Saturday, January 29, 2005

Traffic Stop

Jim Capaldi, dead at sixty.

You know, this week I’ve been listening to a two-disc War compilation, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Traffic. Part of it is a hangover from that silly meme-quiz, I suppose, but most of it is a shared sonic quality—a similarity I’d never noticed before.

And why should I? After all, 1970s East L.A. is worlds away, experientially, from bucolic Cotswold-on-the-Maypole, or wherever it was that Jim and the boys forged their sound. Both groups drew on jazz, of course, but on separate, distinct strains of the idiom. There would seem to be a vast qualitative difference between War’s soul-funk (Afro-American, urban, gritty) and Traffic’s folk-psychedelia (Anglo-European, pastoral, whimsical).

But on a purely musical level—quantitatively—we hear some common elements: predominant keyboards, gang vocals, and kitchen-sink percussion bubbling through a deep, layered stereo mix. (To be fair, Traffic came upon this approach largely via producer Jimmy Miller, who had used it to great effect with the Spencer Davis Group.) The same tools were being deployed to greatly different ends.

The histories run parallel, as well. Both came together as backing bands for the solo debut of singers leaving popular British blues-rock groups (the first Traffic sessions were supposed to be for a Winwood solo record), winding down in personnel changes as the 70s wore on, losing saxophonists along the way, re-emerging in the mid-90s but never quite regaining their former stature.

War was arguably the better singles band—but listening to these songs all in a row exposes their limitations. They fell too often into a samey, mid-tempo Latin groove, the lyrics (for all the band’s vaunted “social consciousness”) rarely distinguish themselves in the handling of their Big Themes, and the emphasis on collective singing starts to sound like a crutch. If Traffic has aged better, it’s because they had what War lacked—instantly-identifiable lead vocals and a distinctive lyrical sensibility. (Ironically, of course, War had both in their early days, backing Eric Burdon.)

Jim Capaldi was that lyrical voice. It was a strange voice—phantasmagoric, mystical, sometimes flaky or pompous or both—but its strangeness was authentic. In contrast to Dave Mason, whose flights of fancy seemed plodding and forced, imagined from outside, one always got the feeling that Capaldi had the kind of mind that really could look around corners.

And for Jim Capaldi as for his creation Mr. Fantasy: If it was straight mind he had, we wouldn’t have known him all those years.

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