Esoteric Recordings are continuing their Curved Air reissues program, this time with the follow up to Air Conditioning, entitled Second Album. Originally released on the Warner Bros. label in the fall of 1971, the album reached number 11 in the U.K. with the single Back Street Luv getting to number four when it was released in July of that same year.
When the band went into the studio to record their aptly titled Second Album, original bassist Rob Martin had to leave due to a trapped nerve in his shoulder which made it impossible for him to play bass. The band placed an ad in the Melody Maker for another bass player. Enter, Ian Eyre. Ian came from a Northern Soul background, plus a mixture of Martial Arts and Yoga for some exercise, according to the liner notes from an interview he gave for this reissue. Mark Edwards produced the debut album but it was time for the band to open a new door and they brought along Colin Caldwell, who also worked on the debut release, for Second Album to help co-produce and engineer.
Listening to Second Album originally, when I first heard it back in the fall of 2006, it sounded like it was very quiet with some low quality moments, similar to when I initially heard Air Conditioning during the same period. Listening now to the remastered sound by Francis Monkman, this version of Second Album has much better quality sound. Thanks to the reissue, the whole album is like a gigantic flower ready to burst open, finally ready to see the sunlight. From the opening track Young Mother, which went back to the pre-Curved Air band Sisyphus, features a swirling VCS3 synth introduction that is almost on a loop as an orchestral fanfare between the horns and Darryl Way’s violin, creating an intensive yet confrontational sequence.
Sonja Kristina pours her heart through the lyrical textures before Florian Pilkington-Miska, Eyre, and the keyboards soar through a cosmic midsection that will take you through higher places before heading back into the VCS3 loop and the song’s protagonist trying to stay sane and not go crazy.
Now Back Street Luv, my introduction to Curved Air’s music in 2005 via the ProgArchives website. Monkman’s remastering is like a motorcycle, revved up and ready to go. It drives the climbing rhythm before heading back down for some of the riffs and melodies that Way and Monkman provide, giving Sonja a guide to follow in Miska’s drumming, providing more clues to the girl’s possible options and… well, you get the general idea of what the song is about.
Jumbo has some beautiful string arrangements that slightly resemble Debussy’s Clair De Lune, Way’s piano following the melody of some amazing landscapes as Kristina captures the loss of innocence, almost sounding like the introduction to the storyboard sequences in Disney’s overlooked 1977 animated classic, The Rescuers.
Curved Air’s nod towards Procol Harum’s Home-era on You Know gives Monkman a chance to channel the crunches of Robin Trower and Carlos Santana throughout the solo with some bluesy work and riffing as Way’s keyboards lay down the law. Sonja and Darryl vocalise well together, as if the two have each other’s backs, keeping the music flowing and moving forward.
The loop percussion and clicking effects that are used on Puppets follows, with Way’s piano and Mellotron flowing through the waves from the ocean. The lyrical wonders of the puppeteer who controls the marionette’s strings whilst making plans to please everyone bring joy and happiness.
Everdance is almost Curved Air’s answer to Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats with some of the odd signatures as if they were paying homage to The Grand Wazoo himself. It has thunderous roars followed by keyboard and violin work while Bright Summer’s Day ’68 sees the volume levels boosted as Sonja takes us through the letters from an inmate’s life while on Death Row. It is told through a motorcycling rhythm from Monkman and Way in the intro as Francis himself drives down the highway followed by the Harpsichord as Sonja begins to sing,
In the middle of May
With the sun shining down
My baby left town
My brother broke jail
Then my Daddy shot Mom
So I’ve written this song
Just to tell all you folks
Out there cracking them jokes
How I felt all along.”
The lyrics have a dark comedic atmosphere, the brother escaping jail to find her sister. The midsection has a mini-opera vibe with some intensity, the guitars and organ go to the edge near the end to understand what will happen next in a cliffhanger for the characters.
