Raspberries – Raspberries (1972)

Raspberries_13 out of 5 Stars!

I’ll admit, I was very late in investigating this short-lived band from Ohio, definitely because of its silly name and its overly clean and poppy TigerBeat magazine image. Nevertheless, at the time of this album’s release, and despite my growing obsession with groups such as Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, and Black Sabbath, etc. I clearly remember being instantly drawn to the band’s mammoth single “Go All The Way,” with its insanely heavy guitar “hook” and its ultra-memorable chorus, constantly being played on Chicago’s AM radio stations, and I had always kept Raspberries in the back of my mind as a band to “one day investigate.”

Well, that day finally arrived in the 1990s when I came across this album in a “$.99 discount” bin and snatched it up. Was I blown away then? No, not really…many of the tracks seemed way too tame/lame for my tastes.

But nowadays, twenty-plus years later…I surprisingly find myself going back to this album more and more, finally coming to appreciate the overall (and sometimes genius) pop sensibilities of Eric Carmen and company. Yes, some of the material is still a bit too “Beatles-oriented” for me—way too light and too overly orchestrated, such as “Waiting” or “With You In My Life”—but some of the album’s tracks, especially that darned catchy hit single I clearly remembered from 1972’s “AM radio days,” as well as the songs “I Saw The Light,” “Don’t Want To Say Goodbye,” “Rock And Roll Mama,” “Come Around And See Me,” or “Get It Moving,” now occasionally bring to mind diverse groups such as Cheap Trick, Stories, Badfinger, Susan, and (the magnificent) Starz. Go figure!

Anyway, despite some stunningly catchy material here, I still find myself giving only an average rating to the overall album, thanks to several tracks that continually rub me the wrong way and the occasional top-heavy orchestration. Happily the band’s next album showed some improvement and growth.

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Badfinger – Straight Up (1971)

Badfinger_StraightUp3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Always (and rather unfairly) compared to The Beatles (generally not a band I ever worshipped—yes, I admit, I’m a Stones fan), largely thanks to the group’s relationship with Apple Records, Badfinger was a band over which I was never overly enamored, although I always respected the group’s occasionally brilliant songwriting skills despite the somewhat-patchy albums. Plus, I sympathized with the group’s professional (legal) tragic circumstances in which Badfinger found itself (management hell—ie. greed) and the horrible personal tragedies that followed, with two of the band members sadly taking their own lives.

Nevertheless, to this day, I occasionally enjoy a few of the band’s early releases, including Straight Up, where (to me) the band’s songwriting skills truly shine. The mega-hit “Baby Blue” is perhaps my favorite single the group ever produced (apart from the excellent “No Matter What” from the previous album), and the melodic “Day After Day” wasn’t too far behind. Both exceptional tracks! The remaining tracks are mostly decent slices of melodic (and often light) Power Pop, with some of them (“Money,” “Suitcase,” and “It’s Over”) seemingly potential hits in their own right.

Additionally, on Straight Up, Badfinger’s third album, the band seemed to truly gel, with finally a welcome cohesiveness regarding its overall sound, style, and instrumentation. If only the band had been allowed to experiment and navigate its own career without the damned continual interference from its “sharky” management and the record company executive demons…ah, well, a sad tale…

Anyway, this is probably my favorite Badfinger album, one I’ve found myself playing on a semi-regular basis in recent years.

 

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Three Dog Night – American Pastime (1976)

ThreeDogNight_AmericanPastime2 out of 5 Stars!

A band on death’s doorstep.

Any semblance of brilliance the band once possessed had utterly vanished by the time this album came out.

Shortly afterward, Danny Hutton (who appears on only one track—”Mellow Down”—as a lead vocalist) left the band and they were forced to perform with Jay Gruska as the third vocalist (thankfully that didn’t last long) to promote the album.

The actual band itself consisted mostly of studio musician types as well.

Avoid this album at all costs, even if you’re a die-hard fan. An ugly end to a great band.

Three Dog Night – Harmony (1971)

ThreeDogNight_Harmony4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Harmony is probably my favorite overall Three Dog Night album.

Despite the album’s age, the sound quality still holds up well, and the songs the band selected for Harmony were generally above average.

