Tragic Magic: Traffic’s Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory at 50
Revisiting the English band’s subdued sixth album
Arriving on the heels of the two best albums of Traffic’s early ‘70s reboot — John Barleycorn Must Die and Low Spark of High Heeled Boys — Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory naturally had a lot to live up to.
So too, as only the sixth album in the band’s overall trajectory, there was a certain standard that both critics and audiences expected the group to attain.
Nevertheless, in the opinion of many outside observers, that was not the case. Boasting only five songs, all of which exceeded five and six minutes in duration — with one, “Roll Right Stones,” clocking in at nearly 14 — it came across as a more or less meandering collection of melodies, many of which found little, if any, focus. Sprawling but subdued, the attitude seemed best summed up by one track in particular, the tellingly titled “(Sometimes I Feel So) Inspired.”
Early on, Traffic proved an example of astute Englishness. Having retreated to the country with Dave Mason in tow, Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood made music that provided a unique combination of folk, psychedelia and overt experimentation. At the same time, the music was instantly accessible, undeniable in its charm and plied with deeper layers that invited repeated listens. However with Mason’s departure — yet again — as well as Capaldi’s personal problems and his decision to abandon the drum throne as well as flautist Chris Wood increasingly entanglement in drug abuse, the band turned to members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section to embellish Winwood’s seemingly far-sighted ambitions. Bassist David Hood, drummer Roger Hawkins, keyboard player Barry Beckett and guitarist Jimmy Johnson were all competent players, but they lacked the distinctive imprint and input that characterized Traffic’s seminal ventures.
The album cover’s clipped corners — a repeat of the graphic design that characterized its predecessor The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys — suggested a continuum, but it was clear by this point that Winwood and company had opted to venture into new and more spatial, if somewhat ambiguous realms.
Even with only five songs in the set, the album more or less coalesced as a continuous suite of sorts. The aforementioned “(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired” naturally drew the most attention courtesy of its title alone, but the contemplative yet compelling “Tragic Magic” (Chris Wood’s sole songwriting contribution) and the sprightly title track offered incentive for further listens. Still, critics were generally unkind. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau summed up the sentiment succinctly by saying, “Giveaway: ‘(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired.’”
Nevertheless, the album did make a respectable chart showing, climbing into the top ten and exceeding the position of Low Spark of High Heeled Boys by one point from the year before. Listening to it now, some 50 years in retrospect, it fares better listening-wise than it did on initial encounter. The fantasy doesn’t elude the listener as it may have early on, but it does take concerted concentration to fully appreciate the nuances and subtleties.
Granted, Shoot Out isn’t a blowout, but it does offer at least a bit of a bang regardless.
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