The 12-minute closing track, Piece of Mind, is a classical yet nightmarish theatrical composition. Listening to this, I can hear aspects of Renaissance, Van der Graaf Generator, Gentle Giant, and Benefit-era of Jethro Tull. It features a dystopian landscape, somewhere between Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
The five bonus tracks feature BBC sessions with John Peel in 1971, the first being Young Mother in Style which was introduced by the late great Brian Matthew for Top Gear. The last four are a full performance at the BBC Paris Theatre in London in March, introduced by Peel. They go straight into killer versions of It Happened Today, Blind Man, and the intensive medley of Propositions and What Happens When You Blow Yourself Up featuring the VCS3 is a volcanic sound. The intensity from that live recording is there, Sonja reaching for those notes and letting out a huge scream that every time I hear gives me Goosebumps. It moves into a cat-and-mouse Zappa-esque scenario with What Happens When You Blow Yourself Up as Francis goes back to the VCS3, raising the temperature levels up, up, and up.
Now onto the DVD second disc. It contains TV appearances from 1971, including a never before seen promo film that the band did for Warner Bros. where they mimed three songs from the Air Conditioning for promotion in the States. It features newspaper and magazine clippings, psychedelic poster, and a skull being screwed to its head.
Next up is a French TV show called Pop Deux (POP2) which featured bands like Fairport Convention, Blodwyn Pig, T. Rex, and Strawbs. According to Esoteric’s Mark Powell it was France’s answer to The Old Grey Whistle Test and concentrated on album bands. Curved Air performed at the Taverne D’Olympia on 6th July, the same place where Magma recorded their live album in 1975. You can see some of the close-ups on Darryl playing keyboards on Back Street Luv and little bits of Francis and Pilkington-Miska also. Monkman adds a Terry Riley-esque sound on the VCS3 to create to some of the ascending loops that climb towards the heavens before he and the band play an excerpt of Propositions. There is an interview by Phillipe Constaine, which I believe was conducted backstage at the Taverne, about the history of the band before Way closes the performance with a powerful version of Vivaldi which gives him full creative rein as his violin nails it bit by bit, from relaxed to incredible ramming speed.
The next and final parts are TV sessions from March and in the fall of 1971 for German TV show Beat Club, which include the Air Conditioning album cover going through a spinning wheel, a blue screen, and electronic waves. It also featured session drummer Barry De Souza replacing Florian who had been taken ill with Hepatitis B.
The reissue contains a 24-page booklet with liner notes by Malcolm Dome and interviews with the band members about the making of the album. I have to say I was very impressed with the Francis Monkman’s new remastering of Second Album as the sound quality is very good. I hope Esoteric continue to with more Curved Air reissues for next year. Please pick this one up and add it to the other reissues that Esoteric have released so far.
Disc 1 – Original Album Remastered
01. Young Mother (5:57)
02. Back Street Luv (3:37)
03. Jumbo (4:11)
04. You Know (4:10)
05. Puppets (5:29)
06. Everdance (3:07)
07. Bright Summer’s Day ’68 (2:54)
08. Piece of Mind (12:58)
~ Bonus Tracks:
BBC Radio One John Peel Top Gear Session Recorded 5th January 1971
09. Young Mother in Style (4:07)
BBC Radio One John Peel Sunday Concert, 4th March 1971 at the BBC Paris Theatre, Regent Street, London – Previously Unreleased
10. It Happened Today (BBC Radio One Session) (4:53)
11. Blind Man (BBC Radio One Session) (3:53)
12. Propositions (BBC Radio One Session) (6:58)
13. Vivaldi (BBC Radio One Session) (9:05)
Total Time – 71:28
Disc 2 – DVD:
Curved Air on the Air Television Recordings 1971.
Warner Bros presents Curved Air 1971 promo film. Previously Unreleased
01. It Happened Today
Pop Deux, recorded at Taverne de l’Oympia Paris on 6th July 1971. First Broadcast on 4th September 1971. Previously Unreleased
04. Back Street Luv
Beat Club – Radio Bremen TV Sessions
Recorded March, 1971:
08. It Happened Today
Recorded September, 1971:
11. Back Street Luv (Version 1)
12. Piece of Mind
13. Back Street Luv (Version 2)
Sonja Kristina – Lead Vocals
Darryl Way – Electric Violin, Vocals, Piano
Francis Monkman – Keyboards, Guitar
Ian Eyre – Bass Guitar
Florian Pilkington-Miska – Drums (DVD, tracks 1-11)
Barry de Souza – Drums (DVD, tracks 12 & 13)