Spirit (1968) ***1/2
Spirit were a phenomenally talented band that inexplicably got passed during the '60s, the one decade in rock history in which commercial and artistic success more often than not happened to coincide. Perhaps it's not surprising; aside from the Brit-boppy, "Uncle Jack," nothing here screams hit material - clearly a 'thinking man's' album band they were, as their compositions rather complexly combine elements of jazz, folk, pop, hard rock, and psychedelia into one soupy, quasi-mystical brew. The jazz element arrives courtesy of Ed Cassidy, who born in 1923 was a long-experienced bop-era drummer and his inventive professionalism shows: he's one of the very best rock drummers ever, and last I checked the gentleman was still kicking it live, well into his 80s! Most of the songs are penned by singer Jay Ferguson, who proves a highly talented songwriter whose compositions, at this point, generally show more spirit and promise than actual fruition. Oh, it's not as if the songs aren't mildly hooky in their own way, it just takes some time for the hooks to sink in; the band would improve on this oversight on later albums. Here is the Spirit in embryo. The star of the show, however, is teenage guitarist (and stepson of Cassidy) Randy California, he who legendarily learned his chops from Jimi himself (Hendrix that is, not Page - but we'll get on to Zep's plagiarism in just a bit). His rich, tasteful buzz of a guitar tone is a wonder of nature, and his fluid yet thick bends and curves instantly vault him into the category of guitarists that I find most pleasurable to listen to. That's a relief, as the band have a penchant for launcing into jazzy instrumental breaks unexpectedly in the middle of their hippie pop songs - not jams, the solos are far too structured for that. This works well on the doomily aggressive rock opener, "Fresh Garbage," and the far doomier and less aggressive, "Mechanical World," (according to the liner notes, inspired by bassist Mark Andes morbidly obsessed with death while confined to bed with the flu!) - the easy manner in which the band effortlessly switches styles and tempos mid-song puts them miles ahead in terms of professionalism than your average West Coast psychedelic band of the period. No way were Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead, or the Doors half as technically accomplished - this almost feels like proto-prog rock at points. I should mention at this point the album's most famous (infamous?) track: a brief instrumental entitled "Taurus," that upon first hearing you'll slowly begin to recognize as....yep, the acoustic intro to "Stairway to Heaven," which Jimmy Page ungenerously lifted lock, stock, and smoking jacket from California without any credit to Randy. Alas, after the terrific first four tracks, the material grows pleasant but thin - it's nice mellow hippie-pop for the most part, with little jazzy interludes to keep the momentum from growing too mellow and banal. Still, a very fine album that showcases a great band flashing their chops greatly, even if the songwriting is a tad bit weak. It's not as if the likes of "Gramaphone Man" or "Straight Arrow," are unlikable, it's just that I find little to say about them; they're pleasant little hippie tunes on the folk-poppy side, nothing more or less. And fitting with the times, the band has to end the album with a ten-minute instrumental, "Elijah"; as a jam band, Spirit were better at this thing than most (just compare the travesties the likes of Love were filling up entire sides with for comparison), but it's still a ten-minute, self-indulgent, meandering instrumental jam. The bonus tracks are more of the same - a couple of throwaway instrumentals, another ten-minute alternate run through "Elijah," and "If I Had a Woman," which sounds like an instrumental they hastily threw some words on top at the last minute (the lyrics are pretty dumb, repetitive, and lacking a clear vocal melody).