Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Classic Albums: Traffic, John Barleycorn Must Die

Ever since I acquired a turntable a few years back, I have been exposed to music I'd overlooked in the past.  With used records sometimes just costing a couple of bucks, I've paid for some pretty fantastic wax for less than the price of a cappucchino, and experienced new musical loyalties to boot.  One such discovery has been the band Traffic, which for years I'd only thought of as that band Steve Winwood was in before he hit the big time as a solo artist in the 1980s ("Roll With It," "Valerie," "Higher Love," etc.)

My discovery of said band in many ways constitutes the best argument in favor the continuing existence of record stores as opposed to our ephemeral digital music worlds.  I was in the Princeton Record Exchange, just checking the place out, but noticed that the record being played by the store clerks was really, really cool.  I discovered it was a Traffic live album, and my interest piqued, I started delving into the band's oeuvre.

Very quickly John Barleycorn Must Die wormed its way into heavy rotation in my house, even if my favorite Traffic song was the title track to another record, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.  I loved Barleycorn because it is a record that defies categorization and jumps over all kinds of genre boundaries.  It's a deceptively simple album, with only six tracks and a cover designed to make it look like a burlap sack.  You expect something folky, and the first song turns out to be "Glad," an up-tempo jazzy rocker driven by piano and saxophone, the guitars practically in hiding.  It's an instrumental track, something very rare for a rock band to put on record, much less as the opening song.  The next track, "Freedom Rider," has lyrics, but retains the same loose, improvisational feel.  This time around, there's a flute in addition to the saxophone, giving the song a more whimsical vibe.

The following track, "Empty Pages," isn't as purely jazzy, but it's got a real funky swing to it.  It also might illustrate why Traffic's music hasn't had the staying power it deserves.  This record came out in 1970, at a time when mainstream rock music was either heading into a hard, heavy direction (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Humble Pie), into the prog rock stratosphere (Pink Floyd, Yes)  or had a folksy, rootsy vibe (The Eagles, Grateful Dead, Neil Young).  Perhaps Traffic's records aren't sought after or treasured because the band's combination of jazz improvisation, psychedelia, and funky R&B ventured way too far off of the paths being forged at the time.

After starting off the listener with some killer, jazz inspired improvisation on side one, the record shifts gears on side two with a more conventional, easy-rolling rocker, "Stranger to Himself."  The driving piano is still at the heart of it, though, and the song still allows space for the musicians to stretch out and jam a little.

The following song, the title track, takes things in a much folksier direction with an actual folk song.  The song itself is a beautiful, elegant mesh of acoustic guitar picking and haunting flute.  Though you might think it's about murder, the whole thing is an elaborate metaphor for the harvest, when all the barley will be cut down by the scythe.  The song strikes an appropriately mournful tone, since we, like shafts of wheat, will too be cut down in our time.

The album ends with "Every Mother's Son," which melds some high, lonesome singing with psychedelic guitar and hippy-dippy lyrics.  It's a pretty, majestic end to a quietly stunning record, and one that more people ought to have in their collections.

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