A comedian friend Louis has a joke about how people travel not to expand their horizons but to confirm their worst stereotypes. Truthfully, few of us are able to interpret complicated experiences as a coherent whole. It’s a skill found in the best art. And maybe the occasional PowerPoint.
Michael Chapman demonstrated this gift early on. In 1970 he released his second album, Fully Qualified Survivor, a colorful scrapbook from a stylistic troubadour. The self-taught musician was lumped in the folk category because of the acoustic guitar in his hands and his performance resume. Yet his singing had an odd swagger. And his music reflected the full range of his experiences: from skiffle to bop jazz to rock. His tastes continued to spiral outward; he later opened for Cannonball Adderley and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. But these sensibilities also drove his albums and his career below the radar. Fully Qualified Survivor became a memory best associated with John Peel’s accolades and the debut of future Spider From Mars Mick Ronson.
Say what you will about today’s travelers, but they have access to unprecedented swaths of the musical soundscape. Light in the Attic expands its beat-heavy catalog by reissuing Chapman’s seminal sophomore effort. The new edition carries few bells and whistles, aside from liner notes featuring insights from Chapman and his bassist Rick Kemp. While reissuing Chapman’s debut album, Rainmaker, would have made chronological sense, Fully Qualified Survivor is a more widely recognized and better realized album.
As expected, the album’s highlights are its patient explorations. The nine-minute-plus “Aviator” encapsulates an easy morning rise or a winter’s eve indoors. A strolling guitar and a wandering violin and cello set up cool bass vamps in a marvelous exercise of creative instrumentation and attentive performance. By the time Chapman’s lazy drawl comes in, the band has sidled up to the crackling fire and the beat is already feeling the warmth of the brandy. The comparatively sparse “Postcards From Scarborough” clocks in at almost half the time, yet swells with the same interplay of elements, particularly between the lush strings and Ronson’s electric guitar leads. Chapman sounds slightly tipsy as his narrator recalls life on the road, while his band swoops in and out.
Chapman could have made Fully Qualified Stranger a solid set of similar, long-form narratives, but he sounds musically restless. Small nuggets of fun like the ragtime “Naked Ladies and Electric Ragtime” or the bluesy, slide-heavy “Andru’s Easy Rider” (presumably named for his wife) preface longer, heavier material, like the slow-roasted, conga-anchored “Trinkets and Rings.” He explores period hippy funk, particularly in the hip-shaking “Soulful Lady” and the riff-heavy “Strangers in the Room” wherein Ronson shines plenty as he responds to each of Chapman’s lines. Though these moments occasionally show the album’s age, the entire collection holds together like a quilt of memories.
Entering his 70th year in 2011 Chapman’s “play anywhere” credo remains in place. In January the musician released Trainsong: 1967-2010, a collection of re-recorded material from across his career. Just months before Chapman released his thirtysomething-ith album, Wrytree Drift, and paid tribute to the late Jack Rose by sharing a cramped, messy stage with the No Neck Blues Band. Considering the love Arthur Magazine shares for him, he is unsurprisingly scheduled to record for Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label. Yet Chapman’s visibility remains relatively subterranean. There is no small irony then that he has lived long enough to see the reissue of this presciently titled album. Maybe there’s a clue for us, one that can’t be found in Lonely Planet, on how to take it all in while we’re on the road.