THERE'S SOMETHING about calling a song "Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired." It's leading. Critics jump at the chance to be witty, and this is a chance to glibly toss off an entire album and entertain your readers at the same time. Trouble is, Traffic's newest, Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory isn't. Uninspired, that is. It's just a shade better than Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, and, while it's not real innovative, compared to, say, Mr. Fantasy in 1967-68, it certainly cements Steve Winwood's reconstruction of the form fusion that made Traffic's first a quantum jump away from the Spencer Davis Group.
What we have here is a conscious mixture of the less than definable music Traffic's made since 1967--elements of psychedelia, sixties rock, some rhythm and blues, some jazz--and the distinctive southern R 'n' B played in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Traffic's last rhythm section, bassist Ric Grech and Jim Gordon on drums, were rockers, pure and simple, particularly Gordon's white rock/gospel/white R 'n' B background. (He was with the originators of white gospel, Delaney and Bonnie, as well as with Cocker, Leon Russell, and Derek's Dominos). New members Roger Hawkins and David Hood, on drums and bass, are from the Muscle Shoals house band, probably the second or third best studio soul band in the country.
Yet Winwood seems to extend his band in several different directions. He added Rebop Kwaku Baah to strengthen his percussion, along with new tambourine specialist Jim Capaldi and, just recently, added Muscle Shoals keyboard man Barry Beckett, freeing himself to concentrate on piano and guitar. He achieved his ultimate aims: expression and fuller exploration, longer pieces, more improvisation; more work of the caliber of Low Spark.
The paradox is simple: Why would a man with jazz in his head pick an African and three soul band session men as his rhythm section? The answer's someplace in Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory. The album isn't a noticeable improvement over Low Spark: the immediate impression is hypnosis, which is why so many have called it "soporic," Shoot Out is gripping, but on the subtlest levels.
THE TITLE SONG is instant deception. Harder rock than anything since "Medicated Goo," as well as the first song based completely on Rebop's congas. He's way up in the mix, leaving Hawkins to keep the band in place with fundamental bass drum and snare work. The rhythm section is pure and simple; the emphasis is on drive and pace, rather than distinction in style or riff. Winwood provides the power, emphasizing the drive with fuzz rhythm guitar, mixed way up--rhythm guitar and congas are the two most prominent sounds on the song. That fuzz guitar adds an edge, a notion of raunch that buries every other aspect of the tune.
There's a lot of guitar here and on the rest of the album, more so than on any previous Traffic albums, yet Winwood still seems unsure of his guitar playing--I've always thought it the weakest of the instruments he plays--because his wah-wah lead is way back in the song's mix. Chris Wood appears only once, with a skirling flute phrase and then fades into the background during the song's overlong one-riff finale.
"Evening Blue" is the only artistic failure. It's a nice melody, badly realized. The failures are mostly Roger Hawkins's. His snare drum work is flat, and detracts from the overall lightness. So do Rebop's congas. Wood's sax solo is short, disjointed and cliched. The song's saving grace is Steve's guitar. "Evening Blue" is a mood piece, with a pastoral opening out of "John Barleycorn." It would have been successful given the same spare treatment.
"Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired" sings to paranoia, but is so low-key that it immediately suggests a drug-induced euphoria or hypnosis. The conga opening is catchy, and the entrance of saxophone and piano on the first verse is subtle. The rest of the band sneaks in toward the end of the verse, with the same drive they displayed on "Shoot Out," here geared down only enough to keep the tune's direction and pace. The song is based on simple descending and ascending progressions, with an uneven, yet impassioned vocal--listen to Winwood's delivery of the line "I don't know who's losing,/And I don't know who's winning." The guitar solo is again mixed down, fuzzy to the point of feeding back, simple, echoed. Winwood's second entrance on guitar sears, jolts the listener with its out of context brashness, just as Winwood did five years ago in "Dear Mr. Fantasy."
The real masterpiece here is "Roll Right Stones." It's the key to the album's interest, for the discerning listener. "Roll Right Stones" is the only fourteen-minute song I know that's brought off successfully without a soaring guitar solo. Listen closely: there are several themes, subtle changes in tempo that sustain interest that to begin with was merely hypnotic. The song changes tempo, only slightly, something like six times in the first four minutes. It opens pastorally with mild flute in the introduction, and then evolves through each theme, culminating in a beautifully double-tracked accusation, "Many a thief can be seen in quiet places, fields of green...But the only thing that remains is to roll right stones."
The song is brilliantly structured; each transition is smooth and subtle. The rhythm section is once again supremely simple, Winwood's piano phrases take the song through each change in tempo, with a short sax solo improvised off the second statement of the chorus. Wood's a little gimmicky here, as he is all over the album, but the mix makes him unobtrusive as well. He relies on the intensity of the chorus to carry him through. After a restatement of the second theme, the chorus carries the song out.
If there is a problem, it's in the mix. Shoot Out is irregularly mixed, rarely emphasizing Winwood's guitar, and regularly muddying up the percussion. Often, as at the end of the title song, there are simply too many separate tracks, and too much activity. And yet Shoot Out at The Fantasy Factory is successful. Traffic has always been Steve Winwood's band, his sheer virtuosity virtually overshadows all else. The addition of a soul band rhythm section is schizophrenic. But schizophrenia must run in this man's mind. After all, what else but schizophrenic is "the best white rhythm and blues voice in music?"