Little Caesar – Little Caesar (1990)

LittleCaesar_14 out of 5 Stars!

Los Angeles’s Little Caesar released its debut album back in 1990, and with its hard-rockin’ style, heavily steeped in both Blues and even Soul influences, thanks to the inclusion of classic covers such as Aretha Franklin’s “Chain Of Fools” and The Temptations “I Wish It Would Rain,” the band showed great promise and didn’t appear to be just another Guns ‘n’ Roses clone.

Indeed, the band’s “biker” image—complete with overly tattooed arms, dirty boots, tattered jeans, leather, and bandanas—seemed more akin to Circus Of Power than any “hair band” of the era. But when it came to the music itself, the Circus Of Power comparisons were more limited. Whereas the other act had a gruffer, no-frills, garage-band style, Little Caesar possessed a slicker, well-rounded sound with some light keyboard enhancements on several tracks, thanks in part to the guidance of famed producer Bob Rock.

Not to say anything is watered down or wimpy here, since tunes such as “Down ‘n’ Dirty,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll State of Mind,” “Drive It Home,” “Wrong Side of the Tracks,” “Little Queenie,” and “Hold On” have the same boot-stompin’ goodness as the other group. Yet Little Caesar also included a few lighter, less-raging moments on this collection, such as on the ballad “In Your Arms,” along with “Cajun Panther,” “From The Start,” the fantastic “Midtown,” and the aforementioned “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Chain of Fools” (the band’s first single), where the group displayed higher commercial appeal.

But thanks (not!) to the arrival of the Grunge era, it mattered little since any straightforward rock ‘n’ roll band like Little Caesar, no matter how talented, got kicked to the curb until the musical “trend du jour” ran its course. Not even the arrival of accomplished guitarist Earl Slick for the group’s second album could gain Little Caesar any publicity and kick its career into overdrive. Such as shame!

At least the band reunited in the new century and released two additional albums, although it still remains too obscure for my liking.

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Journey – Journey (1975)

Journey_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

Prior to vocalist Steve Perry entering the fold and helping to drastically alter the band’s musical direction, Journey released a trio of Progressive-Rock (or at least semi-Prog) albums, with this one being the first and “proggiest.” Only a single tune here, “To Play Some Music,” offered the merest hint as to what the band would later become, but the other tracks contain some serious and tasty experimentation.

After leaving Santana, Gregg Rolie (keyboards/vocals) and Neal Schon (guitar) wanted to let loose and toy with something different, and it shows in the excellence of their playing on tracks such as “Kahoutek,” “In My Lonely Feeling/Conversations,” “Of a Lifetime,” “Topaz,” “Mystery Mountain,” and “In the Morning Day.” Along with the equally talented Ross Valory on bass, Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and George Tickner on second guitar, the quintet produced some jaw-dropping music here—albeit with less-than-impactful lead vocals. And in my opinion, that was the one area on this debut where the band required some improvement, and also why I couldn’t bring myself to raise my overall rating by another half-star.

Although I’ve always had a general fondness for Gregg Rolie’s voice, thanks to his work in Santana, let’s face facts—it can be rather dull. Sure, his voice does have recognizable character, but his range and forcefulness are somewhat limited, the particular timbre of his voice doesn’t always cut through the often-dense instrumentation, plus his overall lack of emotiveness typically doesn’t make for a successful commercial vocalist. This was the very reason why the band eventually hunted for a singer who possessed all those necessary traits. Therefore, the vocals on this album are unfortunately the weak link, and the trio of appealing Prog-oriented albums the group issued prior to Steve Perry’s arrival sadly remain obscure for many people, forever lost in the giant shadow of Journey’s mammoth AOR stardom.

Too bad the band didn’t change its name for the second era of its existence, since music-wise, the two versions of Journey seem almost completely at odds, especially when it comes to this particular album. Regardless, despite the lack of vocal power on display here, this debut was rather special and deserved wider recognition.

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Witness – Witness (1988)

Witness_Witness4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, the female-led Witness released only one album back in 1988, and in short, it kicked serious butt. In many respects, the talented group reminded me of Saraya, and produced material that seemed a heavier version of what appeared on Robin Beck’s solo albums from the same era.

This worthy collection contains a combination of driving rock songs (“Show Me What You Got,” “Do It Till We Drop,” “Jump Into The Fire,” “Borrowed Time”), tunes with AOR melodies and atmospheres tossed in for good measure (“Desperate Lover,” “Back To You,” “Let Me Be The One”), and a ton of catchy choruses to go around (just about every track).

With the right promotion, Witness may have had bigger sales, since it certainly possessed above-average material, so shame on the lame record company for doing seemingly nothing to promote the group. It’s also a shame that singer Debbie Davis never resurfaced in subsequent bands since she definitely had the chops. Thankfully, guitarist Damon Johnson did pop up in various groups through the years, the most notable including Brother Cane and his current band Black Star Riders.

Regardless, fans of female-fronted Hard Rock should definitely hunt down a copy of this album, and chances are they won’t be disappointed. Also note, appearing on the album as guest stars are guitarists Neal Schon (who also co-wrote two tracks) and Night Ranger’s Brad Gillis, as well as Journey’s Steve Smith on percussion.

This is a true and forgotten classic, with excellent material and enjoyable performances throughout.

 

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