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SUPERTRAMP

Supertramp

 

Crossover Prog

3.46 | 217 ratings

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Einsetumadur
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 11.5/15P.; an amply innovative record of a young band with a very special sense of melodies and atmosphere. A plaintive British sound which is farer away from the hippie flower on the cover than you might surely expect!

Many people complain that the best albums in the intersection between blues rock and progressive rock were recorded by fairly unpopular bands. I don't want to generalise improperly, but I cannot really understand that. In the last few years people have dug out quite a lot of young bands of the early 1970s and uploaded their stuff on Youtube. Most of these totally unknown bands are weary homages to Uriah Heep or Pink Floyd, and just about 5% of them give me this feeling that I've unearthed a classy little gem which is either raw enough (-> the German band "Message") or artistic enough (-> the American group "Felt") to sound convincing. In fact, the great gems most often are the half-popular bands; those people like David Sinclair, Richard Thompson or Robert Fripp who have a select circle of fans, but who can walk through the streets without being talked to all the time.

Supertramp, of course, is one of the big pop bands; several chart hits, stadium concerts and all that stuff. But in 1970 when they recorded their debut album they were still half-popular; popular enough to perform at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970, but still far away from TOTP.

To put it shortly: this album is by far an higher-than-average affair and is, although Even in the Quietest Moments is more perfect, the Supertramp album I listen to most. Five of the nine songs rather are on the folky and balladesque side of Supertramp's spectrum, the four (mostly longer) songs are closer to blues rock. Now how comes that this combination works out that perfectly convincing here? Firstly, the "folk" here is closer to the jazz-inspired folk of bands like Pentangle than to acoustic sing-along-songs. Secondly, the songs are composed and arranged quite sophisticatedly. And thirdly, all of the songs are tied together by this special plaintive and floating mood which later pieces like Even In The Quietest Moments or the saxophone solo in Fool's Overture would feature, too. Listen to the Even In The Quietest Moments album and you're perfectly in tune for what you get to hear here.

The only musicians who play on Supertramp and stayed in the band are Roger Hodgson and Richard Davies, and by then they favorably had developed their typical style to a considerable degree. Although Davies plays a lot of Hammond organ here, owing to the gritty sound an L- or T-series spinet model, he already employs his staccato technique on the Wurlitzer electric piano and plays a wailing blues harp from time to time, as in the quiet and tensely wheeling outro of It's A Long Road. Especially interesting are his unisono keyboard solos in which he plays the same lines on Hammond and Wurlitzer simultaneously. Roger Hodgson, still the bass player in the band, provides the first of his plaintively charismatic melodies (the motif of Maybe I'm A Beggar among many others) and, well, he is Roger Hodgson and pretty much coins this record. I don't think there's anyone who isn't sent shivers down his spine by Hodgon's delicious multi-tracked harmonies in Shadow Song which are pretty much in the vein of Simon & Garfunkel's The Only Living Boy in New York. And what would a shortish and simple campfire tune like Home Again be without this certain Hodgson vibe? Of course the inventively spontaneous jazz guitar bendings in the background also contribute their part to the song, but I'm pretty sure that you get the picture.

Plenty of similarities to later Supertramp albums until now, so what is strikingly different to later Supertramp works? First of all: neither there are saxophones, nor does Richard Davies sing lead anywhere. Hodgson's sporadic counter-voice is guitarist Richard Palmer's, and although he doesn't sing half as strongly as Davies (especially in his frail falsetto part in Maybe I'm A Beggar) it still works out fine. Instead of the woodwind instruments the band adds some unexpected instruments which do not merely appear in the personnel list but which are clearly audible parts of the arrangements. Hodgson, for instance, plays the flageolet on Maybe I'm A Beggar, Try Again and Shadow Song, an eerie-sounding flute related with the Irish tin whistle, and especially the Shadow Song is stuffed with gorgeous polyphonic flute lines which interact perfectly with a short and sweet motif which guitarist Richard Palmer plays on the balalaika. (Palmer, by coincidence, is the Richard Palmer-James who composed King Crimson lyrics. He also wrote all of the lyrics on this album). Furthermore Roger Hodgson augments the bass part of certain songs by playing some bass notes on the cello, especially on the psychedelic And I Am Not Like Other Birds of Prey which is introduced by a spooky Hammond organ prelude (Aubade). In this piece the cello plays against dissonant Hammond organ chords which create a certain 'maritime' atmosphere (foghorn, seagulls etc.). Look out for the little backwards guitar bit somewhere in the middle!

