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The Nice

Albums reviewed on this page: The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, Ars Longa Vita Brevis, Nice, Five Bridges, Every Which Way, Elegy, Refugee
Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition, Trilogy, Brain Salad Surgery, Works, Vol. 1,
Works Vol. 2, Love Beach.

I've decided to use this space to write about progressive rock in general, in addition to the Nice, for two main reasons.  First of all, nobody reads this site so I can do as I please.  Second of all, the Nice are early touchstones for the movement (if one can call it that) and I want to state how I view what went on.  So, it's 1967 and everybody is mixing every kind of music, with rock, orchestras, jazz, African rhythms, opera, and generally there is a lot of experimentation.  Of course, this didn't last very long (look at the Rolling Stones) and people returned to previous, clearer formulas for music.  But there were still plenty of groups that continued on mixing jazz and/or classical music with rock.  Here is one fairly broad definition for "progressive" rock, then: groups that incorporated classical influences into their music.  Some examples?  Whatever group Keith Emerson happens to be in (the Nice or ELP) as he endlessly borrowed from composers, Yes with their classical guitar pieces, a synthesized Brahms movement and an interpretation of the Rite of Spring, or King Crimson whose lack of a real blues base allowed all sorts of things to happen.  Of course, calling it "progressive" seems inapposite - I think it should be called "regressive" because it takes from the past.  Anyways, here is another broadly applying term: "art-rock", which I never really used because I was not sure what it really meant.  Then I discovered no one else did either.  I think it refers to groups that either combine jazz with rock (like Soft Machine) or straddle the fence, adapting structures and things like that from classical music, without the real motifs (or technical prowess).  "Prog rock" was more of an actual movement, as ELP and Yes got exceedingly self-indulgent (and popular) as time wore on.  Pink Floyd?  More art-rock than prog, but heck these are just terms used to help us understand what the music is.  I hope that helped some, but most likely not.

The Nice are probably one of the more important progressive rock bands that most people do not know about, despite the fact that their final three albums all made the UK Top Ten.  Much as I like to think that 70s self-indulgent prog rock didn't spring from the head of Zeus, the Nice are the exception that proves the rule.  The main perpetrator: Keith Emerson, later of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  Almost from the beginning it was clear that Emerson limited himself, and that the other members of the Nice were essentially his backup band.  The departure of guitarist Davy O'List during the recording of the Nice's second album deprived the group of the only other competing lead instrument.  From there, it was a long deep dive into Emerson's classical pastiches.  But that is not the worst of it - let us not forget Lee Jackson, "singer" and guitarist.  Despite claims that he is the worst vocalist ever (a spot I have reserved for Dave Matthews), his performance on the first two albums is just shy of terrible.  But he became progressively worse, and his lyrics are not the greatest either, helping foster the Nice's habit of long instrumentals. 

For all of their negative aspects, the Nice was not a bad band.  Emerson's playing is a lot more tasteful than it was in his later days, and he had yet to discover synthesizers.  Historically, the Nicer were the first group to really use classical music as a major influence, with Procol Harum a close second.  Nobody else was doing rock renditions of classical works in 1967 for pete's sake.  Plus, despite whatever grievances I may have against him, Emerson's organ playing was highly unique and downright experimental for the time.  I am not sure what he did to his organ, but it was not pretty.  So, listening to the Nice is essentially a tradeoff between Lee Jackson's awfulness and Emerson's overblown style, and Emerson's inspired playing and not-quite-as-large-as-it-would-get musical ego.  A tradeoff that quickly turned negative.  Confusing?  Contradictory?  Yes, but true, which is probably why I was able to purchase all of their albums on vinyl for a total of 10 bucks from EBay.  Eventually, Emerson dominated the two remaining members on their final albums and the group broke up.  Jackson formed his own group which promptly sank into the mire (correctly), and Brian Davison disappeared off the face of the planet (session work, which is too bad since he's a decent drummer).

P.S. Here's a few brain teaser what ifs - The group invited Robert Fripp to join them after O'List left. Can you imagine Fripp and Emerson combined?  Wowsa.  The other one - Emerson had planned to do a "project" or something with future BTO guitarist Randy Bachman after the Nice ended.  Thank God ELP formed instead.  That would have been really scary.

