Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Faithful Friends [Epic, 1969]

In case anyone is still wondering, this is one of the most useless groups in memory. They ought to be forced to play "A Whiter Shade of Pale" at a book party on Central Park South until they choke on their own hair, and Leonard Bernstein should be forced to embalm them. D

Wow. Ouch. That was Robert Christgau on the album I'm featuring today, Faithful Friends by the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble. My copy is on ATCO, btw.

There are a lot of Christgau bashers out there, but I'm not one of them. I don't usually buy records based on his recommendations, but I like his compressed style and about half the time I find his reviews making sense long after I initially didn't get them.

But, I think he might have been a little bit too harsh on Faithful Friends. I don't think he's the type to write back and explain his positions, so I didn't bother emailing him, but I'm guessing that there's a political explanation for the review. Here's my best guess:

I think it's probably an old review, from a time when the band was still around. I'm thinking that at this time, people who didn't like rock, or who looked down on it, might have put a group of Julliard students who mixed rock with Bach onto a pedestal. I'm thinking that Christgau was reacting against this. The thing is that 35 years later, none of this really matters much.

Things worth knowing: The NYR&RE did do a cover of Whiter Shade of Pale, and they were praised by Leonard Bernstein.

Allmusic seems to have the best write-up on the group, and I'll mention that the best-known member Michael Kamen died last year and that he was involved with a lot of questionable musical acts during his career, as well as some good ones (I didn't know until about five minutes ago that he has a co-write with the Flaming Lips) [Someone points out in the comments that this isn't really a co-write. My bad]. You've likely heard some of the other band members' subsequent music as well.

Faithful Friends has a kind of a "Broadway" tendency that could be off-putting, there's something lightweight and overly clean about the performances, and the second side is noticeably weaker than the first. On the whole, though, it's a nice orchestral pop album that's aged better than Christgau might have expected. Unfortunately, it's also not on CD.

From side one of the album, here's City, Asking Too Much (which segues into Trio Sonata No. 2 In G Major by "B-A-C-H-K") and Wait Until Tomorrow (a Jimi Hendrix cover that probably did a lot of the Christgau-pissing-off, assuming that Christgau had to deal with people insisting that the NYR&RE's version was better because it was coming from real musicians). I don't hear anything much wrong with these...I'd be interested to read comments.

From side two, here's the song Faithful Friends which sounds a lot like an outtake from Jesus Christ Superstar (I actually like this, but I can see how it would have played poorly with the hipper critics at the time) and here's the last song Brandenburg, which is the most overt mix of classical and rock. If you're taking this all as a serious artistic statement or as a cutting-edge joining of high and low, then yes, it's kind of silly. But as songs/arrangements go, these are all pretty strong.

The next NYR&RE album is a collaboration with a Greek composer, Manos Hadjidakis, that I don't like much...Christgau's review would make more sense for that one which is both a little pretentious and mostly-tuneless. (Part of me wishes that they'd collaborated with Iannis Xenakis instead, but I haven't heard anything by Manos Hadjidakis other than Never On Sunday, so I don't know what his "serious" stuff is like.) It's available as an import CD, if you're curious. There's a two-fer CD that collects the group's last two albums...I've previewed the records (haven't bought them, which means I might have missed something) but they sounded more 70's (it's weird how easy it often is to hear the difference between '69 and '72) and lacked Faithful Friends' charm. There's a first, self-titled album that I'm having trouble tracking's not exactly rare or expensive, but it's getting harder to actually find a copy to buy. I secretly suspect that it's probably as good as Faithful Friends, but I guess I'll find out.

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