The Family That Plays Together

(Audio Fidelity)

Arguing about what's the best album released by a particular group/artist is bound to remain a hotly debated item, at least till there are people who like to discuss such topics.

Trying to take into account several points of view, I usually have no trouble selecting one or two "best" albums for any given group/artist. The only exception for this being the group Spirit.

Sure, I have no trouble admitting that The Family That Plays Together - the group's second album, originally released on Ode at the end of '68, whose original mix appears here for the first time since - is the Spirit album I've listened to the most in the last four decades, which I suppose in a pragmatic sense qualifies it as being my favourite Spirit album, and the one I know better anyway.

Which has made me look for the "best new edition" of this particular album for ages. A fact that has made me perennially frustrated, till the release of this hybrid SACD masterfully remastered by Steve Hoffman.

The Family That Plays Together is not merely a "new, improved" version of the group's first album, though it features those very qualities that had made Spirit an undisputed classic.

"Maturity" is probably the right word here. This is especially true of Randy California, a brilliant presence as a guitarist on the first album but whose contribution as a songwriter and singer until then had been minimal. And it's Randy California's signature as songwriter and vocalist that's the true innovation on this album. Of course, he can still play those formidable solos, as I'll argue when discussing the individual songs.

While drummer Ed Cassidy is versatile and inventive as per his usual, it's the group's other resident "jazzman", John Locke, who redefines his role: more acoustic piano, many parts played on what to me sounds like a very different electric piano than the Wurlitzer he used on the first album. Maybe a Fender Rhodes, or a different Wurlitzer model?

The bass parts, by Mark Andes, are always quite inventive, sometimes with a "lead" role, and quite audible now that they don't have to compete with vinyl's noise floor. A great composer and singer, Jay Ferguson is once again the group's fulcrum.

The credits as per the original album: Produced by Lou Adler. Engineered by Eric Wienbang, Armin Stiener. Strings and brass arrangements by Marty Paich.

The version reviewed here is an SACD hybrid disc that features two layers, one in hi-rez, one with the usual CD rez, the latter being the one I listened to.

The first copy of The Family That Plays Together that I bought, about forty years ago, was an Epic re-release - no gatefold - with an orange label and no dust jacket (at the time, I bought quite a few Epic Made in USA re-releases that had no dust jacket, though they were still sealed: Jeff Beck, Donovan, Spirit...). Dating records is not my forte, so I don't know whether my copy is a re-release from 1972, which I'm told exists, or what. It goes without saying that I've never ever seen an original Ode of this album.

I've always liked the "dry" sound of that Epic mix. But the sound of the vinyl left a lot to be desired. I bought an Edsel LP hot off the presses - in 1986, when I still didn't own a CD player - and it was obvious that the vinyl was miles better. But I always got back to my Epic LP, since to me the Edsel sounded like it had been doctored with more than a pinch of reverb, which made listening to whole sides a boring experience. (I experienced the same phenomenon while listening to some MCA LPs pressed in Germany - by Steely Dan, and Steppenwolf - in the pre-CD era, I think.) I vaguely remember a different stereo album (on Sundazed?) with quite noisy vinyl and an "attenuated" left channel.

The double "best of" Time Circle (1991) made it possible for me to listen to most of the songs featured on The Family That Plays Together, but in remixed form. Strange, the "remixed" tag appeared only on that material, so listeners were bound to believe that the mixes for the material taken from the other three albums were the original ones on Ode.

The Sony re-release with bonus tracks from 1996 featured a new mix and a new mastering, both by Vic Anesini. I bought it, and - funny thing - in the end I went back to my old Epic LP. Too much bass, and some mixing choices I found questionable. Having the bass guitar and the rhythm guitar on Silky Sam louder only made Jay Ferguson's vocals sound smaller, so making the story told in the song smaller, and less poetic. For no reasons I could see, the vocals in the final part on Dream Within A Dream were kept at full volume till the end, while the partial muting of the penultimate line and the disappearance of the last line - as on the original mix and on the Epic LP - are coherent with the "ghostly" nature of the tale. (And what a strange discover it was, when after thirty years I learned that what to me sounded like "Steppin' on a watercolor" was "Steppin' off this mortal coil"!)

This new version released on Audio Fidelity is what I've always hoped would exist, but didn't. My old Epic LP can now be put to rest (well, not quite: I listened to it again just last night...).

Still awake? Here's a quick introduction to the individual tracks featured here.

