Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Random Record Review: Golden Avatar - A Change Of Heart (1976)

The chances are that a charity shop near you has a copy of this album. It'll be lurking somewhere amongst the James Last and Bert Kaempfert LPs. But does it really deserve to be relegated to the same vinyl limbo as some dead guy's record collection? How many times has your eye been caught by the attractive artwork and the medieval-style font before a little voice inside your head has warned you off? Years ago I owned this LP. I have no recollection of ever playing it, nor of any strong feelings about it one way or the other, yet I offloaded it in a vinyl clearout without so much as a backwards glance. The only reason I have a copy now is because a friend performed his own vinyl cull when he moved back to Wales. He went from a shoebox-sized static caravan in a Waltham Abbey trailer park to an airy detached house, but still he couldn't find any room in his life for Golden Avatar. What has this album done to provoke such callous indifference? Is it really that bad?

First, some back-story: Golden Avatar's main man was a New Hampshire-born Hare Krishna devotee, Michael Cassidy, who wanted to use his music to 'promote the values and concepts of Krishna consciousness'. He recorded his album at Golden Avatar studios in Los Angeles, but because his temple owned the studio, the project ended up being hijacked and released under the Golden Avatar name. Despite selling enough copies to go Gold in Canada, as well as shifting a sizeable number of units in the UK, Cassidy failed to make any money. Still, the LP's ubiquity would suggest that he at least succeeded in raising the profile of the Krishna movement. Apparently, during the 1970s, no walk down London's Oxford Street was complete until you'd been accosted by a shaven-headed, saffron robed Krishna disciple offering A Change Of Heart in exchange for a donation. By the time I was an Oxford Street regular in the 80s, vinyl had given way to vegetarian cook books. I'm not sure how history has judged them.

The LP's front cover, illustrated in a style reminiscent of a Victorian children's book (think Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies), is alluring, but not as alluring as the roll-call of instruments detailed on the rear. I'm a sucker for sleeve notes that tease me with vibes, harp and flutes in addition to the usual guitar, bass and drums. Add in a special thanks to, amongst others, Richie Havens, Stevie Wonder and George Harrison, and you have my attention - what a shame then to discover that their contribution is one of inspiration rather than perspiration: you won't hear any of them on the LP. But this aside, does the music contained on the album live up to the promise? Well, yes and no.

World Beyond The Sky begins the album in unremarkable fashion, bringing to mind Year Of The Cat-era Al Stewart. Decent musicianship can't disguise the soft rock blandness of it all. A driving bass motif is the undoubted musical highlight.

A conga and cowbell intro kicks off Questions Questions which soon establishes a mystical Latin ambience. Vibes, strings and brass create a sense of grandeur, whilst another sinewy bass line worms itself into your brain. Tasty soprano saxophone spirals over staccato piano. And phased acoustic guitar escalates the dreamlike quality of a well-constructed track. Definitely up there with the best the album has to offer. But still nothing to warrant the Prog Rock label occasionally applied to the album.

Bhagavad-Gita has its feet in two mutually incompatible camps, failing to convince as either epic Ben-Hur-alike soundtrack (as promised by the massed horns and kettle drum flourishes of the intro), or as acoustic singer-songwriter whimsy. To add to the cut-and-shut feel of the track, the guitar solo, when it appears, sounds bolted on, out of place and too flashy for what little semblance of mood has already been established. Confused, outstays its welcome, and not even an interesting bass line to redeem it.

Seers Of The Truth makes up for the previous track's crimes. Cocktail lounge piano gives way to a hypnotic and meandering conga and bass guitar rhythm. Michael Cassidy's tasteful lead vocal finds itself elevated to another level by male and female backing singers, and an ethereal synthesizer line, muted trumpet, and harp create a chilled, heavenly atmosphere comparable to a vegan Planet Caravan.

You're Not That Body features a nice descending bass riff, a superb trumpet solo, tabla, and massed harmony vocals. Imagine a late 60s West Coast sunshine pop act falling into an unforced funk-lite groove.

The flip-side begins with the title track which, to my ears, is the turd in this particular LP's hot tub. A twee, cheesy nursery rhyme with lyrics about a transforming butterfly. It stoops to the level of musical theatre at one point: all ensemble choruses, harp and saccharine strings. Naff!

After an initial helping of non-descript, pedestrian singer-songwriter fayre, Swetadwip is saved by Crosby Stills and Nash-alike vocal harmonies, some adept guitar, and an almost proggy ambition in its 8 minutes and 15 seconds. It too skirts the edges of musical theatre, but somehow gets away with it. An interesting track.

Oh Govinda is all piano, flutes and syrupy strings in a dull ode to the Hindu deity. The gods deserve better than this.

How often do we hear top-loaded albums that fizzle out after the first three or four tracks? Not the case here, as Golden Avatar keeps the best for last. Time For Going Home is not only the best track within the context of the LP, but deserves wider recognition for the scope of its ambition and its mesmerising groove. Sounds from nature, a simple hypnotic acoustic guitar riff, a shadowing copycat bass line and droning hurdy gurdy set us up for a real head-nodder of a track. Cassidy turns in the album's strongest vocal, imbuing his performance with a trance-like, languid spirituality. Masterfully orchestrated horns create a filmic sense of drama before a killer Moog solo transports us to joyous chants of Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Rama accompanied by finger bells and some urgent funky drumming. After six and a half minutes, I'm so elated that I want to shave my head and wear a sheet, but I guess that's the general idea. This track is the reason why I'll always hang onto this LP, and the reason why you should rescue it from charity shop ignominy.