Friday, October 2, 2015

Sea Train - 1973 - Watch

Sea Train 

01 Pack Of Fools     4:35
02 Freedom Is The Reason     4:12
03 Bloodshot Eyes     2:58
04 We Are Your Children     3:38
05 Abbeville Fair     4:51
06 North Coast     4:23
07 Scratch     3:43
08 Watching The River Flow     3:20
09 Flute Thing     7:49

Bass, Flute, Vocals – Andy Kulberg
Drums – Julio Coronado
Guitar, Bass, Vocals – Peter Walsh
Keyboards, Accordion – Bill Elliott
Keyboards, Clavinet, Vocals – Lloyd Baskin
Vibraphone – Jim Roberts

A two-year gap, and a change of labels should have warned fans that something was afoot.  Yes, two of the big names and attention grabbers are gone - Rowan and Greene - and without these roots-rock anchors in place the band drifts around from track to track.  But seeing as how their sound had become pretty rote, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Unfortunately, Seatrain became susceptible to mid 70s trends, adding in funky passages, Shaft guitar and the like.  It is like using a matchbook - when you know what you are doing, the results can be good, but there is a great potential for self-destruction.  Things are good at the start - the opening track "Pack of Fools" is Kulberg/Roberts partnership;s swan song, and new guitarist Peter Walsh gets every opportunity to get loose and funky at the end.  The other times Seatrain tries this sort of thing it backfires completely.  It does not help that the two songs that use it (Kulberg and Roberts' "Freedom Is the Reason" and Baskin's "We Are Your Children Too") are crappy attempts at 70s people-affecting anthems.  The former is the more palatable of the two, squatting in a murky rootsy/gospel area and trying to sound contemplative on "freedom," when all they're doing is sounding like your average contemporary James Gang track.  I believe that Kulberg is the one gracing the song with some weak vocals as well.  "We Are Your Children Too" is much, much worse, affording Baskin the opportunity to sound like some long-haired "with-it" pastor singing a contemplative hymn to God, with Kulberg's flute adds a healthy dose of lameness also.  Toss these out, and the band mainly takes on a distinctly Louisiana sound, driven by new keyboardist Bill Elliot.  Baskin's other song, "Bloodshot Eyes" is a fun ragtime romp with traditional Dixieland backing.  The other glimmer of the Kulberg/Roberts team is "North Coast" which has that "Mabel" sound - a party going on (you can hear the voices ask where Richard Greene is, humorously enough), with some of Elliott's barrel-house piano driving the song.  Continuing the Louisiana theme, "Abbeville Fair" was probably designed to be a Greene piece, but without him (orchestration helps fill in the sound) it is just a decent Cajun/folk dance tune.  Otherwise, "Scratch" is yet another anomaly: a simple folk story that might have come from Twice-Told Tales.   Seatrain was clearly searching for a new sound without roots-rock gurus Rowan and Greene, but they never really found it on Watch.  The songwriting appears to have dried up somewhat, precipitating a decent bluesy take on Dylan's "Watching the River Flow."  It may also be why the album's end is occupied up by a long version of Kulberg's old Blues Project spotlight number "Flute Thing."  He may have considered it his trump card, but I doubt many listeners allowed it to be played.  It might have been interesting to hear them pursue the Cajun or ragtime theme, but their breakup isn't unexpected given this album.

Sea Train - 1971 - Marblehead Messenger

Sea Train 
Marblehead Messenger

01. Gramercy 2:59
02. The State of Georgia's Mind 4:01
03. Protestant Preacher 5:23
04. Lonely's Not the Only Way to Go 2:23
05. How Sweet Thy Song 5:00
06. Marblehead Messenger 2:40
07. London Song 4:20
08. Mississippi Moon 3:13
09. Losing All the Years 4:34
10. Despair Tire 5:29

Bass, Flute, Vocals – Andy Kulberg
Drums, Percussion – Larry Atamanuik
Violin, Mandolin, Vocals – Richard Greene
Vocals, Guitar – Peter Rowan
Vocals, Keyboards – Lloyd Baskin

