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On the surface, there isn't that much to distinguish Tumbleweed Connection from Elton's preceding Elton John, or even his oft-ignored debut Empty Sky.

The album consists of ... ballads combining Elton's piano and vocal talents with masterful orchestration; rockers with a balance of funkiness and old-school boogying; as well as a balance between Jerry Lee Lewis-inspired piano playing and whatever major accompaniment there is on any given tune (horns, guitar, harmonica, you name it); plus maybe some tunes with a psychedelic/progressive or country influence.

The difference this time round is - despite the lack of a discernable hit to make the casual fan interested - this is probably Elton's most consistently great record. And the concept in Taupin's lyrics, and at times the music, concerning 19th century Americana, add coherence to the album.

Besides dividing the album into ballads and rockers (and some songs fit both categories), there are highlights and non-highlights. The latter category isn't bad though - a few of the those could at least be minor highlights - especially two tracks on Side One.

I'm particularly fond of "Country Comfort", one of the few songs to focus on the 'simple living' aspect of 19th century America, with honky-tonk piano, mandolin or mandolin-like guitars, country/blues guitar fills, sweet fiddle, and a warm / soothing pedal steel guitar solo, all in support of vocals that tell of Elton fixing his grandmother's barn and the like, to a catchy yet non-trivial country melody.

"Come Down in Time" is a fine orchestral ballad, with probably one of the most complex melodies I've heard from Elton (yet attractive in its complexity). With its plucked violin strings, swelling bowed strings, and weeping clarinet / French horn, it's a step up from simple background music that Elton's later ballads tended to be.

The lesser tunes on Side Two include the lone outside contribution "Love Song", by backup vocalist on the album (and a folk singer/songwriter in her own right), Leslie Duncan - a pretty duet with Elton. Although the acoustic arpeggio pattern borrows from The Beatles' "Dear Prudence", the melody is a creation of its own, really soft and softly delivered, yet poignant whenever the hopeful, nostalgic melody steers towards moments of melancholy. I'm not quite sure what the point of the sound of children playing in the background is though, unless the song is supposed to be about childhood crushes.

Lastly, "Amoreena" seems to lie somewhere between funky pop/rocker and psychedelic pop, and while neither style is taken to great heights, the mid-tempo stuttering guitar/piano interplay is engaging, and the twist the melody takes whenever the watery phased guitars come in is interesting. It's nothing great, but it shows that - even at his relative low points - John in his prime avoids anything pro forma.

The album's six highlights are divided between ballads and rockers, with three ballads, two rockers, and one half ballad/half rocker. Two of the ballads - "Where to Now St. Peter?" and "Talking Old Soldiers" - were the last songs I'd consider highlights, but I'm glad I gave them a chance, because they're really gut-wrenching pieces of work.

"Where to Now St. Peter?" is - as the title suggests - religiously motivated: the lyrics tell the story of a dying soldier looking to God in his final moments, desperately pleading 'I may not be a Christian, but I've done all one man can'. In both the music and the vocals, this desperation is made evident thanks to a quasi-prog/rock setting - frequently changing rhythms from slow and lethargic to energized and pounding, piano arpeggios battling for attention with powerful guitar solos drenched in watery effects, along with a fantastic vocal delivery, ripping its way through a complex melody with the occasional powerful falsetto thrown in (my favourite being the extended ending of the first line of each verse).

"Talking Old Soldiers" is also linked to the theme of death, this time the impact of another's death, in what is a theatrically-inclined 'talking ballad' - Elton essentially delivers a monologue in the role of a soldier at a bar, lamenting the loss of comrades to old age, and mostly does so in a half-spoken way, which of course is the key to the theatrical element of the track, although even the clearly-defined melodic aspects of the vocal parts have a quasi-operatic feel to them (most affecting in soaring lines like Well do they know what it's like to have a graveyard as a friend?).

Musically, the song is sparse, with only slow meticulous piano chords and fills to accompany Taupin's lyrics, which even then are relatively dispersed and can easily passed unnoticed once drawn into the narrative. Whilst there are points at which I wish there were more instruments in the mix - for instance, the final three or four lines where Elton wishes his listener to keep well and have another drink on [him] and so on are sung in a way that always make me expect a melodically similar saxophone line to follow, but perhaps that would subtract from the effect, or even make it overbearingly cheesy in a way a minimalist arrangement has no risk of doing.

