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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Blood, Sweat & Tears: Blood, Sweat & Tears

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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9 comments:

  1. This is, by far, BST's best album. Take away Kooper's egotistical pretensions, and you have a group of Julliard-trained jazzbos riffing on commercial music of the day. No more, no less. The listener can take it or leave it as the mood strikes them, instead of having to sit through a set of self-important "major statements" backed up in print by a sea of sycophantic critics (Christgau and the like).

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  2. Christgau?! When did he ever show support for anything Al Kooper did?

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    1. I wrote "and the like", meaning the aggregate of critics who tend to over-value Kooper at the expense of the rest of the group. Even the liner notes of the BST comp "What Goes Up" repeat the same old party line that "it was all downhill after AK left". What's swept under the rug is that BST would have gone downhill just as quickly with Kooper at the helm. BST was always a commercial proposition, as fully dependent on the current Top 40 for their source of covers as Weird Al Yankovic is for his source of parodies. During the early 70's when commercial AM radio fodder was at an all time low in quality, BST sucked accordingly. Having Al Kooper on board wouldn't have helped as much as his fan boys think.

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    2. "fully dependent on the current Top 40 for their source of covers"

      First off, neither Tim Buckley nor Harry Nilsson were typical Top 40 material in 1968.

      Second, how about those non-covers Malx? "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know"?
      Or is this "Spinning Wheel" an adequate substitute in your book?

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    3. Tim Buckley, Laura Nyro, and Harry Nilsson may not have been Top 40 in 1968 (although Nilsson shortly would be), but they were all up and coming songwriters who presumably had every chance of breaking huge. Brenda Holloway and Steve Winwood were already well known on the scene at that point, and Billie Holiday had passed into legend already.

      "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" is a pretty good song, err, until you play it back to back with James Brown's "Man's World", at which point...wow, Al, lucky for you music industry lawyers weren't paying attention. "Spinning Wheel" ain't going to go down as anyone's idea of a perfect song, but it at least doesn't sound like a wholesale xerox of someone else's creation.

      So, yeah, I'm sticking with my opinions on this one. Not that it matters much, since BST 3 is just around the corner, at which point my defense of this whole BST franchise begins to break down.

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    4. I've heard "Man's World" plenty times, and that doesn't really affect my opinion of "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know".

      But you agree with me that on CIFTTM Kooper & gang was (amongst other things) promoting up-and-coming American songwriters (quite succesfully in Nilsson's case), but not so much on this one?

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    5. Sure they were. They were promoting the songwriters whom they assumed would soon be dominating the Top 40. As stated above, they guessed correctly about Harry Nilsson. On their second album, they were right about Steve Winwood. On their third, they featured Robbie Robertson and James Taylor, among others. I assume they continued to do the same thing on succeeding albums. I say "assume" since, after discovering that the third album sucked horrifically, I quickly gave up on the entire enterprise.

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  3. Who knew BS&T would be the source of such lively debate? I'm glad somebody is standing up for the Clayton-Thomas lineup. I mean, I can't put them ahead of Al, because Al is his own subcategory. But they made decent, radio-friendly pop, which is nothing to be ashamed of, as long as its done well. I will have to admit that the coda of Spinning Wheel is cute on the first listen, then gets annoying. YMMSVH is a sweet romantic song, and sugar like that is so subjective it's hard to critique it unless you absolutely despise it. Then you just like kicking bunnies in the head.

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    1. BST's second is one of those amazing, zeitgeist-defining, "right place, right time" moments. Throwing Kooper out and hiring Thomas put them right in the sweet spot between "art" and "pop" for a brief moment. The main bone of contention that people argue over is whether Kooper could have kept them in that spot over the course of an at least decade long career. My opinion is simply that they would have descended straight into mainstream AM pop just as quickly as they did with Thomas at the helm. I really don't see all that much difference between the banal vulgarity of BST3 and anything Kooper was putting out at the time (except Kooper was covering slightly more obscure sources, or ripping them off without credit). But BST's second album will always be their classic, and it's one for the history books (partly as art, partly as cultural-historical debate fodder).

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