The Hang of Music: Even Stranger to Me
Oh, it’s you. It’s been a long time. How have you been? I’ve been really busy being dead.
Sorry about that, some of my initialisation programming just kicked in. Apparently, some of my background processes were nicked from the Aperture Science Research and Testing Facility; who knew? Well, while I’m reinitialising, I promised you I’d listen to some Traffic this week, didn’t I?
I didn’t? Well, I’m going to anyway. Here is John Barleycorn Must Die, off the similarly-named 1970 album by Traffic.
I’ve always been a huge fan of the folk song John Barleycorn. I love the way that it crafts a narrative from visual representations of farming, and personifies the spirit of the harvest into a living being. It’s probably one of the first folk songs that I grew to love, along with Matty Groves and Tam Lin. And from there sparked a number of similar loves.
The version done by Traffic is one of the best versions that I’ve heard, although it’s a lot less folky than any of the others. But the thing about folk music is that it’s supposed to be covered, and recovered, and covered again, and every version adds something different.
But this isn’t folk music. This is a traditional folk tune, and I was amazed to find it on a progressively jazzy rock album. Except I didn’t know that until I started listening to it. I do like being surprised, though, so I was hardly disgusted. Even so, I think it bears repeating that THIS IS NOT FOLK. Far from it.
So, the album.
I have not yet felt the urge to reuse a photo that I have used previously in a post.* But here.
Because, yet again, this album used entirely gratuitous and cool piano. The first track is “Glad”, an instrumental jazz piece, which was the first indication I had that this might not be the album that I thought it would be. Apart from the chorus, which features a sax solo, the verses themselves just seem to be the piano doing its best to out play everyone else.
Musically, this album shares much with bands like King Creosote and Steely Dan. They both share the same kind of meticulously arranged instrumentation with “Glad” and “Freedom Rider” particularly. Both songs also exhibit a lot of experimentation with the saxophone and the flute.
In fact, what with all the sax and the vaguely prog rock style, it took me until Disc Two to hear that there are any other folk influences on this album at all. Yet there it is, an acoustic guitar at the beginning of “Stranger to Himself”. It’s hardly much, as it’s really got more blues to it than folk, and is relegated to the background for most of the track, behind even the weird, unplacable horns,** but it’s there. And there it ends.
With all this, John Barleycorn, the star of the show, so to speak, comes as a surprise. It’s got much less instrumentation on it than anything of the other songs. The rest of the tracks on the album have synths, bass, flute, sax, piano, bass and an electric guitar solo. Barleycorn is pretty much one guy singing over an acoustic guitar. I can see why they decided to split the album up that way; if I had six songs like these, I’d definitely arrange them so that the first disc was soft jazz, and that the second was even softer jazz with some folk in it. I promise I’ll stop going on about folk music now.
This is the point at which I comment that the album itself is incredibly short of songs; at six tracks, most record companies these days would be pretty unsure about releasing it as anything other than an EP. The actual length of the songs themselves, however, is pretty long – on average, they come to about (quick mental maths) 5 minutes and 45 seconds. Pointless maths aside, the tracks are pretty long, and come to just over half an hour. Not that this means much though. I just always find the actual number of songs on an album to be interesting, and this is particularly short on track numbers.
Though on this occasion, the number of tracks does raise one problem. At the very least it doesn’t help with it. You see, despite each song being pretty varied, each song has to be pretty long to compensate for the album length, and they go on perhaps a bit longer than they should. During every song they come back to the same chorus about 4 or 5 times. This is understandable on Barleycorn: that’s how it was originally written. But all the others just feel rather more repetitve than they should, and they drag because of it. The result of this is that some of the songs sound a bit samey.
When I listened to this, I was saddened to find that, for all of the cool instrumentation and the decent saxophone solos, none of the songs on this stood out from the rest. Technically, this album is very well performed and put together, but overall, I found it a bit dull. I can’t say that makes me GLaD. I mean Glad. I mean glad.
* Well, except Jared’s face.
** And THE BASS GUITAR. That’s right, we’ve found a song where the bass gets more prominence than the guitar itself. I think I might just die of shock!