Kevin Ayers

Kevin Ayers: The BBC Sessions 1970-1976

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For a guy who never had a chart record (even in the lowest rungs), Kevin Ayers sure managed to record a lot of BBC sessions in the 1970s. Several other BBC compilations preceded this two-CD set, which repeats some, though not all, of what's been previously issued from such sessions. One of the anthology's flaws is that it doesn't clearly mark what has never appeared elsewhere; maybe designating such tracks with asterisks would cut down on impulse purchases from discerning shoppers, but it would sure help fans in straightening out what's where. Disregarding this, it's a quite good, entertaining, and -- dare one say -- intellectually stimulating sampler of work from his prime, even if the earlier material on disc one is clearly superior to the tracks on the second CD. If you like Ayers, it doesn't get much better than the 1970 material here, the first four songs featuring various members of his former group the Soft Machine in the backing group (including Robert Wyatt on drums and very active backing vocals). It's an invigorating mix of witty whimsy, art rock indulgence, improvisational jazz, and absolutely unpredictable seesaws between profundity and inspired silliness. To name a few highlights, "You Say You Like My Hat" is a childishly infectious ditty that would do Syd Barrett proud, Wyatt's scatting backing vocals very much at the fore. The graceful, haunting "Lady Rachel" is a solid contender for his best song, here performed with his band the Whole World (including a teenaged Mike Oldfield on guitar), while "Shooting at the Moon," also with the Whole World, is an excellent, ferociously woozy, jazzy update of the early Soft Machine song "Jet Propelled Photograph." The mood lightens for the six tracks from 1972, on which Ayers' voice and guitar are accompanied only by bassist/singer Archie Leggett, including some of his more celebrated and accessible tunes ("Butterfly Dance," "Whatevershebringswesing") and a cover of the pop standard "Falling in Love Again." With 1973-1976 recordings, disc two might be less satisfying, as it has a less idiosyncratic and more mainstream rock sound. Still, Ayers' diffident, almost tossed-off humor shines pretty strongly, and the songs include some of his better-known numbers, such as "Oh! Wot a Dream," "Lady Rachel" (a 1974 version), and "Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes." The sound quality is not always top of the line, but it's always listenable, ranging from fair (not very often) to very good (most of the time). Overall, the compilation might not be a match for the studio recordings, but it's quite worthwhile for any Ayers fan. It contains some uncommon songs; the arrangements sometimes differ substantially from the more familiar versions; and Ayers, unlike some artists at BBC sessions, often seems intent on presenting a unique performance, rather than just more or less re-creating his records.

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