Sunday, February 11, 2018
Supposing that this record was a room, then its contents would certainly bear the hallmark of opulence. Rare paintings adorning the walls, with furnishings and fixtures from an interior decorator's wet dream to complete the space. Cracks and blemishes? Sure, a few are present, yet the sheer brilliance of the cornerstone pieces divert your attention from any surface flaws. The brothers Gibb dipped their cups into a well of songwriting riches early on, always coming up with them filled to the brim. Bee Gees 1st was actually their third full length release, though it was the first to be issued internationally.
Truly fine it is.
Even a cursory listen will reveal that these lads possessed sharp melodic instincts, harmonic gifts and an intrinsic knowledge of song craft well beyond their years. To put things in perspective, while in the midst of writing and recording this material, Robin and Maurice were 17. Barry was the elder statesman at the tender age of 19.
This set appeared at the height of the Summer of Love, a window of time which saw an incredibly eclectic crop of musical styles unveiled to an unsuspecting public. The Beatles had recently set a very high bar with Sgt. Pepper in June, casting a daunting shadow over their contemporaries at that point. To their credit, the Bee Gees held their own, turning out high quality, easily assimilated work on this LP. While some content is redolent of the sonic template that the Fab Four had established on Revolver the previous year (which evolved exponentially on Pepper), they did have their own artistic voice. With Colin Petersen (drums) and Vince Melouney (guitar) on board as full fledged members, the quintet was also a legitimate performing entity. This lineup would stay intact until 1970.
Percentage wise, exceptional songs are the rule here. No less than five tracks from this platter found their way onto their first hits compilation in 1969 (Best of Bee Gees). These selections all have a distinctive flavor, caressing the neural population in your auditory cortex in a manner that will not allow your brain to shake them easily. Catchy yet curiously minor key morose at their core, they played a major role in bringing the Gibbs to the attention of the masses.
"Holiday" sees Barry taking lead vocal honors to set things up ("Ooh, you're a holiday/such a holiday") with Robin's distinctive quaver taking over in short order (beginning with "It's something I thinks worthwhile"). They deliver a lyric that likens a romantic partner to a vacation or trip. Possessing a high haunt count, the melody grabs you immediately. Whether "the puppet makes you smile" or not isn't the point. When writing about love and relationships, they were deliberately vague in framing the narrative. In an excerpt from Daniel Rachel's fascinating book,The Art of Noise: Conversations with Great Songwriters, Robin explains the process:
"Holiday" was written on an autoharp...There have been songs called "Holiday" since, but we were probably the first group to write a song called "Holiday" about a relationship...Songwriting is not so much about the obvious; it's about going around the houses and looking at it from a different angle.
Hitting the top ten at that time in the singles sweepstakes, this one still resonates even a half century removed from that era.
Grim subject matter frames "New York Mining Disaster, 1941", yet they take the plight of those trapped by an underground collapse and turn it into a conversation. Following a very solemn intro, the music breaks out of its straight-jacket, building in intensity and speeding up in an unorthodox fashion.
Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?/ Do you know what it's like on the outside?/Don't go talking too loud you'll cause a landslide...
The orchestral arrangement is ideal with those iron clad harmonies tying it all together. Viewed through the Gibb's lens, there is no resolution, only resignation when it comes to the doomed crew, sealed in miles below the surface of the earth. Oddly enough, Rupert Holmes may have taken inspiration from this when he crafted "Timothy", which was a minor chart hit for The Buoys in 1971. In a "you-have-to-hear-this-to-believe-it" scenario, the protagonist is singing about being snagged in a mine cave-in with Joe and Tim. They are located and freed, though only two survive to tell the tale. The inference is that they resort to cannibalism, consuming Timothy to stay alive while awaiting rescue.
Moving to more conventional fare, "To Love Somebody" is a quintessential torch song that Barry draws every iota of raw emotion out of in his vocal. Achingly powerful in a visceral sense, a debt to the Motown sound is quite obvious in the arrangement. This one cuts to the chase beautifully, has been widely (deservedly) covered by other artists and boasts an incredible hook. Anyone who has been on the short side of love can relate. "I Can't See Nobody" emerges as its natural companion, with the refrain again bringing home a universal sentiment: love can blind you to all other available options. All four aforementioned compositions managed to grab the public imagination in a big way, despite having an underlying sadness about them. There is catharsis in suffering, though it helps to have such innovative soundscapes to soften the hard medicine in the messages.
