(Audio Fidelity)

A great group, a very fine album (their first, released January '68), a great-sounding original mix (featured here for the first time since the original album on Ode), a superb mastering work by Steve Hoffman that sounds perfectly balanced, very musical, and definitely "crankable". Need I say more?

Well, I bet a few more words won't hurt.

Always featured, but never highly celebrated, among "those who count" in the history of rock music, Spirit in their original line-up recorded four albums of very high quality in a style that, while always personal and easy to recognize, was quite "elastic", featuring a whole series of instrumental and compositional colours that really made the group "one of a kind".

Sure, if we talk about "sonics" their music was not always presented under the best light. So, at last!, the recent re-release plan by Audio Fidelity should give Spirit a chance to be appreciated by an audience that, having paid no attention in the past, have not become jaded, either.

A fine melodic dimension, chords that are never banal, a group sound that's full but "light" (the drummer and the pianist being "jazzers" definitely having a part in this), a fine singer and a very varied, quite expressive, vocal group dimension, an original-sounding guitarist who - by the time he played on the group's first album, at the age of 17 - created melodically-complex, timbrally "outrageous", solos. Let's not forget that - while having his first taste of success with Roxy Music - Phil Manzanera mentioned Randy California as one of the most stimulating guitar players he listened to in his younger days.

While Randy California was young, drummer Ed Cassidy was already "the oldest man in rock". Shaved head, dressed in black - a real character - he had a sizable résumé as a jazz player. The sound on this Audio Fidelity SACD features his well-tuned drums and his fine cymbals in full Technicolor, showing his creativity when contributing to the songs' various sub-sections.

Sitting on electric piano - sounds like a Wurlitzer to me - and not much else, John Locke brings a jazz vocabulary and a fine sense of economy to the group. Not having an (Hammond) organ makes the group's sound rich but not "crowded". (Listening to their first three albums side-by-side with their fourth makes for a very interesting comparison, given the fact of having a different producer, and - perhaps - different goals.)

Quite difficult to appreciate in the old vinyl editions, Mark Andes bass work (he also sings) "in digital" reveals itself to be versatile and of very high quality.

With a vocal timbre that some would not define as "rock" proper, always a solid composer, Jay Ferguson is maybe the piece of the puzzle that's easier to take for granted, but one does so at one's own peril: with another voice taking his place, things would change for the worse. And while it's true that all arrangements, and those "icing on the cake" licks that stick in one's mind, are a group creation, the first album and a large part of those that followed have many of his songs as their foundation.

I clearly remember - in the post-Woodstock time, which for Spirit means by the time of their third album - the long list of artists and groups that Clive Davis, the President of Columbia Records, saw as potential million sellers in order to increase the "rock" fortunes of his record company: Chicago, Santana, Janis Joplin, Blood, Sweat & Tears... Listening to those artists side-by-side with Spirit will clearly show why Spirit did not make it. (By the way, does anybody remember the Flock, Chambers Brothers, and the Fifth Avenue Band?)

Wanting to be faithful to the spirit of those times, I intended to smoke a couple of joints, and really dig this new edition of Spirit's first album of same name. In the end I decided that to compare the different editions of this album I own would suffice. (Those in a hurry can skip this boring part. See you at the end, where I'll discuss the individual songs.)

As I already wrote above, this is the first time the album's original mix sees the light after the release of the first vinyl edition on Ode. In recent times I've seen the Ode album on sale at a few "record fairs", no copy having a written price! And I really doubt such an old album can be found in "mint" conditions.

My preferred copy is part of a "twofer" (Spirit + Clear) released in 1973 on Epic which I bought quite cheap, still sealed, in a record shop about forty years ago. (There's a "scary-looking" girl on the cover, I've recently seen quite a few counterfeit copies around.) Very noisy vinyl (the bass solo on Elijah no more than a hypothesis, just like the one played by Rick Grech on Do What You Like, on the Blind Faith album), but given a bit more power the sound becomes more lively, and I'm not ashamed to say that for all those years this has been my go-to copy. I see now that this mix is quite poorer than the original, especially when it comes to the orchestral work on Taurus and those complex, multi-layered background vocals on Straight Arrow, Topanga Windows, Gramophone Man, and Water Woman.