With tracks such as “Murder in My Heart for the Judge” and Hoyt Axton’s “Never Been To Spain” (both sung by Cory Wells, which his iconic vocal performances claimed as his own), the band’s own song entitled simply “Jam,” along with “My Impersonal Life” (what an evil/metal sounding guitar tone!) and Joni Mitchell’s “Night in the City” (both sung by Danny Hutton), and Stevie Wonder’s “I Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer,” Paul William’s “Old Fashioned Love Song,” and the track “You” (all Chuck Negron masterpieces), this is probably one of the band’s “heavier/rockier” efforts.

The only thing that kept me from rating Harmony a perfect 5 Stars was that this is the first album where the band started to shy away from their trademarked “swapping” of lead vocals. The singers, it seems, began to enjoy being the lone vocalist in the spotlight, selecting their own tracks and getting away from the three-singer-team effort. Therefore, the two final tracks on Harmony—”Family of Man” and “Peace of Mind”—were the only songs that reverted back to the “older” days of trading vocal leads throughout the songs (although “Jam” is borderline), and it was a sign of things to come when the band’s cohesiveness eventually vanished.

Despite that one criticism, however, I believe, had the band continued on this heavier/rocking road, they might have retained their “cool” factor a lot longer instead of gaining an undeserved future reputation of being nothing but a “singles’ band.”

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Three Dog Night – Naturally (1970)

ThreeDogNight_Naturally4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Now, it’s been several years since the band’s debut album, and by this time they definitely have their act together and know how to get “the most bang for the buck” when it comes to songs for album inclusion, production, marketing, etc. But despite the inclusion of a little ditty entitled “Joy To The World” (which ended up sounding like a kiddie-anthem and prophesied uglier things to come for the band’s image, sadly) this isn’t a shabby album.

At this time in their history, now covering songs by excellent bands such as Free, Spooky Tooth, and Traffic (and making them “their own”), Three Dog Night possessed a bit of a “hip factor” in the world of music. And listening to this album today, I can see why.

Although always leaning toward the “pop end” of music, the band could still include songs like “Liar” (by Argent), for example, which even today has a certain power, an interesting atmosphere, and truly denigrates the original Argent version. I recall how once (I believe it was Rolling Stone Magazine) compared Three Dog Night to, of all bands, Grand Funk Railroad. As a 10-12 year old during the band’s heyday, I never really “got” the comparison. But now in retrospect, I finally see the huge similarity…the organ and guitar tones, for example, while the voice of Chuck Negron wasn’t that “dissimilar” to the voice of Mark Farner. Regardless, this is one of their better efforts, apart from the aforementioned “Joy” track.

The trade-off/dual lead vocals are flawlessly performed, as in “I Can Hear You Calling,” “Heavy Church,” or “One Man Band,” the arrangements were pretty decent overall, and the musicianship was well above average. Also, the Spooky Tooth cover of “I’ve Got Enough Heartache” is also certainly better than the original version from the album Spooky Two, and a track in which the gospel-inspired and gritty vocals of Cory Wells shines while the background vocals/harmonies from the other guys are near perfect.

Anyway, definitely not a bad place to start for anyone seeking to delve into Three Dog Night’s history.

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Three Dog Night – Three Dog Night (1968)

ThreeDogNight_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

Yes, a forgotten gem. What I like most about Three Dog Night’s debut album is its “live feel” (the actual unpolished quality). I mean, come on, Chuck Negron briefly goes flat on a single ad-libbed note near the end of the track “One” and it actually remained in the final/released mix, not to mention the song became a huge mega-hit. What recordings of today (even live recordings) haven’t been overdubbed, and re-re-re-recorded, with vocal lines painstakingly corrected line by line so as to remove what might have once been a semblance of a brilliant vocal performance, flaws and all?

Yep, you can’t get a better “live in the studio/one take and we’re done since our budget is tight” feel than this album.

This is a riveting trip back in history where record companies gave next to nothing to artists to “do their thing ASAP or else get dumped from your contract.” Yet despite this slight “flaw,” the album has a magical charm that remains even to this day.

The album contains some enduring classics. Aside from the aforementioned “One” (written by Harry Nilsson), there’s Traffic’s “Heaven Is In Your Mind,” a cover of The Beatles “It’s For You,” a cover of The Band’s “Chest Fever,” Neil Young’s “The Loner,” and the Cory Wells-sung “slammer” track “Try A Little Tenderness,” originally released by Otis Redding, and Cory actually ended up making it his very own “classic.”

Basically, the resulting release was a whopping “Hot Damn!” These guys delivered a harmonic debut, a rock-solid rendering of the music scene back in 1968, which prefaced many years of nearly constant Number One hits on the band’s part. Unfortunately, were it not for the damned drugs that hijacked the personal lives of the musicians by the mid-’70s, the band might have lasted much longer, since the guys were always apt-chameleons to shifting styles and musical trends.

