Friday 15 October 2010

The Living Tree, by Anderson/Wakeman

That was Monday night. Tuesday night, I was at a work do, but my friend Simon Barrow brought me back copies of The Living Tree (by Anderson/Wakeman) and Survival and Other Stories (by Jon Anderson and a suite of collaborators). Both are on sale at dates on the Anderson Wakeman Project 360 tour (no, no-one knows why it's called "Project 360"), but general release is not expected for some months.

We've had a few digital singles, a few guest appearances and a lorry load of online samples, but these are the first two full-length albums from Anderson since his acute respiratory failure and other health problems in 2008, and thus also the first since his departure from Yes. The Living Tree has had to carry huge expectations, for many it has had a totemic status, representing everything missing from the current Yes line-up. In comparison, Survival and Other Stories snuck under the radar and was not expected on this tour.

So, first up, The Living Tree. I've only had this album a short time, but some preliminary thoughts follow. Anderson and Wakeman toured as an acoustic duo in 2006 with some new material and began work on an album, but that stalled for some years. Now, a new tour and this eventual album release. The music was recorded over recent months by Wakeman in England, while Anderson recorded his vocals while on the road during his latest solo tour. Until recently, plans for this album included some of those Yes numbers, but the actual release is 9 new songs, a fairly short album in modern terms at under 43 minutes. (Well, some were new in 2006 but not released before now.)

This is a CD where you get what it says on the cover. This is not a Yes album by another name. It is just Anderson on vocals and Wakeman on piano and occasional synths. It's a stripped back format that puts Anderson's voice and Wakeman's piano playing on display, exposed. If you liked their duo performance of "The Meeting" during the 2004 Yes tour, if you liked their 2006 tour, you'll like this.

Highlights for me are the pairing of "Morning Star" and "House of Freedom" at the beginning of the album and "Anyway and Always", one of the 2006 pieces. Although the album all consists of fairly short pieces (most 4-6 minutes long), the likes of "Morning Star" and "House of Freedom" are still structured like a classic prog number, with contrasting moods over the course of each piece. With mostly just vocals and piano, the pair still manage to achieve the dynamism of a larger instrumentation. Yet it's sometimes difficult to escape the feeling that these pieces would benefit from a larger band, or, to be blunt, from being Yes songs. The occasional poor choice of keyboard sounds, like some particularly cheesy ones in "House of Freedom", only strengthens that response.

The only weak song for me is "Forever", a trite love song with an obvious arrangement. But generally, and to my surprise, it is Rick's piano playing and compositions that make this work rather than, and sometimes despite of, Jon's singing and lyrics.

Let's start with the lyrics. Anderson is often accused of being too explicit in his modern lyrics compared to the expressive, if not always comprehensible, convolutions of rearranged livers in the 1970s. The same criticism will re-emerge here. The lyrics are also often very spiritual, appealing if you share Anderson's faith opinions, but possibly off-putting otherwise. One might interpret "Just One Man", the album closer, to be a Christian song about Jesus. It would not sound out of place on a Christian rock album. But any interpretation must be viewed in the context of Anderson's syncretism (cf. "Big Buddha Song" on Survival and Other Stories) and his devotion to religious guru Audrey Kitagawa. [UPDATE: On tour, Anderson has been explaining that "Just One Man" is about Jesus and Muhammad and Buddha.] Anderson thanks Kitagawa in the liner notes here (and on Survival and Other Stories) and the title track appears to be a paean to her.

Having said the lyrics are more obvious, I have to ask what is "23/24/11" about? No idea there. [UPDATE: Also on tour, Anderson has said the song is about about a soldier in Afghanistan who has 23 days, 24 hours and 11 minutes left to the end of his tour.]

The keystone to any project like this is Anderson's voice. This is mostly the Jon we know and love, but his voice often sounds fragile, weak or rough around the edges. My first thought was that this reflects the problems he has had with singing since his acute respiratory failure in 2008. Yet reports from many recent concerts have suggested Anderson is often singing strongly these days. When I listened to Survival and Other Stories, which seems to have been recorded before The Living Tree, the mystery deepened as his voice is much stronger there too. I wonder whether the fragility of Anderson's vocals here does not represent what he is capable of, but is rather to do with what seems to have been a rushed recording process done without using a proper studio?

Listening to The Living Tree and Survival and Other Stories (of which more later), one change to Anderson's vocals that crosses both of them is a more nasal quality. Listen to "House of Freedom", "Anyway and Always", "Forever" or "Just One Man" and it sounds like Anderson has a bit of a cold and a congested nose.

The final track, "Just One Man", has a completely different vocal sound to the rest of The Living Tree. This song alone was not written by Wakeman, but by Jeremy Cubert. It also appears in a different version on Survival and Other Stories, performed by Cubert and others. I wonder whether it is actually the same vocal track on both performances? The comparison between the two versions of the song is interesting, because the larger band on the Survival and Other Stories version, with 'soundscape' by Christophe Lebled, orchestration by Ryan Fraley and viola by Daniel Reinker, works better, I suggest, than Wakeman alone. One is again left with the impression that while the material here is good, it could have been great with more musicians involved.

Likewise, with "House of Freedom", it's a lovely song, a nice composition, well-structured by Wakeman, and Anderson's lyrics work well with the music. Yet the vocals and some of the keyboard sounds mean the piece does not live up to its potential. More musicians, a better production, a bigger production, would these have realised that potential that bubbles under the surface of The Living Tree?

Leaving such hypotheticals aside, this is a good album, one of the best releases we have had from either musician for over a decade. It is the best Wakeman album I have heard in a long time, and I only don't say "the best" about Anderson because of Survival and Other Stories... but that will be covered in the next blog post.

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