mysterious words with lots of reverb, which may, or may not, be related… but it works, it means something, though I don’t know what it is. And did I mention Steve Howe’s jazzy guitar on the outro?

Just how it should be, long reign the mystery.

copyright Leofwine Tanner 2019

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Album Review: ‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’, Joni Mitchell 1975

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Choosing a favourite Joni Mitchell album is a bit like choosing my favourite chocolate.

I suppose I could pin it down a few: ‘For The Roses’, ‘Court And Spark’, ‘Hejira’, ‘Turbulent Indigo’…

But I’m plumping for the 1975 release of ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ (Asylum). I think it received somewhat mixed reviews on release and to me it marks her final ‘departure’ from the folk scene, which she had been threatening to leave on her previous two albums.

More Jazz

‘Hissing’ is more jazz oriented than before, softly sophisticated and it seems to be this which attracted some of the more less favourable reviews.

For a start it’s varied. The first track, ‘In France They Kiss on Main Street’, sounds as if it could have been included on ‘Court and Spark’, her 1974 album. It moves along nicely, catchy, with a great hook involving a bit of ‘rocking and rolling’. Larry Carlton’s lead guitar work is quite superb, as usual.

Juxtapositions

‘The Jungle Line’, ‘Edith and the Kingpin’, juxtapose quite alarmingly. The former was quite radical at the time for its instrumentation and composition, though it’s not often seen as a favourite.

‘Edith’, on the other hand, is one her best, a juxtaposition in itself, for me. Beautifully written, performed and produced, it’s soft jazz but with a story line that’s actually anything but soft.

Beautiful

At the end of the song, when she sings about the two protagonists who dare not look away, intrigue, crime and sleaze truly never sounded so beautiful. Carlton’s guitar work is wonderful, too, gentle and precise, just enough to accent the song.

Another favourite, ‘Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow’, contains some of her best story telling, character forming lyrics. I’m taken to heady, intellectual parties somewhere in mid 70s California, full of ‘holier than thou’ characters, tipsy on German wine and other stuff.

Melting Glamour

‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’ strongly evokes, over another jazzy theme, a Southern Belle whose sensibilities have no place in a changing, fracturing world, where the glamour seems to melt away the more you grasp at it.

The title track itself is that rare item, a co-written song. Here too, we can feel the easy, yet slightly disturbing direction of life in California at the time, drowning in its materialism.

‘The Boho Dance’ is a reflective, piano dominated piece, with lovely a lovely horn section. It leads nicely into ‘Harry’s House-Centrepiece’, another shot at the materialistic world of big business and its victims, the men and women sated on consumption and luxury, whose lives are empty.

Atmospheric

‘Sweet Bird’ seems to give a hint of what’s to come the following year, with ‘Hejira’. Joni’s very distinctive guitar playing is at its best here in an atmospheric and reflective number.

‘Shadows and Light’ is perfect to end the album, a gospel sounding, philosophical song. Mostly sung a capella, a synthesiser track backing it up, this is a beautiful song and quite set apart from the rest of the album.

To conclude, I feel this album marks Joni Mitchell’s full maturity as a performer and songwriter. It’s varied, more jazz influenced and if there’s a theme, I think it’s the general disillusionment with America life at the time, a theme which was being picked up by other other artists at this time – but they never sounded this beautiful.

copyright Leofwine Tanner 2019

 

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Favourite Album Reviews: ‘Aja’, Steely Dan (Part 1, Side 1)

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Steely Dan’s 1977 album (MCA)

I think I can say without qualification that Steely Dan’s 1977 album release, ‘Aja’ (MCA), changed my life. This is part one – I feel there’s simply too much to say in one piece.

At the time I was at college and it became the soundtrack of my time. It was a tape (I got the vinyl later) and I must have worn it out. On that tape ‘Josie’ was the opening track, swapping places with ‘Black Cow’ from the vinyl.

Of course, I was already a big fan of their previous five albums, beginning with the 1972 release of ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’ and the singles, ‘Reeling In The Years’ and ‘Do It Again’. That was some entry into the mainstream.

Put simply, anyone who tries to play guitar or any instrument, like me, or just appreciates music, simply couldn’t help but be impressed, not merely with the virtuoso playing of various band and session guys over the years, but with the whole jazz infused rock style which is all their own.

Peerless Songwriting

And to say that the songs of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are well-crafted would be a great understatement; they are simply peerless – witty, sarcastic, intellectual, moving, all in a wonderfully constructed, painstakingly produced package that is, nevertheless, often hard to define. The element of doubt I’m sure is deliberate, lyrically and musically, so that the listener can make up their own mind, take them to places they never thought they would go. And I’ve been everywhere.

But to the album. Is it their best? Probably, a classic certainly, released when punk rock was at its height, which makes its success all the more remarkable. Great music is great music in any age and will find its way.

New York night life

The opening track, ‘Black Cow’, is the name of a mixed alcoholic drink of New York origin, apparently, though as is sometimes the case, the name of the song is incidental to the main message: that there’s a relationship ending, badly, and one of them isn’t taking it too well. Pretty straightforward really. The song to me simply oozes New York night life, with a slow, steady, ‘catchy’ beat which has been sampled at least once since then. Great piano solo, superb de rigueur saxophone on the outro.

The title track is next and quite unlike anything the band had attempted before. ‘Aja’ is a girl’s name, quite a girl by the sound of it. The lyrics are concise, perfect, simply to illustrate the song, leaving the stage open for the incredible musicianship. The song is complex, evocative of sensory pleasures, Asian themes. I feel sunshine every time I hear it. Denny Diaz’s extended guitar solo is wonderful, almost like glints of sunlight on the Pacific Ocean, or maybe a boat bobbing up and down.

Atmospheric Synth

And then the saxophone solo (yes, another one, and why not!), seems to take you into the evening, more busy night life, romance. If this wasn’t enough there is, in my opinion, the most incredible outro ever, consisting of sensational drumming, a single piano chord repeat pattern and atmospheric synths all around it, taking you into the heady early hours of the morning. Quite wonderful.

‘Deacon Blues’ is the next track, completing side one of vinyl. The story of a loser? More than once I’ve toyed with the idea that it could be about me. The subject is resigned, yet determined to play saxophone, to drink Scotch all night and go out driving (no, I don’t do that).

Inspirational

Once more I sense the night, this time dark alleys, jazz clubs, New York street life. The saxophone illustrates the song beautifully (naturally), a long track of nearly seven and half minutes, but it’s over before you know it – a sign of quality, that not a second is wasted in creating these mental pictures. Great lyrics, great playing, great song. Just great.

It even inspired the name of a band, but that’s another story.

So that completes side one. Only three tracks, but all different. Quite simply the best first side of an album, period.

copyright Leofwine Tanner 2019