The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys
Released: November 1971
Chart Peak: #7
Weeks Charted: 30
Certified Gold: 2/7/72
Just as Traffic has provided some of the best onstage music performances of any group on the rock circuit, their albums have been among the best recorded in the business. Jimmy Miller produced the first three Traffic albums; Steve Winwood received one third of the credit for the fourth one, and takes all of it for this, the fifth. And it's a lot of credit that he deserves for the meticulous job he's accomplished. His work with the tracks in every case produced an integration of sounds which left nothing either crowded or isolated. He achieved additive results, improving upon at his mixing desk both the weak and the strong compositions of the album. Although he is not up to his highest form as a composer, as musicians he and Traffic have never played better.
The album opens with "Hidden Treasure," a number which could at first be easily mistaken for the work of Pentangle minus Jacqui McShee. As with John Barleycorn, the harmonies are English traditional sounding and the beat calypsoish. Grech's bass is sturdy, Capaldi gets a hollow sound from his drums, Winwood sings in his high and sibilant balladeering voice, and Wood ties everything together with a subdued flute accompaniment. In this song, as in all on this album, overdubs on vocals and instrumentals are used moderately and economically for maximum effect. Toward the end of the piece, the flute becomes dominant, tabla drumming starts in, and the music seems to somehow have relocated itself from old England to that Eastern-sounding world often conjured up by Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane.
Winwood sings "Many a Mile to Freedom" with the high and gentle voice he used so well on songs like "Can't Find My Way Home." The song is based on two themes, one latin and flowing, and the other a more percussive variant of it. Capaldi is marvelously good with his drumming, and Wood with his warbling, soaring flute. Additional percussion, an electric piano, and a couple of splendidly direct guitar breaks round out the performance beautifully.
"Rainmaker" opens with Chris Wood's mysterious fluting, which is soon followed by a primitive sounding invocation to "Rainmaker, Rainmaker." The song for the first half pretty much belongs to Wood, whose flute solo abruptly shifts for a moment to a sax sounding like it's an electric violin, then back to the flute. After the final refrain is sung, the percussions and the sax tracks line up in your right and left channels to form a sonic gantlet through which the guitar runs like a prisoner of war captured by an Iroquois tribe. The effect is exciting, but short-lived by the time the song fades out.
The longest and best cut on the album is the title track. A good part of the song seems to be already underway when we fade in on it; the emotional effect on the listener is the equivalent in cinema terminology of a dolly-in, which serves to rid the audience of their detachment distance. By the time Winwood's vocal begins, you're locked into it. "You can't escape from the sound," he sings. "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" has such creative ensemble playing in it that, like any fine jam, it would be dishonored with a play by play description. It's a sensuous black jazz piece except for the rock counter-theme (characteristically Traffic-sounding) which comes in with the refrain of every chorus. Each member of the group lays down a track or tracks which could in parts stand alone. Most impressive of all is the blowing which Wood does on his electric and acoustic saxes. Both he individually and Traffic as a group show on this cut that they have been working hard and well to fulfill the jazz promises they mad with "Glad" and "Freedom Rider."
In the past, when you heard a Traffic recording, whether you're a musician or just a listener, you were bound to gain new perceptions about how well music can be played and put together. The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys is no exception.
- David Lubin, Rolling Stone, 1/20/72.
This is Traffic's first album for Island Records and also their first album of all new material in nearly two years. Although their line-up is ever changing, the basic nucleus of Winwood, Capaldi and Wood remains the same and provides the group with its unity. This is probably their best LP to date in its fluidness and subtlety.
- Billboard, 1972.
After a period when Traffic's gears seemed to be slipping and they were reverting to repetition of past glories, along comes this new album to put the group back into perspective. The title track, all 12 minutes of it, is typical Traffic, skidding happily along as a surface piece but with nice dark corners of introversion that bear examination. Jim Capaldi's "Light Up Or Leave Me Alone" says a lot of things in a satirically sardonic way. The album cover is one of those cutaway jobs that are fine for art directors but hell to keep on your shelves.
- Hit Parader, 5/72
- Vince Perrelli, Hit Parader, 7/73.
These guys waste their talent -- they're devoid of intellectual thrust, they've never figured out what to do with their beloved jam form, and more often than not their lyrics are designed only to fill holes in the music or the meter. Yet they're onto something here. Their modest improvisations have a lot more force and hook appeal than the ones of John Barleycorn, they've figured out how to incorporate horns without compromising their electricity, and sometimes it even sounds as if Winwood knows why he's singing. When it works, it suggests a nice paradox -- relaxed and exciting at the same time. B
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Maybe it's the addition of more percussion, or the more focused singing of Winwood, this time there is a sustaining structure to the material, resulting in their most effective work post Mason. The overly long title track is almost as good as the title itself, and Jim Capaldi's Dave Mason sound alike "Light Up or Leave Me Alone" sustains itself with an honest energy. With the exception of "Rainmaker," the sound quality of this compact disc is quite impressive, with good clarity and impressive dynamics. B-
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
Opening with the pastoral "Hidden Treasure," Low Spark flows effortlessly, almost lazily, to the last song, "Rainmaker." The band does shake things up a little with "Rock & Roll Stew" (number 93) and "Light Up or Leave Me Alone." The title cut, at over 12 minutes of spacey jamming, is one of Traffic's most well-known FM hits. * * *
- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
The epic title track makes The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys worthwhile, but it's just one of several aces as Traffic sets out on a new, more expansive musical path. * * * *
- Gary Graff, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
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