The Family That Plays Together (1968) ****
A major improvement over the debut, which is why I only rated it half a star higher :>} It's two steps forward at the expense of one step back: the songs are more tightly composed and the band finally envelopes itself comfortably into its own sound (that primordial quasi-mystical soup). There's a lot less jazzy jamming (not that there still ain't plenty) and more directioned pop-rock tunage. The lone step back is that, comfortable in their signature sound, there's little of the wild variety of styles found on the debut. This album is all of a piece, so if you're expecting a break from the cohesive monotony, you'll be sorely disappointed. The album consists almost solely of dreamy mid-tempo, moody balladic pieces heavy on misty atmospherics, but with an assured grip on melodics, harmonies, and stately pop hooks. OK, so the opener and (Spirit's only) hit single, "I Got a Line on You," breaks the formula and stands out as the most exciting track. It's not the most obvious or conventional of pop hooks, but as soon as the drums/piano intro comes pounding in and California's guitar begins wailing, and then the surging plead of the vocals waft in, you're hooked all the way to the "let me let me love you all year long" crescendo. It's a heckuva a single, and reviewing the rest of the album, now it's easy to see why Spirit weren't bigger than they deserved to be: there's virtually nothing else on the album that could remotely qualify as a single followup. The rest are all album tracks, not singles material, and if upon the first or three listens they allow flow together interchangeably as one long extended track, it's one heckuva mood piece. The tunes are brassier, leaning more heavily on the jazzy side of the band than the folk side they displayed on the acoustic hippie pop that took up most of the debut. That's a more or less unqualified good thing, since a little jazzy swing I much prefers to hippy strumming. I would try to do a track by track review but even I'm pressed to identify clear highlights and lowlights, as the sound and song quality are so uniform. "Jewish," stands out uglily as a spoken word goof (in Hebrew, gettit?) but that's the only real gaffe. The gambler's tale, "Silky Sam," interludes not with another guitar/drum/piano solo but with the sounds of a card game. Modern day kids may be baffled by this track, but aged as I am I may be the last pre-video game generation to remember the days when people played cards together as social entertainment. "Drunkard," and "Dream Within a Dream," are lovely melodic creations, the former telling the sad familiar tale of a hobo tramp and his travails, and the latter reminding me of the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi and his dream of the butterfly (am I a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?). Probably not, but I fancy Spirit's Eastern-influenced mysticism leans more toward the Chinese harmonic logical balance of elements than the Indian guru-ism most of the other Summer of the Maharishi bands were into. As for the bonus tracks, there are some nice instrumentals, and some pop songs that show undeveloped promise - it's easy to see why those weren't included on the album, but are adequately pleasant additions.