Oh solo Dominique...
Maurice emerges as multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire in the unique, psychedelic and quite startling "Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You". Mixing Gregorian chant, mind bending mellotron and a good deal of confidence in pulling this one off, there is much to be commended in terms of its construction. Beautifully "out there", they never attempted anything even remotely like it again. An exercise in good intentions gone right, it remains "trippy" as of this writing.
Circling back to my earlier comment about stylistic comparisons to that quartet from Liverpool, the Klaus Voormann designed cover art wasn't the only linkage to Revolver to be found here. "In My Own Time" runs uncomfortably close to the structure of "Taxman" with jagged, distorted down-strokes on rhythm guitar and McCartney's bass line showing up with little alteration. Drop-dead perfect emulation of John/Paul/George three-part harmony makes you forget about this and marvel at how dialed in the lads were as singers. Sharing DNA didn't hurt, either. The drawing room harpsichord that drives "Turn of the Century" nudges into Pepperland territory ("Fixing a Hole"), though they counter that by running the clock back to examine life through the eyes of those souls that witnessed the last gasp of the 1800s. "Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts" is pure English musical hall, very much in the vein that Ray Davies was mining in his work with the Kinks as they turned away from riff-based rock in the mid-sixties. My personal favorite of the deep cuts is "Cucumber Castle". Brief with esoteric strings that serve to enhance the song, rather than smother it, the title would be recycled for a future project. It would represent a difficult chapter in their career that saw Robin leave the fold for a short time to embark on a solo venture. Happily, all differences would be patched up amicably. Flashing back to 1967, hard work and talent aligned perfectly to bring the first taste of fame to the Bee Gees.
Returning to my dog-eared vinyl copy to take in this gem was easy. Even the second tier tunes have merit and properly listening again after a long time away has renewed my appreciation for them as composers. When the band comes up in conversation, people tend to immediately flash on the trio as they appeared at the height of Disco-mania in the late 70s, when the Saturday Night Fever film soundtrack dominated radio playlists. Multi-faceted as writers, musicians and prodigiously talented singers, the ingenuity that fueled Bee Gees 1st was impressive, establishing them as a creative force a full decade prior to this. If it's not already part of your collection, grab it. One of their best records, bar none.
Sunday, February 04, 2018
Denny Laine, along with a very talented group of musicians, brought a venerable recording to life last Thursday evening. Performing the Band on the Run album in its entirety, with a further mix of Wings and Moodies selections, Laine and his wrecking crew owned the stage, leaving two packed houses deliriously happy in the bargain. Weaving in some humorous banter between songs, the newly minted member of the Rock and Roll Hall of fame appeared relaxed and graciously shared the spotlight with his band mates. Each took a turn at the mic, flawlessly executing their daunting lead vocal tasks. No mean feat, it is a high compliment to their collective abilities as singers.
Vocal harmonies were impeccable ("Mamunia", "Bluebird"), extended guitar solos inspired ("Helen Wheels", "No Words", "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five") while the group maintained a perfect balance of spontaneity and adherence to the arrangements. Laine joked that they were "not a tribute band" because of their resistance to playing the numbers by rote. His comment is given significant weight by virtue of one irrefutable fact.
He was there when these songs first took shape in the studio...
Despite the complexity involved in putting across this LP in a live setting, without a net, it was successful on every level.
The crowd knew every word, with the master of ceremonies delivering on the promise of a high energy performance. Front of house sound was pristine, the size of the venue was ideal to catch every nuance and the set list was a virtual highlight reel. As "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" was building to that classic crescendo, everyone in the was on their feet, swept away by a killer musical experience.
