Jefferson Airplane: Crown of Creation (1968)

Kronomyth 4.0: MY CROWN IS CALLED CONTENT. Picking a favorite Airplane ride is probably fool’s work; they all take you to different places, and it depends on the mood you’re in. The band reined in the experiments of Baxters and wrote what might be their strongest collection of songs for Crown of Creation. Listening to this album, you get the sense that the band had grown up or grown closer. They still continue to bring their individual ideas to the studio, but the arrangements display a groupthink that was noticeably absent on the sprawling Baxters. Marty Balin, for example, is no longer the out-of-place balladeer. Cowriting two tracks with Paul Kantner, the pair strike upon the quintessential Airplane sound, from the trippy “In Time” to the explosive “The House At Pooneil Corners.” Grace Slick breathes life into legend one moment (“Triad”) and cuts down the counterculture scene the next (“Greasy Heart”). Jorma Kaukonen kicks two surprisingly succinct psych-rockers, “Star Track” and “Ice Cream Phoenix.” Although this doesn’t appear to have been the case, Crown of Creation sounds like a double album of material distilled down to its most essential moments. You won’t find any arid stretches of experimental acid trips (Spencer Dryden’s “Chushingura” exorcises those demons in just over a minute) or unnecessary ego feeding. The tracks that make the cut, like “If You Feel,” are there because they deserve to be there. Maybe the word I’m looking for is balance. Crown of Creation strikes the perfect balance between superlative playing (Jack Casady, Spencer Dryden and Jorma continue to be the music’s diving force), big ideas, advanced production and psychedelic experimentation. It’s all neatly contained by those two bizarre bookends, “Lather” and “The House At Pooneil Corners,” even as it threatens to burst at the seams from rebellion and science fiction. All of the original Airplane albums are great rides, but Crown of Creation may be the least bumpy, which has more to do with the band working from a map than a dampening of their daredevil spirit.

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Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band: Strictly Personal (1968)

“Reading haiku
I am unhappy,
longing for the Nameless.”
– Allen Ginsburg, from “Haiku.”

I don’t give a sh*t for the blues. It’s like the musical equivalent of the haiku: sublime in its simplicity, but only if you buy into the idea that art has to be reduced to its purest, simplest form to communicate anything of power. I’ll take a little Lewis Carroll in my tea any day, thank you. Strictly Personal, Beefheart’s second album, embraces the nameless. It’s an unloosed Id running wild in a candy store of musical ideas: bottleneck slide, primal screaming, discombobulated rhythms and fitful grooves trapped in a gelatinous mass of psychedelic sound like chunks of fruit. The opening track purports to be the blues in its purest form, but it’s a red herring. Beefheart doesn’t really care about the blues; he’s an artist and a junk collector who happens to have a lot of blues on his palette, but it’s only one color in a regurgigated rainbow of surreality. You could argue that paranoia is a more important component of his art than the blues, or jugband music for that matter. For me, Strictly Personal has always held terrifying implications: “Trust Us” and “Son of Mirror Man Mere Man” tap into a nameless fear that our own sanity is tethered to our limited vision of reality and that, if we were to open the lens to a greater vista of potentialities, we too might drift away on the Captain’s crazy balloon ride. I understand the temptation to view Beefheart as a blues champion; relatively straight songs like “Gimme Dat Harp Boy” show an uncanny facility for the blues. But wanting Beefheart to play it straight is like expecting a fish to sing; it only happens in fairy tales. As for the psychedelic production from Bob Krasnow, I think it reaches sublime heights on the closing “Kandy Korn,” and I’ll pick sweet yellow and orange over the bitter blues nine times out of ten.

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Cream: Goodbye (1969)

“Cream’s last year was extremely painful for me. When we started in 1966, Eric and Jack had one Marshall each. Then it became a stack, then a double stack and finally a triple stack. By 1968, I was just the poor bastard stuck in the middle of these incredible noise-making things. It was ridiculous.” – Ginger Baker, in as quoted in a 2014 Guitar World article.