Later, I bought a CBS UK Embassy copy from '79 (it had double the volume and excellent vinyl, but also a poor-sounding mix and very poor timbres, the drums sounding like an anvil and a hammer) and the first CD edition I heard of, the one mixed and mastered by Vic Anesini for Sony in '96, which came with added bonus tracks. I regarded the mixing and mastering as being "not too bad", and the lack of vinyl by-products was obviously a bonus. But while it definitely was no ear-bleeder, it was the kind of CD that I can only listen to at a very low volume, and that in the end I never listen to. (I have to say that on my most recent CD player it sounds much better than on its predecessor - that much progress was made when it comes to converters is definitely true - but those "minus" features in the sound are still there.)

In order to avoid things become too complicated, for this review I didn't listen to my mono copy released by Soundazed in 2005.

Original album credits. Produced by: Lou Adler. Engineered by: Eirik Wangberg, Armin Steiner, Mike Leitz. Strings and brass arranged by: Marty Paich.

The version I review here is a SACD hybrid, featuring both a hi-rez stereo layer and the normal CD stereo layer, the latter being the one I listened to.

Fresh Garbage is the famous, dynamic-sounding opening track. A melody that sounds like it's being sung with a middle-eastern flavour. Fine solo on electric piano.

Uncle Jack has a "rock" riff and quite "Beatles-sounding" vocals. Fine drum timbre, guitar solo on two channels, sounding much less "shrill" than in past, also clear-sounding background vocals.

Mechanical World starts with hi-hat and brass. In many ways this is the most ambitious track here, quite dramatic, with an epic-sounding orchestra, always changing, and a great guitar solo on two channels. Great-sounding snare drum.

Taurus was recently mentioned in a lawsuit as being an "inspiration" for the world-famous Led Zeppelin track Stairway To Heaven. In a way, Taurus always reminded me of Michelle by The Beatles, in the same way that a section of the song Ladies Of The Road by King Crimson on their album Islands does. An instrumental track which makes great use of the orchestra and a fine performance on the acoustic guitar, this is the only song penned by Randy California on this album.

Girl In Your Eye features an arrangement that reminds me a lot of Sirtaki and of the (at the time) famous music from the movie Zorba the Greek. Moving at a lazy pace, with an electric guitar sounding like a sitar, it features a very fine "square wave" guitar solo, with fine counterpoint by Wurlitzer and bass.

Straight Arrow is a happy-sounding, "light" track. It has a "jazzy"-sounding section, with "swing" bass and excellent guitar, a section that repeats at the end, with a longer guitar solo and excellent counterpoint on the electric piano.

Topanga Windows opens side two with a "dreaming" mood, "psychedelic" guitar, strings, and vocals. "Double time", "jazzy" guitar solo, and fine counterpoint from the electric piano. I have to confess my preferred portion of the album ended here, but the new mastering - which makes the acoustic piano and the vocal parts more clearly perceivable - made me appreciate the songs on (former) side two a lot more.

Gramophone Man was penned by the group. Quite varied, with fine guitar and vocals. Funny thing, the vocal timbre of the section starting with the words "Gramophone eyes" has always reminded me of Pink Floyd (but the chronology is inverted). Double time, "swing", guitar solo playing chords. Fine ending, with vocals more upfront.

Water Woman has a "folk" melody, with acoustic guitar, overdubbed vocals, percussion.

The Great Canyon Fire In General sounds like "psychedelic rock". Overdubbed guitars, grand piano.

Elijah, penned by Locke, is a "freedom" moment. A simple jazz composition, it features four solos that - quite surprisingly for the times: remember the "average amount of technique of the average rock musician - don't outstay their welcome.

The original album ended here. I have to confess I don't particularly love having "bonus tracks" added to an album, but here the fact of having the four (at the time) unreleased tracks mixed and mastered by Anesini for the '96 edition appear is maybe intended to avoid that people asked to pay "more" have the feeling of receiving "less". It has to be said that these four tracks were also remastered by Hoffman.

Veruska, penned by California, starts with arpeggiated guitar and bass, then a "rock" theme, later performed on a Hammond organ, a rare apparition for the group (funny thing, it sounds like Mark Stein of the Vanilla Fudge had paid a visit to the group at the recording studio). Strange, here there are a few seconds more after the drums fade out, compared to the Anesini version from '96.

Free Spirit by Locke has the piano, an excellent snare drum, a melody the group will return to on Clear, a "jazzy" guitar playing chords. a bass solo that reminded me a bit of Jack Casady, a drum solo with great use of snare and brushes.

If I Had A Woman sounds confused and too messy, but in a pleasant way, with vibes, and a guitar part that its author, Randy California, will return to in the following album.

Elijah (alternate take) is not as good as the version that appears on the album, but it's interesting to listen to.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2017

CloudsandClocks.net | July 17, 2017