AFFINITY: AFFINITY (1970)
1) I Am And So Are You; 2) Night Flight; 3) I Wonder If I Care As Much; 4) Mr. Joy; 5) Three Sisters; 6) Coconut Grove; 7) All Along The Watchtower; 8*) Eli's Coming; 9*) United States Of Mind.
Here is a classic textbook case of a band that could be, but wasn't, for no particularly fatal reason. Things just didn't work out. But at its very best, during that brief moment when it almost was, the band had a perfectly good chance to grow into at least something like Renaissance or Curved Air, and there is some sense in how carefully its small cult following has amassed all the relics, starting from the only LP officially released during the band's existence and ending with all the outtakes, demos, and archival mementos both from before and from afterwards.
At the time when their self-titled album was released, Affinity were a five-person band from Brighton, most of them idealistic college students intent on making «serious» rock music. Their chief selling points: (a) intelligent humility, making them rely as prominently on cover versions of classic tunes as their own material — in an age when «serious» acts were supposed to camouflage their influences rather than openly state them; (b) a heavy, «grinding» style of organ playing by keyboardist Lynton Naiff, whose sound is much more responsible for the band's hard rock style than Mike Jopp's guitar; (c) the iron lungs of vocalist Linda Hoyle, versatile enough to evoke the fury of Grace Slick on one track and then the tenderness of Joni Mitchell on another.
The result is an excellent album, and even in those demanding days of 1970, most critics had some kind words to say about it. Its only flaw is that it synthesizes too much without carving out a totally individualistic style — working fine in the 21st century, perhaps, where so many critical darlings are almost afraid to develop a-thing-all-their-own for fear of being dismissed as too narrow-minded, but not in 1970, when every great band was expected to spearhead its own genre.
Which makes all the more sense for us to re-experience the taste of Affinity now that the 21st century is tenth-part over. If heavy, sweaty, and artsy rock music is your cup of tea, tracks like 'I Am And So Are You' and 'Three Sisters', driven by massive organ riffs and overlaid with thick brass arrangements more reminiscent of the jarring distorted grunts of Colosseum than the much more poppy approach of Blood, Sweat & Tears, are sure to make your day. If you like your art rock in a more quiet, nocturnal mode, then 'Night Flight' and 'Mr. Joy' (particularly the latter, with Linda Hoyle practicing all over the scale) are an equally good choice.
The band's knack for invention is most evident on their near-unrecognizable rearrangement of the Everly Brothers' 'I Wonder If I Care As Much' — with harpsichords, cellos, chimes, harps, strange scraping percussion, choral vocal arrangements, and a big wailing Mellotron melody running through the fields (provided that really is a Mellotron); it's as if the song's purpose were to outdo Pet Sounds, clearly an impossible task since they are unable to match the beauty of the harmonies, but in terms of complexity of arrangements, the final result almost puts Brian to shame.
The band's self-evident Achilles' heel is rambling: most of Side B is dedicated to a long, long, long take on 'All Along The Watchtower', delivered by Linda with epic Biblical force, but mostly turned into a showcase for Naiff's organ doodling: he takes no fewer than three lengthy solos, without allowing Jopp even a single guitar break (and it's not as if he were not up to the task — his art-bluesy solo on 'Three Sisters' is quite fluent). The weird thing is, I like his doodling: each of the three solos is slightly different in texture and consists of carefully executed lines that must have been thought out and pre-rehearsed — building up to a great noisy climax at the end. (The style is mostly reminiscent of Jon Lord circa 1970, but Lord would actually improvise a lot more, playing whatever quotation from whatever classical piece would be roaming in his head at the moment — too much expertise can be just as bad as too little of it, in some contexts).
The bottomline is — there isn't really a single bad track on the record. But, epoch-wise, it may have come out just a little too late, at a time when «art rock» in its early stage, that is, blues, folk, and rock'n'roll tunes dressed up in exotic instruments and spiced with quotations from classical and jazz idioms, was giving way to the «prog» way of life, where these idioms themselves took on as much meaning as «rock». These guys could certainly compete with Donovan or Quicksilver Messenger Service, but not with King Crimson or Yes. It is only these days that, finally, they can be judged on their own. Affinity may not be one of those «forgotten masterpieces» on the level of Odessey And Oracle, but it's the perfect album to bitch about when all of those first-tier range forgotten masterpieces start sounding like old clichés to you. Come to think of it, who'd be able to prove that Lynton Naiff's keyboard playing isn't every bit as accomplished as Rod Argent's?
Thumbs up from the bottom of me heart; and do not bypass the bonus tracks on the CD release either — there is a stomping cover of Laura Nyro's 'Eli's Coming' out there that almost annihilates the original.
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