The Incredible String Band – The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion
Released July, 1967 on Elektra Records
Incredible String Band were a couple of Scottish folkies who got their start wanting to be Donovan and Bob Dylan and ended up being mainstays of the lysergic road of the Hippie Trail. Their 1966 self-titled debut showed the former as being big influences; this follow-up included a number of then-exotic instruments (sitar, gimbri, mandolin, etc.) that were incorporated in such a blissful way that “psychedelic folk” leads it’s long, bizarre trail directly back to it. If 1967 was indeed the fabled Summer Of Love, then The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion is the most Love-y album of that summer. This is meant in two senses. In the first sense, 5000 Spirits is pretty much the epitome of psych-folk, which was the driving soundtrack of the naked, wild, flower-dancing hippie children of 1967. In the second sense, it is also the epitome of the more teeth-grinding aspects of that era; it’s overly fey in spots, cutesy beyond credibility (“The Hedgehog’s Song”), incorporates blues music without really understanding the grinding poverty that underpinned the blues (“No Sleep Blues”, “Blues For The Muse”), and plays fast and loose with the era’s regrettable love for freewheeling, womanizing men (“The First Girl I Loved”). There’s little wonder, then, that Paul McCartney called it his favourite album of 1967. Still, as far as documents of a decade’s music go, there’s few records that sum up the 1960s quite as well as 5000 Spirits.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Exodus
Released June 3rd, 1977 on Island Records
The Wailers were an early ska group, originally, forming in 1963 and featuring Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh. Seven albums later they’d morphed into the premier reggae act in their native Jamaica, but as usual with these sorts of things that just meant major change was around the corner. Wailer and Tosh left in 1974; Marley put together a new version of the Wailers for 1976’s Rastaman Vibration while both Wailer and Tosh released their own solo albums (Blackheart Man and Legalize It, respectively, both reggae classics in their own right). Rastaman Vibration became a major success, scoring a berth in the Billboard charts (hitting #8) and, in “Roots, Rock, Reggae”, Marley’s only American Top 100 hit. Then, in December of 1976, Marley and his wife were shot at in an assault that likely had political motivations, since Marley was scheduled to play a concert that was a de facto rally for Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. Despite his injuries, Marley played the show as scheduled, because he was about as badass a performer as you’re ever likely to find. Following this incident, however, Marley decamped to London, where he would remain in exile for two years.
Exodus was the first result of being holed up in London, and it is thought by many to be his finest album. Certainly his career retrospective, Legend (a staple of every dorm room, head shop, and activist squat since time out of mind) features more songs from Exodus than any of his other albums. There are a huge number of stone classics featured here: “The Heathen”, “Exodus”, “Jamming”, “Turn Your Lights Down Low”, and “One Love/People Get Ready” are all signature tracks. Part of it’s appeal at the time was how different it was from the reggae music coming out of Jamaica in the late 1970s. Exodus was more laid-back, with an increased focus on piano tones and freer, lighter beats. There were elements of rock ‘n’ roll (especially with regard to Marley’s guitar playing – check out those opening licks on “Natural Mystic”) and the then-white-hot funk scene. The only real connection to the reggae scene that Marley had exiled himself from was a nod to the rhythm and the liquid nature of the pulsating bass lines, something that could have been borrowed from funk music if Marley hadn’t already come from the reggae world.
It was this melding of reggae tinges with rock, funk, and blues motifs that drove Exodus, like it’s predecessor, into the Billboard charts and made an international superstar out of Bob Marley. He would be dead within four years, a victim of a malignant cancer that first manifested itself in a tumor under his toenail in the same year that Exodus was released. His final words – “Money can’t buy life” – are a clear statement of truth in a world increasingly bent on driving the capitalist machine into overdrive and then collapse.
Keith Richards – Crosseyed Heart
Keith Richards – rock ‘n’ roll guitarist, legend, living heroin syringe – has not released many solo efforts in his career. Part of this is probably due to the fact that the endless tour of his day band keeps him occupied. Part of it is probably how unutterably bad Mick Jagger’s solo albums are, and not wanting to ever release something that might be on that level. There are, in fact, only three: Talk Is Cheap, recorded just before the band got their act back together at the end of the Eighties; Main Offender, recorded just before the Voodoo Lounge sessions and the rebirth of the band’s artistic credibility; and now Crosseyed Heart, released ten years after the Stones’ best album since Tattoo You and with vague rumours of a new Stones album in the works.
Crosseyed Heart has a lot of problems. First of all, it’s too long at nearly an hour and fifteen tracks. Secondly, it relies too heavily on Richards’ voice, an instrument that has it’s own warm, whisky-scratched charm but doesn’t hold a candle to Jagger. Thirdly, while the album is mostly mid-tempo Ageing Boomer Rock, there are some regrettable deviations into styles the Stones already tried and ditched (such as the overlong and lazily presented reggae diversion of “Love Overdue”, or the pseudo-Tom Waits delivery of “Suspicious”). There’s very little guitar flash here, save for the tough acoustic Robert Johnson riffing of the brief title track and a few almost-riffs here and there. Instead, we’re offered the same sort of AOR that every other former star of the Sixties and Seventies seems to think passes for Upstanding Professional Rock Music; that is to say, it’s boring as all hell.
Worst of all is that I can discern a point to the album. Most artists use solo albums as an outlet for music that doesn’t fit with their band or that could be deemed more experimental than their band’s fanbase could handle. Failing that, it’s a good way for an artist to abandon a sinking ship and stake claim on a name of their own. In the former example, none of this is stuff that the Stones’ older fanbase wouldn’t be able to handle; the real deal here is that the material on Crosseyed Heart is by and large too syrupy and flavourless to ever pass muster on a Rolling Stones album (save for “Goodnight Irene”, which could maybe be an outtake from the Beggars Banquet sessions). In the latter example, there’s no furthering Richards’ reputation here. He’s already about as famous as he’s going to get. The Rolling Stones are under no threat of disbanding (according to the rest of them it’s Charlie Watts’ decision anyway) and there’s absolutely no need for him to separate himself from the band, especially on this uninspired group of songs. So what gives? Why do Boomers feel the need to put out albums that don’t say anything or mean anything? Aside from contractual obligation I can’t think of a single reason as to why Crosseyed Heart needs to exist, at all.