Personnel:  Brian Davison (drums), Keith Emerson (organ, piano, harpsichord, etc.), Lee Jackson (bass, vocals), Davy O'List (guitar).  O'List left during the recording of Ars Longa Vita Brevis.

The Nice: The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1967), ***
Wow - classical psychedelia.  This is the usual 1967 psych rock (and I mean rock), but Emerson places classical quotes in every song.  Forget ELP's later over-seriousness and self-indulgence - the Nice was a pop/rock group overall and Emerson is kept in check by the rest of the band.  I mean, could "Flower King of Flies" be any more lightweight and silly?  The title alone should answer.  OK, "Dawn" is ruined (except for camp value) by Jackson's serious whispered delivery of utterly ridiculous lyrics, and I have no idea what "Tantalizing Maggie" is about, except for his bad voice.  Aside from these, Thought of Emerlist Davjack has two good pop songs --"The Cry of Eugene" which is one of the best things they ever did, and the title track.  The first has Jackson's best vocal performance on the record, and O'List sings the second: coincidence?.  The album also has two instrumentals: "Rondo", which despite its eight+ minute length keeps my attention, and "War and Peace", with Emerson making his organ do things that nobody had done before (or perhaps since).  I mean, is that organ feedback?  Weird.  O'List is around in an ill-defined manner, abusing his guitar occasionally.  So, musically it rates a **1/2, but I have to give them something for self-production, Emerson's experimentation and being the first to try an adapt classical works for a rock group.  Less Lee Jackson's contributions: bad lyrics and one god-awful voice.

The Nice: Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968), **1/2
I once read a review that was very enthusiastic that the title track which is a side long piece was divided into movements.  Let me assure you that it is not that exciting, and O'List jumped ship during the album sessions.  On Ars Longa Vita Brevis the band's different elements separated themselves out - the psychedelic pop songs loose their classical quotes, and the instrumentals turn into full-blown classically-derived works. The album's opener is the most integrated; a cover of Bernstein/Sondheim's "America", that has a hilarious intro but then turns into an Emerson ego exercise, and became a mid-sized hit in England.  The psych-pop songs are a mixed bag --"Daddy Where Did I Come From" is a disconjunctive sometimes funny mess, and "Happy Freuds" sounds like a second-rate Zappa imitation.  "Little Arabella" is the best non-instrumental song, and would have been a perfect single except for Emerson's short, pointless solo.  The second side, consisting of the title track, is pretty boring with some unoriginal orchestra parts, a boring drum solo, and ugly foreshadowing of the future of Jackson's voice.  The exception is the "3rd Movement", one of Bach's Brandenberg Concertos successfully arranged for band and orchestra.  Even the Nice couldn't screw this one up - the result is that Emerson doesn't meander that much, and it's their most satisfying classical cover. Despite the title, the band members have outlived this album's value as art There are some alternate versions with O'List, which can be found on Autumn to Spring.

The Nice: Nice (1969), **
The Nice had become a one trick pony when they recorded Nice. Their problem was that Emerson was that pony, and he was running low on ideas.  Nice does not have a lot of musical variation, Jackson has run out of lyrics, and his voice is downright annoying.  Their approach was to drop the pop songs and focus on a less experimental sound without abrupt lurches into classical passages.  It is an interesting change, and the band sounds much more mature.  The first side has four rock songs and it is probably best to address each briefly.  "Azrael Revisited" has a nice sound, bad vocals and a "shoobie do wah" part that annoys me greatly.  "Hang on to a Dream" is a fairly listless and boring cover of Tim Hardin's classic.  The worst song on the album, "Diary of an Empty Day", is about how Jackson cannot come up with any lyrics.  It is absolutely pathetic - "I can't think what to say / My mind's a blank today".  Thanks for sharing, and charging me for the pleasure. Finally, "For Example" shows even Emerson going dry, and only the multiple tempo/backing changes make it bearable.  For the second side of the album you better like organ. A lot.  It has two live tracks, and is essentially an extended Emerson organ recital, with Jackson doing as little as possible while still technically playing bass.  "Rondo(69)" is fairly interesting (thank God it's an instrumental), but Dylan's "She Belongs to Me" stops, starts, and goes nowhere.  Overall, Nice is fairly consistent - it is tiresome, and everything is tainted by Jackson's incompetence or Emerson's overplaying.  (More proof the All Music Guide overrates).  Do you think Gary Oldman's costuming for Dracula was inspired by Jackson's wardrobe? Produced by the group.