Another notable difference to later Supertramp albums is Palmer's electric guitar. Contrary to Hodgson (who took over guitar duties after 93 guitarist auditions) Palmer is a lead guitarist. For sure he's not top-notch, but his playing evades coming across as too dated and he does sound really tight in the context of this band. On It's A Long Road his restrained rhythm guitar, in combination with Hodgon's high tenor voice and some jazzy keyboard solos, reminds me of early Caravan. Maybe I'm A Beggar displays some blues soloing, and although some of the licks run the risk of getting slightly generic, the double-tracking of the guitar and these vaguely Caribbean phrasing are quite cool. But the real treat are these tasty Bach-inspired Gibson melodies which are scattered in nearly all of the songs, most effectively in the chorus of Words Unspoken in which Palmer doubles his relaxed balalaika strumming. It's exactly the kind of counterpoint stuff Jethro Tull's Martin Barre did on Wondring Again around that time. An especially baroque instrumental part with guitar arpeggios and solo bass commences an especially spiry example of the aforementioned 'unisono' keyboard solos in Nothing to Show. This piece somehow predates the next Supertramp album Indelibly Stamped since it features vocal backing by Richard Davies, singing unisono with Hodgson, one or two octaves lower than him, all the way through.

Bookending this album with the song Surely was a really nice idea. Surely 1, in fact the second verse of the song, is a perfect example of a preamble. One verse, vocals and acoustic guitar plus some reverb. Surely 2 consists of verse 1 and 2 (but from a different take) and then moves into a bombastic finale which is genuine symphonic prog, somewhere on the average distance between Procol Harum's Homburg and Genesis' Squonk Reprise at the end of Los Endos, but with a distinct flavour of Bach's church organ stuff. Again Hodgson adds droning multi-tracked harmonies on the top of that wobbly Hammond organ which seemingly mistakes itself for a Mellotron, judging by the pride with which it rejoices in the very end. Full-on bombast power which would sound absolutely pathetic if it didn't belong to this album.

The longest piece of this album is Try Again, and it's that long due to extensive improvisation and not due to suite-like structures as in Genesis' The Knife. But I have to admit that the improvisation is damn inventive. The flageolet-supported vocal part of the stanza, nearly as fractured as that popular Carmina Burana choire by Orff in its phrasing, alternates with the refrain which floats by in sustained notes and with a twisted minor-major modulation. A creepy guitar-bending part leads into an all-instrumental canon for bass, Hammond and Wurlitzer, and this is where an extended clean guitar solo begins, and it's subtle and spirited at the same time. Lots of Bach-inspired trills abound, running the scales up and down, accompanied by fine drumming and again with these odd Hammond chords in the background. A loud and fast shuffle part leads back into the vocal part which mutes after eight-and-a-half minutes. Then the band go into a part which is a pretty precarious matter: silent free-form noodling avantgarde. Renaissance did that on their second album and weren't successful, Kevin Ayers failed entirely with Pisser Dans Un Violon and even King Crimson's Moonchild didn't work completely. But the band stops the noodling after barely two minutes and recreates the refrain from a bluesy organ chord progression - this time with ferocious guitar chords, rapid drumming and a blistering outro. The album loses a few points because the jams are slightly dated, but there's no filler material here - lots of respect to the band for finally creating something interesting out of a free-form part.

After all, Supertramp's debut album is an unexpectedly convincing affair without the aberrations which debut albums of many bands of that time had. The production is less professional than on later Supertramp albums (don't expect the mind-blowing power of Ken Scott's Crime of the Century sound), but perfectly satisfying - you hear every detail, the stereo panorama is used to the point; fine. The reason why I don't give this album the full 5 star rating is that it has this slightly dated sound - without loading a colossal amount of mind-blowingly innovative ideas. This, of course, doesn't change the fact that this album is damn fine - and pretty unique. You'll certainly enjoy it if you like Caravan, Jethro Tull, Moody Blues and/or, of course, Supertramp.

Einsetumadur | 4/5 |

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