Granted, the band did not write the majority of its own material (barely a fraction of its output, truthfully), but the members sure had a gifted “golden ear” for “hearing hits,” and the group subsequently tackled some excellent material from outside songwriters and usually altered the songs to fit the overall band style and—often—bettering every one of them. The “Dogs” also sensed how to improve when it came to production and presentation, and quickly perfected the “rough-edge” style by the second album Suitable For Framing (the tracks “Feelin’ Alright” and Eli’s Coming” anyone?). And with three gifted singers at the helm, each adopting songs that miraculously fit their own personal vocal style (lyrics and melodies that matched their unique vocal nuances to perfection), they mastered the art of harmonic rock-‘n’-roll. And when the singers couldn’t agree on exactly which vocalist should actually tackle the lead, they incorporated the “swapping lead vocal” technique that brought them equal success.

Therefore, this album is basically the genesis of what would become a brilliant strategy for fame, harmony, and hits. And with that in mind, I happily give it high ratings.

 

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Christine McVie – Christine McVie (1984)

ChristineMcVie_15 out of 5 Stars!

While everyone else seemed to fall at the feet of Stevie Nicks or Lindsey Buckingham during Fleetwood Mac’s most successful stretch, praising their supposed magnificence, I worshiped before the altar of Christine McVie, who was essentially the glue that firmly held the band together, despite Lindsey’s dominating presence or Stevie’s charisma. Always a gifted songwriter with a smooth voice and laid-back attitude, this classy dame penned some of the catchiest and most enduring hits of the band’s career. You could always count on Christine’s songs to feature her rich, mellow voice, some soulful lyrics (her classic “Songbird” is a perfect example), and a melody that could stand the test of time. Normally, I would skip over some of the Stevie songs, most of the Lindsey songs (what was he thinking on Tusk???) and shoot right for Christine’s gems.

This solo album proves just how valuable Christine’s contributions were to Fleetwood Mac. Indeed, listening to this album reminds me of Fleetwood Mac at their best. (How many people heard “Got A Hold On Me,” the hit single from this album, and at first thought Fleetwood Mac had finally gotten back on track?) The songs and production are high quality, and Ms. McVie finally has a chance to dominate the proceedings without being overshadowed by the egos of her band-mates. If you’re a “Christine fan” as opposed to a “Buckingham/Nicks fan,” then this album is essential for your collection!

“The Challenge,” “Who’s Dreaming This Dream,” “Love Will Show Us How,” and the other seven tracks each have something special–that same “Christine magic” she brought to Fleetwood Mac. Just about every track on offer here deserved to be a hit. It’s like listening to a “best of” Fleetwood Mac album, but without the weaker songwriters butting in to botch things up.

The woman with the birth name of Christine Perfect gets a perfect score from me with this release!

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Echoes Landing – Closer To You (2006)

EchoesLanding_CloserToYou4 out of 5 Stars!

This short-lived California band eventually became, with some personnel changes, the excellent (and current) Progressive Rock/Metal group named Scarlet Hollow. Like the current band, Echoes Landing also featured Allison VonBülow as its lead vocalist and her partner in musical crime (and in life, as it happens), guitarist Gregg Olson, but instead of Progressive Rock/Metal, the band’s sole album is sort of like Scarlet Hollow Lite…acoustic-driven Rock, AOR oriented, with only the merest whispers of Progressive Rock on a few songs, and in many respects seems a combination between the groups Saraya and Heart with perhaps a modicum of both Alannah Myles and Lana Lane added to the blend.

Overall, 2006’s Closer To You contains some beautiful and catchy material, with Allison’s instantly recognizable voice always at the forefront. Additionally, the tracks are all relatively short and succinct, without the extra fluff or lengthy instrumental excursions, thus allowing the vocal melodies to reign supreme without major distractions.

Take, for instance, the tune “Reach Out II,” a mid-tempo rocker that acts as almost a “style template” for many of the other compositions on this release. Here, with a seemingly perfect blend of acoustic and electric guitars, and Allison belting out the lyrics on two separate tracks (both a lead and an “answer back” track) with an occasional emotional twang in her voice (one that wouldn’t be out of place on any album by Shania Twain or Faith Hill), the song could actually fall into what is being coined the “Heartland Rock” genre, where elements of Contemporary Rock, Folk, R&B, and Country blend with Pop Rock melodies in the style of various artists such as Melissa Etheridge, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, Bob Seger, etc. And the album’s title track is certainly of a similar nature, only this time with a dynamic and gutsy guitar lead, piano touches, and light and swirling synths that add dreamy Prog-Rock atmospherics to the background (actually quite similar in nature to Scarlet Hollow’s future signature style).

