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Traffic - John Barleycorn Must Die CD (album) cover




Eclectic Prog

3.90 | 309 ratings

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4 stars Finally after three years and a disorderly though somewhat commercially successful existence Traffic delivered an album worthy of the high expectations placed upon them by their management, record label and fans. 'John Barleycorn Must Die' is a highly engaging, sometimes complex and unquestionably progressive triumph coming on the heels of personal discord and underachievement by the band up to that point.

This was reportedly supposed to be a Steve Winwood solo album, coming as it did after the band's first official breakup and Winwood's fling with the short-lived Blind Faith. Chris Wood had also branched out, appearing with another Blind Faith alumnus as part of Ginger Baker's Air Force. Dave Mason was long gone pursuing a solo career in the States, although this is the first album that includes no Mason-penned songs. And Jim Capaldi had been rumored to have been courted for his solo record, which he would in fact release a little over a year later. But Winwood, much like he did on the band's second album found himself short on like-minded musical accompaniment and enlisted Capaldi and Wood for what turned out to be arguably the best and most well-known (not to mention most commercially successful) Traffic album of all.

The blues influences are noticeable here as they were on previous records, although much more subtle and subdued in favor of jazz-tinted piano and brass along with more than a little hint of English folk thanks to Wood's flute and occasional hand percussion. And of course thanks to the band's take on a traditional folk tune with the title track.

The differences here over prior Traffic records are immediately apparent and substantial. The songs are longer and more developed musically, emphasizing instrumentation and musical progressions over vocals more than anything the trio had done before. In fact, the album opens with the lengthy instrumental "Glad" which is steeped in saxophone and piano along with Winwood delivering more electric organ and surprisingly no vocals or guitar. Wood also overdubs a little flute work, but the bulk of this song consists of Winwood and Wood exploring chord progressions and tempo breaks on sax and piano while Capaldi romps along with engaging percussion in a tightly arranged demonstration of three musicians synched on all fronts. "Freedom Rider" continues the groove but with vocals from Winwood and an extended flute break from Wood.

"Empty Pages" sounds an awful lot like the stuff Winwood would release as solo material later in the seventies, except perhaps for the heavy presence of Hammond organ that he largely abandoned for the smooth-pop era of his later career. But here it comes off as a natural extension of "Freedom Rider", especially when he launches into a toe-tapping electric piano section atop Capaldi's easy drumming that gives way to Wood's rich organ bleats to give the song some depth as it winds to a close. The song sequencing on this album is outstanding; I can't imagine how the six tracks could have been arranged any more perfectly as the band moves from an instrumental launch to exploration in jazz-pop to the blues guitar-rich "Stranger to Himself" with its two-part vocal dirge.

By the time the title track comes around its hard to know what to expect of the three musicians next, although an acoustic folk song with modern rhythm is certainly not the first thing most listener's would have guessed. Wood's flute and Capaldi's mellow percussion accent Winwood's bard-like vocals and acoustic guitar strumming perfectly to yield a fresh face for a folk song that most would have guessed had been done to death already.

"Every Mother's Son" is one of two tracks Winwood had recorded before turning the solo effort into a band release, and it does have a bit more of a bluesy, commercial feel to it then the rest of the album and does not include any contribution from Wood as far as I know. This sounds like a solo tune but fits pretty well as the closing track here.

Although Traffic were believed to have died following their weak third album and Winwood and Mason's departure, 'John Barleycorn Must Die' is a great resurrection and return for the three and an effort that propelled them to two more solid studio works before they disbanded for good three years later (except for a brief reunion in the nineties). This is a classic and outstanding progressive rock album that belongs in every serious fan's collection. It might even be a masterpiece, but for me a very strong four out of five stars sounds about right. Very highly recommended.


ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |


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