Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Traffic 1: Mr. Fantasy

Steve Winwood has a classic voice and undeniable talent on several instruments. Unfortunately, because he wasted those talents on pop for the better part of fifteen years, a lot of people may only think of him as the “Higher Love” or “Roll With It” guy. Then again, they might not know what to make of Traffic.
Traffic began as something of a British counterpart to The Band—four guys living in a house deep in the countryside, concocting their own brand of music. It was something of a departure for Winwood, whose R&B belt was now used to decorate more trippy fare. The singles “Paper Sun” and “Hole In My Shoe” are truly psychedelic, built around Dave Mason’s prominent sitar.
The Indian influence is mostly toned down on the band’s first album, which existed in four formats—Mr. Fantasy in the UK, and (initially) Heaven Is In Your Mind in the US, both in unique mono and stereo mixes. The American version gets points for including both of those singles, along with the B-side “Smiling Phases”, among a jumble of tracks from the British LP. The final track, cleverly titled “We’re A Fade, You Missed This”, is merely a reprised snippet from “Paper Sun”. While Everybody’s Dummy tends to concentrate on US releases, in this case, it’s the UK lineup that was not only standard from the ‘80s on, but is actually preferred.
“Heaven Is In Your Mind” opens side one with drastic panning thanks to producer Jimmy Miller. The vocals and drums swap channels with the piano and saxes throughout the track, a groovy little tune. The last minute or so is a jam, with lots of vocal contributions from everyone. That mood continues on “Berkshire Poppies”, which rotates between a nursery piano waltz, a speedy chorus and slower resolve, while the other guys try to distract Winwood’s vocal with raspberries and shouted asides. “House For Everyone” is truly odd, beginning with a wind-up effect edited perfectly into the intro, and a daffy lyric fitting the times. Things finally slow down for the exquisite “No Face, No Name, No Number”, a positively gorgeous ode to a mystery woman, gently played. “Dear Mr. Fantasy” is the song everybody knows, its three-chord structure sparking endless jams in bars around the world.
Jim Capaldi finally takes a lead vocal on “Dealer”, which suggests a drug connection but isn’t. The Indian sound comes back with a vengeance on “Utterly Simple”, complete with a ringing phone in the middle to usher in the obligatory philosophy lesson. “Coloured Rain” gets a churning treatment from the organ, guitar and sax, but “Hope I Never Find Me There” is another Dave Mason nursery rhyme. “Giving To You” is a jazz jam in a march tempo, bookended by loops of Chris Wood babbling. (The mono B-side version actually has an opening verse without the babbling.)
Mr. Fantasy provides at least one classic album side, though the second half does have something to recommend it as well. Overall there’s a cloud of mystery, given that the players likely switched instruments as the mood struck, and what some of us wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall in that house.
Unfortunately, thanks to the shuffling way back when, no single package currently encompasses everything that was ever part of the album. A relatively recent British CD reissue offered the British stereo with the American mono, while in America, two CDs came out—one that added the singles to the British version, and one that simply added the two songs left off the US stereo, with a couple of rarities. Given the brevity of the original LPs, a double-disc Deluxe Edition—which their current label has done for just about everybody else—could easily contain all four versions, plus extraneous singles from the same period. And of course, if it turns out that some songs had identical mixes, there’s no need to have it four times.

Traffic Mr. Fantasy (1967)—4
2000 CD reissue: same as 1967, plus 5 extra tracks
Traffic Heaven Is In Your Mind (1968)—4
2000 CD reissue: same as 1967, plus 4 extra tracks

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