The Nice: Five Bridges (1970), **
"Five Bridges" was an interesting idea with limited success - a five-part suite, recorded live with a symphony orchestra.  Deep Purple actually beat the Nice to this, but it is not as if anyone is ripping anyone else off (the Nice were commissioned to do the piece).  Emerson and Joseph Eger wrote a pastiche of late 19th century classical music, focused around two rock songs.  Everything is tolerable right up to when Jackson opens his mouth.  The suite doesn't really work, and its ending is a reprise of the only real "tune," using a trombone solo to distinguish it from its previous appearance.  The second side is a couple of classical instrumentals ("Karelia Suite" again), a boring Dylan cover, and the dreadful studio outtake "One of Those People".  This amount of organ really gets mind numbing after a while.  Nothing new otherwise, and the band's last album as a group.



Brian Davison's Every Which Way (1970), **
This is not the sort of album placed at the top of someone's Want List, or even on the list at all.  I, for one, do not have such a list in the first place, but a morbid sense of curiosity, plus the simple knowledge of this album's background led to its purchase when I stumbled across it.  The album is not particularly worth it, however, which is why it receives my standard rating for well-played music that is completely unaware of the total indifference it provokes in the listener.  Every Which Way has a bunch of slow to medium paced grooves, led by Graham Bell's acoustic guitar and vocals, overlaid with John Hedley's rote pentatonic guitar riffs or Geoffrey Peach's smooth soprano sax work.  There are few things that I hate like soprano saxophone, and I get suspicious of sax players who turn jazzy into comatose.  This album is something like a sluggish, long-winded Traffic with more sax ("All in Time", "The Light", or the nine+ minutes of "Bed Ain't What It Used to Be"), or a curious rip-off of King Crimson's "Moonchild", although they had the sense to curtail the aimless ending ("Castle Sand").  One track that does stand out is "What You Like", which may be no better than the others, but has has a dark dissonant tone, making the band sound a bit like Catapilla.  Another is "Go Placidly", a bona fide good song because it is brief, to the point, has some energy, a couple of nice solos from the Designated Soloists, and consequently is the only song I can remember from the album.  Musically, everyone's is fair, but it would not be much of a stretch to say that Davison is the best musician among the bunch, which says something.

 
In fact, far more interesting than the music are the album's
liner notes, which attempt to market the album as an anti-supergroup.  "There isn't a hit song on this album" they proclaim, and boy were they right.  Probably the only way to promote the album; I mean, it isn't like anybody was going to say, "I must have that new album by Brian Davison's new group!", and the lack of a big name means they have to promote the music instead, and the group's groupness.  The problem is that the music sucks.  I mean Davison and Alan Cartwright (who later turned up in Procol Harum
) make a nice rhythm section, but aside from that ...well, there is a reason these guys were not household names.  Davison's production is not anything special, either; he mixes his drums in a fairly interesting fashion but lacks ideas beyond that.  Watered down - the musical equivalent of a gray day. 

The Nice: Elegy (1971)
Posthumous live cuts and outtakes!  Yippee!  I wish I could say more about this album, but it is nothing new.  Let me do it track by track. First, a live version of "Hang on to a Dream" which Jackson does not entirely destroy, but scarcely differs from the studio version.  That is followed by Dylan's "My Back Pages", which has its moments, but Jackson occasionally sings.  The back side starts off with a studio version of some Tchaikovsky, nothing new there.  It ends with a live recording of "America" featuring Emerson's long extended organ explosions/exploitations/feedback ending.  Nothing like a cash-in album to take advantage of someone's newfound success with ELP.



The Nice: Autumn to Spring (rec. 1967-8, rel. 1973)
Sort of equivalent to Yesterdays, a collection of tracks with O'List.  "Diamond Hard Blue Apples of the Moon", which was a b-side, and an alternate version of "Daddy Where Did I Come From" with O'List are the only tracks that had not previously appeared on LP.