"My Father's Gun" is my favourite though. It's a funereal ballad, where the main character bids farewell to his father in a bitter tale of family redemption; despite Taupin technically having no business writing about the Civil War and Southern pride, and despite the lack of subtlety in this endeavour, he manages to accomplish it in a fairly poignant way (I especially like the lines I laid his broken body down below the Southern land. It wouldn't do to bury him where any Yankee stands), and of course the musical and vocal accompaniment adds to the poignancy.

Initially based on snappy acoustic guitar chords, distant echoey piano rumbling and bluesy guitar fills, the song transforms into a set of majestic piano chords that envelope the listener, with bass emphasizing the melody in all the right places before peaking at every refrain, a full band Gospel-styled arrangement with dreary horns and powerful fill-based drumming complementing the other instruments. And Elton's vocals seamlessly go along with the song's ebb and flow, really getting into character as if he's a broken down man who lost his father, before pride takes over and he vows to fight.

Of the rockers, the two on Side One are much more emotionally lightweight, but in terms of music, they follow the path set by "Take Me to the Pilot", albeit with the album's Americana influence at the forefront. In that sense, "Ballad of a Well-Known Gun" is a perfect opener for the album, what with funky guitar riffage and soloing flying everywhere, combined with a mid-tempo grooving rhythm section / honky-tonk piano, that just energizes the listener such that they're sucked into the tale of an outlaw on the run, hopeless due to his recognisability.

The highpoints of the tune are twofold. Obviously, there are the vocals, especially the hyper-catchy refrain based on country/gospel backup vocals (featuring Dusty Springfield!), or in the coda that loops around it, which avoids being too repetitive thanks to Elton's ad-libbed falsetto around the title. But Quaye's guitar playing is simply outstanding, topping anything from the previous album, as he slows down or speeds up, plays chord-based sequences or bends, or funky chicken scratches - whatever is needed to picture a cowboy twirling his gun round his finger ready for a showdown.

"Son of Your Father" shifts away from the West and into the bayou, with a New Orleans-style swamp-boogie groove. Once again, the basis of the tune is in thumping rhythmic piano and funky guitar riffs and solos (this time not in a straight-ahead bluesy tone, but with a hint of phaser as if Quaye was playing deep in the swamp), but the addition of dirty, swampy, often chord-based harmonica riffs and Muscle Shoals-like horns that become more and more prominent as the song progresses add the necessary spice and variety.

Much like the album opener, the tune has a fine Gospel-based refrain, this time going for a much more cathartic feel, as the vocalists explode into cheerily praising rural life via Taupin's folksy lyrics (I especially like the line with blood and water, bricks and mortar, he built for you a home), but it's also in the refrain where the horns truly get to shine, emphasizing the exuberance of the vocals.

Lastly, there's "Burn Down the Mission", a 6+minute mini-epic that builds from mournful ballad to stormy rocker then back again, concluding with an explosive finale. In the balladic parts, there are twinkling piano chords backing a beautiful melody, with a slowly building arrangement of acoustic guitars, melodic bass, and droning organ, before an epic refrain around the lines Burn down the mission if we're gonna stay alive. Watch the black smoke fly to heaven, see the red flame light the sky. I'm not sure what that's supposed to be about, but the imagery is great.

Speaking of imagery, the post-refrain instrumental sections, the song's rocking parts, are the musical interpretation of what the refrain describes: as the rhythm picks up, the drums and percussion (bongos, I'm guessing) go ballistic, the orchestration swirls about madly, and Elton not only thumps his piano like there's no tomorrow, he also adds some sputtering organ at the end of the song, completing the image of a building engulfed in flames resulting in collapsed rubble. In short, this more artsy tune deserves to share the album's top spot with "My Father's Gun".

Although I'm not sure that Tumbleweed Connection is Elton's best album, it's close, and an album I've come to love as a great balance between roots/rock and Art Rock, as played by a guy with plenty of singing and piano-playing talent.

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Posted: Monday 23rd Jan 2017 6:25 PM

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album review
At the start of the 1970's, it became self-evident that many of the bands symbolic of 1960's would become relics, especially after the values they espoused came crashing down after a murder at a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont.

One member of Jefferson Airplane impacted by that violence was Marty Balin, who had become disenchanted with the band, and his departure - as well as that of Spencer Dryden - caused the remaining members to think about what to do next.

Paul Kantner - now the de facto leader of the band - figured a solo album would be a good way to kill some time. So he got fellow Airplane bandmates Slick and Casady to help, as well as members of many high- and low-profile Californian rock groups, most notably three Grateful Dead members (Jerry Garcia on a number of compositions, their two drummers on a track each), and David Crosby.

