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Posted November 29, 2010
UP ABOVE OUR HEADS [CLOUDS 1966-71]
I usually don't like compilations or packages. With compilations, for every gem in there, you often have to wade through the debris, like trawling for pebbles on the beach. With packages, it's often difficult to see how you can justifiably take several albums that have their own individual concepts and shove them together on one or two discs.
However, in the case of Up Above our Heads (Clouds 1966-71) the package works, because it not only unifies and brings together the three Clouds albums, it encapsulates the history of a band that, until recently, without due credit, had a huge part to play in bringing pop into the progressive age.
The approach is more or less chronological. The Clouds Scrapbook still has traces of pop songs as well as musical invention, and is perhaps in some ways the most simplistic of the three albums, but in reality, it is the most important of the recordings. It is perhaps the first true bridge between 60s pop and 70s progressive.
Up Above our Heads is much more of a stage-performance album, the band sounding pretty much as it must have done in the Albert Hall and Fillmore days. For anyone wishing to hear the musical heights the band could reach, this is the album to pick out from the shelves. Virtuoso keyboards and stunning drums are the order of the day, though often at the expense of songs and arrangements.
Watercolour Days seems, in hindsight, to be an attempt to marry all the elements together. The title song is a classic melody, extremely unusual and clever in its chord structures and vocal lines, and exceptionally arranged. Thereafter, power and dynamics dominate proceedings, but with melodies breaking through at regular intervals, seemingly striving for a mixture of the first two albums, and at times, succeeding brilliantly, and though the lapses are at times glaringly obvious too, it was a valiant effort, promising much yet to come.
The bonus tracks contain some surprises. Make no Bones About it was the first Clouds release, and though reviews were not favourable (Melody Maker said "They are one of our finest groups, and very exciting live, but this is disappointing and seems to go nowhere" ),in hindsight, it is clearly a song out of its time. Extremely pessimistic lyrics were not in vogue in an era of Marmalade skies, but this is a fine song, albeit sounding nothing like the same band.
Heritage, the B-side of the single follows. It is a more Clouds-sounding track, with interesting organ riffs and vocals, but it is also somewhat unmemorable as a song.
A beautifully sad song follows, Why is there no Magic sings of disillusionment, but with a Christmas sound lingering through it, ending with some wonderful guitar phrases (by Steve Gould), bell-like pianos, and a poignant lyric "Beneath a tinsel wrapping nothing lies, only diminishing cardboard boxes". How terrible that such beautiful songs and the songs yet to be, were lost to us. Why songs like these were not released at the time instead of now is part of the 1-2-3/Clouds tragedy.
Then, a bit of a jolt, a song recorded in 1971 suddenly transports us to the late 70s. The World is a Madhouse, sounds like new wave, or possibly the Doors meet John Cage, but is much too complex in its musical structure to be of that ilk alone. A rather chilling atmosphere pervades the music, disturbing as much as pleasing.
This new wave sound continues with the next track, Shadows, a quite haunting and at times ethereal voc