Grand Funk Railroad – We’re an American Band (1973)

GrandFunk_AmericanBand4.5 out of 5 Stars!

One of my favorite albums by Grand Funk Railroad—or, for several albums, simply Grand Funk. Although overall I still prefer the “raw and untamed” atmosphere of the first five studio albums, this truly is the album that launched the band into worldwide mega-fame and it still sounds great after all these many years.

We’re an American Band is actually one of the band’s most consistent releases overall, with top-notch production quality (thanks to Todd Rundgren). The album includes some truly excellent songs, and also contains perhaps Mark Farner’s greatest vocal performances ever (on the outstanding “Creepin’,” “The Railroad,” and “Loneliest Rider,” and especially on the rollicking “Black Licorice”). And despite the famous title track being overplayed to death on just about every radio station known to mankind, I actually still enjoy hearing the song from time to time, so that says a lot about its staying power.

Additionally, the inclusion of keyboardist Craig Frost as an official (and fully credited) band member, is also welcome. Craig appeared as presumably a “guest” on the previous Phoenix album, but here he truly makes his presence known, especially when it comes to his Hammond organ excursions, which are quite impressive overall and seemed to add some energy to the band. And with Craig’s addition, the band strangely sounded quite comparable to Three Dog Night on numerous tracks, especially when it came to Mark’s vocals (which were not too dissimilar from Chuck Negron’s). Plus, when the band added background harmonies, the comparisons between the two groups were almost shocking, especially when compared back to back/side by side.

Nevertheless, despite the praise for the music itself, I still detest the cover art. Sure, when it first appeared in record stores, the cover had a shiny/mirror-esque quality that was “sort of” cool at the time, but now that the album has been re-released dozens of times without that lamination, and in various sizes, the cover just seems about as bland as one can get. Although I did relish the original album’s gold vinyl…ah, the rare colored vinyl…those were the days, huh?  Regardless, the cover sucks big time, which is a crying shame for such a special album.

Now, a final special note—seeking out this album with the bonus tracks included is well worth the effort, especially when it comes to the songs “Hooray” and “The End” (both energetic rockers that easily remind me of the band’s “older days”). Damn, I wish both tracks had been included on the album’s original release, but the time limits regarding vinyl prevented that from happening.

Anyway, to me, this could potentially be considered the band’s masterpiece (or at least, one of them), and (unfortunately) it’s also the band’s last truly great album.

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Human Zoo – My Own God (2016)

HumanZoo_MyOwnGod4.5 out of 5 Stars!

This terrific (and sadly obscure) German group has been around for about a decade, and in that time has released four superb albums, this one being the most recent.

When it comes to the music on My Own God (and, frankly, on each of the band’s albums), Human Zoo plays high-powered Hard Rock with beautiful AOR flourishes.

On this particular release, on “One Direction,” “NSA,” and “Love Train,” Human Zoo seems to draw inspiration primarily from its German countrymen, with Scorpions, Pink Cream 69, Jaded Heart, or Bonfire-inspired heavy yet melodic tracks, while at other times (on songs such as “Solitaire,” “Like A Bitch” or “4U”) either Switzerland’s Gotthard or perhaps Finland’s Brother Firetribe seem like chief inspirations.

But the inclusion of the occasional saxophone solo or accents—highly unusual for a band of this nature—on tracks such as “Cry Baby Cry” or “My Own Illusion,” really sets this group apart from the others, adding an unexpected treat. And with the sax and some keyboard-accented AOR-type songs appearing on the album, such as “A Day To Remember,” “Wave Your Flag,” and “Reminds Me Of You,” several North American groups as diverse as Michael Stanley Band or Harem Scarem also spring to mind.

So to me, each Human Zoo album is special—always well-performed and well-produced, with ultra-catchy and melodic riffs and choruses—making each new release by this group an “auto buy.”

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Max Webster – Max Webster (1976)

MaxWebster_MaxWebster4 out of 5 Stars!

I adored this fun-loving band from Canada, mainly due to its musical uniqueness and its sometimes-silly image.

In many respects, Max Webster was a straightforward Hard Rock act, but with highly imaginative musicians in its midst, giving the band an Art Rock flair.

One moment a track would be rolling along “normally,” until ace-guitarist Kim Mitchell tossed in a weird riff or guitar tone, or his vocals would take on a manic quality, or some amusing lyrics would appear to tickle the brain. Look no further than the tracks “Hangover,” “Blowing The Blues Away,” and “Summer’s Out” for some fine examples of these traits.

Whereas at other times, just when all seemed “normal” again, keyboardist Terry Watkinson would add strange synth leads or eerie and colorful background washes or creative chord changes to the mix (“Here Among The Cats” or “Summer Turning Blue”), or the rhythm section would plop in some off-time beats or frantic fills (“Coming Off The Moon” or “Only Your Nose Knows”), or the band (in general) would unexpectedly venture into full-on Progressive Rock territory (“Lily”) to turn songs completely upside down.

And sometimes, just plain wackiness ensues, as on the truly crazy track “Toronto Tontos.”

Therefore, because of these “never knowing what to expect” characteristics, Max Webster seemed almost a precursor to groups such as It Bites…a band offering undeniably catchy, mature, and professional music, yet also quite a bit off-the-wall.

And I loved every minute of it!

 

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