Completing the line-up were new drummer Joey Covington, and two future Jefferson Starship members - David Freiberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Jorma Kaukonen's brother Peter.

Basically, this album's concept - and there is a discernable story throughout (as opposed to what was more a general idea with Volunteers) - is that a group of hippies who've tired of American conservatism, and dream of an anarcho-communistic utopia - not on Earth, but on a distant planet - hijack a 'starship'. The characters then trip some acid, realize the two (unnamed) main characters are expecting a child, and there's a fight over leadership on the hijacked starship.

It's a stupid concept for sure, one that could've only been concocted in the aftermath of the Woodstock era (and one that almost comically contradicts Marty Balin's reason to leave Jefferson Airplane), but the lyrics and music tell the story in an enjoyable enough way, and it can serve as an allegory for the failed hippie 'revolution', so I guess the concept behind the album is 'deep' in that respect.

The album's two sides serve as chapters to the story, something also represented in the music. The story begins with "Mau Mau (Amerikon)", a violent protest anthem against the strict morality of conservatism, especially that of then-California Governor Ronald Reagan and then-President Richard Nixon (who wasn't even a true 'conservative' Republican, more a party moderate, but I guess to anarcho-communists there's little difference between a Reagan or a Nixon).

Brief opening tribal chant aside, the opening number is surprisingly punk-ish for Jefferson Airplane alumni, with a simple two-or-three-chord riff filled with rebellious anger, emphasized by sputtering guitar leads and clumsy drumming, and featuring their most intentionally ugly vocal harmonies, thanks to Covington's Bob Weir-esque nasal howl harmonizing with Paul Kantner at his nastiest.

The song's lyrics are also quite violent in their imagery: You unleash the dogs of a grade-B movie star governor's war and Drop your fucking bombs, burn your demon babies aren't exactly something I'd expect from peace-loving hippies. It's ironic that the protestors in the song claim to be peaceful and nature-loving yet the lyrics indicate otherwise.

By way of a sonic contrast, the following "The Baby Tree" is a stripped-down folk cover (by one Rosalie Sorrels, supposedly well-known in Idahoan and Utahan folk circles at the time). The number consists of just Kantner's voice and banjo, strumming along nonchalantly, cooing out a nursery rhyme-like melody to lines about an island where babies grow on trees, falling off when the wind is strong enough for adults to pick them up. If I'm following the story correctly, this brief, cute little ditty is meant to be a prelude to the main couple's realization of pregnancy, and with its bizarre lyrics and fanciful music and melody, I assume the song arises during an acid trip, perhaps after participating in the previous song's protest.

Next there's "Let's Go Together" (not to be confused with the Volunteers album opener "Let's Get Together"), where the central Utopia of the concept is introduced. The main couple - as played/sung by Kantner and Slick - bid farewell to America, in search of their new dreamworld in the verses, while pushing the revolutionary call-to-arms 'propaganda' in the bare yet catchy refrain (simply stating the title repeatedly). Musically, it's an anthemic folk/rocker, with guitar/banjo arpeggios, thumping piano and - every once in a while - Casady's fat basslines popping out of the mix to create riffs of its own. And of course there are some terrific harmonies from Kantner and Slick to enhance the anthemic feel.

The final song on Side One, "A Child Is Coming", starts off as a simple 2-minute country/pop groove based on a boogie-esque piano/guitar sequence, where the young couple finds out about their pregnancy, leading them to be paranoid in the verses (what are we going to do when Uncle Samuel comes around?), but ecstatic about the possibilities of bringing a child to life in their planned Utopia (jovially emphasized in the rising harmonies and twangy lead guitar).

Yet the centerpiece of "A Child Is Coming" is the 4-minute coda, one that's musically much darker - moody acoustic guitar/piano chords slowly descending, thick bass melodies unravelling like a python on the prowl (do pythons prowl?), and slow waves of feedback accompanying the kind of twisted, psychedelic harmonies Jefferson Airplane were known for.

With Marty Balin out of the picture, David Crosby is enlisted to fill in, and he does a great job with his distinctive tenor bordering on falsetto, serving as a great counterpoint to Kantner's deeper, thoughtful vocals, and Slicks' Eastern-influenced droning. I'm not sure what the coda is actually supposed to represent in the album's plot, but the embryonic sound of it could be the fetus' perspective of its parents' mumbled conversations, or it could just be the cover of darkness and secrecy in which the couple joins the revolution. Either way, the atmosphere of it is just too good not to consider the track to be the album's best.

