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Kevin Ayers - Kevin Ayers & The Whole World: Shooting At The Moon CD (album) cover


Kevin Ayers


Canterbury Scene

3.71 | 99 ratings

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2 stars 7/15P.: the totally cumbrous sole album of one of the most promising bands of the Canterbury scene, Kevin Ayers & The Whole World. In the end, Ayers' care-free attitude only works when he has a bunch good songs up his sleeve. He has, but you have to find them in a mess of pseudo-avantgarde garbage. Still, the album features Mike Oldfield's most manic guitar solo ever which is a breeze to listen to.

Ayers' debut album Joy of A Toy was quite a consistent affair. Lots of great songs, great sound effects and featuring David Bedford as a competent arranger. Shooting at the Moon features a wonderful band lineup of a young Mike Oldfield on bass guitar and occasional guitar, Lol Coxhill on electronic and acoustic saxophone, David Bedford on Farfisa Compact organ and Mick Fincher on drums. Sadly, the band isn't as good as it should be. One point is that a Farfisa Compact organ, i.e. the organ which Pink Floyd's Rick Wright used in the early days of Pink Floyd, needs a lot of, let's say, suspectibility from the organ player. You need to find the lovely sounding registrations, and you need to know with which effect you can distort or reverberate the awful sounding registrations so that you can at least play some weird solos on it. David Bedford, who relies on the Compact organ quite heavily on that recording, simply took some arbitrary registrations without thinking a lot about the sound, which in most of the cases sounds terrible. Secondly, the production completely destroys the drum sound which is quite upfront, but sallow.

***Lots of shade...***

So, let's at first sort out the twenty minutes which are (more or less) useless. Some reviewers subsumed the pieces to four long tracks, just like it was meant to be by Ayers, but there's nothing which ties the pieces together; they are completely separate, so I just don't bother about that and talk about them all over the place.

Pisser Dans Un Violon is tout fait awful and boring from the very first to the last second, except for the part from 5:30 to 6:15 in which the 17-year-old Mike Oldfield plays some folk on his electric guitar with his special finger vibrato; but also this part is flawed by the useless noodling in the background of which the whole piece consists. David Bedford presses random buttons and keys on his organ, Lol Coxhill plays random sax notes through a guitar amp, Kevin Ayers scratches the bass guitar strings with a plectrum and Mick Fincher plays nothing, perhaps knowing that even walking the Abbey Road cross-walk back and forth is even more sensible than participating in such a session. Contrary to Rick Wright's avantgarde work in Sysyphus there is, apart from the guitar part, neither a melody nor a structure in this piece, nor an anarchy in the vein of Muir-era King Crimson which could amaze me. A complete failure, but taking 8 minutes of the running time. Underwater at least conveys a certain atmosphere which in fact really sounds like whales singing. The difference to Pisser Dans Un Violon is that both Bedford and Fincher have a tacet part here. Instead, Oldfield slides on the guitar fret to and fro with a bottleneck while Kevin Ayers manipulates the machine head of his bass guitar as if it was the first time he tuned the bass - double-tracked, of course, with one detuned bass left and one detuned bass right. Dreadful - even Yoko Ono's stuff is more inspired.

Clarence In Wonderland, a Soft Machine classic written by Ayers in 1966, is a really nice song which The Whole World enhanced to a pretty neo-classicistic 10 minutes track with a long intro of intertwined scales (quite like the background bells in the first ten seconds of Pink Floyd's High Hopes), followed by nice saxophone solos in the Velvet Underground like vocal part; I especially like the twisted chord progression of the pre-chorus and the chorus. This studio version, however, is completely strange and the worst version of this piece that I know. Mick Fincher and David Bedford add multi-tracked percussion which are perhaps intended to sound caribbean, but especially Bedford's marimbaphone is never quite on the cue. Recording a choir of multi-tracked soprano saxophones is a nice experiment, too, but I couldn't stand this creaking longer than three minutes. At least it's, apart from the bass guitar, the only instrument playing a melody here. And I do enjoy Miles Davis' Bitches Brew a lot, and this is said to be a really tough listen for non-jazzers.

