4.5 out of 5 Stars!
Okay, a show of hands, please…how many people like myself miss the days of browsing through the endless bins at the local record store, especially the “bargain bin” section, hunting for anything that looked at least marginally interesting, AND at a cheap-enough price that you didn’t mind buying the album without even hearing the music first?
I don’t know about you, but after years of habitually flipping through thousands of albums in those cherished bins, and purchasing many items in the process, I’d often feel like a modern-day version of one of those “miner forty-niners” from the mid-1800s, frantically hunting in the wilderness for the merest hint of gold. More often that not, my efforts proved only moderately successful, but every once in a while, my unflagging bargain-bin forays would pay off big time and I’d walk away with a giant solid-gold nugget.
How well I remember unearthing this particular nugget, with its bizarre cover and the $0.99 price sticker in the upper right-hand corner. Certainly I’d heard the name of the group countless times, was familiar with the band’s hit singles—including “Mammy Blue,” which appears on this platter—so I eagerly snatched up the album, thinking there might be at least a few additional pop-rock ditties worthy of the not-so-hefty price. And boy, was there ever!
Best known for the chart-topping 1973 hit “Brother Louie,” the short-lived Stories (with Rod Stewart soundalike Ian Lloyd featured on lead vocals) defied record company expectations by releasing (what I soon concluded was) an excellent third and final album later that same year. Not only did Traveling Underground contain the aforementioned “Mammy Blue”—a song clearly in the same vein as “Brother Louie” to obviously make the record company happy—as well as two other tunes—”If It Feels Good, Do It” and “I Can’t Understand It”—also aimed for the Pop charts, but what I hadn’t expected to discover were six additional songs of a more Progressive nature.
“Bridges” is a grand and glorious opening track, with Kenneth Bichel’s piano flourishes and blazing Mellotron creating a solid soundscape for guitarist Steve Love’s fierce power chords and sizzling leads. How well I recall repeating this terrific track numerous times during that initial hearing of the album, trying to absorb the sheer drama of it all, and due to its bombastic majesty, it still remains my absolute favorite Stories’s song of all time.
“Soft Rain,” another of my favorites, adds the perfect amount of acoustic guitar and Moog into the melodic mix, while additional synths along with harpsichords can be found sprinkled throughout the album, especially on tracks such as “Stories Untold” and “Hard When You’re So Far Away.” Both tunes contained deceptively complex instrumentation that included more tasty guitar and keyboard work, and (for the latter tune) odd time signatures and ever-changing rhythms, thanks to drummer Bryan Madey and seasoned bassist Kenny Aaronson (Derringer/HSAS/Dust).
The longest song on the album, however, the lush and moody “Earthbound/Freefall,” plus the album’s closing title track, are each loaded with synths, symphonic keyboards arrangements, and sound effects that wouldn’t sound all that foreign had they appeared on albums by Yes or Flash, and both really push the “Progressive” button. And all the while, Ian Lloyd’s raspy voice sounds fantastic atop the synth and Mellotron washes, and in my opinion, was much better suited to a keyboard-oriented style than the rockier and poppier tracks for which the band was better known.
Anyway, once I’d gotten through the entire album that first time, and after repeating “Bridges” yet again, I recall having to pick up my jaw from the ground—the last thing I had expected was discovering an album of such profound diversity, especially after assuming Stories was nothing more than a harder-edged Pop Rock band. Although the group obviously disbanded way before its time—I would have loved to hear more albums of this exploratory nature—at least it went out with a defiant and experimental bang. All in all, the band had created an enjoyable near-masterpiece in my eyes, definitely worth the mere $0.99 I’d shelled out for it. And certainly one of my favorite “solid-gold nuggets” from those days of “bargain-bin hunting.”