Vinyl Dust-off: Traffic’s Traffic

Lliam Easterbrook — sonic archaeologist — brings you his latest finds from excursions into ancient record bins.

By Lliam Easterbrook
[senior features writer]

Traffic’s second studio album — 1968’s eponymously titled Traffic — is a strange and compelling dichotomy of carefree pop sensibility and compelling rock and roll jamming. It is essentially a songwriting duel between two distinct and opposing songwriters in Dave Mason and Steve Winwood. But despite its discombobulating eclecticism, Traffic is cohesive as a sum of its parts. I don’t know why it works, it just does.

(Lliam Easterbrook/The Runner)

Traffic was a band that apparently didn’t get along. The band had dispatched of Mason shortly after their first album Mr. Fantasy had been released in December 1967. The following winter Mason got back with the band and made Traffic — allegedly because Winwood and co. were having trouble writing enough songs. He would come and go numerous times, often just before a tour or after a record was finished. Hence, just before the album was released, he left again, and the band broke up for good shortly thereafter. Creative differences can end a band faster than ego or drugs any day.

For a band that just couldn’t seem to find their niche as guys in a band, the music is remarkably consistent — if “consistent” can mean different. It’s almost as if there are two separate bands playing on this album. But again, it works.

Take Mason’s opener for example; the carefree pop of “You Can All Join In” is staggeringly different from the second track, Winwood/Capaldi’s cogent progressive-blues jam “Pearly Queen”.

When you hear a Lennon, McCartney, Harrison or Ringo song, you know it’s The Beatles. When you hear a Mason or Winwood song, you know it’s Mason or Winwood.

Yes, technically it’s Traffic, but to me they don’t sound like a band. They sound like a group of musicians writing and composing for two different bands. And if you’re going to be stuck in Traffic together anyway, you might as well get out, stretch your legs, cook some bacon on the engine block and break out the guitars. But despite the traffic jam — the band’s creative differences — somehow Traffic, as an album, is not. You see two cars passing each other on opposite sides of the road, each going different places — one right to the radio tower (“Feeling Alright”), and the other to some esoteric location (“Forty-Thousand Headmen”) — but while they’re side by side you can tell they’re the same car.

All puns and strained metaphors aside, the differences between Mason and Winwood level out the album. Having heard Mason and Winwood’s solo ventures, they were better off together. They compliment more than they distract each other. While Mason’s catchy folk-rock compositions might grab the listener initially, it’s Winwood’s ambitious and dreamy jams that bring the album to another level entirely. Traffic is an album that otherwise might have been forgotten amidst the wash of late 60’s psych-pop. But because of its differences in tempo, mood and craft, it’s well worth listening to.

Play It Loud. Play It Proud.

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