Refugee (1974), **1/2
To what extent can one man ruin an entire album by himself?  You would probably say that it depends on the number of people in the group and the ruiner's role.  Well, when that person is the lead singer it is pretty damn hard to ignore them.  That's right - Lee "Aural Disturbance" Jackson is back, trying to make The Nice Mk II with Davison and featuring Patrick Moraz in the role of Keith Emerson.  (How hard would it have been to find a guitarist who could sing, freeing Jackson to play something interesting on his bass?)  I'm not sure whose idea this was, whether Moraz approached them with dreams of recreating the success of the Nice or if the rhythm section found a suitable sucker in Moraz, but either way he was the right man for the job.  Remember in the 1980s when Americans were afraid they were going to lose their jobs because the Japanese did it better and faster?  Well, that's Moraz.  Not that he is Japanese (Swiss, actually) but his musical taste is fantastically similar to Emerson ("Ritt Mickley" could be an ELP tune, and there are a pair of suites complete with movements).  The big difference is that Moraz was one of those players who needs a whole smorgasbord of instruments to work with (a la Wakeman) and thereby avoids the whole "listen to me ram this solo down your throat for umpteen minutes" approach, in favor of making lots of sound.  When Moraz does haul out the Hammond Organ, Refugee sounds astonishingly like the Nice (the fifth movement of the "Grand Canyon Suite"), for those feeling nostalgic.  Ss for Jackson, I can truly say that one of those devices that artificially created speech would sound better than his normal "singing" voice.  It has not gotten any better since the days of the Nice --same annoying mannerisms, same phrase biting, almost like he nasally grunts his vocals.  What are the first words out of his mouth here?  "Some-day you're gonna feel the pain."  Well guess what?  I feel the pain now Lee, right now.  The first verse to this song (cleverly titled "Someday") also begins with these two lines "Someday / I'll go away."  At that point you should turn off your stereo and walk away yourself, because Jackson has got the whole rest of the album to sing through.  Maybe that is too harsh; after all, Jackson did hang it up after this one final attempt at creating mass deafness.  If you can overlook his vocals (no ordinary feat) Moraz does well on the keyboards (try the instrumentals "Papillon", "Gatecrasher", "Ritt Mickley") and Davison's drumming is serviceable, as always.  You have to wonder what even an average singer would have done with this material, as it is entirely hit-or-miss in its current state.  Produced by the group and John Burns.  Moraz soon left to join Yes.

Keith Emerson and the Nice: Live 2002 (2003)
That's right!  I guess they've been doing limited gigs in England the past couple of years.  Wanna take bets on how bad Lee Jackson's vocals are now?  Listed only for amusement.


Emerson, Lake and Palmer

ELP are like a better version of the Nice, but Emerson discovered synthesizers.  Personally, I think that use of synthesizers should be regulated, and Emerson legally restrained from using them.  While Stevie Wonder, Pete Townshend and even Rick Wakeman would be fully licensed, any attempt to advocate such a position for Keith Emerson should result in repeated listening to songs such as "Tank".  Actually, Emerson did branch out with ELP - not only does he seem to transfixed by classical music, but also infatuated by pre-war American piano styles as well.  Honky-tonk, barrelhouse and Gershwin all make appearances in one guise or another.

The word that probably comes closest to ELP's sound is tocatta, which is defined as "a composition in the style of an improvisation, for the piano, organ, or other keyboard instrument, intended to exhibit the player's technique."  One gets a whole lot of technique with an ELP album, sometimes too much.

After a while one notices that there's a pattern to the songs on ELP's albums.  There's usually a humorous number, sort of the Ars Longa Vita Brevis tradition, most notably "The Sheriff" and "Jeremy Bender".  Additionally, there must be a Greg Lake guitar number, usually with limited input from E and P - these seem to be their hits "Lucky Man", "From the Beginning", and "Still... You Turn Me On".  At least once Emerson trots out a riffy, popping organ part while Lake alternately growls or shouts ("Bitches Crystal", "Living Sin"), not to mention the omnipresent technical numbers.  Finally, who could forget the covers of classical music, not even counting Emerson's addiction to quoting.

Personnel: Keith Emerson (keyboards), Greg Lake (vocals, bass, guitar),Carl Palmer (drums).

Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1970), ***
Not as good as Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, despite the same score.  With his new partners Emerson had finally found musicians as good as himself to work with, and the public was thankfully freed from hearing Lee Jackson's voice.  Even so ELP built primarily on past work; "The Barbarian" sounds like very good late-period Nice, with Emerson showing off his appreciation of 20th century composers.  Also, "Take a Pebble" is an attempt to recapture the dramatic sound of Lake's work in King Crimson, but with a guitar hoedown, Emerson interludes and an ending straight off of Days of Future Past.  Yet, it is a good song, one of the best on the album.  Yes, ELP are technically gifted, but with the pretentiousness to go along with it.  Some of Lake's lyrics in "Take a Pebble" are simply bad (I'm thinking of the overcoat lines), and Palmer overplays when he gets the chance (his solo in "Tank").  Emerson discovered synths at this point, abusing Stevie Wonder's cool electric harpsichord "Superstition" sound for a pedestrian instrumental ("Tank", which also features annoying tweety synths).  Not to mention the one standout track, Lake's "Lucky Man" -- a classical folk song followed by Emerson's famous synth line, which gave them their first hit.  The truth is that every track has aspects that are good and bad (as obvious as that statement is).  Produced by Lake.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Tarkus (1971), ***1/2
Well, this is better.  The first side is apparently the story of Tarkus, portrayed on the slopes of a volcano as the unnatural union of a tank and an armadillo.  Fortunately, the music itself is much easier to grasp.  Emerson stuck mostly with organ, and again chose some odd synth noises, while Lake improved his lyrics and Palmer did his semi-obnoxious technical things.  The group demonstrates that they can play in tricky time signatures without being obnoxious ("Eruption"), and the opposite ("Infinite Space" with its subdivided 7/4 time that screams 'Important Technical Improvement').  Some of Tarkus is really good, such as "Stones of Years", a sort of distorted blues song which begs the question of whether or not Palmer could play a straight beat.  There are some more traditional rock (the anti-war "Battlefield" with Lake trotting out some good electric guitar lines), some relatively lighter stuff (the angry "Bitches Crystal" with Palmer chattering away, and the Winifred Atwell's Other Piano wild-west saloon number "Jeremy Bender").  Otherwise filler instrumentals make up most of the first side (Tarkus' battles I guess), of which the worst is "Aquatarkus" with its chicken-impersonating-human synth sound and cheesy ending, and on the second side has some preachy anti-God pro-Man tracks.  Oh yeah, there is also a toss-off 50s rock tribute to their engineer Eddy Offord ("Are You Ready Eddy?") with some dreadful backing vocals.  All together this album is kind of pompous, but at the core there are some really solid songs.  Produced by Lake.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Pictures at an Exhibition (1971), **1/2
Classical composer Mussorgsky wrote the original Pictures at an Exhibition of course, and it is better than this.  This is a live recording, but it isn't intended to compliment any studio album, as the songs do not appear elsewhere.  In terms of instrumentation, Emerson relies only on organ and sythns here, and Lake mainly sticks to excellent sounding bass, only picking up his acoustic guitar once on the fabulous classical "The Sage" (easily the best track on here, even if it does echo "Epitaph").  Emerson's synth noises vary from the squealing fun crowd teasers in "The Old Castle" to downright diarrhetic ("Curse of Baba Yaga" indeed).  Overall, Emerson appears to have been in charge, despite Lake's spotlight song, and Palmer was content to be his flawless speedy self.  Curiously enough he even used what sounds like Big Band-style drum beats during "The Old Castle".  The few "group numbers" (where Lake sings and Emerson plays) are not notable, and they manage to sound like a church service only once ("The Great Gates of Kiev", which ends with the appropriate line "Death is Life").  Other than that, "Promenade" manages to wear out its welcome by the ninth listen, and it is rather amusing to hear a good blues jam when only two years earlier Emerson used a back cover to explain why the Nice did not play blues.  Produced by the group.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Trilogy (1972), ****
This is probably ELP's strongest work, and certainly their most accessible, as Emerson did not overuse synthesizers or technical instrumentals.  In fact, Trilogy seems to be a crystallization of their previous albums, as all the album follow the same pattern, more or less.  The album's introduction is well designed to grab the audience's attention --quiet questioning synth noises answered by percussion and piano snippets, before breaking into their best hymn number ("The Endless Enigma [Part One]").  In fact, Emerson's keyboard runs and Lake's superb singing helped convince me not to turn the album off when I first listened to it, as this was my first ELP album.  The second part of "The Endless Enigma" is not quite as good, mainly because Emerson adds synthesized horns and repeating bell loop, making the track sound like some overblown Christmas song, but a very nice Romantic piano number is in between ("Fugue" although let's remember that this idea had been done before), with simple touches like only a triangle for percussion.  The title track starts out in a similar way, smoothly lamenting before the synths come in again and things take a turn for the unexpected.  To wit, the song's latter part is done in a Caribbean style, with Emerson even making his synths sound like steel drums.  That was certainly unexpected, and they get points for trying.  Otherwise, many tracks do not really break new ground, but are better than earlier, similar songs.  For starters, there is Lake's excellent acoustic "From the Beginning", which features some great bass/guitar interplay and is my favorite ELP song.  "The Sheriff" is a fun organ number, and Lake almost growls out his vocals over Emerson's fierce organ riff on "Living Sin".  The only real time-eaters are the obligatory classical covers; this time they are Aaron Copeland's "Hoedown" and a bolero (not strictly a cover, but almost as boring and tepid as the more famous one).  Yes, Palmer does his usual good job at coming up with interesting drumming.  Produced by Lake.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Brain Salad Surgery (1973), **1/2
Now this is a mixed bag.  Whereas Trilogy consisted mostly of highly-technical popular music, Brain Salad Surgery is ELP at its most symphonic to date.  After the now familiar convocation (a rendition of "Jerusalem" which is perhaps their best along these lines, and the group's lone single), the album moves to an arrangement of a movement from one of Ginastera's piano concertos ("Toccata"). At various points this has the sound of background music to a fairly cheesy science fiction program, with Palmer banging away on timpani and other tuned percussion in a fairly pointless solo, and a synth section that sounds like a computer alarm going off until Palmer comes in and it turns into a frightenly modern techno section!  One has to wonder what the original sounds like.  There are some unimportant perennials (the low point of the album being Lake's fake Cockney accent for "Benny the Bouncer"), and the four-part suite "Karn Evil Nine".  Perhaps the suite's overarching theme is in the liner notes; I wouldn't know as my record didn't come with any.  It does manage to last for about two thirds of the album, with enough rhythm changes and soloing to make most musicians blush.  Its most surprising aspects are Lake's carnival barker persona, the amount of electric guitar he was allowed to play ("1st Impression"), and Emerson's return to a steel drum synth sound in the second movement.  Plenty of Gershwin-influenced piano, fake horn synth lines, "computerized" voices and more to keep everyone sporadically entertained.  The concluding part, featuring lyrics by former King Crimson member Pete Sinfield, is fairly anti-climactic, with what sounds like a space battle taking place in the middle, and then drifting off into what has to be one the odder endings to an album: an increasingly sped up synth line.  The problem with all of this is that there no real clear cut "good" movement of the suite; simply a lot of ideas that work or do not, in close proximity to each other.  At least Sinfield's lyrics are better than Lake's.  Frustrating.  Produced by Lake.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Welcome Back My Friends to the Show that Never Ends (1974)
A triple live set.  Have to keep up with the Joneses you know.  And the Andersons, Howes, Squires, etc...

