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Soft Machine: Facelift

John Kelman By

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First, let's get one thing out of the way. Facelift , another in Voiceprint's ongoing series of live Soft Machine performances, comes from an audience recording by bassist Hugh Hopper's brother Brian. Not only is the quality decidedly lo-fi, but the tape machine actual slows down and speeds up on a couple of occasions, making this double-disc set absolutely for deeply committed fans only.

That being said, Facelift is yet another reason to re-examine Soft Machine within the broader context of a group which, in a relatively short period of time, evolved from a post-Dadaist pop band into a quasi-free jazz/rock outfit. Had they been American, they would likely have attained broader acclaim. Their classic album Third , material from which is featured here along with other standard repertoire pieces of the time including keyboardist Mike Ratledge's classic "Hibou, Anemone & Bear," "Eamonn Andrews" and "Pigling Bland," has often been compared in significance to Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. And while they are clearly two very different beasts, one of the things that does link Miles and the Softs together is their uncannily rapid evolution, combined with live performances that, while based around a somewhat consistent set list, demonstrate a loose improvisational sensibility that few could match.

The Soft Machine lineup of this period—the classic quartet including Ratledge, saxophonist Elton Dean (now adding a second electric piano to the mix), Hopper and drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt—works from a standard programme of material that also includes Hopper's "Mousetrap," "Noisette" and "I Should Have Known," along with his classically-oblique extended workout, "Facelift." Hopper's compositions provide a sharper-edged contrast to Ratledge's more singable themes—even as he wraps these melodic constructs in shifting time signatures—and give Dean's freer disposition a proper chance to expand.

But while Soft Machine may have been working from a fairly constant set of material, the order of the material and the length of the pieces—which are strung together into continuous sets without breaks—would vary from night to night and, consequently draw inevitable comparison to Miles, who was similarly unstructured in performance.

This isn't to say that there are a lot of stylistic links between Miles and Soft Machine. There's a certain British sensibility to the way that the Softs play that has little to do with the American jazz tradition. But in a particularly vibrant time where musicians were experimenting widely with form, style and substance, the Softs stand out as a group that truly embodied the liberated spirit of improvisation. Every night was truly a new experience.

But some nights were clearly more inspired than others, and Facelift represents a particularly motivated night for Soft Machine and, consequently, recording quality aside, is of value to fans who want to hear a group that truly represented, in a more European way, the same sense of exciting experimentation that has ultimately given Miles' work of the time such longevity.


Track Listing: Disc One: Slightly All the Time; Out-Bloody-Rageous; Moon in June; Moustrap; Noisette; Backwards; Mousetrap - reprise; Hibou, Anemone & Bear
Disc Two: Facelift; Eamonn Andrews; Esther's Nose Job; Pigling Bland; I Should've Known; Esther's Nose Job - reprise

Personnel: Mike Ratledge (organ, electric piano), Hugh Hopper (bass guitar), Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals), Elton Dean (alto sax, saxello, electric piano)

Title: Facelift | Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: Voiceprint Records


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