BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS: BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS (1969)
1) Variations On A Theme By Erik Satie; 2) Smiling Phases; 3) Sometimes In Winter; 4) More And More; 5) And When I Die; 6) God Bless The Child; 7) Spinning Wheel; 8) You've Made Me So Very Happy; 9) Blues (Part II); 10) Variations On A Theme By Erik Satie.
No band that fires Al Kooper and hires David Clayton-Thomas deserves appraisal for its actions. With their second album, in a brief, unpleasant flash, Blood, Sweat & Tears dispense with at least several meters of soulful depth — making a transition from «art rock» to «professional entertainment» and, worst of all, probably not even realizing it. The good news was that they made the charts, something that is, indeed, easier to do for a professional entertainer than for an art-rocker: the record went all the way to No. 1, became quadruple platinum, yielded several hit singles, and essentially made the band into a household name — now that they finally had a singer who could provide them with that «Tom Jones» feel.
Despite the disappointment, the record is not bad. First, Kooper had some time to work on these songs — a few of them do seem to have a bit of the Kooper touch, although I do not know the exact details. Second, the idea of BS&T as an «art» band is not yet completely abandoned: the record is diverse, unpredictable and largely experimental — after all, no entertaining act targeted at bored housewives would probably start the album off with a rearrangement of an excerpt from Satie's ʽTrois Gymnopédiesʼ. Third, they still retain a good sense of taste in their selection of covers: whatever be, one has to admit that Traffic, Laura Nyro, Billie Holiday and even Brenda Holloway are fairly good company on the road.
The worst thing about Kooper's departure is that the awesome contrast between the loud and bombastic, on one side, and the lonesomely personal and the introspective, on the other, which really made Child the masterpiece that it was, has vanished into thin air. The band itself understood it well enough, I guess, since self-titling the record symbolized a sort of total reboot. Now all the songs were not only loud and bombastic, but also sunny, cheerful, optimistic, well suited for an audience that did not care to see a lot of «suffering» on its playlists. Of course, the switch itself was neither «right» nor «wrong», but it did put the record, right from the start, into a category where failure becomes irredeemable, if you know what I mean.
As a songwriter, David Clayton-Thomas was, of course, no match for Kooper. He contributes only one song altogether: ʽSpinning Wheelʼ is a friendly jazz-pop piece that occasionally pretends to be loaded with a little bit of psychedelic powder — which goes all wet at the end, as the band unexpectedly launches into several flute-led bars of ʽLieber Augustinʼ and the drummer makes a comment of "that wasn't too good" as the rest of the band snickers around him. The song, altogether, is more efficient than its coda, but not by much — the best thing about it (and many other things around here) is probably Jim Fielder's bass playing, combining a perfect sense of rhythm with a desire for inventive melodicity.
Of the two covers chosen for single release, Laura Nyro's ʽAnd When I Dieʼ seems to me by far the winner, what with all the melodic transitions (from slow country-rock to fast vaudeville-rock and back) and the clash of the song's unsettling title with its lyrically and melodically optimistic message — although, frankly speaking, Clayton-Thomas is hardly the right vocalist for this kind of material. He does seem to be far more in his element on ʽYou've Made Me So Very Happyʼ, a song that quickly became the new-look BS&T's calling card but, honestly speaking, adds little to the Holloway original — which had already taken the composition to its joyful peak, and neither the rough-hewn, pompous, quasi-Southern growl of Clayton-Thomas nor the horn gymnastics of his band members can push it up any higher, so it seems to me. Nor is the guy genius enough to uncover any new depths in ʽGod Bless The Childʼ — great song, for sure, but never because of being blessed by a Blood, Sweat & Tears interpretation.
In all actuality, the best song on the album (bar ʽAnd When I Dieʼ) is probably ʽMore & Moreʼ, a cheerful, but tough funk rocker on which both Fielder on bass and Steve Katz on his Cream/Hendrix-influenced «acid tone guitar» are allowed to shine on par with Clayton-Thomas. At the very least, it is still a song that rocks hard in solid 1960s mode, which is almost always a plus. Less of a plus, but still respectable as an ongoing tradition, is the presence of a near-obligatory psycho-folk ballad by Katz (ʽSometimes In Winterʼ) — these things are generally pleasant to the ear, but totally lack any staying power.
Where the album really starts taking serious chances is on ʽBlues, Part IIʼ, an 11-minute improvisational (or «seemingly» improvisational jam) with just a little bit of vocal blueswailing at the end. Along the way, almost every band member gets to show some jazzy tush, culminating in them all happily diving into the riff of ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ, and then, for dessert, Katz leading them into a few psychobars of ʽSpoonfulʼ — a ritualistic tribute, no doubt, to the freshly deceased supergroup. The piece is not «great» or anything, but the band takes care to switch its groove as soon as it risks becoming boring, so, in the end, its role on the album seems more positive than negative: at the very least, it symbolizes that this here band is still searching for something, even if it may not necessarily be looking in the right place.
With our hearts perhaps full of sorrow at such flat-out spoiling of such a flat-out terrific beginning, we can still give Blood, Sweat & Tears a thumbs up, if only because it is hardly possible to nosedive from the peak into the pit in one single go. But there is little, if anything, about the record that makes it as timeless as its predecessor, stylish and professional as it might be — unless one actually prefers the powerful, but one-dimensional and pompous vocals of Clayton-Thomas to the technically weaker, but (in my opinion) far more expressive and meaningful wailing of Al. Of course, I could see where such a preference could take place, but it is hardly the location to which these particular reviews are addressed, anyway.
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