AOR stands for Album-Oriented Rock — the Seventies genre that gave bands like the Eagles (and most of the rest of California rock of the era) legitimacy. One of the largely forgotten kingpins of AOR was the Mark-Almond band — so named for its key members, Jon Mark and Johnny Almond. Mark had been knocking around for years in groups like John Mayall’s band, and Almond was a session musician of a similarly lengthy pedigree. Their first record was, in a way, a blueprint for the way much of their career would go: flashes of some real brilliance surrounded by some of the most maudlin and sugary material ever committed to wax.
My earlier review of Jon Mark’s Tuesday in New York hinted at the way the band worked, but now that I have some more of their records in hand it’s easier to make an overall picture clear. They weren’t exactly prog-rock or jazz-rock or even easy-listening, but they staked out a territory somewhere in the middle of all of those things — possibly even presaging a lot of “new age” material — that at its best sounds intriguing even today. At its worst, though, they were horribly sentimental, with lyrics that wouldn’t pass muster in a freshman English class and music that would have been laughed out of an elevator.
The Mark-Almond formula melded a lot of the emotion and atmosphere, if not always the explicit form and content, of the bluesy and vaguely Spanish-inflected California-sound jazz-rock that was starting to take firmer shape at around that time. Mark’s guitars, both electric and acoustic, Almond’s sax and flute, some piano, and the pair’s voices are the primary instruments on these records, superseding drums and bass and creating a rich, warm sound. Some of the songs are so spare and unadorned they could almost classify as minimalism, and Mark rarely pushes his voice louder than a breathy moan.
Mark-Almond, the freshman outing, concentrates all its most effective material on what was the first side of the LP. “The Ghetto” is easily the sparest, lonely song they ever recorded, with its stark piano sharply intercut with a soaring gospel chorus and a “Baker Street”-like saxophone solo. It’s so good all by itself it almost leaves the rest of the record behind. “The City,” though, is almost as good: an 11-minute epic piece in three movements centering around a quickly strummed two-chord guitar phrase, moving from a quick shuffle to wild, almost Who-like abandon by the end. “Tramp and the Young Girl” is Mark-Almond at their most maudlin and depressing, with soggy, twanging sound that could almost be a jugband at half-speed. Side two contained two more pieces — ”Love”, a 12-minute track of middling quality that didn’t seem to do much more than cover the same territory as “The City” and not nearly as well; and “Song for You,” an eight-minute love proposition that sounded alternately gruesome and confused.
Mark-Almond originally came out on Blue Thumb in 1971, floated around in limbo after going out of print, and was resurrected twice: once by Line Records in Germany (who have kept most of Mark-Almond in print on and off) and by MCA Japan. Incidentally, MCA Japan’s reissues of the Mark-Almond discs are some of the most technically perfect remasters I’ve ever heard — rubidium-clocked analog tape transfers done in 24-bit digital. The Line reissues often sound a bit muffled; Rising in particular has the feel of noise reduction applied indiscriminately.
The follow-up record, Mark-Almond II, followed in many of the same veins: almost all of side one was taken up by a loosely connected suite of songs, some of which worked and some of which didn’t. The second side featured one decent song, “One Way Sunday,” and a good deal of maudlin nonsense that doesn’t deserve preservation on vinyl. This was the group’s biggest problem: the good stuff was very good indeed, but the bad stuff was cringeworthy material made all the more dismaying by its sheer earnestness.
Rising is one of the hardest of the Mark-Almond discs to find, and it’s a bit of a shame, since it’s also one of their best. There are only two really weak songs on the whole record (“Song for a Sad Musician” and “Organ Grinder”), and the rest are of a remarkable variety of color and songwriting style. The groaning slow-motion of “Tramp” is re-echoed on “Monday Bluesong,” “What Am I Living For?” is like the upbeat brother to “The Ghetto,” and the group did its first all-out rocker in “Riding Free,” even if said song is little more than a flabby homage to a Harley-Davidson. Rising also contains one of their other big bland FM staples, “I’ll Be Leaving Soon,” and “The Phoenix,” a song so strange and yet so moving in its own way it’s worth the price of admission along with everything else.
The group then put out 73, recorded in the titular year, which featured a similarly broad range of sounds, toured for a bit, and then disbanded shortly after Jon Mark lost part of a finger in an accident. He decided to forge on independently, however, and in 1976 released To the Heart, which featured a wonderfully smoky cover of “New York State of Mind” and a decent selection of originals. Other People’s Rooms came two years later and showed the band moving more towards a sappy string-oriented sound rather than the slightly rough-edged bluesy-based material that had made them what they were. It laid an egg commercially, despite some charming tracks like “Girl on Table 4.”
Mark and Almond went on to release Tuesday in New York on their own, but that was pretty much the end of it for keeps this time, barring a 1996 reunion album which was so glossy and bland it didn’t attract anyone. A score of “Best Of” records have also come out, of wildly varying track listings; the best of the bunch is probably the Rhino collection, which strikes a balance between the longer suite-based pieces and the standout singles. They never really rose above creating mood music for slow afternoons, but everyone ought to be able to do something well.