THE BLUES PROJECT: PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE (1968)
1) If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody; 2) Calypso; 3) Frank'n'Curt Incensed; 4) Turtledove; 5) Mojo Hannah; 6) Niartaes Hornpipe; 7) Endless Sleep; 8) She Raised Her Hand; 9) Dakota Recollection; 10*) Gentle Dreams.
Bravely ironic title: not even the Beatles, assembled at Abbey Road Studios for what they all felt was to be their last collective recording session, dared to slap an ill-omened title like that on the final product. Of course, The Blues Project had a very good reason: by 1968, with Kooper, Katz, and Kalb out of the picture, the original lineup was reduced to Kulberg and Blumenfeld. Addition of such new members as Donald Kretmar on sax, John Gregory on guitar, and Richard Greene on violin, meant that the tables had turned completely — yet, on the other hand, the music that this entirely new configuration came up with seems strangely compatible, to a large degree, with The Blues Project of old.
Except that there is nothing seriously bluesy about this music now. The two main directions actively pursued are now country/bluegrass (fueled by the violin of newcomer Greene) and serene folk balladry, with or without a pinch of psychedelia. As the roots-rock revolution was in full swing, so did the revamped Blues Project, too, decide that embracing the good old soil and its vegetative contents was the correct thing to do. As a team of musicians, they had all the proper skills and resources to do it — as composers and artists, they had predictable problems.
The major highlight of the album is probably its opening track, a cover of Rudy Clarke's ʽIf You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebodyʼ. It is not shorn of inventiveness — opening with a little bit of flamenco before settling into an R&B-with-fiddle groove, later to be complemented with chaotic flute solos and finally building up towards an explosive climax. The problem is that, as a «groove», the track does not have enough power or sharpness, and as a «song», it does not have a memorable musical theme to go along with. And the multiple segments of which it is composed do not quite agree with each other. Why the bold Spanish introduction, if it gives way to a feeble violin lead line? Why the flute soup, if this is fiddle territory? Why the noisy climax and crash-boom-bang at the end if the song was never all that tense to begin with?
Which is all pretty illustrative of the album in general: a bunch of dudes with a bunch of incoherent ideas at a crossroads. A lot of stuff is tried out — almost none of it works. Worst of the lot is ʽDakota Recollectionʼ, a twelve-minute attempt to recapture the success of ʽFlute Thingʼ that immediately degenerates into a jazzy jam with competent, but boring flute, violin, fuzz guitar, and drum solos, the likes of which were generated in droves by dozens of artists at the time. Difference from ʽFlute Thingʼ? Lack of a properly resonant main theme, of course: the theme as such is almost indistinguishable from the solos that follow, and everything is played with such a limp attitude that it's a wonder everybody managed to keep awake for all of the twelve minutes it took to draw the track to a complete stop. Then again, if the title makes any sense, what else could one expect from one's recollections of the merry states of Dakota?
Not all of the album is just fiddle-and-flute games. ʽFrank'n'Curt Incensedʼ, ʽMojo Hannahʼ, and ʽEndless Sleepʼ do try to rock out, fuzzy distorted guitars, screechy vocals (mostly courtesy of John Gregory) and all; but there are no cool riffs, and the energy level remains chained to the average pub-rock level expected from your local bar band. In this context, I rather prefer their softest, gentlest numbers, like ʽCalypsoʼ or ʽTurtledoveʼ, where Kulberg's pastoral flute exercises at least find full justification (the ridiculous backward-vocals bit at the end of ʽCalypsoʼ, however, does not, falling victim to the psychedelic atavisms of the time).
True to the title, Planned Obsolescence was the only album recorded by this lineup; out of its ashes, a year later, rose and briefly flourished the short-lived band of Seatrain, more focused and goal-oriented during its peak periods but, in general, also suffering from poor songwriting skills. That said, serious fans and scholars of late-Sixties roots-rock should not ignore the album — lack or presence of «genius» is, after all, a subjective concept, and in objective terms, there are enough unusual tricks and combinations displayed here to attract the attention of somebody who, for instance, is deeply curious about the different ways in which it is possible to combine pastoral flute, honky tonk fiddle, and psycho-fuzz guitar on one album. (Even if each and every one of these ways is ultimately boring and pointless — but this is no scholarly talk).