Monday, March 17, 2003

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The winter of 1974-1975 was a significant period in developing my musical tastes for many years. Back then, in my town, there was a Ben Franklin five & dime store and a drug store, and both carried LPs and eight-track tapes. It was at about this time that I started getting a significant allowance, and of course much of it went for records...God forbid I should actually save it or something like that. Anyway, over that winter I received as Christmas gifts or bought with my own money such albums as Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece, George Harrison's Dark Horse, Ringo Starr's Goodnight Vienna, Mott The Hoople Live, Jefferson Starship's Dragon Fly, Yes' Relayer, Rod Stewart's Smiler, Lou Reed's Sally Can't Dance, John Lennon's Walls And Bridges, Leo Sayer's Just A Boy, and the album you see above: Traffic's When the Eagle Flies.

I remember picking this up at Caverna Drugs on a cloudy, bitterly cold January day. Back then, whenever I needed to go to town I walked (it wasn't that far) and took in the scenery, walking through and by open fields and streets lined with trees and old houses between my house and town. The album cover caught my eye– an atmospheric two-part spread (I don't have a scan of the back cover, sorry) done in pen-and-ink with the band members standing on a rustic hillside, eagle flying overhead, factories and a cityscape off in the distance on the back. It's a wonderful illustration, complete with a seperate descriptive illo for each song next to the lyrics on the inner sleeve, and this has long been one of my favorite covers. I distinctly remember walking home that grey January afternoon (couldn't have been much over 20 above) observing the skeletal trees and grey skies (looking a lot like the album cover). I placed this on the turntable while my Mom (probably fussing at me for not wearing a hat) fixed some soup when I got home, and I was entranced by the music I heard...I honestly hadn't been exposed to much jazz-rock, let alone jazz before, the early Chicago being the sole exception. I risk boring you with all this because rarely have I ever heard music that captured the mood around me like that. It's these sort of memories that tend to color my perception of certain albums, I'm afraid.

When the Eagle Flies was the last album by Traffic's original lineup. I seem to recall reading somewhere that Steve Winwood had originally intended it to be a solo album, similar to the way he had written 1970's John Barleycorn Must Die as a solo effort. I also seem to recall that he was ill before and during the sessions, which may explain a few things about why WtEF turned out the way it did. For more background on the convoluted history of Traffic, please go here. While they had been touring previously with as many as eight members just a year before, WtEF was recorded with a nucleus of four members: Winwood, drummer Jim Capaldi, flautist Chris Wood, and bassist Rosko Gee, and the songs (with one exception) turned out more succinct and less drawn out than in the past. The general sound of the album is jazz-rock, with a definite prog flavor to some of the tracks thanks to the judicious use of the Mellotron on several cuts. And I'll admit straight up that the album often has a listless, wan feel, perhaps due to Winwood's illness and perhaps to copious amounts of drugtaking. I wasn't there, can't say for sure. Still, this listlessness adds, in my opinion, invaluably to the mood of this music and is a big reason why I have responded so strongly.

Track-by-track: the opener, Something New, features a horn section which makes it sound a lot like Blood, Sweat, & Tears or early Chicago, and is probably the most uptempo cut on the entire album. Essentially a relationship song, it almost feels like a warm-up number. The next cut, Dream Gerrard, sported lyrics by the Bonzo Dog Band's Vivian Stanshall and is a surreal, clever and lengthy statement about imagination vs. realism. It's the one cut in which this incarnation of Traffic actually cuts loose and improvises over a jazzy, mellotron-enhanced landscape. While it may have tested the patience of some, I have always found it mesmerizing and it never fails to conjure up memories of winter in my mind. Cut 3, Graveyard People, is similar in its feel but nowhere near as long. Essentially an observation about types of personalities, it also features a bit of jazzy improvisation and liberal synth licks. Track 4, Walking in the Wind is another rumination on people and living and features a great jazzy bassline underpinning as well as a swelling chorus that brings the song to some nice peaks. Memories of a Rock 'n' Rolla is next, and is written from the point of view of an aged musician who's had it all, lost it, and is looking back on his life and what music means to him. Perhaps Capaldi's feeling sorry for himself, don't know, but taken on its own terms it's actually quite touching and features a nice up-tempo horn part at the end, in contrast to the meandering first three quarters of the track. Next to Gerrard, this is to me the best song on the album. Love is next, and it's, well, a love song with nicely played flute accompaniment by Wood. Not a particularly outstanding track, but not bad and it totally fits into the mood. The album's title track and finale is driven by a rolling piano riff and is essentially a plea to help the ecology, livened by Winwood's impassioned cry "Do you hear me...Mother Nature" which abruptly comes after an apocalyptic-sounding montage of radio effects and noise about three-quarters of the way through the song.

This album has had an unusual history. I seem to recall that it came out on Asylum Records in the US at first; it was part of a multi-label transaction between Columbia, Island (Traffic's usual label), and Asylum that also resulted in Bob Dylan's Planet Waves album being released on Asylum as well. Possibly as a result of its complicated label situation, it has never been officially released on compact disc over here, available only as an import. I don't want to tell you what I paid for my copy, which I really wanted despite the fact that I already had the vinyl. When all the Traffic albums were released on CD in the late 80s WtEF was conspicuous by its absence. These days it seems to be mostly unknown to all but the most ardent Traffic fans, despite the fact that it was a gold album and hit the top 10 in the USA!

When the Eagle Flies got under my skin back in 1975, and has never left, despite the fact that everything Winwood's done since has been mediocre at best and horrible at worst. That's the way it always seems to work for me. I usually always cite it as one of my absolute favorite albums, and this is my way of trying to explain and justify it. If you haven't heard it, I hope you can get the chance to someday. I doubt that it will affect anyone the same way it has me, but hey, you never know.