The new Blood, Sweat & Tears album is a perfect example of the rock record that “tries harder.” While at some points on the record the basic style of the group resembles rock and roll, more often the listener is being bombarded with non-rock arranging devices, non-rock solos, and non-rock material, all of which tells him that “something else” is going. The obvious response is that we are hearing something new: rock being mixed with jazz, rock being mixed with soul, etc. Ultimately, someone at Columbia will come up with a name for it: “jazz-folk-soul-baroque-C&W-latin-show-tune-rock.” And for once the hyphenated labeling would be appropriate because B, S & T play hyphenated music: first they play folk, then they play jazz, then they play latin, etc. Styles exist in tangent on their record, but never merge into one.
There is an understandable reason why B, S & T have adopted this approach. Most efforts by musicians to merge varying styles have been more than dismal. Perhaps they thought it would be better to maintain the integrity of each style and to combine them without mixing them. Unfortunately, the only result of such an approach can be a pastiche of styles that are fitted together in an artificial way. The elements of their arrangements often have little musical relationship with each other. The listener responds to the illusion that he is hearing something new when in fact he is hearing mediocre rock, OK jazz, etc., thrown together in a contrived and purposeless way. In their first album, B, S & T managed their material (which was — in the form of Kooper’s songs — considerably better than the new material) in a beautiful way. Here they are too intent on proving that they can out-do the first album and wind up letting the material manage them.
I realize that these are harsh criticisms but I think a careful listening to several songs in particular bear them out. “Smiling Phases” is well known as one of Traffic’s finest recordings. They did the song as a largely straight R & B piece, with Jim Capaldi playing a primitive and simple four beat on drums. B, S & T have taken the edge off of Traffic’s version. The song begins with an over-elaborate horn intro. The verses are done at rushed pace and the rhythm is syncopated so as to fragment the lines of the verse instead of holding them together. Bobby Colomby’s drumming is particularly at fault: he overplays everything. After two verses they find their way into a piano solo which involves several changes, several breaks, and which gets farther and farther into a jazz thing. Once having done that, they have to find a way to get back into the rock style of the song in order to end it. Hence, coming out of the piano solo we get what sounds like a horn transition, but this only leads to a longer, lush, horn segue, which in turn leads into the real horn transition, which is the already overly elaborate horn intro used at the beginning of the cut. Now back into the song, the final verse seems — oddly enough — to be lacking in any sense of climax or tension. The over-elaboration of musical ideas make it all sound limp.
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In a similar vein, Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die” is over-arranged right into the ground. The verses are done in an imitation — Cowboy musical style (a la “Oklahoma”). These cute little items lead into choruses which are done in a smooth shuffle, except that the last line of the chorus is broken up. Following the first chorus we are given a piano solo in the spirit and style of the verses. After the second, we get a horn riff played over a Lawrence Welk styled effect of hoof-beats. The rest of the cut continues like this, all of it involving innumerable rhythm changes, various instrumental patterns, all of which accomplish nothing except to bury the song beneath layers of musical irrelevance and nonsense. It wasn’t a very good tune to begin with, and Peter, Paul and Mary did it better three years ago.
Even on a song as poignant and eloquent as “God Bless the Child” they are unable to contain themselves or to allow something beautiful to speak for itself. In the middle of a perfectly fine reading of the song we are given an intrusion of a latin styled horn solo which is so vile and obnoxious, and so lacking in taste, that it’s hard to believe the same minds are responsible for both parts of the cut. B, S, & T are constitutionally incapable of leaving well enough alone. A computer could have arranged this song with more sensitivity.
There are two musicians on this record who come through in excellent from and who ought to be exempted from some of these comments. David Clayton Thomas is an extremely able vocalist who has more depth than most and happily avoids vocal “blackface.” Jim Fielder has been, since his superb performance on the first B, S & T album, one of the finest bassmen on the scene. On this album he shows he can play anything. But beyond that, he exhibits an excellent sense of what goes where, i.e., how to use his knowledge in a musically effective way. Blood, Sweat and Tears would have been a much better record if some of his colleagues possessed that same knowledge.