As Spirit evolved from the band that included Mark Andes, John Locke, and Jay Ferguson, becoming rock & roll fragments -- Ferguson to Jo Jo Gunne, Randy California creating a new persona in Kapt. Kopter (first found on his 1972 solo disc), and Al and Chris Staehely joining Locke and Ed Cassidy that same year for the Feedback album -- it was a toss-up as to what combination of musicians would carry on the fight. Eventually Randy California and his stepfather, Ed Cassidy, became the touring Spirit who kept the tradition alive until California's untimely passing in 1997. The strengths and the weaknesses of creative freedom are evident on Potatoland: Adventures of Kaptain Kopter & Commander Cassidy in Potato Land, a concept album with a theme that is far removed from the intuitive cool that was The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. The material by California and drummer Cassidy is somewhat tremendous -- "Open Up Your Heart" has wonderful Beach Boys/Beatles harmonies, elegant playing, and a trippy melody. The production is also first-rate. The problem with the album is not the recording -- with engineering by Mike Stone, Robert Lee, and others -- but the potato thread, a science fiction story with comic strip accompaniment in the 16-page booklet describing a land where potato people are led off to slaughter. One wonders if California's guru inspired him (allegedly, the same guru Michael Jackson went to) or if minds were being altered to get to this line of thought. George Romero utilized a similar political commentary to better effect in the film Dawn of the Dead, where the zombies were his vision of mankind. California likens his audience to a bunch of potatoes to be fried, and the concept is hokey at best.
The music, however, is for the most part exemplary: at times a terrific listening experience resplendent in Randy California's trademark guitar-oriented pop. Spirit needed a bit of discipline and direction at this juncture; the zany nature of California's Kaptain Kopter and potato obsessions inhibiting this stellar music from reaching a wider audience. Non California/Cassidy material -- like the instrumental "Potatoland Prelude" colliding with Michael Lee and Robert Lee's "Potatoland Introduction" -- is just plain overbearing, and takes away from "Morning Light" and "Turn to the Right," more 1973 California/Cassidy material on this release. It is actually the follow-up music to the Epic solo disc Kapt. Kopter & The (Fabulous) Twirly Birds, released on the German Line label after languishing in the vaults for eight years. "Information" opens with dialogue à la Tommy James' A Night in Big City, another disc whose beauty was marred by an incredibly weak concept album script in between the songs. Unfortunately, "Information" can't be blamed on the co-conspirators here: Mike Bunnell, Michael Lee, and Robert Lee; California and Cassidy have to take the blame for diluting otherwise superior material with "Donut House" and "Fish Fry Road," unnecessary titles which could have been Spirit staples had the lyrics shown more insight. Indeed, "Fish Fry Road" concludes with a bit of "Nature's Way," which is a travesty, taking the gem from Sardonicus and infusing it here. But it is countered with the genius of this album, the brilliant power pop of "My Friend," which concludes the disc, and the superb opening track, all the elements which could have made for the Sardonicus sequel California was searching his soul for. Gliding guitars and multi-personality sounds Nick Lowe could admire are sprinkled throughout this enigmatic project. "My Friend" ends too soon, with a quick fade into the more Wizard of Oz-type sounds of marching foot soldiers from the wicked witch's castle. Artistic freedom is one thing, but hiding the sparkling jewels between vague fiction was to the detriment of the music and the band. [The album was reissued in 2000 by Line Music.]