Album Reviews: Moody Blues - In Search of the Lost Chord (50th Anniversary Edition), Plus Music from Whose Hat Is This?, John Akapo, Ben Sidran

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The Moody Blues—originally the R&B/pop group that produced the top 10 hit “Go Now”—took a big leap with November 1967’s Days of Future Passed, an ambitious concept album that they made in collaboration with a full orchestra. Eight months later, they took another jump with In Search of the Lost Chord: perhaps realizing that touring with an orchestra wasn’t practical, they replaced it with mellotrons played by members Mike Pinder and Justin Hayward, not to mention everything from flutes, saxes, and harpsichords to cellos, sitars, and tablas. “Although we’d used an orchestra on the previous record, we all felt that we should be self-reliant with our next work,” the group’s John Lodge later said. “So if we wanted to use a particular instrument on a track, one of us would figure out how to play it.”

The resulting album—which, like its predecessor, has now been expanded into a lavish 50th anniversary set—didn’t sit any better with the critics than Days of Future Passed. Rolling Stone (no fan of the group in general) ultimately gave it one and a half stars, where two stars mean recordings that “are failures” and one star signifies LPs that are “wastes of vital resources” that should interest “only masochists.” 

What can you say? Maybe that half a century later, Rolling Stone is struggling to stay afloat while the Moodies have sold 70 million records, are (finally) in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and remain popular enough to have prompted the release of this anniversary box. That said, the critics got one thing right: some of the lyrics on this concept album—which focuses on spiritual and philosophical concerns—sound dated or downright puerile. But the lion’s share of the music holds up.

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Let’s first address the stoned elephant in the room: if ever the Moodies made an LSD album, this was it. You don’t have to venture beyond the opening lines of the first track to sense that the drug has taken effect: the album begins with a spoken bit about “the sight of a touch or the scent of a sound” that dissolves into stoned laughter. By the second number, the Moodies are inviting you to “take this trip” and, in case you still haven’t caught on by the fifth track (“Legend of a Mind”), it pays tribute to Timothy Leary. (“He’ll take you up, he’ll bring you down…He flies so high, he swoops so low…he’ll bring you back the same day.”)

The lyrics, which contain references to mysticism and meditation as well as to drugs, sometimes border on the incomprehensible, such as in “The Word,” which offers these spoken lines: “This garden universe vibrates complete / Some, we get a sound so sweet / Vibrations reach on up to become light / And then through gamma, out of sight/…To know ultraviolet, infrared, and X-rays / Beauty to find in so many ways.” Verse like that will transport you back to 1968, leave you scratching your head, or both.

The good news, as noted earlier, is that much of the music is excellent. There are a few brief throwaways, such as the spoken “Departure” and “The Word” as well as “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume.” But Justin Hayward’s vocals on songs like the lilting “Voices in the Sky” are as captivating as his work on the earlier “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin.” The catchy, well-constructed “Legend of a Mind,” another standout, features a great flute-spiced instrumental interlude, and the two-part “House of Four Doors” is strong as well.

Songs like these sound better than ever on the album’s new 50th anniversary edition, which contains three CDs, two DVDs, and a 76-page book that features notes, credits, period concert reviews, lyrics, and photos of the group and assorted memorabilia. The CDs deliver a remastered version of the original album’s mix, a punchier new mix, and a host of other goodies. Among them: five period singles (four versions of tracks from the LP, plus a Pinder B side called “A Simple Game” that the Four Tops, of all people, later covered); a mono mix of “Legend of a Mind”; BBC Radio One live versions of four tracks from the album and “Tuesday Afternoon”; and alternate mixes of six songs. Also here are several numbers from the Lost Chord sessions that remained unavailable until they were tacked onto a concert release, 1977’s Caught Live + Five: “King and Queen,” one of the Moodies’ most beautiful early creations; the antiwar “What Am I Doing Here”; and “Gimme a Little Something.”

The DVDs offer perhaps the strongest enticement for owners of the 1968 album to upgrade. One offers color and black-and-white videos, from BBC TV and elsewhere, of seven of Lost Chord’s songs, plus four others, including “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin.” The audio-only other DVD, meanwhile, features a high-resolution 5.1 mix of the original record. Especially if you’ve been listening to this music on a scratchy vinyl LP for the last 50 years, you’re bound to find the surround-sound version to be, um, a real trip.

BRIEFLY NOTED

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Whose Hat Is This?, Everything’s OK. Think their name is quirky? Wait till you hear their music. Whose Hat Is This? is a collaboration by four members of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, but it includes neither of that group’s namesakes nor does it sound anything like the blues rock that issues from that outfit. Instead, this second album, recorded live last year at a club in Baltimore, delivers freeform avant-garde jazz that consistently engages while flirting regularly with chaos. Progenitors and influences might include Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra, and Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. The tenor sax excursions of Kebbie Williams, who also plays flute, are the standout here; but bassist Tim Lefebvre and dual drummers Tyler “Falcon” Greenwell and J.J. Johnson make major contributions, too, as does guest Kokayi, the Grammy-nominated hip-hop vocalist.

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John Akapo, Paradise Blues. “My parents were firmly against the idea of me taking up the guitar,” says John Akapo. Good thing he didn’t listen to them. This self-produced 10-track debut sticks to the basics: just the singer’s country blues vocals and guitar work. That’s enough to keep me listening to Akapo, who lives in Hawaii but seems to have left his heart in the Mississippi Delta. The program includes seven originals plus strong readings of Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” Muddy Waters’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and Delta blues artist Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues.” Akapo has reportedly been performing and producing in a variety of genres in Hawaii for decades; it’s not clear why he waited so long to make a record, but I’m glad he finally got around to it.

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Ben Sidran, Ben There, Done That. Veteran jazz singer and organist Ben Sidran, who is also known for his work with the Steve Miller Band, collects 40 years of previously unreleased concert performances from around the world on this limited-edition three-CD set. If you’re familiar with his work, which includes everything from bebop to a surprisingly successful collection of inventive Dylan covers, you know that Sidran—who bears comparison to Mose Allison—is as creative as he is versatile. Both assets are apparent on this 27-song set, which ranges from sax-flavored groove and bebop music to a moody reading of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.”

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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