Clear Spirit (1969) ***
This is clearly an uneven rush job that shows the band thin on material, but it's not without its moments. The opener, "Dark Eyed Woman," is a fantastic thudding hard rocker that deserved to be a hit, and far and away the strongest track; nothing else on the record comes close. The album is padded out with not one but three instrumentals, two of which are modestly amusing as background music, "Ice" and the title track; apparently these were intended for a soundtrack to a movie that never emerged. The other instrumental, pianist John Locke's "Caught," is a jazzy shuffle, and since I couldn't tell a Miles Davis from a Thelonious Monk number if I'm not looking at the title credits, I'll shut my mouth about jazz instrumentals. Another problem is that around half the vocal numbers are lazily written blues-rock numbers that rely on the by-the-numbers chord sequences that make most blues and country numbers so boring and predictable. "Ground Hog," is sort of interesting in its gruntingly funky way, but it's also supremely irritating; "Apple Orchard," is just a bloozy waste, devoid of anything special; while "I'm Truckin'," which sounds like the Allman Bros. in tight three-minute blues-pop mode, starts off generically but is easily redeemed by the "just a little bit longer, longer," bridge. "Policeman's Ball," is a novelty light swing number with vaguely politicized lyrics concerning the Chicago Democratic convention of the previous year (not that I'd know if I hadn't read the liner notes). "Give a Life, Take a Life," and "So Little Time to Fly," are pleasant folk-poppy hippie mid-tempo ballads in the vein of the first album, and "Cold Wind," is a soporific ballad in the vein of the second album that has vocals but could have just as easily been another one of the instrumentals. The album concludes with a joint band composition, "New Dope in Town," that functions as a rock/jazz micro-suite, beginning as an upbeat pop number before breaking down in the middle into jazzy swing mode, with tasty piano and slide guitar solos. As for the bonus tracks, they easily redeem the album: the A-side, "1984," a doomy but hard-driving and pop-catchy anti-dystopian anthem (based on George Orwell, but you knew that, dummy) is one of the band's greatest highlights, and its flipside, "Sweet Stella Baby," is another track well worth your time and likewise superior in quality to most of the original album it's attached to. The other two bonus tracks are unreleased outtakes and considerably less stellar: "Coral," is just another jazzy instrumental, and while, "Fuller Brush Man," shows some promise, it's yet another case where it's easy to see why the band left such an undeveloped number off their albums. Why they didn't choose to develop it is another mystery. In sum, this unfocused hodge-podge of bluesy filler, soundtrack instrumentals, and handful of decent pop numbers is easily their weakest album, but not entirely unworthwhile.