Sound: The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (1971) is the fifth studio album by the rock/jazz outfit Traffic. It was released at the turn of the decade and gathered much praise, partially due to the album's incorporation of reed (woodwind) instruments and jazz influences along with rock and roll, combining two of the most popular types of music during its day. Produced by guitarist/organist Steve Winwood, the album's title track would become the most well known song from the release, with a version edited due to time constraints receiving moderate airplay. This album is also different in another way, since it is the only Traffic album to include two lead vocal performances by percussionist Jim Capaldi on both "Light Up or Leave Me Alone" and "Rock and Roll Stew".
Lyrics: 01.Hidden Treasure: the opening track to the album starts out very mellow and mysterious with a finger-picked guitar part and a flute intro/solo from Chris Wood. The flute remains as a very important element in the song, complimenting Steve Winwood's gentle vocals quite well. The lyrics are heavily inspired by nature, the elements and someone who seems to be lost in the midst of all of it. The song remains essentially constant throughout, the only exception being an acoustic guitar-driven bridge in the middle of the song. A nice, soft way to begin an album. And a good way to prepare you for the next track!
02.The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys: the Low Spark of High Heeled Boys is truly the masterpiece of this album, and maybe of the band's entire discography. It begins with a sporadic mid-tempo saxophone intro that goes straight into the first verse. With the piano really the only thing holding it all together, at last the whole band comes in and the pace increases, seguing into the chorus (complete with a full horn section.) Then comes a piano break and the next verse. This is the song's formula at its core and if you throw in some sweet drum fills from Jim Gordon and another saxophone solo or two, you have one heck of a song.
03.Light Up Or Leave Me Alone: the first of two songs on the record to feature percussionist Jim Capaldi as the lead vocalist, this track also showcases his abilities as a songwriter both musically and lyrically. Lets face it, the lyrical content of the song is pretty obvious and can be summed up in the title itself. Jim Gordon also gets to show off his "tight" drumming-style here, where every note is both quick and precise. All of this aside, a dual-overdubbed wah-wah solo from Winwood is also prominent during the closing jam sequence of the song before it finally fades out.
04.Rock And Roll Stew: the second consecutive (and final) track featuring Capaldi on lead vocals, I think this is the track where he really shines as a vocalist. Definitely one of the most straightforward "rock" songs on the album, Winwood spits out a face-melter of a solo in the middle/instrumental part of the song that makes you wish it was longer than four and a half minutes. Though it may be on of the heavier songs on the album, the groovin' aspects of jazz are still apparent in the main rhythm that is kept togther perfectly by Ric Grech's flowing bassline. Also note that this is the only song on the album to give writing credits to Grech and Gordon, with both listed as contributors.
05.Many A Mile to Freedom: starting off with an upbeat open-chord progression, during the latter parts of the verses it delves deep into a more "minor" sound before returning to the opening riff. Wood's flute also makes a return for this track, coming in sparsely but at the same time appropriately. The seven-minute song obviously features a few extended instrumental parts, which I believe to be it's best aspect. Strangely enough, on the original vinyl pressing of the album, writing credits were given to Steve Winwood and Anna Capaldi, rather than Jim. For some reason, on all subsequent releases credits were awarded to Jim instead.
06.Rainmaker: the best thing I can say about this track is that the flute melody is absolutely beautiful. Apart from that, I consider it to be the lowpoint of the album which is unfortunate since is the last track. The vocals on this one are harmonized by Capaldi and Winwood, with Winwood taking lead. For the most part they are in a near-monotone trance or chant-like voice, which I find to be a bit lacking after hearing the previous five tracks. However, the song redeems itself during the last few minutes of jamming which includes solos from the guitar, flute and saxophone before fading to nothing and, after only six tracks (however long they may be), ending the album. // 7
Overall Impression: Traffic was never known as a "studio" band, but rather as a live act specializing in extended free-form jazz inspired jams. The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys does it's darndest to capture this atmosphere and on tracks such as "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys", "Many A Mile to Freedom" and "Rainmaker" I think that it succeeds in doing so quite well. If you want to hear a couple of the tracks live as they were intended to be played, I highly suggest picking up Traffic's live album On The Road which features extended versions of both the title track and "Light Up or Leave Me Alone". Live performances aside, I believe this album to be Traffic's magnum opus and something that every jam band fan should consider picking up. // 10