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Works, Vol. 1 (1977), ** (split Rating - see below)
This should rightfully be credited to Emerson, Lake, Palmer, and (EL&P) as the three decided that anything branded with ELP at this point (four years after their last studio album, four years!) would sell better than individual solo albums.  Artistic integrity (or lack of it) issues aside, Works Vol. 1 is three sides solo, one side group.  Emerson devotes his side to his fully orchestrated "Piano Concerto No. 1" (what, no Opus number?), a genre exercise whose excitement does not last much beyond the first movement.  At least he sticks to a Steinway.  Lake takes on a pile of semi-schlocky Sinfield songs (of which "C'est La Vie" is the least worrisome), but abandons his trademark classical acoustic approach.  Instead, he opts for poor overproduction, in what could be described as an attempt to mold himself into an adult contemporary artist (did these exist back then?).  His guitar is diminished to a tinny noise in the back amongst his session band, various orchestrations and choirs, while his vocals take center stage.  His voice also sounds like it may be on the wane --it is lower, and he's starting to scoop up to high notes ("Lend Your Love To Me Tonight").  But the album's most stunning side belongs to Carl Palmer, who gets his own (musical) voice for the first time.  Almost every track has a different approach - be it a percussion arrangement of Bach, a strange sax led fusion jam/50s boogie that includes Emerson and Joe Walsh ("LA Nights"), funky rhythms and talk boxes that sound like a Jeff Beck track minus Beck ("New Orleans"), or a mixture of extinct White Horn Rock with Canterbury style organ ("Food For Your Soul" - easily the album's best track).  He even manages to lay "Tank" to rest with some dignity.  The group side, as one might expect, is less than stellar.  "Fanfare for the Common Man" sounds remarkably like Nice-plus-synths (read: Emerson over dispassionate backing), while "Pirates" is actually one of their most ambitious works.  Sinfield's libretto gets transformed into a cross between a short operetta and a production of Grease, with an orchestra in support.  Lake sounds like the sole singer on a stage, but despite an interesting opening (Emerson's wub-bub-bubing synths sound like the background to Dr. Who Meets Frankenstein) the music's eventual devolution into sock-hop territory seems out of place.  It isn't a not a disaster, but assuredly not a success.  All in all, there's maybe half of a good album in here.  Ratings Breakdown: (Emerson, ** + Lake, ** + Palmer, ***1/2 + ELP, *1/2 = **)

