The Low Spark of Laid-Back Boys
Traffic made two or three rock masterpieces (Traffic, John Barleycorn Must Die, and probably Mr. Fantasy). While the band’s remaining albums are somewhat less than perfect, they are nonetheless pleasing to the ears. The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys is one of the latter, an album that’s easy to listen to over and over, but one that seldom shows up on “best of” lists. To many, Low Spark would be Traffic’s last stand. The looser structure of songs like “Rainmaker” and “Many a Mile to Freedom” would become excessive and, some say, boring, on Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factoryand When the Eagle Flies. The title track of Low Spark also became an FM stable, and one of the songs the band would be most identified with. A comedown from John Barleycorn Must Die perhaps, but a solid effort before the slide.
Between Mr. Fantasy in 1968 and Low Spark in 1971, Traffic sounds like a different band. Early on, Dave Mason’s pop songwriting had offered a counterpoint to Steve Winwood’s psychedelic rock. And while Mason re-joined the band for several live dates that served as the basis of Welcome to the Canteen in 1971, he was gone again by the time Low Spark was cut. Even Winwood’s songwriting changed radically over the three-year period. He had always enjoyed opening up the middle of a piece like “Mr. Fantasy” to an extended jam, but usually kept a song under the four-minute mark. As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, however, he began to insert jazzier textures, relying on his own extended keyboard solos and Chris Wood’s sax and flute work. A number of songs began to stretch out to six and seven minutes. These elements became prominent on John Barleycorn Must Die and Low Spark.
Like all of Traffic’s later albums, Low Spark is an album that slowly grows on the listener. Songs like “Rainmaker” and “Hidden Treasure” fade in and out, like mellow jazz or a relaxed Grateful Dead jam, and the understated structures fail to identify themselves without repeated listening. This is even true of the well-known title cut. The verse of the song floats along in a lazy fashion, as though it had no particular destination. Indeed, the song never really does end. It just grows fainter and fainter, as though it could have easily been twice as long.
Another element that separates Low Spark from other Traffic albums—past and future—is the prominence of drummer Jim Capaldi. He wrote and sings the sexist “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone”, and sings “Rock & Roll Stew”; both pieces rock the hardest on the album. Capaldi’s a good (if less than great) vocalist, and his songs—sandwiched between the Winwood material—seem a bit uncharacteristic of the group. Winwood’s laid-back guitar playing, however, especially on “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone”, blunts the rock ‘n’ roll edge a bit, making these songs a better fit for the album. The bonus cut on this reissue of Low Spark is the single version of “Rock & Roll Stew”, which offers a slightly longer take of the song.
While many chose to interpret Low Spark as the last glorious shot by a great British rock band, others—like myself—see the album as a new start. The loose, somewhat undefined structures of “Hidden Treasure” and “Many a Mile to Freedom” spilled over into Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factoryand When the Eagle Flies, creating long, rambling pieces that offered a more relaxed, open sound perfect for the mid-‘70s. Steely Dan followed the same path from rock ‘n’ roll to jazz-rock. There’s also a certain decadence in the off-the-cuff manner in which many of these later songs are tossed off, as though everyone involved was half-asleep or stoned. Low Spark holds up well 30 years after the fact, and provides a good introduction to Traffic’s later glorious self-indulgence.