Kronomyth 4.0: HELLO GOODBYE. Cream had already left the building when Goodbye was released. The album packaging seemed almost gleeful at the prospect: the band was decked out in silver tuxedos on the front, the inner gatefold opened to a cartoon graveyard, Cream’s magical mystery tour complete. Exit through the giftshop and don’t forget to pick up your copy of Goodbye on the way out. Originally planned as a double elpee with an album each of live and studio material (like Wheels of Fire before it), Goodbye was pared down to a single record because of a lack of good material. The live material is louder than loud, with Clapton and especially Bruce much too high in the mix. This version of “Sitting On Top of the World” is good, but the other tracks are sonically inferior to what you’ll find on the two Live Cream discs. As for the individual musicianship on the live tracks, it’s amazing, but the band loses points for not playing nice together. The members also had a homework assignment to write one new track for the album. Clapton tapped George Harrison as his study partner and came up with the brilliant “Badge,” while Bruce and Pete Brown delivered the deliciously surreal “Doing That Scrapyard” and Baker kicked in the psychedelic “What A Bringdown.” All three tracks are strongly influenced by The Beatles, suggesting that Cream (like most of the world) had already worn out their copies of Magical Mystery Tour. It’s nice that the band took the time to write a note before leaving, but I’m far more likely to thumb through the photo albums of Wheels and Gears than take the tear-stained Goodbye out of its crypted envelope and read it. That said, the closing studio tracks are some of the best things they’ve ever done; maybe they should have put those first.

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Fela Kuti: Fela’s London Scene (1971)

Kronomyth 1.0: I FELA GOOD. Fela had studied music at Trinity College in London and, more than a decade later, returned to the scene of the crime to record an album in the legendary Abbey Road Studios. Fela’s London Scene is one of the earliest recorded examples of Fela’s groovy Afro beat: a hypnotic and pulsating mass of rhythm, guitar and horns with Fela’s taunting vocals and explosive Hammond organ atop it all. Fela’s music is an unusual act of assimilation, absorbing the music of James Brown and Miles Davis and transplanting it in native African soil. There are certainly elements of jazz in the horn arrangements, a heavy dose of R&B/soul in the electric instrumentation and a deep debt to African music in the polyrhythms, chord changes and pidgin English. This is really Fela’s scene; no one else was making music like this in 1971. Recorded in the studio but presented as a live performance, warts and all, Fela’s London Scene gets off to a great start with the opening “J’Ehin-J’Ehin.” Changing the flow in midstream, Kuti shows himself to be a musical manipulator on a par with Miles, directing monumental shifts in sound with a mere touch. “E Gbe Mi O,” which is said to feature an uncredited Ginger Baker on drums (don’t bother, you can barely hear him) is the album’s highlight and includes a sublime chorus at the end that any jazz composer would envy. The remaining tracks ply the same afrobeat style, punctuated by solos from the sax and organ. Interestingly, Kuti approaches the organ as a horn, combining clusters of notes in short bursts and often battling the melody in direct confrontation. “Buy Africa” and “Fight To Finish” close the record out with calls for political/social change, all against a powerful backdrop of groovy beats and killer horns. Fela’s music has a vitality, energy and purpose unique in the annals of history. Fela’s London Scene is an auspicious start, although the consistency and frequency of his output doesn’t lend itself to touting one album over another. This and the subsequent live record (featuring Baker in a bigger role) are of a piece, although Fela fans may find Baker an unnecessary distraction.

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Camper Van Beethoven: II & III (1986)

Kronomyth 2.0: COWBOYS FROM HOLLYWEIRD. The band’s second album features more smartalecky, lo-fi indie rock made by everyone’s favorite former latchkey kids from California. II & III reduces the quasi-Ukrainian folk music quotient down to one (“4 Year Plan”), which is a kindness, replacing it with swamp music (“Abundance”), psychedelic sketches (“Circles”), cowpunk instrumentals and a handful of winning songs, none of them better than the sentimental “Sad Lovers Waltz.” Yet Camper Van Beethoven is still a tease. “(We’re A) Bad Trip,” “Cowboys From Hollywood” (a fitting candidate for the band’s unofficial theme song) and “No More Bullshit” show the band’s strength is two-minute, twisted songs with David Lowery’s bored, nasally voice at the fore, but they’re pretty damn stingy with it. It’s almost as though, for every song they finish with words, the band needs to blow off steam with two minutes of instrumental muckery (un petit portmanteau, in case you’re wondering). The first album had better songs but was self-consciously absurd. The second album is less odd for odd’s sake and more likely to wear its affections on its sleeves, from VU (“Sometimes”) to Sonic Youth (“I Love Her All The Time”) to I’m pretty sure it’s the Buzzcocks (“Chain of Circumstance,” sung by Jonathan Segel). In the jetpackin’ 21st century, the original album was released with a handful of bonus tracks, including the awesome “Down And Out,” which namechecks Lou Reed. We’re not out of the woods yet; II & III doesn’t show a quantum leap in maturity or anything like that, but there are signs that the band is taking themselves (and their music) more seriously.

