Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Soft Machine

  • Third [Columbia, 1970] B
  • "Fourth" [Columbia, 1971] B
  • Six [Columbia, 1973] B-
  • "7" [Columbia, 1974] C+
  • NDR Jazz Workshop: Hamburg, Germany 1973 [Cuneiform, 2010] *

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Third [Columbia, 1970]
Robert Wyatt's light touch imbues these pleasant experiments with their own unique pulse, but only because the music is labeled rock is it hailed as a breakthrough. It does qualify as a change of pace--on the group's last album three musicians put seventeen titles on two sides, while on this one eight musicians put four on four. But though Mike Ratledge's "Out-Bloody-Rageous," to choose the most interesting example, brings together convincing approximations of Terry Riley-style modular pianistics and John Coltrane-style modal sax (Hugh Hopper has Jimmy Garrison's bass down perfect), Riley and Coltrane do it better. Only Wyatt's "Moon in June" is eccentric by the standards of its influences--which must be why it's hard to name them all. B

"Fourth" [Columbia, 1971]
Having dropped the trance-music distensions for theme-and-variation arrangements (long on the arrangement and short on the variation though they may be), does the band still call this "rock"? It's English jazz, that's all--neither as flawed as you'd fear nor as muscular as its American counterparts. Non-composing saxophonist Elton Dean is the dominant voice, as saxophonists tend to be. He's adequate or better at free blowing, no mean accomplishment, but he's also a little thin in the embouchure, as English saxophonists tend to be. B

Six [Columbia, 1973]
Karl Jenkins, whose horns and keyboards replace Elton Dean's alto, provides the band's best track since "Moon in June": "The Soft Weed Factor," in which a tiny piano riff builds through dozens (hundreds?) of repetitions into a rocking and roiling modular extravaganza. But with Robert Wyatt gone for two albums now, most of the rest is jazz or no discernible inspiration. Mike Ratledge sounds thinner every time out--I kept wondering if I'd blown a channel. Maybe he's taking a cue from Jenkins, who makes Dean sound like Gato Barbieri when he picks up his soprano. B-

"7" [Columbia, 1974]
What bothered me about Mike Ratledge's thinness on Six was mostly a matter of physical tone, but I had his ideas in the back of my mind as well, and here's why. At least Mike Oldfield knows how to use a studio. C+

NDR Jazz Workshop: Hamburg, Germany 1973 [Cuneiform, 2010]
Post-rock special--prog as credible jazz, with Robert Wyatt long gone and Hugh Hopper saying goodbye ("Down the Road," "Gesolreut"). *