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Soft Machine - Vols. 1 & 2

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Artist: Soft Machine

Album: Vols. 1 & 2

Label: Water

Review date: Aug. 21, 2007

These two seminal late-’60s albums have now been reissued separately, with the original liners and a bit of updated historical perspective. The sound is probably as good as can be expected, though so far as I can hear, Water doesn’t improve on previous issues.

Obviously, the music is paramount, and it is wonderful that it remains in print, now more easily accessible to those stateside. Recorded in New York in 1968 as they toured with Hendrix, the Soft’s first album still deserves a place of high honor for illustrating an alternate use of the guitarless trio. As the new liners for this reissue point out, the music is more “American” than many in this country were prepared to accept, drenched in R&B, jazz and what you could conveniently label proto-punk. The trio of Mike Rateledge, Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt had soul a-plenty, as evidenced in the irresistibly bluesy “Why am I so Short,” and Wyatt has always been absolutely up front about the African-American sources of his inspirations. That said, a fair amount of now-stereotypical British whimsy also abounds, informing the constant juxtapositions throughout and infusing tracks like “Why Are We Sleeping” with several pithy layers of microhistory to keep the reviewer busy.

The second album saw Ayers depart for the Spanish island of Majorca, as immortalized in “As Long as He Lies Perfectly Still,” and Hugh Hopper enter the fold. The rather primitive delays and distortions of Vol. 1 are replaced with much more subtle shades of studio experimentation, reedwork courtesy of Brian Hopper, and even more bizarre jump-cut edits. Humor and innovation win out over influence, or rather, influence becomes the subject of many a quip or musical non sequitur. We are treated to a song about the virtues of nudity in 5/4 time, not to mention Hugh Hopper’s beautifully elusive guitar work on the surreal “Dedicated to You, but You Weren’t Listening.” Some fairly placid piano trio work opens the disc, and after a rousing recitation of the British alphabet, we are slammed headlong into the fusion era with the unlikely combination of distorted bass and brushed drums. The piano trio returns in “Hullo Der,” Wyatt deciding that as he’s white, he doesn’t need more power than he’s got “except for sometimes, when I’m broke.”

The album is a trippy reminder of a time when nothing quite hung together in any of the ways we now deem conventional. Taken together, the first two Softs records encapsulate the tensions that would ultimately drive the group apart, or fragment the Canterbury scene, or pave the way for years of great music that never fit the term “progressive” – take your choice. My only complaint: Why not just combine the two albums onto a single CD, as had been done successfully before? Consumer cost could have been controlled. But thanks to Water all the same for disseminating top-drawer work, as they continue a fine reissue campaign.

By Marc Medwin

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