More of the same, but the songs aren't quite as good.  The Kulberg/Roberts pairing seems to have gone in an odd direction; Roberts' lyrics are better ("The State of Georgia's Mind"), but Kulberg's music did not tread any new ground.  This, and the decisions to restrict Greene, simplify Baskin's parts a bit, and bring Rowan up more, deprivec the band of any real musical identity (the jaunty folk of "Gramercy" could be anyone and the anti-war title track, which sounds like a flop single).  Kulberg surprisingly tried to resurrect Sea Train's classical-hybrid sound right down to the fuzzy guitar on "London Song," but note that surprise does not equal great, however, or especially good.  Where surprise does equal good is with Rowan, whose writing skills blossomed.  He contributed three songs, two of which are fun down-home songs ("Protestant Preacher" with Roberts-like lyrics, the 3/4 ballad "Mississippi Moon").  Baskin wrote one song, "Lonely's Not the Only Way to Go", which on first listen might sound like a song about being friends, but upon closer inspection appears to deal with multiple personalities!   Another warning sign is the resurrection of Sea Train's "As I Lay Losing," retitled as "Losing All the Years."  This Seatrain gave a different (inferior) feeling, imbuing it with the warm friendliness of a 70s roots-rock band, instead of its original colder, dark reading.  Greene has one showcase number ("Despair Tire"), an odd combination of his hyperspeed bluegrass fiddle interspersed with Roberts reading intentionally goofy lyrics somewhere between Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein.  A strange mixture, and one would much rather listen to Greene than Roberts continually pun on the phrase "despair tire."  Fans of Seatrain will want to check this out, but it is not a good place to start with the band.  Produced by George Martin.

Sea Train - 1970 - Seatrain

Sea Train

01. I'm Willin'     3:32
02. Song Of Job     6:04
03. Broken Morning     3:04
04. Home To You     3:22
05. Out Where The Hills     5:48
06. Waiting For Elijah     3:35
07. 13 Questions     2:58
08. Oh My Love     2:50
09. Sally Goodin'     2:09
10. Creepin' Midnight     5:20
11. Orange Blossom Special     5:07

Larry Atamanuik: drums, percussion
Lloyd Baskin: lead vocals, keyboards
Richard Greene: violin, viola, keyboard, vocals
Andy Kulberg: bass, vocals, flute, composer
Peter Rowan: lead vocals, guitar, composer

Right when the album started with "I'm Willing" I realized the lyrics looked familiar, especially the line "If you give me weed, whites, and wine". I just listened to Little Feat's "Sailin' Shoes" this past week so I knew it was the same.

I checked to see which album was released first and then I saw the words and music written by Lowell George and I realized he was from Little Feat. Which means George must have let Seatrain play his song for this album before Little Feat would put this song on "Sailin Shoes".

And poof! there went the lineup of Sea Train, replaced by a less interesting, yet more commercial assemblage of people known as Seatrain.  I guess they figured people would not remember that they had just had an album that was self-titled, especially with a slightly changed name.  This Seatrain has an entirely different feel to it, and although the Kulberg/Roberts songwriting team is still in place, Kulberg cedes some control to the newcomers.  Roberts is even officially a member of the group - making them one of the few American bands with an in-house designated lyricist (other than the Grateful Dead).  This new lineup (for those of you scoring at home - Larry Atamanuik on drums, Peter Rowan on guitar and Lloyd Baskin on keyboards, with Baskin and Rowan splitting lead vocals) decided to pare down their sound greatly.  Oh, not in terms of the number of group members, but in terms of styles.  Jazz?  Almost gone.  Kulberg's flute is only let out once ("Broken Morning").  Classical?  Greatly cut down to some of Baskin's keyboard parts (he sounds like Michael Brown before an electric harpsichord on "Waiting for Elijah").  What was left was good old American roots-rock.  Where Sea Train's focal point constantly shifted, Seatrain focuses mainly on Greene's violin.  This is a good thing.  Greene was a fiddle player of exceptional talent, and he lets it shine not only in his spotlight pieces ("Sally Goodin" and "O.B.S." both of which he arranged and adapted, making them sound similar to English groups like Fairport Convention) but throughout the album, frequently with wah-wah pedal attached.  But a paucity of songwriting seems to be on the land.  Rowan, who was the predominant writer for his old group Earth Opera, contributed three songs - a couple of standard romantic ballads ("Home to You" and "Oh My Love") and a slower folk song that is nice, gentle and worth the wait ("Waiting for Elijah").   Roberts' lyrics are not quite as strong; "Song of Job" is a rather talky retelling of the old Biblical story, which lacks suspense.  Their lone charting single, "13 Questions," is an odd UFO encounter in reverse, but with a completely unrelated refrain that happens to be the catchiest part of the song.  Only "Broken Morning" comes close to his earlier work, but only close.  Actually, Seatrain reworks one of Sea Train's highlights, "Out Where the Hills," making it more jaunty and fun before it enters Greene (solo) land.  This version is nowhere close to the original, but still has the album's most complex arrangement.  The two strongest songs are actually from outside the group --Lowell George's signature tune and ode to drug-running ("I'm Willing") before Little Feat recorded it, and an excellent Goffin/King grandstand ("Creepin' Midnight" where Baskin's vocals just wallow in soul).  This incarnation's playing is much simpler as well.  Producer George Martin (yes, that George Martin) tends to make Baskin the central support in each song, such that one frequently forgets that Rowan even exists.  The entire album may not have a guitar solo on it, and often Rowan is completely inaudible.  The band in this incarnation relies more on rhythm than notes (compare the two "Out Where the Hills"), and the production is pretty clean, as compared to the intentional overlap of Sea Train.  So the new Seatrain was a lesser band, a more focused band, and a decent roots-rock band.

