11. Blood, Sweat, and Tears

I've always liked the song "Spinning Wheel". It's kind of funky but also really insane, in a good way.  Figured I'd give the rest of (what turns out to be) their debut album a listen.  I don't know the names of any of the people in this band, but I know from word on the street that close to 150 people have been in this band over the past half century.  That roster is insane (record-breaking for a pop act?), but their longevity speaks to something that keeps people interested.  I think the only other song I definitely know to be by this band is "You've Made Me So Very Happy" (if that's even the title).

For the newcomers to this series: as always, what happens below will be stream of consciousness impressions, written in the moment while the record is playing.  I've never heard this album before (except "Spinning Wheel") so I'll be hearing this material fresh.  I'll be listening to the musical content, but since I've been a pro sound engineer and a media arts professor for decades, I can't help but to also examine the quality of the recording and mixing.  
Editing to my words after the record has finished will only be for spelling and clarity.  

 Blood, Sweat, and Tears
 Blood, Sweat, and Tears  (1968)

"Variations On A Theme By Erik Satie (1st and 2nd Movements)"
The title gives this one away... almost.  I know my Satie fairly well.  BS&T decline to specifically indicate this theme as being his first Gymnopedie (of three).  Why do BS&T title this "on a theme"?  The theme in question is probably Satie's most famous.  Also, there's only one "movement" in each of the Gymnopedies.  The three are each stand-alone pieces, not movements of a larger work.  I wonder why Satie has been so popular as a go-to early modern composer for pop acts to interpret?  Is it because his short pieces and deceptively simple melodies lend themselves to a pop format?  Well... BS&T's version: fairly gentle flute and acoustic guitar opening... then, you know it's gonna kick in and get raucous.  That's a given.  But, all right, I'm on board here: atonal horns, flanger effects, and off-kilter drum patterns.  This weirdness is the band's own contribution: the second "movement" that Satie never wrote.  Satie was an important early modernist composer, and BS&T now put a post-modernist twist on his most famous theme, even if they refuse to say its name.  Good album opener.

"Smiling Phases"
Boom, right in with the big pop brass section and Hammond organ.  Big funky groove with feel-good hippie lyrics.  This guy has a good rasp to his voice.  Very dry mix, very present.  Everything is clean and up in your face.  "Everything louder than everything else".  Oops, he's not so happy now, he's singing about getting arrested.  This drum break!  This must have been sampled by a thousand hip hop artists.  Now jazz piano.  This shit is insane.  Ok, I'm on board with this band.  Switch to an odd time signature... then a straight jazz groove.  Five minutes into this album we've heard like five discreet styles of music.  Now another break and we to go to church.  Six styles.  There's a lot going on here, engineered well and played fairly well.  But is it too much?  Are these guys doing these strange arrangements for the sake of chaos, or is there a reason for it?

"Sometimes in Winter"
Straight up ballad.  A different singer.  Much smoother.  The other guy had a lot more personality.  This guy is a generic pop balladeer.  The lyric is generic too.  It's a little break from the insanity of the previous track though.  If they were all like that, then this album would become hard to take.  Contrast is important.  Clearly this band know that; they go for contrast every five bars.  But this sounds like a different band.

"More and More"
Huge brass.  Huge.  More big funk and the other singer is back.  This is a straight up funky rocker.  They keep to one groove without all of the mad random switches.  Lyric isn't as thought-provoking as on "Smiling Phases" but the track is a fun little jam.  Another classic break beat.  Cool guitar tone for the solo.  Singer is trying to be James Brown on his ad-libs, behind the guitar solo.

"And When I Die"
Bluesy harmonica.  Kind of a dopey groove comes in.   The raspy singer is singing about being ok with dying, and we almost start to get into a gospel groove mixed with a hoe-down feel.  And a goofy little electric keyboard solo.  This song should be "fun", but I find it annoying.  Aside from BS&T's unpredictable arrangement (this seems to be their stock in trade, for sure), the melody and chord progression ultimately feel like something by one of the folk revivalist songwriters.  I'll bet this one is a cover.  Joan Baez or something, given the BS&T treatment.

"God Bless The Child"
Yeah, the title of this one is already making me wary.  Another chill groove and a Hammond organ.  Seems like we're in church here.  Is this the other singer, or is it raspy guy just chilling out and not calling upon his... yeah, it is him.  Definitely.  Wait, maybe that was him on "Sometimes in Winter"?  He's got a lot of range, tonally.  A good palette of textures and timbres to draw from.  This song can bite me though.  Billie Holiday did it better, but I'm not crazy about her version either.  It's just not a great song.  I'm up for this band when they're funky and jazzy and doing insane -- oops, here they go, they're going into... a Latin groove?  All right, I didn't see that coming.  Should have.  Again through: is it gratuitous, or is there a rationale for going into these weird places other than just for the sake of being surprising?  These guys were Oingo Boingo, a decade before the Oingo Boinged.  Is it serving the song when BS&T take this gospel-blues and go Latin with it, and then go into classic jazz and then back to Latin then back to classic jazz?