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The Cure: …Happily Ever After (1981)

Kronomyth 3.5: A DOUBLE DOSE OF THE CURE. Happily Ever After brought American audiences up to speed with The Cure by fusing Seventeen Seconds and Faith on a single double elpee. It’s a big, beautiful slab of angst and sonic artistry that would have blown me away as a teenager if I’d heard it then (“Grinding Halt” had at least filtered down to me), only I don’t recall seeing this album in record stores—maybe A&M didn’t make a lot of copies, or underpromoted it, or both. Unlike the earlier Boys Don’t Cry, this is a straight repackage of their second and third albums. In fact, once out of the record sleeve, you’re essentially holding Seventeen Seconds in one hand and Faith in the other. Hearing the two records in a single setting, you can hear how The Cure managed to add new details and warmth to their music even as they pared down from a quartet to a trio. Seventeen Seconds is a dark and cold record, Faith’s is a womb-like darkness: it envelopes you, embraces you. As much as I enjoy songs like “A Forest,” Happily Ever After doesn’t really make me happy until “Primary” rolls around, and from then on it’s pure magic. Although you could grumble that A&M didn’t add anything except a new (lame) cover, at least they spared us Carnage Visors. These days, Happily Ever After is superfluous in lieu of deluxe repackages of Faith and Seventeen Seconds, although a compact disc version exists for those with fond remembrances.

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Chick Corea: Return To Forever (1972)

Kronomyth 9.0: A RETURN TO MELODY. The free jazz experience of Circle had been a liberating one for Chick Corea. When he returned to a structured format, it was with a greater sense of freedom and self. His first group project, Return To Forever, featured husband-and-wife team Flora Purim and Airto Moreira, old friend Joe Farrell and new bass wunderkind Stan Clarke exploring Latin-based melodies in a dreamlike setting. (All ECM recordings sound like dreams to me; it seems to be their thing, which probably results from Manfred Eicher’s deep appreciation for space and silence.) Initially released only in Europe and Asia, the first Return To Forever record marks an exciting, new chapter in the music of Chick Corea. The opening title track begins with Corea’s petal-soft electric piano notes, then quickly builds into a waking dream of voice, flute, drums and bass. In one sense, Corea had taken the meditative music of John Coltrane and replaced the horns with the human voice and flute, although the music also has a deeply human element where Coltrane was more spiritual. The Coltrane comparison is even more apparent on “Crystal Silence,” a duet between Corea and Farrell (on flute) with atmospheric percussion added. The first side closes with the lyrical and lovely “What Games Shall We Play Today,” a showcase for Flora Purim’s beautiful voice with a positive message and positively charming melody. The second side of music, “Sometime Ago—La Fiesta,” slowly builds into one of Chick’s grand Spanish statements. Clarke is amazing on this track, splitting time between acoustic bass, bowed bass and electric bass and impressing at every turn. For those who question whether RTF belongs in the prog camp, the opening of “Sometime Ago” is a ringer for the orchestral side of King Crimson. Although it’s a different record than the later RTF recordings—a warmer Latin relation, if you will—Return To Forever is an inspired introduction to the Fender Rhodes fusion phase of Chick Corea’s career. The songs are some of his best and, though Corea chose to take the band in a different direction with the electric guitar, this record is in every way a hero’s return from the fringes, albeit one that was smuggled in as an import initially.

