What does it sound like?:
These two remastered releases expand Curved Air’s second and third albums first issued back in 1971 and 1972 respectively. Although many people associate Air with singer Sonja Kristina (the only ever present member of the band which is still gigging today), Air’s creative engine came from the classical trained twosome of guitarist Francis Monkman (who oversaw these re-masters) and violinist Darryl Way. Today, these albums come across as a diverse mix of prog and classically themed songs with the occasional rock flourish topped off with what has been described as Kristina’s “acid-folk” vocals.
For a band with such creative flair, the mundanely titled “Second Album” features one side of primarily Darryl Way compositions and one side penned by Monkman. The album kicks off with “Young Mother” a VCS3 syth fest, which gallops along with several time signature changes. “Jumbo” is an ethereal ballad that gives Way a chance to strut his stuff with a full orchestra. “You Know”, “Puppets”, Everdance” and “Bright Summer Day” offer up a mix of more pop and rock themed songs and closes with the 13 minute musical potpourri that is “Piece of Mind”. All of these are eclipsed by “that” song, “Back Street Luv” – a monster riff that contrasts the decaying synth with Kristina’s perfect diction. Contrary to the popular belief Way does play on the song, adding clavinet rather than violin. Getting to number 4 in the UK singles chart it gave Air an unexpected and high profile hit, and it’s a song with an immediacy that stands head and shoulders above everything else on the album. And Slade style spelling too.
This re-release has additional material in the form of 5 songs from a 1971 John Peel session that reprise an earlier version of “Young Mother” and a somewhat indulgent “Vivaldi” which once it descends into violin based sound effects cries out for the fast forward button. There’s also the chance to see the band live in 1971 with a previously unreleased promotional film.
The expanded version of 3rd album “Phantasmagoria” has the same (ultimately terminal) divide in terms of Way / Monkman compositions. No doubt emboldened by their prior chart success the band determined to push boundaries even further, Monkman keen to explore the possibilities that computers and synths offered. Overall, the album sold less well than the two prior releases and the band split a few months after it’s release, with Way and Monkman’s artistic differences interests too difficult to reconcile. Compared to the second album, it’s seems less coherent and more a work of style rather than substance. “Marie Antoinette” is one of the better tracks, a swirling, tumbling effort that makes the most of Kristina’s crystal clear vocals. “Melinda (More or Less)” has a folksy feel, built on acoustic guitar and violin, a little slight perhaps. “Not Quite The Same” offers up some synth brass and a gentle jazz vibe, incongruously an ode to self love. “Cheetah” and “Ultra-Vivaldi” are Darryl all the Way, the former barreling along nicely until derailed by a discordant sequence. I’m sure the latter was fun to record but a listening to a pseudo classical violin and synth riff which gradually speeds up until it disappears up it’s own backside isn’t something I feel anxious to repeat, and was better done by Wendy Carlos.
“Phantasmagoria” kicks off the Monkman side of the LP, pleasant enough although I can’t quite get past the “bumpity-bumpity” lyrics. The jazzy “Once A Ghost” works well, guest Frank Ricotti’s vides to the fore, as they also are on “Over and Above”, positively Zappaesque. “Whose Shoulder Are You Looking Over Anyway” is Sonja’s voice run through synths and computers – experimental for sure, groundbreaking possibly, musical it ain’t. The bonus tracks comprise of “Sarah’s Concern”, a single that failed to chart and foreign language versions of “Marie Antoinette” and “Melinda”.
The DVD contains 2 sets from 1972 taken from sessions recorded for Belgian and Austrian TV. Live with a more stripped down sound, “Marie Antoinette” prospers with Monkman’s guitar giving it more contrast and bite whilst “Propositions” is almost a rocker with Kristina’s usual purity exchanged for more grit and even a few screams. “Melinda” provides a chance to see Kristina accompany herself on guitar. The set closes with “Vivaldi” which showcases the contrast between the band in full flight and the solo indulgences of Way and Monkman. The second set has 3 mimed songs repeating “Melinda”, concluding with a Benny Hill style “Ultra Vivaldi” with Way hitting people with his violin and Kristina playing patty-cake.
The 46 year gap between the original and re-release makes it easy to look back a little unkindly on the freedom and creativity of the early 70’s. These albums show Curved Air as a band of outstanding musicianship with an experimental edge that by the 3rd album had allowed art to become indulgence.
What does it all *mean*?
Spell checking “Marie Antoinette” would have been advisable (3 “t’s” not 2)
Goes well with…
Some black and white ghost movies and maybe a jazz cigarettes
Might suit people who like…
According to Spotify, Caravan, Eloy, East of Eden, Rare Bird, Greenslade, Nektar and Jade Warrior.