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Works, Vol. 2 (1977), ***
Released one month after Vol. 1, Vol. 2 contains whatever did not make it onto the fiest album, and what was lying around in the vaults.  It is surprising then that this material is much stronger that what appeared on Vol. 1 .  While Emerson donates a trio of pre-war piano numbers that define "pleasant genre-based filler," Lake's contribution (the Sinfield ballad "Watching Over You") blows away his previous solo tracks with its uncluttered production (the guitar sounds normal too).  One of Palmer's tracks is even more complex and bizarre than his Vol. 1 material ("Bullfrog"), and a whole load of fun too.  As for group songs, there's a pair of lukewarm Sinfield numbers (the derivative "Tiger in a Spotlight" and the marginally better "So Far to Fall") and a cover of the old jazz tune "Show Me the Way to Go Home" which is a perfect ending to the album.  As for the older tracks, "Brain Salad Surgery" shows why it got cut from its own album, and Lake's huge solo hit "I Believe in Father Christmas" is an anti holiday nightmare - Lake borrows from Billy Nicholls while Emerson quotes Prokofiev repeatedly.  Only a ludicrously entitled jam that was ELP's only B-side deserves the airing that it gets here ("When the Apple Blossoms Bloom in the Windmills of Your Mind I'll Be Your Valentine").  Ironically, in general this is of much higher quality than Works, Vol. 1.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Love Beach (1978), ***
As if one needed any more proof that prog-rock was losing its audience, ELP began to revert back into a mainstream pop-rock band.  The first half of this album is what the title suggests - a series of Lake/Sinfield songs that are an additional step in transforming Lake into a sex-em-up pop singer.  The catch is that on the whole they are a lot better than the drivel on Works Vol. 1 ("All I Want Is You" and the title track), and ELP sounds like a "regular" band with Lake doubling on guitar and both Emerson and Palmer playing (the latter's drumming on "The Gambler" is a benefit of playing with your own band-mates, for one).  Granted, there is one large misstep ("Taste of My Love" which appears to be an exercise in cramming bad euphemisms for sex into a song), but at least Emerson avoids any really annoying synth noises, opting instead for a Bosun's Whistle Lite™ sound.  The second half shows the other side of Sinfield's coin - a series of songs entitled "Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentlemen" which is both classy and memorable.  Emerson, who co-wrote, sticks mainly to romantic piano, or even electric piano (which I think is something new for him at least) and as a result the sound harkens back to the days of Trilogy, or even "Take a Pebble".  It's well played, full of memorable hooks and actually compelling to listen to, as opposed to the bloated monsters on Works Vol. 1.  A fitting farewell for the group, or at least until the reformed in early 1990s.

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