There was more to come
Denny roared through "Time to Hide", one of his underrated gems from Wings at the Speed of Sound and showcased some tasty harp playing. In addition to leading a particularly fired-up "Sprits of Ancient Egypt", the caffeinated version of James Brown's "I Go Crazy" from the first Moodies disc was another welcome surprise. Closing with the ballad that he has long been most closely associated with, "Go Now" wound down the proceedings with class. Truly superb evening and it was an absolute pleasure to be in attendance.
Denny's partners in crime are all top class players in their own right. Most reviewers are remiss in failing to mention those key individuals in supporting roles. All of the following gents may take a virtual bow.
Alex Jules - One man keyboard army/horn section. His solos were brief, yet riveting and note perfect. Great voice.
Benjamin Lecourt- In addition to expertly steering the ship through the shifting sands of various time signatures, brought his bilingual skills to the fore during "Picasso's Last Words".
Brian Pothier - Bouncing between acoustic 12 string and electric lead guitar, his feel and tone were spot on. Impressive, precise slide work, as well.
Erik Paparozzi - Serious chops on the low end, though he ran all of Paul's bass lines respectfully and hit impossibly high notes with ease on every vocal turn. Quiet captain of the team.
Special mention goes to the songs themselves. While the adversity faced by Paul, Linda and Denny during the making of Band on the Run has been well documented, the lyrics and melodies themselves reveal no trace of these stresses. Instead there is an underlying theme of escape, flight, speed and joyful confidence infused in every note. The material itself was not tied to any political or socio-economic stances of the era allowing it to remain fresh in 2018. Watching it happen live provided a renewed respect for the continuous creativity that powered the LP.
Message to all who take the time to read this. If Denny is taking his act to your city this year, do whatever it takes to secure tickets. This gifted man is generous with his time and puts on an amazing show. Find out more about Denny Laine's future musical plans at his page
Sunday, January 21, 2018
1982 was a breakout year for Colin Hay and his mates. The Men At Work had put in their time since their formation in 1978 getting tight as a performing unit. In November of 1981, Business as Usual was released. Massive success followed. While folks were whistling "Downunder", record buyers sent both the single and LP to the top of the pops. In the midst of a heavy touring/promotional schedule, the group managed to commit a second collection of songs to tape. Less whimsical than their first in terms of lyrical subject matter, Cargo was shelved for some time before the record company gave the green light for issue in the spring of 1983. The executive decision was directly related to the aforementioned success of Business as Usual. No need to have competing product in the marketplace when sales were still brisk.
Who can it be now?
Heralded by the eerie sound of wind, footsteps and chiming bells, "Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive" kicks open the door with force, putting a slight spin on the classic tale of a mad scientist who alters himself (physically and mentally) by downing a beaker of his latest chemical experiment. An arresting tune, the refrain is clever and sets a jittery tone for what follows. Suspend your disbelief for a moment: Imagine that this is merely a set up for a hallucinogenic sequence of events that befall him after he drinks his potion. The good doctor embarks on very unsettling trip, the narrative of which is captured in the nine songs that follow.
I can't get to sleep...
"Overkill" is a perfect pop confection: excellent hook line, taut verses with an instantly catchy chorus. Tailor made for maximum radio exposure. The lyric is restless, with nervous tension around every corner. It is here where a confusing fog steadily creeps across the brain of Mr. Jive. What is real? He isn't quite sure.
Ghosts appear and fade away...
Realizing that no such concept is actually being rolled out to listeners by the composers (mainly Hay with two contributions from Ron Strykert), those of you who are still playing the home game can still have some fun reimagining the intent of this inventive set. The protagonist flashes back to the well-meaning, yet mundane, parental lectures of his childhood ("Settle Down My Boy"), has some surreal fun in his room ("Upstairs in My House") and ends up ruminating on the past ("No Sign of Yesterday") as act one comes to a somber close. Flipping over to the next side, reality intrudes with a comment on military madness in the form of "It's a Mistake". Definite highlight of the pack. In keeping with the tense atmosphere of that era, the lyric alludes to the futility of the perpetual nuclear standoff between superpowers. Escalating one-upmanship has but one catastrophic climax. As with all other tracks here, the six string interplay between Hay and Strykert is very well thought out. Their tones are captured expertly in the mix, never stepping on each other. Cigar goes to multi-instrumentalist Greg Ham (who is sadly no longer with us) for his work throughout. From the haunting saxophone responses that grace "Overkill" to the killer flute solo (seriously) that completely lifts "No Restrictions" into the stratosphere, he leaves no blemish on this disc. He even takes a rare lead vocal on "I Like To". Split personality disorder may be the best descriptor for the overall mood as each construction whips you in various directions, with dizzying highs and lows explored equally. The opening remark about a post-drink song cycle centered on "Dr. Heckyll" was made in the spirit of fun, though the jarring 180 degree jolt that takes you from the exuberance of "High Wire" to the reggae-fried, morose strains of "Blue For You" adds fuel to the idea of a dreamlike thread running throughout the program.
