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THE SOFT MACHINE

The Soft Machine

 

Canterbury Scene

4.08 | 364 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
4 stars Way, way back in February of 1968 I had the privilege to see Jimi Hendrix in concert. I knew that he would be incredible (he was) but what I didn't expect was to be entranced by an unknown trio called The Soft Machine. They (along with Clouds) were one of the opening acts and I'm certain that most of the audience was more interested in seeing if the drummer was actually wearing any clothes or not. With the spacey light show swirling around the stage it was very hard to tell (turns out he had on a miniscule thong thing of some sort). However, I couldn't have cared less about their stage outfits (or lack of). These guys played a different style of psychedelic jazz/rock that I found to be creative, edgy and much more interesting than most of the contrived, stare-at-the-lava-lamp acid music that was coming out of San Francisco. The very next day I tried to find this album but discovered that it hadn't even been recorded yet. When I finally got it on my turntable (it wasn't released until December of '68) I was thrilled to find that the LP consisted of the same songs in pretty much the same order that the group had performed them live. When I attempted to turn my friends on to this music not many found Soft Machine to be as engaging as I did but I just figured they weren't as progressive-minded as I was so I adopted them for my own. It no longer mattered what others thought, this record came along at a pivotal point in my life and I listened to it until the grooves wore out. It will forever have a nostalgic significance for me.

They start things off with a very unorthodox free-form, wandering vocal from drummer Robert Wyatt splayed loosely over some moody organ that clearly reveals their modern jazz roots. They slide right into "Hope For Happiness," an up-tempo psychedelic song and here you get your first encounter with Michael Ratledge's furious, intense keyboard style as he delivers a sizzling organ ride. The majority of the tunes blend seamlessly into one another throughout the album and this occurs with the playful instrumental "Joy of a Toy" where guitarist/bassist Kevin Ayers serenades you with a wah wah-driven guitar ditty that's as carefree as a stroll down a country road. It dissolves into dissonance before a reprisal of "Hope For Happiness" brings you back full circle.

I would characterize Wyatt's unique singing style as being the anti-vocal in that he delivers the lyrics in a sort of passive manner, giving the impression that he's not overly concerned about being exactly on key. Yet there's something very human and endearing about his thin voice and I've always found it to be curiously effective. A good example of this is found in his singing on "Why Am I So Short?," a semi-jazz number with an avant garde chord structure that leads you directly into a jam-oriented piece, "So Boot If At All." It comes complete with tastefully brief bass and drum solos. This is followed by a sweet ballad written by Hugh Hopper called "A Certain Kind," by far the most "normal" song on the record. It features an involved progression and melody but it's the poignant keyboard section and the subsequent build up to the climactic ending that seals the deal.

Next is a return to psychedelia with the rockin' "Save Yourself," after which they detour momentarily into the twilight zone with "Priscilla" before transitioning to the fast- paced "Lullabye Letter" that contains another excellent organ lead. It really is amazing the variety of sounds they get with their limited instrumentation. The euphoria- producing, head-bobbing groove of "We Did It Again" follows and it was (and still is) the perfect tune for that cosmic, navel-contemplating era. Ratledge's upwardly-mobile organ chords droning over the basic two-note melody is beautiful in its simplicity. I don't know what "It" is that the singer keeps doing again and again but you can fill in the blank with whatever verb/noun combination that best suits your needs.

"Plus Belle Qu'une Poubelle" is nothing more than a musical preview for "Why Are We Sleeping?," another terrific song. Here Ayers recites the verse's poetic lyrics in a lilting, conversational tone that sets it apart from every other tune. The brooding bass line and deep organ chords along with the emotional dynamics provided by the band's intelligent arrangement make this the highlight of the album. Its plea for some sense of social awareness is as relevant today as it was all those decades ago. "Box 25/4 Lid" is an odd little riff played in tandem on piano and bass guitar and its quirkiness provides the perfect finale.

If there's any downside to the album it's that audio-wise it's a little bit flat and many of the studio effects sound quite dated nearly 40 years down the road. But the music is just as spontaneous and free as it was that magical evening when I saw them in concert and if you have an inquisitive mind that's open to exploring a totally different side of the psychedelic rock phenomenon of the late 60s then I strongly suggest that you give this a spin. It's a treat.

Chicapah | 4/5 |

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