The spectacular pre-holiday sales success of Echoes isn't especially surprising. America is filled with people who greatly enjoyed taking drugs during the '60s, '70s and '80s but are no longer in a position to do so on even a semi-regular basis. For them, two discs of Floyd offer a safe, socially acceptable substitute -- and a convenient one, too, since it's being marketed via television commercials like a vintage K-Tel hits collection. Keep a phone close at hand tonight, because at some point you'll be able to order some silver polish, a crate full of dietary supplements, two or three Flowbees, and some tunes that'll remind you of the finest pot you ever smoked.
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Music lovers who haven't memorized every volume of the Physicians' Desk Reference will also find much to like about Echoes. Rarities are, well, rare ("When the Tigers Run Free," from the movie soundtrack to The Wall, hardly qualifies in my book), but the art on the album's cover and inside the accompanying booklet is appropriately surreal, and the sound quality is unimpeachable. The band set the standards for studio recording -- so much so that it launched the (icky) career of its engineer, Alan Parsons, who twisted the dials for the era's favorite stereo-demonstration platter, 1973's Dark Side of the Moon. (Admit it -- you bought some speakers after a salesman played "Time" over them, didn't you?) Some of the non-chronological juxtapositions work pretty well, too; for example, the segue between "The Great Gig in the Sky" and "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," from 1968's A Saucerful of Secrets, unexpectedly makes sense. And if there are far too many tracks from iffy projects such as The Final Cut, the last hurrah for bassist/vocalist Roger Waters, and A Momentary Lapse of Reason, the combo's first disc without him, at least the ones included are fairly tolerable. No one needs to hear three efforts from The Division Bell, another uninteresting post-Waters CD from 1994, but I didn't mind the presence of "Keep Talking" because of its cameo by physicist Stephen Hawking. His robo-voice would sound great on a Kraftwerk LP, don'tcha think?
Best of all, the package doesn't give short shrift to Syd Barrett, who led the group until hallucinogens converted his gray matter to the equivalent of tapioca pudding. Of the 26 songs on Echoes, five of them were penned by the Crazy Diamond -- "Astronomy Domine," which begins the proceedings, "Bike," which ends them, plus "See Emily Play," "Arnold Layne" and "Jugband Blues." The combination of spaciness, catchiness and charm these ditties emit implies strongly that Pink Floyd would have been a very different group had Barrett maintained a tighter grip on his sanity -- farther out, probably, and possibly warmer and friendlier as well.
These qualities come through beautifully on Wouldn't You Miss Me?, the latest reassembling of Barrett's slender post-Floyd output. There's only one previously unreleased offering, "Bob Dylan's Blues," a casual, strummy demo with ultra-simple lyrics ("I got soul and a good heart of gold/So I'll sing about war and the cold"). But "Octopus," "Here I Go," "Baby Lemonade" and other material from The Madcap Laughs, Barrett and the odds-and-sods compilation Opel retain their folkie allure. They suggest a fine artist forced to work entirely with crayons; although the palette is diminished, the lines are still lovely.
Of course, you can get high on Barrett's solo music, too -- but if you're not careful, you may never come back down.