Give me no restrictions, in what I do or say...
Back on earth, everyone brings a frenetic energy to their parts on this very underrated record. They were a hell of a good live band, too. Finding a receptive audience in the commercial sweepstakes, Cargo would also prove to be the final bow for the quintet, as the rhythm section was asked to leave before sessions began for their third full length project (Two Hearts). Strykert departed close to the end of those studio dates, leaving Hay and Ham to carry on with other musicians on the subsequent supporting tour.
Remaining a very compelling listen, my vinyl copy sounds as fresh today as it did when it first floated down from the sky by parachute, landing gently on my turntable back in '83. In addition to strong material, it is not weighed down by the ugly production methods (heavy reverb on everything, cheesy drum machine noises pushed way up front in the mix, etc.) that would soon be ubiquitous as the eighties progressed. Colorful and imaginative as its cover art, Cargo is quite worthy of (re)investigation. Be careful of what you drink before putting it on.
Thursday, January 18, 2018
First of three records released under the name Stealers Wheel. Gerry Rafferty (best known for “Baker Street”) and Joe Egan penned and sang all of the material, backed up by additional musicians. There would be a rotating cast of support players in their brief stint as a “band”. Sonically, the listener will spot a huge nod to the compositional approach of the Fab Four. The big single was “Stuck in the Middle With You” which flew into the top ten in 1973, sold by the truckload and saturated radio playlists of that era. Rafferty channels Dylan mixing in a bit of Lennon on his lead vocal (though he doesn’t quite veer into “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” territory), with Egan harmonizing on the catchy chorus. Tasty slide parts color the song, which sits on a clever bass groove. Handclaps ice the cake. More cowbell? They have you covered in the breaks. All the makings of a hit. When Quentin Tarantino deployed it as part of The Reservoir Dogs soundtrack (who could forget that disturbing Mr. Blonde scene) it was back. Credit to the strength of the tune in that it has held up remarkably well. The rest of this debut effort is quite respectable. “Late Again” and “You Put Something Better Inside Me” are both highlights and also got 45’ed. “Outside Looking In” plays like a lost Lennon solo cut, yet the overall impact is hypnotic. “I Get By” would have slotted in perfectly on the second Big Star album (Radio City) with a stop-start arrangement, twin guitar attack and comes closest to a “rock” feel.
The mix is incredibly clean, which is no surprise as the legendary Geoff Emerick engineered along with John Mills. My copy dates from the late 70s, though I found it second hand in the early 90s. Listening for the first time in at least a decade, this is a lot better than I remember it. Solid harmonies and impeccable playing in service of the songs goes a long way. Stealers Wheel (the album) remains overlooked despite its obvious charms. Their catalog got a makeover and reissue in 2016. If you spot this one in vinyl format, grab it.
Friday, January 12, 2018
Back in the mists of the late sixties, two session veterans coupled with two relatively unknown (yet very good) musicians. With all groups who are in their infancy, the first rehearsal is generally a proving ground to see if everyone will be able to work well together. For this quartet, the musical equivalent of nuclear fission happened in a small room. Their next steps would be to get tighter as a unit, then commit a set of songs to tape. In a quote from his book Sound Man (which is recommended reading), legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns takes up the narrative:
I turned up at Olympic (studio), not having any real idea of what I was walking into. I was blown off my feet. The album that we made in the next nine days was a landmark in rock and roll history, taking it to another level altogether. The stereo mix of this record is certainly one of the best sounding that I ever made, but the credit has to go to the band, as all I did was try to faithfully put down on tape what they were giving me, adding a little echo here and there to enhance the mood.
