Friday, May 16, 2008

Album project: A's end

April Wine, The Whole World's Goin' Crazy (1976): Canadian rockers April Wine have been slugging it out since the late 60's. During the 70's, lead vocalist/guitarist/chief songwriter Myles Goodwin led the band to superstar status in their home country, and by the end of the decade, April Wine was starting to make inroads into the American market. They scored an early Top 40 hit in the States in 1972 with "You Could Have Been A Lady", but as their status grew in Canada, consistent success south of the border continued to elude them. Occasionally a track or two would sneak onto American album rock stations near the border, an example being "Oowatanite" from their Stand Back LP.

The Whole World's Goin' Crazy, their fifth release, went platinum in Canada on advance sales alone. By this time April Wine's signature style of hard-edged rockers mixed with romantic balladry was well established. The energetic "Shot Down" earned the group scattered airplay on American FM radio, again mostly in the upper Midwest. The high points, though, are the Canadian hit "Like A Lover, Like A Song" and "Wings of Love", two fine Goodwin ballads showcasing a softer side that was about to pay big dividends for the group.

The raucous "Roller" from First Glance finally gave April Wine their American breakthrough and ushered in the group's period of greatest success. From 1978-82, April Wine was a top concert draw while releasing albums like Harder Faster and The Nature Of The Beast that proved the band had their formula down cold. Energy-charged tunes like "I Like To Rock" and "Sign Of The Gypsy Queen" rocked arenas, while ballads like "Say Hello" and "Just Between You And Me", their biggest hit, provided a nice change of pace. In 1983, an exhausted Goodwin moved to the Bahamas and the band went into hiatus. Goodwin returned to Canada in 1988 and the group resumed touring and recording. April Wine continues to go at it to this day, remaining a top concert draw in Canada.

Kevin Ayers, The Confessions Of Dr. Dream And Other Stories (1974): The eccentric Ayers first came to attention as a member of British psychedelic group Soft Machine. In that group, Ayers' mellifluous baritone provided the compliment to Robert Wyatt's reedy tenor. Following Soft Machine's first American tour, Ayers abruptly quit the band and retreated to the beaches of Ibiza to write songs and lounge in the sun. This established a career pattern of periods of prolific work followed by extended tropical vacations.

Ayers hit a career peak of sorts in the early 70's with his trilogy Whatevershebringswesing, Bananamour, and The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories. These albums feature a whimsical mix of folk, psychedelia, and the avant-garde, and Ayers' unique voice. The discs were well-received in the UK, placing him on the fringes of Britain's progressive scene. Partly due to Ayers' reluctance to tour here, they are barely known in the States, where he's regarded as a curiosity at best.

Dr. Dream was a decent seller in the UK and remains Kevin Ayers' biggest commercial success. The LP marks the beginning of Ayers' partnership with guitarist Ollie Halsall which continued until the latter's death in 1992. Once again, Ayers mixes rock, blues, psychedelia, and the just plain weird. Side one is Ayers at his best, with the upbeat "Day By Day", the soulful shoulda-been-a-hit "Didn't Feel Lonely Till I Thought Of You", and the melancholy "Everybody's Sometime And Some People's All The Time Blues". There's also the somnambulent, eight-minute "It Begins With A Blessing But It Ends With A Curse", a reworking of Soft Machine's "Why Are We Sleeping?" The second half consists mostly of the suite, "The Confessions Of Dr. Dream", where Ayers puts all his goofy weirdness on display for close to 19 minutes.

"Didn't Feel Lonely Till I Thought Of You", from a 1981 Spanish TV performance, gives you a feel for Ayers' unique talents:

Following the release of one more album in 1976, Yes We Have No MaƱanas, Ayers once again withdrew to the tropics for a lengthy vacation. During the 80's and 90's, he recorded sporadically while battling some nasty drug addictions. In recent years Ayers has gotten back on his feet and started recording again, including the recent The Unfairground. Fans of the eccentric will enjoy checking out his website. I love this message: "Kevin is aware of the internet, but he doesn't have a computer let alone an internet connection. He wishes people still sent telegrams." My kind of guy.

Aztec Camera, High Land, Hard Rain (1983): Fans of early 80's Brit-pop like Culture Club and Haircut 100 will enjoy Aztec Camera. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Roddy Frame was the main creative force behind the Scottish-based group that enjoyed a run of British success in the mid-80's. High Land, Hard Rain was the group's debut; a collection of pleasant enough guitar-pop that lacks punch, and Frame isn't a strong enough singer to put the songs across. Apart from an acoustic cover of Van Halen's "Jump", the single "Oblivious" was the only Aztec Camera track to get much attention in the US. "Oblivious" was an MTV hit of sorts, and may bring back memories for some of you 80's heads:

Shit, if I'd have known the A's were going to take five months, I would never have started this. The B's will probably take the rest of this year if I don't step it up...