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Aztec Two-Step
Elektra 75031
Released: 1972

There's a prevalent theory in rock criticism that first albums don't mean much. First albums, so the theory goes, are for getting rid of influences and developing one's own style. I can think of only a handful of first albums where an artist appeared fullblown -- Pink Floyd, Family, Spirit, David Ackles, Mountain, Elton John, King Crimson, Joni Mitchell -- these really stand out in my memory, so there's at least some validity in the theory. The majority of groups, successful ones like the Stones, Zep, Cream, Tull, etc., all took some time to clearly develop their own style. This is not to say that one kind of group is better than the other, just that these distinctions exist, and that superb first LPs are rare.

If that's the case, then Aztec Two-Step is a rare group indeed. Along with the band and Jerry Yester, they have created one of the most impressive first albums I've heard in a long time. This is a triptych album -- in the same way as Strange Days or the first Pink Floyd LP was, although there's no similarity in style -- a journey that begins, evolves and reaches a fulfilling conclusion.

After the lighthearted children's fable that opens the album, we move into "Killing Me," which is both a beginning ("I was born on the west side/I live in the east/It was easy to move/But so hard to find peace") and an ending of an affair ("You started out laughing/But after awhile/Your laughter soon ceased/Your lips lost their smile").

"The Infidel" presents different images entirely. Because all phases -- from writing to playing to singing to production -- have been well integrated, it becomes a totally absorbing scenario of overwhelming eroticism and sensuality. "The Persecution & Restoration Of Dean Moriarty" is a headlong ecstatic embrace of the freedom of the open road; while "So Easy" is deceptively Rocky Mountain, charming the pants off you while popping home its message. The feel on "Prisoner" is purposely similar to "Infidel," and helps point up the ironic reversal of the lyrics.

"Almost Apocalypse"'s structure -- riding flat out -- wryly recalls the mood of "Moriarty," but this is the quintessential New York City song envisioning, perhaps, the days of Crosby/McGuinn's Byrds. This is in sharp contrast to the restless philosophy of "Dancers All," whose minor-keyed middle section is the premonition of the LP's last song. "Cockroach Cacophony" is the album's most mature statement, coming as part of a series of interconnecting comments. It magically crystallizes the exact moment that comes in all our lives when the uncertain tug of "Out There" finally becomes too strong to ignore; it's time to leave. And so, "Highway Song" ends the album.

Throughout, Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman exchange leads and high harmonies -- their vocal ranges are that sure. Neal's lead guitar lines, especially on "The Infidel" and "Highway Song" are miraculous, bringing to the rock acoustic guitar something it's needed for a long time -- originality. Both John Seiter's drums and David Vaught's bass continually add extra dimensions to the music, always en rapport with what the Two-Step are doing. In fact, this is really a band, rather than studio guys backing up a duo. Special praise must fall on the red head of Jerry Yester, who has not only produced fully as beautiful an LP as Tim Buckley's Goodbye and Hello, but also seems to have found a place for himself as a musician. This is one remarkable musical experience.

- Bard Curestile, Words & Music, 9/72.

Bonus Review

If you charted the appeal of recordings on a graph, this one would show the familiar bell shape curve where I'm concerned. I didn't like it much at first, then decided I liked it more and more, and then, as I continued playing it, decided I really didn't like it that much after all. Perhaps everyone goes through that sort of thing with every album, but I wished the peak had lasted longer. Aztec Two-Step is two folkie types, Rex Fowler and Neal Schulman, who play acoustic guitars and harmonize something like you-know-who. Fowler writes most of the songs, and Shulman does most of the impressive finger-picking. "Almost Apocalypse" is probably Fowler's best song, though it shows too many undistinguished Neil Young influences, and the cliché-riddled "Highway Song" has the most congenial moments. Mostly, Fowler's lyrics are too glib, and the melodies -- although they give the guitars some interesting things to do -- don't keep their promises. The lads make a nice sound together; seasoning as songwriters is what they need most.

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 4/73.

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