On January 12, 1969 Led Zeppelin was released in the US. It was a stunning debut that caught a lot of listeners by surprise. Three summers ahead of their contemporaries in terms of sonic impact, the innovation in sound was a revelation. Most rock-obsessed readers know the rest of the story: critics at the time didn’t get it, claims of authorship on certain pieces were questionable and the group was considered to be the product of hype as they landed a huge deal without having logged any serious time on stage. The fullness of time would sweep away these claims, reverse initial critical opinions and legalities concerning credits would eventually be sorted out.
Landing with the force of an asteroid strike, “Good Times, Bad Times” kicks in the door with those opening accents in E major, punctuated by percussive responses and proceeds to level most everything that came before it. Heavy rock had truly arrived with this grand statement, executed in just under three minutes.
Groups had put out heavy stuff before this, didn’t they?
They had, though Zep I properly captured the energy and live feel of such muscular playing in a recording studio. The key to this was a combination of factors. Jimmy Page produced and ran the sessions. Along with John Paul Jones, he had logged hundreds of hours of studio time. Both musicians knew that the secret to making a top class record was all about care in pre-production. The band was tight and all arrangements were set prior to tracking. Each player knew how to coax the best sounds from their respective instruments. In addition, Jimmy was also very savvy about mic technique and their proper placement to get the most out of the room.
So was Glyn Johns. It was on this gig that he discovered a widely imitated formula for recording drums. This again is an excerpt from Sound Man (edited for inclusion here)
It was a complete accident…we had finished a basic track and had decided to overdub an acoustic guitar on it. I took one of the Neumann U67s that I had been using on the drums to use on the guitar. Having finished, I put it back on the drums to start the next basic track. When I lifted the faders to listen to the drums, I found that I had inadvertently left the mic assigned to the track I had been using for the overdub (placed to the far left in the stereo spectrum). As the other drum mic was in the middle, it spread the sound to the left. So I wondered what would happen if I put them left and right and made the small adjustment of pointing the floor tom mic at the snare, making the two mics equidistant from it. The result sounded enormous with the completely different perspective that stereo brings…I panned each track to half left and half right ending up with the technique that I have used ever since. A prerequisite to this working is that you must have a drummer who gives you a good sound in the first place, as well as a pair of Neuman U67s or 47s, or Telefunken 251s.
John Bonham was not only an extraordinary player but also knew how to properly tune his drums. His bass foot sounds like the work of multiple pedals, yet it is just that magic right leg of his doing all of the heavy lifting. Couple that with virtuoso fret burning from Page and Jones and you have a winner. Robert Plant’s vocals were the icing on an astounding cake.
Led Zeppelin I is uniformly excellent. There are multiple musical personalities at work throughout. One delivers original, uncompromising, intensity in short blasts (“Good Times, Bad Times”, “Communication Breakdown”) while the next lays back and brings acoustic guitar up front ("Your Time Is Gonna Come" sporting that glorious, church organ intro from choirmaster John Paul Jones and “Black Mountain Side” an instrumental adaptation of Bert Jansch’s reading of the traditional folk tune “Black Water Side”). They split the difference with the haunting “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” an Anne Bredon composition that Page took up from a Joan Baez LP and deftly re-arranged. This is a prime example of their versatility and an innate ability to make melodic yet ultimately powerful music. Dynamics are the secret sauce that make this one so compelling. Plant hits those notes effortlessly, supported by delicate acoustic picking from Page. When Bonham and Jones kick in, the game is raised. One of my personal favorites. Elsewhere, heavy blues workouts take up the majority of needle time, with Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me” show-casing everyone’s taste and skill. The monsters are “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times”. These multi-part epics stretch out to encompass psychedelic passages, face-melting solos, vocal gymnastics and both were wisely chosen to close out each side of the disc. No descriptors do justice to the sheer power of these mind-blowing slabs of experimentation. You need only listen.