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Rick Wakeman: The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table (1975)

Kronomyth 3.0: HIT OR MYTH. Another extravagantly packaged concept album that continues Wakeman’s journey into English historical fiction, although you really wish he would stop taking Ashley Holt along on these adventures. The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table (of Ulm) was released days before Monty Python and the Holy Grail in what was clearly a springtime revival for Arthurian legend. Although some listeners preferred his last Journey, I’ve always thought this was the better album. Myths and Legends doesn’t get too bogged down in storytelling and does a much better job of integrating the choir and orchestra into the arrangements (for which, I suppose, Will Malone deserves a lot of the credit). The marriage of synthesizers and strings is still an unnatural alliance at times; in some ways, Wakeman was a victim of the limitations of electronic technology in the Seventies. (And in another, more meaningful way, I suppose we’re all victims.) What I enjoy most about Myths and Legends is that each of these songs are self-standing works. There are no narrative interruptions (in fact, I have no idea why Wakeman felt the need to introduce this album with a narrator, unless it was just to scare us), and every song has a principal theme that is strong enough to support six minutes (more or less) of music. There are a few missteps, like the bizarre hoedown in the middle of “Merlin The Magician” or the island infusion in “Sir Galahad,” but otherwise a lot of Myths could pass for Henry’s Missus. “The Last Battle” could even pass for vintage Yes in spots, with vocals that are clearly patterned after Jon Anderson’s wordless patter. Despite its pretentious packaging, including orchestra and choir in tow, Myths and Legends is surprisingly easy to swallow. African or European.

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Fleshtones: Blast Off! (1982)

Kronomyth 2.0: A BLAST FROM THEIR PAST. The Fleshtones are a study in how not to become a rock star. A year after their debut, which inexplicably featured the band posing as Animal House extras, there still wasn’t a proper followup. So ROIR filled the gap with a 1978 session produced by punk rock impresario Marty Thau (The Ramones, Suicide, New York Dolls, etc.) and featuring early versions of “American Beat,” “Critical List” and “Shadow Line.” A raw-sounding record by design, Blast Off! is in line with the post-Ramones retro-rock revival: gritty, grungy and pretty great. Covers of “Soul Struttin’” and Suicide’s “Rocket U.S.A.” are misfires, but most of these songs deliver the goods, from the surf instrumental of “Atom Spies” to rebel rockers like “Comin’ In-Dead Stick” and “B.Y.O.B.” The problem here isn’t the quality of the songs, but the recordings themselves. For a band that was already cultivating a garage-rock sound, they couldn’t afford to take a step back in sonic fidelity. Unless you completely buy in to the garage rock ethos, Blast Off! will seem like a mixed bag. You get some really good songs at better-than-bootleg quality, but what you really wanted was a proper followup and not reheated leftovers. Of course, people who paid attention to the label (ROIR) and the medium (cassette) probably knew what they were getting; ROIR was better known for bad live recordings of punk bands than anything else. It’s hard to hear Blast Off! today without wondering how the band’s trajectory got sidetracked so quickly. In a perfect world, these tracks would have been polished and served as the world’s introduction to the Fleshtones. Instead, somebody got cold feet, and we got “Cold, Cold Shoes.”

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Jean-Luc Ponty: Sunday Walk (1967)

Kronomyth 2.0: NO WALK IN THE PARK. This is the pre-prog, unplugged Ponty, which may or may not be your cup of pomegranate tea. I bought a used copy of this years ago, loaned it to someone, never got it back and never really cared. I’ve always felt it was a mixed success, maybe because the idea of a jazz violin seemed revolutionary at the time and yet the bebop arrangements of Sunday Walk were anything but. I guess it’s a new wine in an old wineskin kind of a thing, he wrote, further confounding readers with one of the more obscure parables. In a year or two, this music would be trumped by King Kong anyway. The album has been released many times over the years (I would take the discographical data below with a few grains of salt), often credited to The Jean-Luc Ponty Quartet, which has more to do with loose licensing than popular demand. The supporting players are solid, if a little academic in their approach; jazz always seemed like some pickled curio in the mouth of Europe, but that may be my personal bias. I suppose I could point out individual tracks in the interest of providing some value today, although I honestly don’t have any “favorites” on here. The closing “Suite For Claudia” is at least pretty, and the opening “Sunday Walk” is exciting. (There, I can check off an imaginary checkbox that says “discussed individual songs” next to it.) If I seem uninspired today, Ponty’s probably not to blame. I’m not a big fan of bop; it all sounds the same to me, and the existence of vexing offspring (hardbop, postbop) makes me feel like I’m on the outside of something important looking in. The music on Sunday Walk probably sounded fresh in 1967, but the moment you say something is “fresh,” it isn’t. (Oddly, this rule seems to apply to packaged salads and most of your vegetables except for potatoes and the hard squashes.)

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