Sea Train - 1969 - Sea Train

Sea Train 
Sea Train


01. Sea Train 4:07
02. Let the Duchess No 3:38
03. Pudding Street 4:55
04. Portrait of the Lady as a Young Artist 3:45
05. As I Lay Losing 4:55
06. Rondo 3:22
07. Sweet Creek's Suite 4:20
08. Outwear the Hills 4:40

Bass, Flute – Andrew Kulberg
Drums, Percussion – Roy Blumenfeld
Guitar, Vocals – John Gregory
Saxophone, Bass – Donald Kretmar
Violin, Strings – Richard Greene

This gets my vote for America's best progressive rock album of the 60s, hands down.  This was certainly the year for it, coming out alongside Chicago, The Flock, and Blood Sweat & Tears.  But there are big differences between those albums and this one.  First of all, looking across the ocean, Seatrain's structure resembled Yes more than any other band.  There was no one stand-out member (a la Flock) or a section that was clearly the focal point (i.e., Chicago and BS&T's horns).  The sound has a great deal of give and take between everyone in the band, making Sea Train a group effort similar to The Yes Album.  Another large difference between Seatrain and the aforementioned American bands is their lyrics.  Seatrain had a dedicated lyricist, Jim Roberts, whose lyrics were by and far more poetic than other bands', focusing on personal experience and wispy romance.  Making him, well, a very lyric lyricist, usually paired either with Kulberg or Gregory in songwriting.  Gregory had a warm tenor voice, but not a pure one, and engaged in what could be termed as "friendly, light shouting" when he gets louder ("As I Lay Losing").  At the same time, the band shied away from the long songs normally associated with progressive music.  Not that they lacked the musical talent to pull such tracks off, as one longer instrumental ("Sweet Creek's Suite") demonstrates.  Instead, their amazing arranging ability (only glimpsed on Planned Obsolescence) allowed them to stir in everyone's talent and create a fascinating montage.  What do they stir in?  While simple associations like Greene = bluegrass, Kretmar = jazz, Gregory = folk, Kulberg = classical, are tempting, they do not tell the whole story (like where blues comes in).  For everyone plays everything, and often.  Take the eponymous opening track, for example: an odd hybrid of classical, jazz and blues.  Welcome to America!  But this was Sea Train at their most English as well - with Kulberg's flute and some odd timing gives rise to another Jethro Tull comparison ("Pudding Street") and the hushed beauty of Gregory's "As I Lay Losing" echoing an organ-less Zombies before the beat really kicks in and Kretmar lets loose with a nice solo.  In fact, many of the classical lines have the feel of the Bach-like line inlain in the Zombies' "Beechwood Park."  Despite the music's blatantly American style, Sea Train is also rather English in that it is subtle.  It would have been easy to be overbearing with so many talented musicians around to make a mess of things, but this album has depth.  For example, the Gregory/Roberts song "Portrait of the Lady as Young Artist" is guitar based, but not overwhelmed by the guitar at all.  In fact, Sea Train's self-production is fairly light, with no blaring instruments, and the only electric instruments (guitar and bass) stripped of almost all their electric power.  Even Blumenfeld's drumming is an older style, much like Hugh Grundy was not a progressive rock drummer, and Ian McLane was not a hard rock drummer.  There are not any real production tricks either, only a fuzz tone attached here and there to guitar or violin.  All in all, sit back and let your ears wonder through the beauty, and wish that it would go on "forever more" as the record loops at the end.