As of this writing, the album holds up beautifully, sounding as fresh in 2018 as it did nearly a half century ago mainly because they didn’t overthink their performances. On the other hand, careful consideration was applied to song sequence. Very clever it is as each selection blends into the next, with the caveat that no similar theme follows what precedes it. No minor detail, this programming approach maintains interest as each new surprise unfolds.
Majestic as it was, Zep I was merely a taste of what was yet to come. “Dazed and Confused” would become a staple of their shows, running over 30 minutes on inspired nights. It also unofficially kicked off the 1970s roughly a year in advance of the actual event. Rock music’s blueprint would be redrawn overnight, with the ever present shadow of the Zeppelin cast on everything below.
Monday, January 08, 2018
Following the beast that he had unleashed with Sundown would prove to be a challenge for Lightfoot. Instead of reinventing the wheel, he opted to stick with a similar formula on Cold on the Shoulder, from which came the excellent single, "Rainy Day People". Landing with ease on contemporary radio playlists, it kept his work at the forefront of the public imagination. The mother LP was viewed as a lesser opus at the time, though it's actually quite good. His summary statement to end 1975? Gord's Gold, four sides of brilliance which served as both an excellent career retrospective and a defiantly raised middle finger to his former label.
I'll return to that conversational marker...
New business in the shape of his next project was already in progress as he closed out another productive year. Ten new songs were written and recorded by January 1976. Summertime Dream would be his twelfth LP in a decade, capping an inspired run of incredibly influential, substantial music that continues to find a new audience.
Opening with grace, "Race Among the Ruins" wastes no time establishing itself as the strongest, most accessible track. His ability to combine hooks with a well considered line is estimable. It takes the eye of a seasoned editor to make this scan and instantly catch the ear of the listener within a three minute framework.
When you wake up to the promise
Of your dream world comin' true
With one less friend to call on
Was it someone that I knew
Away you will go sailin'
In a race among the ruins
If you plan to face tomorrow
Do it soon
This country-pop diamond grabs your attention immediately, though even inveterate fans were scarcely prepared for the next weapon to be deployed on the disc. Gallons of ink have been spilled in an effort to praise and deconstruct "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". Grim in that it recounts the detail of a (then) recent nautical disaster, it stands as one of the most unlikely creations to ever invade top forty playlists (Can # 1, US #2). Lengthy, ponderous and seemingly without a trace of any discernible chorus, the song stands on a very haunting guitar figure that punctuates each verse and sheer will. Musically, every player contributes to an atmosphere of pure foreboding and futility. Lightfoot tops it off with a chilling vocal that runs down every aspect of the last journey of a doomed vessel and its crew members.
Does anyone know where the love of god goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours
His genius places you right there with those brave souls about to perish in the grip of a ferocious November gale. Deserving of every superlative, this startling recording succeeds in conveying the weight and tension of the event itself. Very few writers are capable of bringing such subject matter so deftly to the masses without falling victim to maudlin cliché.
There is a distinctive adult-contemporary-country feel in place with the sweet steel of Pee Wee Charles coloring the arrangements. Lightfoot further commits to full band performances, with "I'd Do It Again" nominated as the cut that stretches out most into "rock" territory. Harmonized lead guitar and a surprising time signature change all work like a Swiss watch. Both the title track and "Protocol" weave storytelling magic and sonic innovation together successfully, coming in as close contenders in the highlight reel category. Confident, in excellent voice and determined to take new steps, Summertime Dream saw him make a stylistic break with the past. While it was successful on every level, commercial fortunes would not be the same for him after this one. Despite shifting trends, he stayed in the game doing what came naturally: writing and plying his trade in front of adoring audiences.
