The classic rock binge continues. . .
Steely Dan — Can't Buy A Thrill (1972) and Gaucho (1980)
That's four stars a piece. I've always known Steely Dan's hits and have never really bothered with them past that because I've felt like they were too polished and too stuffy for me. This sounds ridiculous coming from an America fan, I know. Well, time passes, we all change. Had a chance to grab some pristine vinyl copies of these two albums and I decided to go for it. I mean, I figured, this is a pretty darn good way to start off: the first album they put out and the last album they put out before their retirement. Can't Buy A Thrill contains the two big hits 'Do It Again' and 'Reelin' in the Years' and that's basically "Classic Rock 101." If you have a classic rock station in your locale, turn it on and within thirty minutes, the odds are very high that you'll hear one of those songs. 'Do It Again' in particular is a nice one. A flanged out Fender Rhodes electric piano vamp dominates the tune's nearly six minutes and Donald Fagen's lead vocal is just as icy as the riff and it makes for one of the most confrontational side one/track ones I've ever heard (seriously, how was this a hit?). The jangly (very America-esque, actually) 'Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)' is my favorite tune on the album. The whole thing is very 'early soft rock', actually. It does have a nice "studio jazz" sheen to it that I think is worthwhile, because the Los Angeles studio scene was just about as good as ever in the early 70's. The tunes are certainly catchy, despite the presentation. Where that first album seems polished for the time, Gaucho, on the other hand just surpasses it in terms of sheen. I guess it's why Steely Dan's popularity has endured: anymore, they are, essentially, a smooth jazz band with intelligent vocals (I'm not trying to use the label "smooth jazz" as an insult here, as I happen to be a hugely unapologetic John Klemmer fan). Musically, this album reminds me very much of what people like Joe Sample and John were doing at the time. 'Babylon Sisters' is case in point. The musical backing is firmly planted in the smooth jazz scene of the time, but the vocal melody breaks the mold and takes the song out of a meandering groove. Elsewhere, Mark Knopfler shows up on 'Time Out of Mind' which is fun. The album ends with 'Third World Man' which is a representative piece for the whole album: its initial appearance is smooth and groovy, but a closer inspection to the lyrics and the chords and the tune almost seems too smart for its own good. Don't get me wrong, I like this stuff and I plan on digging deeper, but this kind of thing only reinforces my initial view of the band: they probably sat around a lot and said to eachother, "Hey man, we're smart" and everybody else laughingly agreed.
Thin Lizzy — Night Life (1974)
Slowly completing the Thin Lizzy collection. Something about this band that I can't deny. Sure, they rock out and get into all kinds of silly "RAWKSTAH" poses at times, but I'm slowly starting to consider Phil Lynott up there with my favorite lyricists (in the company of people like Morrissey and John Martyn — yeah, he's that good). I've seen a lot of people (even George Starostin, of all people!) call this the band's sellout album — presumably because it's so uncharacteristically mellow. There's definitely a couple rockers here, and they're good, but they take a backseat to the mellower material that dominates the album. 'She Knows' is the opener and I can't think of a better representative piece for this album. I mean, many Lizzy tunes have audible acoustic strumming in them, but I don't think any other album has that acoustic strummer as the opener. 'Still In Love With You' is the album's highlight and it puts forth one of those songs that, no matter how many times you hear it, you just get into it more with every play. It was covered recently by Sade, to give you an idea of its endurance. Elsewhere, 'Banshee' is a rare instrumental from the band, while 'Dear Heart' paints the picture of the band as the great lost soul rockers. Like I said, this is mellow stuff for these guys, but that's why it appeals to me the most. I've always preferred the slower, more introspective side of the band and this album is the purest concentration of that side of them. Gorgeously thoughtful rockers, those Dublin boys were. And that's the clearest on this album.
The Byrds — Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)
Half the band quits, Roger McGuinn gets Gram Parsons on board, heads off to Nashville and decides to go country, godlike results ensue. Many accolades have been thrown at this album in the last decade or so and, I have to admit, when I first heard it at the turn of the century, I didn't get it. It was all twang, no tune in my ears. This isn't an album that sounds "cool" when you're 21. I mean, is it country? Hell yeah, it is! In a totally cherrypicking, "This is what we think country music sounds like" sort of way. But, yeah, for the average rock fan, it's very country. Their Dylan cover this time out is 'You Ain't Going Nowhere' and that's just it right there, isn't it? Take that Dylan tune, juice it out and make it something else entirely and that's why the Byrds are exceptional. I mean, honestly. Did twanging up that thing occur to anybody else? The pedal steel, the electric bass. They manage to outdo Bob Dylan (again). Chills. The version of William Bell's 'You Don't Miss Your Water' is excellent (even if it's not better than the original) and it builds a successful bridge between soul and country music that has long existed, but that a lot of listeners just seem to ignore. 'Hickory Wind' is the one that people seem to go back to the most from this album and it's a good one, for sure. 'Blue Canadian Rockies' strikes me as a sleeper hit on the album. 'Nothing Was Delivered' is the most Byrds-esque song on the original album and when that four-to-the-floor beat hits during the chorus, it's just pure brilliance. I picked up the two disc, thirty-nine track, two hour long deluxe edition on CD because it just felt right. The extras are overwhelming, I will say right now. Among them, 'Pretty Polly' is probably the most reminiscent of previous Byrds material. 'Lazy Days' appears in two versions, both of which are very previous-Byrds-esque. A handful of songs by the International Submarine Band (the band that Gram Parsons was in prior to being invited into the Byrds) show up and, I have to say, they are much less country than I was anticipating. I mean, 'Sum Up Broke' sounds nearly like a Nuggets outtake. All of the rehearsals and demos for the proper album are good for just sustaining the initial vibe that Sweetheart possesses, but are ultimately only for dorks like me. But still, the first two-thirds of this thing is ace. It just feels like honest expression and genuine inspiration. One of those rare classic albums that truly gets better with age. Can't say enough good about it.