Rain Dances

Sometimes it takes me a while to get into a band. “A while” these days currently means about 20 years, the duration between my first real bloom of interest in music at the cusp of adolescence and now. Sometimes, it’s a gradual process of learning to appreciate a sound, as with Hawkwind. Sometimes, the verdict remains out, as with Van der Graaf Generator. Sometimes, though, it’s as simple as listening to the right album.

In the case of Camel, a band I finally realized I liked about two years ago, that album was Rain Dances. It’s weird, because there’s no single stand-out track on the album. In fact, a few of the pieces would be utterly grating on their own. But Rain Dances is a release from 1977, crafted in the heyday of AOR radio, and as such it works as a cohesive whole. The discipline of creating albums that exist as albums is largely a lost art these days, outside of acts who make a conscious effort to keep alive (or deconstruct) the olden days. One could argue that albums are an outmoded concept altogether in an era where music exists as 99-cent files and the world’s most popular listening device — the iPhone — isn’t even capable of randomizing music by album.

Sometimes, though, you just have to listen to a set of music in its entirety in the order in which it was published. Rain Dances is one of those. Despite belonging to a bacterial substrain of progressive rock, there’s no theme or narrative linking the tracks of this particular collection. No one is singing stories about (for instance) fascist empires of the future outlawing rock ‘n roll. More than half the tracks are strictly instrumental performances.

No, Rain Dances works because the sounds all fit together. The sonic personality of the album is nestled in a strange delta between the Canterbury festival scene, which gave birth to avant-garde space-jazz-rock acts like Gong and National Health, and mellow ’70s radio rock. An improbable combination to be sure, but one that the band manages to make work for them, at least for this album. The rest of their oeuvre isn’t always quite so cohesive, but here it works. From the laid back guitar and synthesizers of the opening instrumental “First Light” (embedded below) to the borderline-lugubrious “Tell Me” — and even to the light rock grooviness of blatant radio-bait tune “Highways of the Sun” — every second of Rain Dances flows tidily to the next to the point that you lose track of which pieces actually segue into one another and which segues your brain simply filled in for you because it seemed right.

I made the mistake long ago of trying to get a sample of Camel by picking up a two-disc best-of compilation, Echoes. But it didn’t do the trick for me, because it separated a lot of tracks that were meant to be part of a larger whole from their proper context and left them stranded in cold isolation. Sometimes, you just have to hear a work the way Nature intended. I wish I had realized that about two decades sooner.

8 thoughts on “Rain Dances

  1. It is a shame that there’s functionality lost from the old iPods to iOS. I used to shuffle by album quite regularly. Still, at least with iOS5 we can finally sort by album artist and therefore have compilation albums on there without filling up the artists view with single song entries. That used to grate.. not so much because of the messy list but that my old G5 iPod didn’t do that. It’s not fun to lose functionality in an upgrade.

    Back on topic, I still always listen to music by album. I think many of the artists I tend to listen to still construct an album as a cohesive whole, so it works better that way. I also remember when making compilation CDs for my car was an art, as it had to flow properly. Nothing worse than a compilation that’s just a bunch of disparate stuff glommed together.. better to have a bunch of disparate stuff flowing nicely into each other.

  2. I’ve never heard of Camel before, but man. I think I need to change that.

    Incidentally, and I don’t know if this will mean anything to you or not Parish, but I owe a lot (not all but a lot) of my love of prog to your random musings about prog from nearly a decade ago. And here we are again. Even though I’ve spent years developing my own music tastes, I still manage to find out something new about prog from Toastyfrog.com

    Some things never change, I suppose!

  3. Always listen by album shuffle. Foobar does this well on Windows, and MortPlayer does this well on Android. (Also Mort doesn’t get confused by Audiobooks, another personal pleasure of mine.) My audio life is well organised.

    • I want to. Apple doesn’t make it an option on iOS devices for some bizarre reason, and I mostly listen to music on the go but have no desire to carry a separate music player. They’re dumb.

  4. When I first glanced at the cover art, I thought the kid was wearing some kind of astronaut helmet. I wonder if that’s intentional.

    • When you posted about Camel two years ago, I bought Rain Dances. I still play that album once in a while to this day, and I absolutely love it!

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