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12 August 2009

Kevin Ayers - 'The Joy of a Toy' (Harvest)

Jesus H. Christ, but how did I end up owning seven Kevin Ayers records?? Sure, we'll have a blast with these first three, a trilogy to rank among the progpop greats -- but then somehow I have both Odd Ditties (his Incesticide) and some cheapo greatest hits collection that has the French version of 'May I?' (yes, 'Puis-je?'), neither of which I look forward to hearing again. So another gauntlet here; fair enough, let's take it easy cause that's surely Kevin's M.O. I've always loved the lackadaiscal summer melodies on this record, laid down effortlessly with the most charming, smirking approach. There's a real goofball feel to the instrumentation, with slide whistles, oboes and soft winds, but it doesn't feel over-orchestrated. Instead it's a nice day out in the park with a slightly mischievous, maybe not entirely-reliable longhair as your guide. And the darker tunes aren't exactly dark - maybe it's just a bit overcast, but I still feel like I'm strolling through an open-air market, squeezing various fruits to test for ripeness. We get lyrics for only two songs in the moldy gatefold - the hypnotic, creepy 'Lady Rachel' and the Beatles-quotin' 'Song for Insane Times'. But there's nothing really insane here beyond the variable tapespeed fuckery at the beginning of 'Stop This Train'. Maybe this is Kevin's big philosophical statement about life- just relax, smoke a doob, grope a boob. I've always associated Kevin Ayers' music with rampant oversexed free love, and this album artwork is creepy enough to suggest something far more perverted. And exactly which kind of toy are you talking about, buddy? Soft Machine alumni back him up and things really get cooking on 'Eleanor's Cake' with some head-bashing solos. Though this LP looks pretty clean, it crackles a bit - and I wouldn't be surprised if this copy spent a few hours soaked in beer on an ugly carpet in a smoky room at some point in the 1970s. I used to rock this one quite a bit, so maybe some of the surface wear is my own fault; each spin would reveal a nice new detail, such as the kazoo's interaction with Hawaiian guitar in 'Lady Rachel'. Nothing is hidden here; it all sits really well in the mix. I wonder what Ayers was going for here - total pop success? It certainly feels like an attempt. Take the first Soft Machine album's songwriting formula, simplify the cadences a bit, and strip out the long instrumental vamps. Even the 'weird instrumental', 'Oleh Oleh Bandu Bandong' is pretty palatable, and it segues into 'All This Crazy Gift of Time', the straightest, folkiest statement of purpose that Ayers ever laid down. "All my blond and twilight dreams / All those strangled future schemes" -- fuck yeah! What strikes me about this record is how it appears to be such a straight arrow on first listen but slowly reveals itself to be a gradual curveball. Just like you can't see the Earth's curvature unless you're standing on a glacier or something. I don't think he ever found the commercial success due to his own hedonistic digressions and musically oddball urges, but this was a hell of an audacious start. Which makes our next listen even more interesting ....

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