Rick’s Retroarchy: Works Volume 2 by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

by Rick Krueger

When I picked up Works Volume 2 (on the day after Thanksgiving 1977, at Hansen’s Music Store in Greenville, Michigan — thanks for taking me along, Mom!), it didn’t feel like a disappointment.  In fact, on first listen it was a nifty change of pace from the orchestral bombast of Volume 1 — 12 shorter tracks, all new to me, exploring the jazz, blues and boogie that only occasionally showed up on ELP’s earlier records.

In retrospect, the album really was a patchwork: 5 full band tracks, at least 4 of them outtakes from the Brain Salad Surgery sessions of 1973; solo singles by Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, released in Europe but not the US; and whatever else was lying around from E, L & P’s abandoned solo albums.  If not exactly a contractual obligation record (it had been announced at the same time as Volume 1), it was closer to a garage sale jumble than a expertly planned follow-up.

That being said, Works Volume 2 hangs together surprisingly well musically.  The original side one starts strong, with the band’s “Tiger in a Spotlight,” “When the Apple Blossoms Bloom …” and “Brain Salad Surgery” refracting the blues through the futuristic prism of Emerson’s prototype polyphonic Moog synthesizer.  (In the mid-1970s, synths that played more than one note were still experimental rarities.)  Palmer’s “Bullfrog” tackles jazz from a similarly oblique angle, with saxophones, tablas, and xylophones sprinkled throughout a track that sounds like a chip off of Frank Zappa’s old block.  Emerson’s “Barrelhouse Shakedown,” complete with big band & detuned piano, was disconcertingly retro in this context, but Lake’s gorgeous lullaby “Watching Over You” was a masterstroke: one of Greg’s simplest, most lyrically direct ballads accompanied by acoustic guitar, stand-up bass and blues harmonica.

Side two wasn’t nearly as solid.  “So Far To Fall” was a odd mix of funk, Stan Kenton horns, and gross sexual strutting in the lyrics (although Emo’s only organ solo on record that year won him the Readers’ Poll for best rock organist in Contemporary Keyboard magazine); Emerson’s takes on Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and Meade Lux Lewis’ “Honky Tonk Train Blues” piled on speed at the expense of finesse; and Palmer’s “Close But Not Touching” was a Buddy Rich-style brass riff that just sat there.  The upsides?  The stripped down version of Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas,” with Keith’s synthesized bass & Prokofiev-quoting leads; and the closing “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” which the trio really swung — a bit clunkily, but with spirit to spare.

To fill up two discs for this reissue, BMG has also included Works Live, the 1992 expansion of 1979’s In Concert.  Given that Shout Factory’s full versions of the relevant concerts (Montreal with full orchestra from 1977 and trio-only recordings from 1978) went out of print almost soon as they were released a few years back, this is a nice bonus.  The sound is occasionally sketchy, especially on the orchestral tracks, and Chris Welch’s liner notes deceptively treat the cobbled together setlist as one cohesive show.  But the thrill of hearing ELP plus orchestra outweighs these quibbles.  And the blues pop up here as well: after the orchestral/trio intro, the live “Fanfare for the Common Man” swerves through Freddie King’s “Hideaway” (Eric Clapton’s calling card with John Mayall) into a Hammond C3-abusing version of Dave Brubeck’s “Rondo,”  Emerson’s original party piece with The Nice.

Despite valiant efforts, sales for both volumes of Works were disappointing, and the grueling tours led to dissension in Emerson Lake and Palmer’s ranks.  But, however tired the trio were of each other, it wasn’t quite the end.  They owed Atlantic Records one more album, and for better or for worse, Love Beach was beckoning …  

 

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