The mellower and jazzy “Timing,” with the unexpected inclusion of trumpet, offers even more instrumental diversity, and is nothing short of a showcase for Allison’s terrific abilities, her vocals expertly weaving through the track in a serpentine fashion and setting her apart from other singers in the genre. Moreover, one of my favorite tunes, the beautiful “Echoes Landing,” (yes, the group had its very own theme song, it seems) is a heavily acoustic composition that features Allison performing multiple background harmonies, again drawing attention to her vocal gifts and almost making me fleetingly wonder if this is what the group America might have sounded like had it been comprised of females.

Anyway, with other catchy and periodically moody tracks such as “Shine My Way,” “Side by Side,” “Real Life,” and even a melodic little ditty entitled “I” (the lyrics comprised solely of that single word, believe it or not), Echoes Landing acted as a playful platform on which the VonBülow/Olson musical partnership could experiment, laying a solid groundwork for the duo’s next major venture, Scarlet Hollow.

Fans of the female-led groups or individual artists I mentioned at the top of the review will likely enjoy this release as much as I do.

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EchoesLanding_CloserToYou

Kim Carnes – Voyeur (1982)

KimCarnes_Voyeur5 out of 5 Stars!

For those already familiar with my musical tastes, it will come as no shock that I have a fondness for raspy-voiced women, and singer/songwriter Kim Carnes is easily on my list of favorites. When Voyeur (Carnes’s seventh album) came out in 1982, I immediately thought it a masterpiece, and the vinyl rarely left my turntable for many weeks. And even after all these many years, I still believe it’s awesome.

Overall, this is Carnes’s heaviest, darkest, and “rockingest” album. Justifiably capitalizing on the success of 1981’s Mistaken Identity (which featured the breakthrough hit “Bette Davis Eyes”), Carnes put together another collection of tracks that continues along that same musical pathway, only with the volume occasionally turned up a notch. But the most important deviation, however, is that half of the songs on Mistaken Identity were penned by outside writers, whereas Carnes either wrote or co-wrote the majority of material on this follow-up.

Yet like the previous release, many of the songs here fall into either the AOR or keyboard-driven Pop category, the majority written in minor keys and given an almost eerie edge (the hit “Voyeur” with its controversial video that got banned for being “too suggestive,” as well as “Undertow,” “Say You Don’t Know Me,” “Merc Man,” “Take it on the Chin,” and the outstanding “Looker”), with the synth sounds being periodically akin to, for instance, The Cars on Heartbeat City. Apart from those tracks, Carnes also tossed in a few back-to-basics guitar-driven rockers (“The Arrangement,” “Thrill of the Grill,” and the bonus cut “Dead in my Tracks”) as well as emotional ballads (the stark “Breakin’ Away From Sanity” and the powerful “Does It Make You Remember?”).

Despite the differences in musical styles, however, each track is mixed to perfection and bundled into Carnes’s most cohesive package, thanks largely to the Prophet, Oberheim, and Arp synthesizers and the overall production magic, courtesy once again of Val Garay. Similar to Mistaken Identity, Garay’s production is often atmospheric, haunting, and on several tracks, almost sinister. And as always, Carnes’s vocals are top-notch, quirky, gravelly, and truly unique, while the musicians (including Bill Cuomo, Duane Hitchings, Josh Leo, Craig Krampf, and Waddy Wachtel, to name but a few of the more eminent contributors) play through the well-arranged tracks with utter professionalism.

For Carnes, this album proved a high benchmark. Indeed, after Voyeur, I recall being somewhat disappointed with each of her subsequent releases, as I was eagerly hoping for another to match Voyeur‘s power. But sadly, although Carnes always delivered rather above-average records throughout her later career with few exceptions, nothing came close to equaling Voyeur. A shame.

Regardless, this album remains a musical time capsule showing Carnes at the height of her career with everything (songwriting, musicianship, inspiration, drive) coming together to create the perfect disc.

“Does It Make You Remember?” one of my favorite songs asks.

My answer: Hell, yeah. I remember quite vividly, and I still LOVE it!

 

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