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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band: The Impossible Dream


THE SENSATIONAL ALEX HARVEY BAND: THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM (1974)

1) The Hot City Symphony, Part 1: Vambo; 2) The Hot City Symphony, Part 2: Man In The Jar; 3) River Of Love; 4) Long Hair Music; 5) Sergeant Fury; 6) Weights Made Of Lead; 7) Money Honey/Impossible Dream; 8) Tomahawk Kid; 9) Anthem.

God loves a third: The Impossible Dream concludes the trilogy of Alex Harvey records that no honest rock music lover should live without. If there's a breach in this fortress, it's that by now we know what to expect, and the record offers no amazing new surprises. You'll have the crunchy hard rock, you'll have the vaudeville and music hall, you'll have the generic blues-rock made non-generic through sagacious arrangements, you'll have a little bit of sensitive soulfulness, and you'll have the usual puzzled feeling of not understanding how much on here comes from the heart and how much goes as an appendage to Zal Cleminson's clown makeup.

But then, this is probably expected, and the good news is, the Sensational Band's style is so tho­roughly and utterly demented that, once they're on a roll, nothing can be truly predicted. Take even the weakest tracks on here: 'Weights Made Of Lead' is standard 'Green Onions'-style 12-bar, but certainly Booker T. & the MGs would have never thought of spicing the song up with such a fun clavinet-imitating funky guitar part as Cleminson invents for the recording. 'Sergeant Fury', in theory, should bore to sleep everyone who shivers at the name of Fred Astaire, but it is hardly possible to resist the energy of the song, or the cheesy, but seductive gay overtones in Alex's cho­rus of 'I wanna be rich and famous, I wanna be just the same as the stars that shine on the Christ­mas tree...'. In short, even where it's "common", it's a ton of fun; and where it is less than a ton of fun, it is never common.

Yet in all seriousness, The Impossible Dream is centered around two major compositions. 'Hot City Symphony' features two parts, the first of which is a slower, but not any less overwhelming re­working of 'Vambo' (by now, 'Vambo' was Harvey's scenic alter ego), and the second a Zappa-in­fluenced mock-detective story about a 'Man In The Jar' (who 'wanna get out' and is 'smashing the glass', so be careful!). Running over thirteen minutes, it doesn't feel one second overlong sin­ce you should be too busy following the misfortunes of the man in the jar to care about anything else.

But the album's true piece de resistance is 'Anthem', a song that begs for usage of this word even if it already weren't its title. Here, after fooling around with us for the duration of almost another entire record, Harvey suddenly turns around 180 degrees and yields a song of tremendous perso­nal power, or, perhaps, even national power — he does not usually parade his Scottish heritage on record, preferring it to seep through unconsciously, but here he hauls out the bagpipes (in fact, he'd even regularly haul out the pipers onstage) and leads the band in a glorious spiritual chant à la "Hey Jude", but with a religious twist provided by the angelic vocals of Vicky Silva; unfortu­nately, I am unable to locate any extra info on who she was, but it is her inspired performance, by all means, that rips the song out of its classy, but traditionally-based Scottish music flowerbed and skyrockets it way up to seventh heaven.

To call the tune "pretentious" would be the equivalent of remarking, with a straight face, that the Grand Canyon — in case you didn't know — is pretty deep. The real question is whether you're overwhelmed or not, and I am overwhelmed. I am, in fact, saddened: Harvey's 'although it's true I'm worried now, I won't be worried long' may have been just a gospel cliché when he recorded the tune, but it proved only too true, and if you trace the live performance of the tune on Youtube you'll see how many people are offering their R.I.P.s: this is the anthem of Harvey's life, and it's also the ultimate funeral song if there ever was one. (And it's difficult for me to believe that it has not served as an inspiration for McCartney's 'Mull Of Kintyre', although, of course, all anthemic Scottish music does sound pretty much the same).

For 'Anthem' and 'Hot City Symphony' alone, the brain and heart would gladly unite in a joyful tandem and lift their thumbs up high, but honestly, I can't find one truly weak spot on the album. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll smash your head up against the wall — and yes, you'll be offered plenty of cheese, but haven't you heard? Scottish cheese is pretty damn good.

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