I Got A Line On You is the group's (only, tiny) commercial move, the first song performed by the group penned by Randy California. A light, joyful song, featuring piano, guitars, and excellent vocals by Jay Ferguson. Great bass, a "tiny"-sounding guitar solo, great "rock" guitar at the song's ending.

It Shall Be, penned by California and Locke, starts with an arpeggio for electric piano, percussion, bass, flute, vocals, strings. There's a light vocal melody, reeds, "bending" on the bass, strings... A lot within a simple structure.

Poor Richard starts with a heavy-sounding bass riff. Ensemble vocals with a "Beatles"-influenced melody. Two harmonized guitars go solo, then ending the song with an "infinite" feedback, while a Hammond organ makes a rare apparition.

Silky Sam starts with guitar arpeggios, bass, strings, then a choral explosion acting as the song's chorus. Time for a poker game, then the song starts again. Fine ending.

Drunkard is another portrait penned by Ferguson. Strings, viola, flute. An orchestral interlude that sounds as it's taken from a movie soundtrack, then the song fades.

Darlin' If is bound to remind one of The Band. A ballad well served by Randy California's lead vocals and by Ferguson's background. Piano, a fine intermezzo for arpeggiated guitar and bass, an excellent string section.

It's All The Same starts with a "psychedelic"-sounding effect on the right channel, then it's time for the drums, then a riff. Highly communicative vocal parts, a "psychedelic-rock-blues" guitar solo, (brief) drum solo. Riff, chorus, coda.

Jewish starts with a slow cadenza, hymn-like vocals. Great twin-guitar solo, then a guitar-bass unison (a very delicate-sounding part). Then it's back to the beginning.

Dream Within A Dream is the first of the three contributions penned by Ferguson which take the album to its exciting conclusion. Riff, a psychedelic scenario ("Standing on a mountain top/She's looking to the sea above her"), great chorus, it gets faster and faster, with the sound of the pick hitting the guitar strings.

She Smiles is a bitter-sweet ballad. Piano, a clean-sounding melody, a fine melodic development in the chorus.

Aren't You Glad starts with an immortal melodic figure played on the piano acting as a riff, group entrance, "flute-like" guitars, a solo "blues" guitar playing unison with the vocals. Mood-enhancing strings, a guitar solo with expressive bending - again, we can hear the sound of the pick hitting the strings - which ends with "infinite" feedback, the note then sliding over the fretboard while the piano riff appears again. A crescendo with brass and another guitar solo with bending and - I think - just a pinch of wha-wha. A track that will sound differently with every listening session. (Just like the lyrics: "Streets are yours, you're feeling much bolder/But Summer's gone, we're all a bit older/Now".)

I usually don't like bonus tracks, especially so when added to works from an era when side ending and album closing were carefully planned. The tracks added here - they are the same that are featured on the Sony CD released in '96, but with a new mastering by Steve Hoffman - offer many interesting points, though. It has to be said that Fog and Now Or Nowhere, recorded and mixed at the time the group was working on the album, had already appeared on the above-mentioned Time Circle. The remaining tracks were mixed by Vic Anesini in '96.

Fog, by Locke e Cassidy, anticipates Clear's orchestral-movie soundtrack climates. Arpeggio, a simple orchestral melody, "exotic"-sounding percussion, a guitar melody sounding quite Fripp-like, strings.

So Little To Say, by Ferguson, is a lively vocal ballad with piano, and a melodic-orchestral "B" section. A track that in some ways anticipates a lot of "soft" music of the 70s. There's a coda with reeds and guitar, sounding half-way between Blood, Sweat & Tears and the Doors, circa The Soft Parade.

Mellow Fellow, by Locke, starts with electric piano, percussion, a melody for solo guitar, a melodic-sounding intermezzo that's bound to remind one of the Doors, then an excellent guitar solo, a very well-organized drum solo, a string line in the background. Then it's back to the piano phrase with chords, and the guitar melody.

Now Or Anywhere, by Ferguson, can be said to anticipate the more simpler-sounding, hard-hitting rock-blues climates that appear on the group's next two albums. "Rock" piano and lead guitar, strings and brass. An apocalyptic ending with solo guitar, piano, strings.

Space Chile, by Locke, will appear, with a synth-based instrumentation, on Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus. Here it starts with vibes, a piano arpeggio, phased cymbals, a guitar melody. Cut, new section, piano, fine jazzy solo, cut, drum solo, then a fine solo guitar part, the piano feeding the chords. An excellent performance.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2017

CloudsandClocks.net | Aug. 1, 2017