Shooting At The Moon, a new version of Soft Machine's Jet-Propelled Photographs, begins in a promising way with an inventive 5/8-3/8-12/8 metre, the beginning 8 beats accompanying a jazzy melody and the last 12 beats backed by fairly Byrds-ish jangling guitars. But the lead vocals, sung simultaneously by Oldfield and Ayers, are distorted beyond recognition while the Farfisa organ plays the whole mess in a different key. There's this beautiful saxophone line, the drum rhythm and all those instruments, and while listening to it you get a complete picture in your head how great this piece would sound if it was produced with at least a hint of proper taste. But it isn't, it is complete mayhem and wasted talent. After already one minute the vocal part is over, and that's where the instrumental part starts. The underlying idea of this part is simple but utterly inventive, as well: they take the main riff of the song and stack it over and over, sometimes offset, sometimes a bit slower or a bit faster. The melodies float from the left to the right channel, some distortion and some phasing here and there - really psychedelic and it could be tasteful, but they do exactly the same thing for more than four minutes, which is by far too long. This recording sounds just like a sketch of a quality Canterbury song. It contains everything which you need to construct a master recording of it, but from an artistic point of view it's close to insufferableness. If you stand through it, you are at least rewarded with a cool galloping closing part, a fast waltz in in fact.

Another useless song, but a song which doesn't count, is the cheesy bonus track Butterfly Dance which starts like the Turtles' So Happy Together and quickly becomes a pop song with a rapid Santana groove, a forgettable lead melody and female backing vocals singing the word butterfly over and over. At least this time the song isn't bad due to failed experimentation, but because the commercial intention cannot be ignored.

***...and some light.***

An example of successful avantgarde is the middle part of Rheinhardt&Geraldine/Colores Para Dolores. The whole song is really good with its cool unpredictable riff, played competently by Mike Oldfield on an occasionally distorted bass - he's an awesome bass player, by the way - and David Bedford on the electric piano. The vocal part of Rheinhardt&Geraldine benefits a lot from these powerful drum accents and the deep voice of Ayers, and Coxhill's creative 'rhythm saxophone' work isn't bad either - a forceful piece of music, indeed. After two minutes the band move over to excessive tape fiddling, mixing up a recording of an orchestra with a recording of manic freak-out of the band. An orchestra fanfare here, paranoid organ sounds there, and that whole orgy of sound pervaded by sudden drum strokes. That's the kind of avantgarde I like since finally there's some turmoil going on. Colores Para Dolores, with Oldfield, Ayers, Robert Wyatt and I-don't-know-who-else singing hymnal backing vocals, appears after the free-form interlude and is even slightly balladesque in its bombastic sound. The lyrics are typical Ayers lyrics and deal with colors and what they mean, or whatever. Pretty cool!

Lunatic's Lament is the best cut on this album. I mean, the hard-rocking stanzas are really good and the vocals, distorted nearly as much as in Shooting at the Moon, sound as mad as they should in such a song, but Mike Oldfield's 90-second guitar solo... it's blazing and intoxicating as hell with that biting lead guitar, frantic string bendings and his characteristic hammer-ons which just don't end. It's the genuine Oldfield styling, but this guy's completely out of his head here, and it's also him who does this proto-metal shouting in the vocal part and in the 50-seconds long free form end. Think Andy Summers' guitar solo in The Animals' Coloured Rain and you know the tone of the Oldfield solo. Still, to get a full impression, you have to think the Summers solo some degrees weirder. In any way Lunatic's Lament is both unique in Ayers' and Oldfield's discography and is a good reason to get this record.

