Monday, March 30, 2009

Ten Years After

Note: This collection of reviews was originally posted on a message board forum. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

I currently have Ten Years After on my playlist, so I decided to write up a "brief" review of their discography. This will cover all of their original albums (not including the recently released Fillmore concert from 1970), and nothing else (such as the 1980 comeback, or the new albums released by the reformed band minus Alvin Lee).

Ten Years After (1967)

There are some bands whose debut album features material that is as good as the band will ever release. There are other bands who have a chance to evolve and mature in the public eye. Ten Years After is the latter. Their self-titled debut is rough and spotty, and notable mostly in that the best tracks are light years behind their later live versions. Eric Clapton's influence is more and less obvious in the tracks Love Until I Die (which recycles the riff from Crossroads) and I Want To Know, as well as Spoonful (though I'm not sure how early Clapton/Cream was playing Spoonful, and it's possible the inspiration comes from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band's recording). The standout track is I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes, an old blues newly arranged by Al Kooper (the version Ten Years After is covering here), which, here, is a paltry little thing, but like Dazed and Confused from Led Zeppelin's debut album, would eventually grow into a monster in their live set.

Highlights: I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes, Help Me

Undead [Live] (1968)

It's rare for a band's sophomore release to be a live album, but Ten Years After were a special kind of band. They were one of (if not) the hardest touring bands of their time, and many say that they were at their best in the live arena. Still, on this album, the band is relatively young and inexperienced. You can tell that they are a group of incredibly talented musicians, but they haven't quite crafted their 'presence' yet. The live cut of I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes is a vast improvement over the earlier studio version, but it hasn't quite reached critical mass yet; and neither has the guitar workout, I'm Going Home, featured here for the first time (interestingly, there's no studio version - but I doubt this particular track could be improved upon in the studio). Woodchopper's Ball is mandatory listening, as it and I May Be Wrong But I Won't Be Wrong Always feature a jazzier side of the band that took a backseat to the blues/rock concentration in later live shows.

Highlights: Spider In My Web, Woodchopper's Ball

Stonedhenge (1969)

My brother thinks very highly of this album, but I can't help seeing it as flawed. This was Ten Years After's "experimental" album, and is, structurally, similar to Yes' Fragile (though preceding it) in that the individual bandmembers take turns experimenting with their instruments, coming together on a handful of tracks. Unfortunately, though, in my opinion, the result is less successful than Fragile would be. However, there's still much to be heard on the album, including Hear Me Calling, which became a bit of a hit, and the excitingly unconventional No Title; and the album overall is a step forward from the debut.

Highlights: Hear Me Calling, No Title

Ssssh (1969)

This was Ten Years After's breakout album. On this album, you can begin to hear the band crafting that 'presence' I mentioned earlier. They're sounding increasingly comfortable and confident, and in the case of the standout tracks, they're beginning to be able to record cuts in the studio that aren't immediately overshadowed by the songs' live counterparts (not to say that they're necessarily better, though).

Highlights: Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, I Woke Up This Morning

Cricklewood Green (1970)

This is Ten Years After's early masterpiece, and my second favorite of their studio albums. There isn't a track on this album that I don't love (well, okay, Year 3,000 Blues is kind of iffy), and the highlights are both songs that I myself have performed live - so that should tell you something.

Highlights: 50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain, Love Like A Man

Watt (1970)

Watt is sort of the lull between two standout albums, and while not as good as its chronological neighbors, it's still a polished and consistent album, with maybe a bit more of a focus on whimsy and jazz than the straight up rock/blues that, in my opinion, lifts their other albums up. The band's Chuck Berry influence comes to the fore in the album's closing track, a live cut of Sweet Little Sixteen from the Isle of Wight concert.

Highlights: I'm Coming On, Think About The Times

A Space In Time (1971)

This is the album that everybody remembers (provided they remember Ten Years After at all), thanks to the radio hit I'd Love To Change The World (the band's only lasting hit, with the one possible exception of the immortalized live version of I'm Going Home from Woodstock, which, due to its length, is somewhat less radio-friendly), which is actually far from the band's greatest recording (go figure). The rest of the album is very good, too, but contrary to its popularity, I've never liked it quite as much as the superior Cricklewood Green. Overall I think it's a bit more mellow, which might appeal to some, but leaves me wanting something a bit heavier. It's got my favorite album art out of the band's discography, though.

Highlights: One Of These Days, I'd Love To Change The World

Alvin Lee & Company (1972)

By this point, we're approaching the tail end of the band's remarkable run, and yet, two of their greatest albums are still to come. This is not one of them. Alvin Lee & Company is a retrospective compilation of singles and rarities from the band's catalog. A number of live tracks from the Undead album are presented in single form (a.k.a. chopped to pieces), including the bizarre single version of I'm Going Home, which runs for three and a half minutes and completely ruins the spirit of the song. Some of the singles are interesting, especially The Sounds, and the jammy Boogie On is also worth hearing. If you're lucky, you might be able to collect everything on this album that's worth owning as bonus tracks on remastered versions of the previous albums.

Highlights: The Sounds, Boogie On

Rock & Roll Music To The World (1972)

This album is Ten Years After's mature masterpiece, and my favorite of their studio albums. The standouts are slightly less straightforward than those on Cricklewood Green, my other favorite album, but are instead deeper and more complex. I could have easily listed at least half the album as highlights. The title track itself is a fairly simple rocker, but is an impressively compact musical statement of just what rocks about rock n roll, while also being a nod to the rock of the fifties, as is also Choo Choo Mama. Standing At The Station and Religion are both developed and interesting pieces worth hearing. I highly recommend this album.

Highlights: You Give Me Loving, Turned Off T.V. Blues

Recorded Live (1973)

If you want to know what Ten Years After was, this is the album to listen to. Blowing the premature Undead out of the water, this is Ten Years After live, at their finest. I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes has matured into an otherworldly 16 minute space jam; I'm Going Home, which reached maturity by the time the band performed at Woodstock, is still as fast and ferocious as ever; and Help Me replaces the tentativeness of the studio version with a fevered intensity. Slow Blues In 'C' is another good blues (not represented in any other form in the band's catalog), and the jam/rockers (One Of These Days, You Give Me Loving, and Good Morning Little Schoolgirl) sound fantastic, with Alvin Lee going at it with all the skill that earned him the nickname of "Fastest Fingers In The West" (or some variation).

Highlights: Help Me, I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes, I'm Going Home

Positive Vibrations (1974)

And, after cementing their live legacy, the band goes out with one last album, before dissipating. Alvin Lee wasn't finished with music however, as he continued to perform and record over the decades with various outfits. Ten Years After's final album, like Watt, is not on par with their greatest, but is consistent and offers some interesting tracks worth hearing, like the opener, Nowhere To Run, the mellow feel-good title track, and the rocking Going Back To Birmingham. The rest of the album contains a number of funky/jazzy grooves.

Highlights: Nowhere To Run

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