Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Traffic 6: The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys

Having recently expanded (everyone from Welcome To The Canteen except Dave Mason, again), Traffic was again able to meander into extended jamming, on an album that came out within months. With a dedicated rhythm section—Jim Capaldi having reduced his role to lyricist, harmonies and tambourine, though he does sing lead on two songs here—The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys sounds more than ever like a straight rock band, though there are some jazz and folk touches that got them this far. Outside of Chris Wood’s sax and flute, the predominant lead instruments are guitar and keyboards, all from—you guessed it—Steve Winwood, so overdubs were still necessary.
“Hidden Treasure” begins with a low-key acoustic strum and a flute duet, suggesting an extension of the John Barleycorn formula. But chances are, if you bought this album you’re going to skip right to the title track. On paper, there’s no way it should work: nearly twelve minutes, mostly vamping on one note. However, there’s enough mystery in the verses to give a release in the choruses. (That fuzzy sound that sounds like a processed sax, by the way, is just a Hammond organ through a distortion pedal. You can tell by that wonderful blast in the key of X right at the fade.) And it fades away just as enticingly as it came in. Something of a sorbet, “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone” is another way for someone to request that his mellow not be harshed, though the lyrics are more incidental for the soloing in between and on the fade.
The sentiments of that song get a different frame of reference when heard next to “Rock & Roll Stew”, a life-on-the-road slice courtesy of the Ric Grech-Jim Gordon rhythm section. It’s another one of those FM radio staples you’ve heard a million times that you may be surprised to find it on this album. “Many A Mile To Freedom” will appeal to anyone who likes the electric piano, but it doesn’t take too many listens to realize that the lyrics don’t vary much, and the culmination of each verse uses the same chords as the superior title track. Finally, “Rainmaker” returns to the folk sound of “Hidden Treasure”, complete with a violin solo from Grech. It follows that pattern until shifting to a more jammy jazz fade.
Perhaps an illustration of less is more, the extra people on Low Spark means it’s something of a letdown as might be expected from a supergroup. Overdubbing keyboards and guitars are impressive when it’s a solo album, but in a group context, it comes off as narcissism. Also, the blandness that would dog Winwood in later decades shows up here.
But it’s not a bad album, just a little dull at times. The title track is just plain stellar. And it featured a unique hexagonal design that just doesn’t look the same in anything smaller than an LP. (One mystery over the years has been the sequencing. The LP played in the order above, while some back covers and several CDs have since had “Rock & Roll Stew” ending side one, with “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone” in the middle of side two, shifting everything else back accordingly. Winwood’s own website uses the order above, so we’re sticking with that. Yet this would not be the last instance of multiple track listings.)

Traffic The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys (1971)—3

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