May I?, or Puis Je? in French, is one of Ayers' best-known ballads and has everything it needs. Some strange chord progressions, a beautiful melody, Bedford on accordeon and Coxhill playing a warm and pulsating solo on electric saxophone. The most outstanding contribution though is Mike Oldfield's upfront bass guitar; he doesn't merely play the standard tones, but plays inverted chords and tasteful walking bass lines to guide the band into the next part of the song. You decide if the English or the French version is better; musically they're actually quite the same. And, of course, Ayers' favorite fruit is mentioned again during the saxophone solo; I really wondered how rarely it appears during this album.

Red Green And You Blue is a pretty similarly gorgeous tune, featuring an relaxed bossa-nova like rhythm and finally a pretty tasteful and reedy organ sound. Ayers sings in his most comfortable vocal range, but interestingly his voice sounds more ominous than expected in such a light jazz/pop tune. The saxophone solo, albeit without any electric pick-ups involved, is longer and even a tad better than in May I? and inspires Oldfield to some sweeping bass lines around 2:40. I'm sure that everyone listening to Oldfield around that time must have known that he was going to be one of the big ones of art rock music, particularly since he already played the psychedelic guitar part of Tubular Bells Pt.2 in Whole World performances of Soft Machine's Why Are We Sleeping? around 1971. That's classic Canterbury music, and I wouldn't have minded the album to consist of more of such songs, or at least of more rhythmic avantgarde pieces.

The last two pieces are the Bridget St.John collaborations The Oyster and the Flying Fish and Jolie Madame, the latter rather being a bonus track. The Oyster song, an acoustic folkish stomp with occasionally eccentric chord progressions and the awkward harmonizing of Ayers' bass voice and St.John's counter-tenor, is the song on this record with the most similarities to his Joy of A Toy album. The lyrics reflect about the question if oysters should be allowed to become flying fish, as the two speakers in the song (i.e., an oyster and a flying fish) talk to each other. The arrangement is reduced to acoustic guitar, a honky-tonk piano in the background, tambourine and vocals, and in this context this works out really fine. That's the humorous Ayers I like, and I don't object to this tune in any way. Jolie Madame is a French chanson sung by Ayers and St.John, too. It's actually even more Joy of A Toy with Bedford playing the same piano intro as in Girl On A Swing and composing a beautiful oboe arrangement. Delicate, but ultimately not part of the original album.

The bonus piece Hat is the full-length version of Ayers' quasi-classic piece. To sum it up in a few words it consists of a short and absolutely nonsense text, sung upon a simple boogie chord progression - quite kind of the introductory music of 1960a cartoon TV series. But listening to the band playing through the few verses in many different ways is great fun, in special because everyone sings and shouts and screams - utter madness, but really funny. My particular highlight is Bedford doing the Don Alphonso at the request of Ayers; it's a music hall song which Bedford also performed with Coxhill in 1971 and as a single with Oldfield in 1974. Actually he seems to have played this song over and over already before this recording.

Gemini Child, the single A-side that was sold along with the album, is a decent pop song with really effective harmony vocals by Oldfield and a nice part with dissolved chords before each stanza. Oldfield never was a good singer, but he fits in incredibly with Ayers in the you know damn well parts. The Farfisa organ sounds quite alright, the saxophone plays some counterpoints and there's finally a certain feeling throughout the piece - nothing left to desire regarding a 1970 single.

There's one thing I'm pretty sure of: if you want to get this record, get the expanded version because the bonus tracks are of higher quality than big parts of the original album; skipping the bland tracks and listening through the bonus tracks makes at least about thirty-five minutes of good music. The presence of four really good Ayers songs (May I?, Rheinhardt&Geraldine, Lunatic's Lament and Red Green and You Blue) might be worth the trouble, but if you happen to think about the avantgarde part similarly, you won't entirely like this album, too. All in all I'm forced to give a (really strong) two star rating overall; it might as well be a weak three star rating, but since there are not too many really excellent moments on this record I am going to be strict about it and give the weaker rating. This is quite sad since the album has a really good reputation and since it's the only album Ayers did entirely with this superb line-up.

Einsetumadur | 2/5 |


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