The plan to escape not just America, but planet Earth, begins to reveal itself on Side Two. The side-opener "Sunrise" is the first of three avant-garde-like soundpieces, but it's the only one that acts as a standalone composition rather than brief conceptual filler. With several overdubbed, feedback-laden basslines and menacing acoustic guitar chords, along with overdubbed Grace Slick vocal drones that sound much more demonic than is typical for her, the track may be difficult to understand plot-wise, but it's interesting music nonetheless.

As far as I can tell, it simply serves as an introduction to the revolution itself, which takes place with "Hijack". As the title suggests, the hippie revolutionaries' plan to escape is through the hijack of a spaceship whose construction is a 20-year venture (if the lyrics are to be believed - the years 1980 and 1990 are both mentioned as deadlines of some sort).

To add to the revolutionary feel of the tune, the music is stormy and rhythmic, and while it's not a military rhythm, the quasi-tango of the piano and acoustic guitar pounding is just as effective, and manages to be relatively diverse, simply by tweaking the rhythm every once in a while: speeding it up, slowing it down, having the two main instruments play counter to each other, etc.

The track's gypsy-esque harmonies from Kantner and Slick are also an excellent touch, since they allow them to switch from militant revolutionaries to hedonistic hippies daydreaming about their Utopia in the heat of the moment in seconds flat. Then - as the song comes to its conclusion, with a spacey fade-away of the piano and the fade-in of crumbly feedback noise - it indicates that the hijack was successful and the starship can take off to explore the wonders of space.

The second short filler piece, "Home", is nothing but buzzing and whirring sound effects - as the starship settles into a decent speed I suppose - although it doesn't damage your ears enough to prevent enjoyment of the album's penultimate highlight, "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite" - a pretty, romantic ballad, with bubbling and feedback sound effects laid over from "Home", an intricate layer of droning acoustic guitar and psychedelic, echoey pedal steel (courtesy of Jerry Garcia), Slick's thumping piano chords, and beautiful harmonies that at times sound like classic Jefferson Airplane harmonies, as if Marty Balin were there to help them (I swear I even hear his voice in the line Would you like to go up for a stroll and keep me company?). In the plot, that's a short break for the couple, enjoying the view as they assume all will go smoothly from here on out.

That's followed by "XM", another spaced-out sound effects piece, this time accompanied by stoned-out vocals muttering something or other, which end suddenly and violently, as if the starship had been broken into.

Lastly, the album concludes with "Starship". As far as I can understand, that's about the plan for a utopic escape backfiring, with new hijackers taking over the already hijacked starship from the revolutionaries (if the defeated way in which the bridge The melting acid fever streakin' through my mind makes it oh so difficult to see you. And oh so easy to touch you. I melt with you, feel with you, make love for you - at you, around you, I love you ... is any indication).

Anyways, the music only somewhat reflects the conflict expressed in the lyrics - overall the closing tune is somewhat poppier than the rest of the album, thanks to its upbeat tempo and more straightforward rhythm behind the guitar and piano interplay. Yet it's the rest of the interplay that's most interesting, as Jerry Garcia delivers some of his distinctive space-rock guitar style à la "Dark Star", which interweaves wonderfully with Casady's thick basslines, which are just as lead instrument-like in the grand scheme of things, but also plays off the vocal melody, playing smoother or tenser as the melody requires.

Perhaps on a song-by-song basis, the charms of Blows Against the Empire aren't immediately apparent. Half the songs are indeed highlights (the first side's opener and closer, the full-length songs on Side Two), which is an accomplishment in its own right, but even the clearly filler-ish tunes - or more plot-based tunes like "The Baby Tree" - are fully enjoyable, yet much more so when taken in context, but I guess that's a given since it is a concept album after all.

In retrospect, it's a stupid concept, but as far as musical sci-fi goes, it's up there in terms of quality. As for how it fits in with the rest of the Jefferson Airplane catalogue, I don't like this album quite as much as Crown of Creation, but I do like it about the same as Takes Off, so even if it's far from being that well-known, it's definitely among the band's best works ... it manages to improve on the formulae and ideas presented on Volunteers, but - given the reputation of the final Jefferson Airplane albums - this might be the best place to end your own journey through the band's discography.

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Posted: Tuesday 24th Jan 2017 6:09 PM

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