Feelin' Alright: The Very Best Of Traffic

Traffic

Island, 2000

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traffic_(band)

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/22/2007

One never thinks of Traffic as one of those bands they need to hear. I have yet to hear anyone say they had a hard day at work and they just want to go home, grab a beer, plop down on the couch and listen to John Barleycorn Must Die. Of course, that album came out 37 years ago, so the name of Traffic is fading fast.

However, Traffic is one of those bands that, when you revisit it, makes you promise to listen to them more often because you realize what you're missing. They take time to grow, but they get under your skin and stay there -- the mark of good songwriting. With that said, Feelin' Alright is the only Traffic you'll ever need, as pretty much everything worth hearing is right here on this single disc.

The band comprised two distinct phases; beginning life as a bluesy psychedelic combo, they gradually shifted to a mature jazz/rock outfit with touches of progressive leanings. That later phase of Traffic is what you know from the radio, and it's the best of the band, as it includes all their strengths into one unique voice.

But to get to that, you'll have to sit through the early stuff, and if there was ever a textbook definition on how to write psychedelic music this could be it. "Paper Sun" is catchy, sure, but horribly dated and full of every psychedelic song cliche you can think of -- of course, this was 1968, so one can cut them some slack. It hasn't held up well, though, and neither has "Heaven Is In Your Mind" or "Hole In My Shoe."

Things improve a bit on the highlights from the band's eponymous sophomore disc, although that marks the point where Dave Mason was slowly being edged out as Jim Capaldi and Steve Winwood took over the band (Winwood on vocals, piano, etc. and Capaldi on drums and lyrics). "You Can All Join In" is too cutesy, barely qualifying as rock, but it's a little less dated than the first few songs, simplistic anti-racism lyrics aside. "Pearly Queen" is an interesting fusion of English folk and jazz, a hint of what was to come, and the original "Feelin' Alright" is much better than the overblown Grand Funk cover or the overplayed Joe Cocker version. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Winwood took a year off from Traffic, but the band sans Mason wound up reconvening in 1970 to fulfill a contract. From this session would yield John Barleycorn Must Die, the band's strongest album statement and first of two classics. And no matter what you think about Traffic, or instrumental tunes, or '70s music in general, you will love "Glad." A rollicking seven-minute piece, the tune winds through a boogie beat with guitar solos, a wonderful sax solo right out of Miles Davis and some great electric piano and keyboard work. It is by far Traffic's best tune, made even better by the band's intent to jam and the lack of pretension.

"Glad" segues into the vaguely psychedelic "Freedom Rider," which sounds great coming next and makes you like the song again (stupid classic rock radio), and the simple but elegant "Empty Pages," which is about a man looking back over his life, follows. "John Barleycorn" is here too, but something tells me Jethro Tull would have handled this sort of thing better, as they were adept at olde English folk tunes. Traffic's cover is solid but unremarkable and a bit long.

Speaking of long, this disc features the entire 12 minutes of "The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys," off the album of the same name, Traffic's last great stand. Don't kid yourself -- it's a quick 12 minutes, a powerfully hypnotic groove that's a rail against the music business (sample Capaldi lyric, innocently sung by Winwood: "And the man in the suit has just bought a new car / From the profit he's made on your dreams") and a shining example of jazz/rock fusion. Steely Dan would do this sort of thing in a more pop vein the next year, but the beauty of "Spark" is that it never rushes to its goal, preferring to let the tension build in Winwood's high vocals, the spacey saxophone jams, the sparse electric piano and the steady bass. The songs fades the way it came in, but you don't want it to. Things close with "Rock and Roll Stew," a depressingly jaunty tune about life on the road that sounds a bit like what Bad Company would do a few years later.

A couple of tunes are missing that should probably be here, but casual and even average fans won't notice. All the Traffic you need is on this disc, and at least half of it is worth your time -- the other half, the early stuff, is really hit or miss, depending on your tastes. But "Glad" and "Spark" make up for the weaker songs here and showcase a pretty solid jam band that shouldn't be lost to time.

Rating: B-

User Rating: B


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