We now come full circle to a point that I had raised in the first paragraph. Gord's Gold had an element of score settling involved in its packaging. Still raw about what he felt was a lack of support from label executives during his time with United Artists, he re-recorded all of his early material featured on that double disc. He was not pleased with the sound of the originals nor was he thrilled about them making money by putting out compilations like Classic Lightfoot and licensing the masters to K-Tel to do the same. The past held no romance for GL and he took his revenge accordingly. This exercise in kicking off 2018 with a week of Lightfoot reviews has been extremely rewarding. I had carefully dusted off these seven great LPs, collected over years at flea markets, record shops and street sales, not entirely sure how they would sound. Some have moved around with me countless times, waiting patiently to be played again. It's been a revelation as each was every bit as powerful as I had remembered. Nuance, craftsmanship and true talent has no substitute. He is still working regularly and rumor has it that this humble poet may have a new disc for release this year. Heartfelt thanks to Mr. Lightfoot for sharing his prodigious gifts.
Saturday, January 06, 2018
Stepping back from the commercial arena in 1973, that calendar year marked the first occurrence where Lightfoot had no new product on offer since he had begun his professional recording career in the sixties. The consistent grind of write/record/tour had put heavy demands on his time, left little opportunity for family concerns and saw his intake of alcohol increase exponentially ("Somewhere USA" sums it all up). An intensely private man, he soldiered on through his commitments. His marriage imploded and the relationship he had with then girlfriend Cathy Smith would inspire both tumult and new songs. The restless artist internalized these experiences and turned them into what can arguably be cited as his best work to date.
Sundown (the album) is a consolidation of all musical avenues that he had taken over the past few years, with a nod to prevailing trends in soft rock and jazz. He was clearly utilizing new colors on the palette to paint pictures in sound and a more muscular approach is evident in the rhythm section, with session veteran Jim Gordon on drums. Synthesizers make their first appearance on a GL disc, though they are tastefully deployed. The result is akin to capturing lightning in a bottle.
THE BIG ONES
The title track is one of the most recognizable in his impressive canon. Sporting a killer hook in the chorus, simple but tasty guitar licks punctuating the verses and vaguely menacing lyrics, it is work that few writers would hesitate to sign their name to. Though the author has made little public comment on the matter, the aforementioned affair with Smith and some legendary partying are deftly woven into the narrative.
She's been lookin' like a queen in a sailor's dream
And she don't always say what she really means
Sometimes I think it's a shame
When I get feelin' better when I'm feelin' no pain
No mindless bouncy pop sentiment is present in the refrain, which found this bit of shade subversively dominate the playlists of countless radio stations and inhabit the minds of millions of listeners. Brilliant from top to bottom, it gave him his first US number one single.
Sundown you better take care
If I find you been creepin' 'round my back stairs
"Carefree Highway" owes its existence to a stretch of road in Arizona that bears the name. Lightfoot instantly co-opted the title and it followed "Sundown" into the top ten when issued as a follow up single. All of the stylistic devices he had used in the past coalesce perfectly here from supporting acoustic leads to light orchestration and a big, harmonized chorus that lodges in the brain effortlessly. There is a world-weary feel that creeps in, with the metaphorical highway being the ideal escape route from problems on the homefront. None of this was evident to his listeners at the time.
Absorbing contemporary sounds, "Seven Island Suite" takes the vocal harmony style of CSN into the arrangement, has a very pretty turnaround and breezes by even at its six minute running time. Very different also is the jazz inflected "Is There Anyone Home" which has a similar feel to the sonic approach that Joni Mitchell took on Court and Spark. Another stunner, it subtly makes comment on his domestic issues, without being too obvious. His gifts as a wordsmith never flag. I would nominate "High and Dry" as one of the most clever takes on relationship insecurities dressed up in a nautical theme. Listen closely to what is being set down and a lot more is revealed about his personal situation at that point. Pointedly, Smith sings backing vocals on this one. "Circle of Steel" is a fine composition saturated with references to the Christmas holidays. Small wonder that this gem doesn't feature with similar seasonal offerings when December rolls around. "Too Late For Prayin'" closes with understated majesty, without percussion and brings the poet/ballad singer persona out as a gentle reminder that this side of his musical personality had not been completely subverted.
Strength follows strength throughout this truly magnificent set, with nary a wasted note to be found. Deservedly attaining the number one position in the US album chart, Sundown is the commercial apotheosis in his discography. International fame and increasingly lucrative prospects followed.