Last year’s best-selling rock single was a tendentious history of rock and roll as spied through the fantasies of its composer-performer. American Pie doesn’t quite prove that the music died, any more than The Last Picture Show means John Wayne is gone, but it shows how ingrown a pop art form can become.
The records noticed here are worth more than a listen, but they are not the creations of people conscious of living in great days. Gospel, country, heavy rock, Sweet Baby James-ish vocalizing: the musical styles are mixed and remixed. This is more than effort to blend 16 tracks in such a way as to give a bit of everyone's ear something to turn to, and thus connect with the buck. It is also an alchemical quest to make the musical styles combine magically to produce something really new. It doesn’t work, but it makes for technical proficiency.
Perhaps because so many others are looking for the formula, I was taken by Whisky Howl’s first album (Warner Bros. WSC 9012). Not a flashy group, they concentrate on hard blues as interpreted by rock and roll instrumentation. Scarcely a new thing, and musicians like John Mayall and Paul Butterfield have made it into a far more sophisticated enterprise than Whisky Howl attempts. They play the good old solid stuff, the stuff of the commercial boogie-woogie groups of the Forties like Louis Jordan and His Timpani Five, the stuff my dad always bought while his buddies guzzled Glenn Miller. The album’s first two cuts, Caldonia and Early In The Morning, I listened to long ago with Dad.
However much nostalgia may be mixed in with my appreciation, there is nothing nostalgic about following a decent trade. The group — especially in Down The Line — locks into a pop idiom with years of good listening behind and before it, and performs its task well. Honorable craftsmen.
Most of the groups I listened to for this column could be classed as heavies. Lots of input from bass guitar, a wall of lead guitars toppling on you, spectacular drum work, and sometimes a keyboard instrument serving to produce a dense sound. Top it off with string and woodwind tracks, and you have the staple sound of Seventies hard rock.
The best of this bunch, Brave Belt (Brave Belt II, Reprise R2057) is a hard, screaming kind of group. Three men augmented by a fourth for the album, they lay down a driving beat that pushes across familiar material. The album back suggests it’s a “concept” album. Well, I suppose it tells the story of a journey through tough sex, street politics, and music on the way to getting back to those gnarled rural roots. But it is well done, and especially gripping is the way C. F. Turner, lead vocalist and
bass guitarist, gut-shouts his numbers.
Fludd (Warner Bros. 2578) provides a lush orchestral background to its own tight rock, recalling the kind of oblique social comment provided by the Beatles (of the White Album) and the Kinks, but the background mix merely distracts. Even without the fiddles, the bite of the British groups simply isn’t there in Fludd, and a song like Birmingham has been done before to places like Strawberry Fields and Shangri-La.
Aaron Space (Warner Bros. WSC 9011), A Foot In Coldwater (Capitol SBA 16012) and Aarons and Ackley (You And I; Capitol ST 6379) are groups that are still looking for it, though the first two are technically accomplished in their search. Aaron Space has created in Marsha a good jukebox tune, A Foot In Coldwater only reminds me of everyone they resemble, from Lighthouse to Grand Funk to Led Zeppelin. Too many inputs, too many echoes tracking across the brain, eventual listener overload. Aarons and Ackley encapsulate many of the difficulties of rock now, since they are quick-change artists in musical styles, never resting on a spot that is theirs. In addition, they overwhelm their material with overblown arrangements. Truly is the kind of number a nightclub singer might use for filler, but even were it as great as I Could Write A Book, a clanging piano and buzzing strings dip it in molasses.
The alibi for any early album is that the performer is finding himself. True enough, but the debuts of James Taylor and Kensington Market presented us
Dennis Duffy is the author of Marshall McLuhan in the Canadian Writer’s Series
with a strongly individuated sound, and Luke Gibson, one of its mainstays, continues to work on his own. Another Perfect Day (True North TN6) is a quiet album displaying the artist’s genuine ease with a number of singing styles. Flow, the sweetest cut on the record, blends words and music to give us just what the title promises. Full Moon Rider, a wellpaced country number, deals with the apocalyptic fantasies of our time without screaming them at the listener, but the singer appears unconvinced. Sweet peace is evoked again by the album’s title song, but then a number like Windy Mountain shows us the blandness, the easy reverie and relaxation of the mood we are asked to share. The songs contain a sense of wonder at the busyness in even the quietest parts of creation, but they themselves are far less busy than the universe they purport to resemble. It is so difficult to sing quietly, noise is the keynote of our time, but Luke Gibson has to learn, as Cockburn has, how to do this while still avoiding dullness.
Christopher Kearney (Capitol ST 6372 displays an impressive talent, especially in House Of D, a snarling number having about it a bit of the controlled fury and desperation of Gimme Shelter. Sure, only a bit, but how much have you heard that you can say even that much about? He can handle a driving blues number like Long Old Train and switch easily to the softness of Rocking Chair Ride. Both songs are his own, he is a skilled writer. That’s the trouble, as I’ve been saying of others. No one talent has been pushed to its limit; rather, a number are displayed at a high level of competence that still leaves the listener less moved than he should be. Extremists create songs that lodge in your mind, however irritating may be the process leading up to them.
Like a number of people, I’ve been getting soggier and soggier following that little rain cloud Neil Young has toted about for so long. In his graceful slide from depression to depression, however, he gave us Broken Arrow, Down By The River, Don’t Let It Bring You Down, Helpless and Maid. Considered as a whole, his talents lie within very tight limits, but my God how those songs stick! The persistence with which he has mined an essentially decadent sensibility! So many of the truly talented people I’m writing about need to push in the direction of their deepest strengths, however crude it seems, and leave virtuosity to lesser men.
Finally, this is why I have nothing to say of Anne Murray’s Annie (Capitol ST 6376) beyond that she takes a song like You Can’t Have A Hand On Me, handling it better than even Tammy Wynette could, and yet remains a singer less interesting than that teary-voiced lady. ■
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