CAN: SOUNDTRACKS (1970)
1) Deadlock; 2) Tango Whiskyman; 3) Deadlock (version 2); 4) Don't Turn The Light On, Leave Me Alone; 5) Soul Desert; 6) Mother Sky; 7) She Brings The Rain.
Next to Tago Mago, this album always gets a relatively bad rap as a «transitional» effort, and, well, objectively it is «transitional» — not only is this a fairly non-conceptual mix of various pieces of music that Can composed for contemporary movie soundtracks to make a living, but it also features both their old vocalist and the new one, Damo Suzuki, literally recruited from the street in Munich where Czukay and Liebezeit found him busking outside a cafe. Clearly, it is hard to approach this stuff from a completely unbiased perspective.
And yet, somehow I'd say that Soundtracks has the unexpected benefit of encapsulating, in but 35 minutes, just about everything that Can were capable of. By being pulled together from a variety of different sources, it is more diverse than any other record of theirs. It does not let you get sick of either Mooney or Suzuki, whose incessant mumblings may fairly quickly lose their artistic power and become an irritant (I am definitely not sure that his presence all over Tago Mago is always beneficial). It shows the band as masters of the trance-inducing jam and the occasional unusual pop hook. And the only thing on which it goes easy is their experimentation with arhythmic noise... which is actually fine by me, because to me, Can is all about rhythm; whenever the rhythm section takes a break, they lose God status immediately.
Anyway, bias and prejudice notwithstanding, nobody in his right mind ever says a word against ʻMother Skyʼ, a track with which the Can truly arrives — and blows away all jamming competition, with 14 minutes of the most badass sound in the history of jam music, ever. No buildup, no «search for the right groove»: out of nowhere, they immediately jump into the right groove (of course, the track may have been cut out of a much larger session), with two minutes of a shrill, sharp, unrelenting assault on the senses — Liebezeit kicking like an overpaid slave driver, Czukay playing little enticing melodic phrases on top of his own aggressive pounding, and Karoli soloing like a demon, keeping the guitar at high-pitched ecstatic heights without a single break between notes. All of which serves as an introduction to the many subsequent sections, focusing on Suzuki's vocals, guitar solos that alternate between Eastern drone and blues-rock, and just one brief «soft» interlude where bongos replace standard percussion, to let you catch your breath.
The main attraction of ʻMother Skyʼ is that it is actually quite simple — it's not as if Karoli were playing some chords or scales that had not been previously thought of, and the beat is standard, even minimalistic 4/4 (reflecting the so-called Motorik aesthetics). What puts it over the edge is the sheer force and intent invested in the effort — it's as if the musicians believe that the fate of the world is resting on their shoulders, that the universe remains stable only for as long as they carry on their task with complete and utter commitment. On the other side of the English Channel, only Hawkwind were committing themselves with comparable dedication to the same kind of ritualistic primitivism — but Hawkwind came with an atmosphere of corniness and could be laughed off (shouldn't, but could be), whereas Can come with something stranger and spookier.
That strangeness and spookiness manifests itself in quite a few other bits on the album, of course, starting from the very first seconds — the distorted guitar intro to ʻDeadlockʼ, sirening across the living room, swirling around and finally crashing down into the mumbling desperation of Suzuki's probably-epic vocals. ʻDeadlockʼ was the theme to a spaghetti-western movie of the same name, so they were most likely going for a Morricone-like effect, and there's plenty of echo, desperate shrillness, and dangerous tones all right, but the song is based primarily on drone, so it's like crossing Morricone with The Velvet Underground — to awesome results.
Then there's ʻDon't Turn The Right On, Reave Me Aloneʼ (reflecting Suzuki's predictable struggle with pronunciation, though he does make an effort to master the liquidity), which somehow succeeds in conveying his characteristic «madness» without having to resort to wild screaming or gibberish; and do not forget the creepy acoustic licks, the deceivingly becalmed flute bits, and the unnerving funky beat. ʻTango Whiskymanʼ is probably the weakest of the Suzuki tracks, because its «tango» rhythmics, in the context of everything else here, sounds somewhat parodic; however, hearing Suzuki try to sing a melodic pop melody, come to think of it, may be the weirdest experience of 'em all.
Of the two Mooney tracks, ʻSoul Desertʼ would have fit in very well on Monster Movie, being the same kind of funky repetitive groove with heavy emphasis on over-excited blabber — like a soul man gone crazy (which was more or less the case); but ʻShe Brings The Rainʼ, which they used to close the album after the thunderstorm of ʻMother Skyʼ, is a completely normal-sounding lounge jazz number, with a completely normal (perhaps even too normal) vocal delivery; it only begins to go slightly psychedelic towards the end, when the song's jazz rhythm chords are complemented with a quiet, but persistent acid guitar solo (something that all vocal jazz records could benefit from quite heavily, methinks!). On its own, perhaps, ʻShe Brings The Rainʼ would never be a Can classic, but its positioning next to ʻMother Skyʼ is a classic move, and somehow it feels like precisely the right missing piece to complete the puzzle and turn the whole record into a small, elegant, 100%-efficient kaleidoscope of sound.
Anyway, best or not best, Soundtracks is totally essential Can, as well as a merciful introduction for those who like to test their waters before wading in chest-deep: once you get used to ʻMother Skyʼ, you're pretty much ready for most of Tago Mago (which has its fair share of great grooves, but, in my opinion, still has nothing on the sheer all-out ferocity of ʻMother Skyʼ). The «soundtrack curse» may have unjustly condemned the album to forever hanging in the shadow of its successors, or in the shadow of all those other innumerable rock classics from 1970, but as long as we still have time to savor all the classics, be sure to keep this one firmly on the list, and here's some major thumbs up from me as an incentive.