Thursday, April 26, 2007

Pink Floyd: The Wilderness Years (1968-1972) - Part II

Before I give a track-by-track breakdown of my amazingly well-chosen Wilderness Years mix, I'd like to provide a cursory overview of each of the six albums that comprise the Wilderness Years (I've linked the AllMusic reviews to each title):

A Saucerful of Secrets (1968): As Syd Barrett became more and more unreliable, the band initially held hopes that, even if he wasn't able to tour, maybe he would still be able to write studio material a la Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys (and we all know what a great arrangement that was). Eventually even that proved too much to ask for the young Barrett, and suddenly the rest of the band had to slap together a decent follow-up album and hope that nobody noticed their lead singer's almost complete absence. Considering the circumstances under which the album was recorded, then, it's amazing that it's as good as it is. Fortunately for us, the standards for albums at the time meant that even half-assed albums were pretty eclectic and rewarding. Sure it's a hodgepodge, but it's never a boring hodgepodge; not every song is a highlight, but they all at least have something to offer. Rick Wright continues his apparent lead singer duties with the pleasant (if dated) "Remember A Day" and See-Saw," while Waters rumbles his bass for 6 minutes and calls it "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun." The entire band freaks out on the 12-minute title track, and if it seems a bit like album filler, at least it's interesting (also keep in mind that this was still 1968, and that this stuff must have seemed pretty far out at the time - at least with the aid of cough syrup or whatnot). Syd gets his last gasp with the delightfully warped "Jugband Blues," in which he brought a Salvation Army band into the studio and told them to play "whatever you want." Judged as a debut album (which it essentially is), A Saucerful of Secrets is pretty good. I probably like it more than their real debut album.

More (1969): Here's a soundtrack album to a film nobody has seen. While most Pink Floyd fans will agree that the album is wildly inconsistent, with some great highs and some skippable lows, no one actually agrees on which songs are the highs and which songs are the lows. There are at least four or five short instrumental pieces that aren't exactly real songs, but were never meant to be either, so they're enjoyable as such. Let's just say that, for a band that didn't know how to write lyrics yet, soundtracks must have seemed like the perfect career move.

Ummagumma (1969): Here's a document of a group that really doesn't know what to do with itself, and figures it might as well fart up its own asshole. Ummagumma is a half-live, half-studio double-album set. The live album is pretty terrific, but the truth is, aside from a seriously reworked "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" (which was only previously available as an obscure B-side), it's all old material. With the studio album, they decided to copy the Who's formula of A Quick One While He's Away, and divide up all the songwriting equally among the four members. That's right, drummer Nick Mason gives it a shot with "The Grand Vizier's Party, I-III." Gilmour and Waters come the closest to actually writing real songs, but it's clear that even they still need more practice (although Waters does come up with the memorably titled "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict"). The end effect of the album is basically: "Here's a bunch of stuff we tried." Nevertheless, Pink Floyd still prove that, even when they're not very good, at least they're interesting.

Atom Heart Mother (1970) : Floyd begin smoothing out their rough edges, and as a result they make an album that's pretty even all the way through. The first half is a side-long collaboration with an obscure British composer that doesn't really go anywhere great, but it doesn't go anywhere bad either. The second half consists of a Waters song, a Wright song, a Gilmour song and a whole band song (Nick thankfully wasn't asked to contribute a piece of his own). Surprisingly, Rick Wright comes up with the most enjoyable number, the Kinks rip-off "Summer '68". Waters' folky "If" at first seems like a throwaway, but it improves with repeated listens. Gilmour's "Fat Old Sun" isn't amazing but it's nice. The band ends with the meandering jam "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast," which is exactly what it describes: the sound of their roadie Alan eating breakfast. As Rolling Stone so aptly put it in their 1970 review, "Try freaking out again, Floyd!" In sum, it's an album or fans only - but fans will probably like it.

Meddle (1971): It might have seemed like Floyd had been making genuine albums for the past fews years, but in retrospect, they were pretty much slapping them together. Saucerful was recorded with the line-up in transition, More was a soundtrack album, Ummagumma was half-live, half-studio, and Atom Heart Mother was an orchestral prog rock experiment. Meddle is, for all intents and purposes, the first real post-Barrett Floyd album. That's not to say, however, that it still isn't a Wilderness Years album. The first side is the typical grab-bag, with a Doctor Who-ish instrumental, a lounge jazz number, and a bluesy throwaway sung by Gilmour's dog. Sure, they were still filling up the album space, but they were getting better at it. Side Two's "Echoes," however, is basically where the Wilderness Years end: stylistic chaos gives way to carefully-blended atmospheric and compositional control. Millions of frat boy stoners were waiting around the bend.

Obscured By Clouds (1972): Tossed off in a week, it's hard to believe that this album officially precedes Dark Side of the Moon in the discography. If anything, it really belongs between Atom Heart Mother and Meddle. If you're not expecting too much, this might be the most underrated Floyd album of all; almost every song has a memorable hook and the production is pleasantly warm and pastoral. Most of the lyrics, however, are extremely dopey. Anyone expecting something along the lines of "Did they get you to trade/Your heroes for ghosts/Hot ashes for trees/Hot air for a cool breeze/Cold comfort for change" will be best advised to look elsewhere.

Some other bits and pieces:

Early singles: If you want to witness a band in its actual moment of awkward adolescence, these are worth checking out. As serious attempts at psychedelic pop, "Paintbox," "Julia Dream" and "Point Me at the Sky" are pretty laughable, but they're extremely evocative of late 60s Swinging London. To hear Waters, Wright and Gilmour try to be the next Donovan is a bit like getting your own private glimpse of the universe before it expanded.

Zabriskie Point soundtrack: Floyd also cut a couple of stray tracks for Michelangelo Antonioni's entertainingly clueluess late 60s counterculture movie (in which a rebellious young man answers the phone by saying "Goodbye?"). The highlight is a reworked version of "Care With That Axe, Eugene" with the much-improved title of "Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up."


yoggoth said...

At first I didn't like the title 'Careful with that Axe, Eugene' but then it started to grow on me. Now it's one of my favorite Pink Floyd titles. It forces you to listen to the song differently.

Little Earl said...

I was joking about the "much improved" part; the titles seem to be at about the same level of ridiculousness. Which version of "Axe" are you referring to anyway (there are basically three)? The one on the mix?

yoggoth said...

The mix you gave me has no titles so I have no idea which song is which. I remember downloading that song on my computer years ago, but I don't remember what it sounded like. I just like the title.

Oh, I knew you were joking.