"Spinning Wheel"
Right.  I know this song very well.  Hearing it in the context of the album, it's in line with the rest of the record with that funky groove and all the surprising random detours in the arrangement.  I never questioned the changes while hearing this song on its own before (and in fact they were part of its appeal), but now I'm considering it alongside the rest of the record's frequent explorations into these dizzying stylistic choices.  One of the better lyrics on this album.  Probably the best.  It's clear why this was a single.  Awesome vocal processing (for 1968) when he says "colors that are real-l-l-l-l-l-l-".

"You've Made Me So Very Happy"
Ah, so this is the title of this song, and here it is on this record.  This has song been lurking around in the background of my life for as long as I've been alive.  It's always just sort of been there like the sounds of wind and birds and cars.  But I've never had an interest in focusing on it.  I'm pretty sure this is also a cover though.  Our singer goes back and forth between his smooth voice and his raspy voice seamlessly.  As a studio engineer, I wonder if he sang the song contiguously, or did all the smooth parts then went back and did all the raspy bits one by one.  I would have wanted to adjust the microphone settings to make each style sound its best.  There's a bit of artificial reverb on this one.  It sounds fine.  Really, the in-your-face stuff at the beginning of the record was a bit too dry.  A little ambience helps, but with a band this big and with so much going on, there's also the risk of the recording just becoming super-muddy if there's too much 'verb.  Anyway, another good performance, and just enough of this band's trademark arrangement change-ups to make it unmistakably them, but this time they do restrain themselves just enough to get this one some steady radio play - for five decades. 

"Blues - Part II"
Hammond with lots o' verb.  This band must have been a nightmare to mix live, especially before they became a major act.  When they started playing bigger venues, it was probably easier, but I can't even deal with imagining what it would have been like to make these guys sound good crammed onto a tiny stage with an inadequate 1960s sound system in a small club or theater.  The Hammond, and all those horns making so much sound, and then they pull out the quieter flutes and acoustic guitars which can't possibly hope to compete.  And the big range in both dynamics and timbre exhibited by this singer.  Their sound guy must have been working overtime.  With hazard pay.  Ok, this solo Hammond has been going on for a long time.  Oh, I see, this song is 11m 48s.  A Hammond jazz odyssey, no doubt.  Still, we're at 2m 30s and the organist has just been noodling the whole time.  All right, finally, now a groove, and the band is gonna kick in, I can feel it, yup big horns, and now: bass solo.  Nooooooo.  Ack.  You've read my bass solo joke already (entry #06, Fleetwood Mac, part one).  They obviously put a lot of time and effort into the first eight numbers on this record.  The performances are pretty decent, the arrangements - as discussed at length - took some effort (and strict attentiveness from the players to pull off), and the songs range from competent to pretty good.  But this album closer feels like they put so much time into the first eight songs that they ran out of time and ideas.  Now they have to fill up side two with something.  This is the ultimate filler track, and it's most of side two of the record!  Ugh.  This is crap. I mean, the engineering is adequate, and we can hear that these players are all competent, but it is very very clear to me that these guys are stalling for time.  A lot of time.  Oh, that homage at about 8m 00s.  A little Cream riff ("Sunshine of Your Love").  If the band took a few of the extra ideas crammed into some of the other songs and used them here, that would be good.  But this song is still them waffling for twelve minutes.

"Variations On A Theme By Erik Satie (1st Movement)"
And back into the Satie.  Little bookend for the record.  Then: wind chimes and the sound of someone walking then slamming a door.  Wait, why were there wind chimes indoors?

This record has a lot of good moments.  Before hearing it, I liked "Spinning Wheel" for it's lyrics, its fun good groove, and for all of the surprising random changes in it.  What I found out today is that this band do the random changes thing so much that the novelty wears off and it becomes a little annoying to listen to.  If they pulled back and did that thing a little more sparingly, it might be more effective, and might let the songs exist as good songs with surprising moments, rather than as a string of surprising moments getting in the way of a good song.  But I'd listen to at least half of this album again, particularly the uptempo numbers, which is where BS&T seem to do better.

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: "Spinning Wheel" is the obvious choice.  
But listening to "You've Made Me..." closely for the first time, I do appreciate its artistic merits.  "Smiling Phases" has some good bits, but it's too long for a mix tape.  Long songs drag a mix down.  "More and More" is quick and funky.  That one might actually work.

Next: Pink Floyd, part three (of three) coming October 01, 2021 .

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