A lot of people wrote off The Pretenders after half the band died at the peak of their popularity, victims of their own addictions. But to everyone’s surprise they came back with a third album that was as good or better than their best work. It was also their last truly great album. It’s a standard rock album, circa 1983, but the final track was a gorgeous ballad called “2000 Miles”, a song written for the late ace guitarist James Honeyman-Scott. The lyric is steeped in loneliness, but it’s the fact that the sadness occurs at Christmastime that gets this song on the list. “I miss you/I can hear people singing/It must be Christmas time,” sings Chrissie Hynde. Though written for a deceased friend, it can be easily understood by anyone who is alone or separated from someone they love as the holidays arrive.
A little late with this one but sometimes life interferes with blogging.
- Learning To Crawl—The Pretenders. When 50% of The Pretenders died shortly after the release of their second album—rock-solid bassist Pete Farndon and ace guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, both of drug overdoses—few people gave the band much chance of coming back from such a crippling blow. To pretty much everyone’s surprise, The Pretenders followed this loss with what many consider their best album. Kicking off with the fantastic “Middle Of The Road,” a song that sounds as fresh today as it did in 1983, Chrissie Hynde and über-drummer Martin Chambers lead their new compatriots bassist Tony Butler and guitarist Robbie McIntosh through a collection of tunes that rank in the top-tier of Hynde’s writing. “Back On The Chain Gang,” “Time The Avenger,” “Show Me,” and “My City Was Gone” all got tons of radio play, and deservedly so. They are all excellent. Add in a terrific Stones-y swing at country and western with “Thumbelina” and the hypnotic ode to the drudgery of everyday living, “Watching the Clothes,” and you’ve got an album that’s just shy of perfection. It falls somewhat short of that mark with the dull ballad “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” and the thudding “I Hurt You,” and sequencing both of those songs consecutively near the end of the album could have sunk the entire listening experience had it not been saved by the closing “2000 Miles,” a song that’s become a Christmastime staple on rock radio (but which sounds out of place in a non-winter setting).
- The Pretenders—The Pretenders. Arguing about the merits of the first Pretenders album is a lot like arguing the merits of the first Clash album. It’s kind of pointless. The début album from The Pretenders has highlights that are so high they make you easily overlook the lesser material that rounds out the set. “Precious,” “The Phone Call,” the brutal “Tattooed Love Boys,” “The Wait,” the Kinks cover “Stop Your Sobbing,” the beautiful “Kid,” “Brass In Pocket,” and the pounding “Mystery Achievement” are enough classic tracks to rate the album among the best that the late 1970s/early 1980s had to offer. At its best, this is a first album for the ages. But there are holes here, as well. “Space Invaders”, a repetitive instrumental set to match the then-popular video game, is pointless and dull. At nearly six and a half minutes, the droning “Private Life” is enough to send the worst insomniac to sleep. “Lovers Of Today” is a good ballad hindered by excessive length. But when “Space Invaders” is sandwiched between “Love Boys” and “The Wait,” “Private Life” between “Kid” and “Brass In Pocket,” and “Lovers Of Today” gives way to the closing brilliance of “Mystery Achievement”…well, who cares about a few bum tracks when the rest is so great?
- The Natch’l Blues—Taj Mahal. The second album from blues/rock/folk legend Taj Mahal is one of the strongest blues albums from any blues artist. Most blues musicians prior to the 1960s worked strictly in a singles format. LPs by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were usually just collections of previously released singles. Coming up in the post-Beatles era of the album, Taj painted on a canvas broader than a 45 RPM single could hold. Elements of folk music, rock, and even bluegrass all informed Taj’s blues. Even his name was a nod to something that existed outside of the dark nightclubs of Chicago or the juke joints of Mississippi. The music here is pure blues, and it’s fantastic from start to finish. While the instrumentation is strong throughout, the element that puts The Natch’l Blues over the top is the warm gruffness of Taj’s superb voice, recalling Otis Redding at his most soulful. That voice, combined with the eclectic instrumentation, gives songs like “Corinna,” “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Steal My Jelly Roll,” “She Caught The Katy and Left Me A Mule To Ride,” “The Cuckoo,” and the tornadic album closer “Ain’t That A Lot Of Love” a sound that has all the timeless hallmarks of blues combined with a distinctly modern edge.
- As Safe As Yesterday—Humble Pie. Anyone who’s heard the live album Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore knows that Humble Pie was a blues boogie band with a penchant for lengthy, mind-numbing jams. You’d be forgiven for taking a pass. But their 1969 début album, As Safe As Yesterday, is a very good album filled with great tunes and a lot of craft. Kicking off with an excellent version of Steppenwolf’s “Desperation” that highlights Steve Marriott’s English soul boy vocals and Peter Frampton’s tasteful lead guitar, and peaking with the title track’s organ-heavy rough-hewn psychedelia and the wonderful “I’ll Go Alone,” Yesterday provides the missing link between The Small Faces and The Black Crowes. There are songs on this album that could easily be put on any Black Crowes album, and most fans wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. There’s also some junk. “Alabama ’69” is the biggest offender, a country pastiche that’s an even bigger smear of an entire state than Neil Young’s “Alabama.” The fact that it ends with two minutes or so of faux raga music is baffling and indulgent. “A Nifty Little Number Like You” is a good song that stays well past it’s freshness date and has a brief drum solo built in. “Growing Closer” is another pseudo-country number, good but unremarkable. “Stick Shift” tries but never succeeds in getting out of first gear. The album is strongest—and very strong, indeed—when it sticks to the blues-based boogie: “Buttermilk Boy,” “Bang,” and “What You Will.”
- Keep On Moving—The Butterfield Blues Band. For a brief period in the mid 1960s there wasn’t a better blues band in the world than Paul Butterfield’s outfit. Their first album was an in-your-face blast of pure Chicago blues, highlighted by the twin guitar attack of Elvin Bishop and Michael Bloomfield. Years before Eric Clapton hooked up with Duane Allman for Derek and the Dominos, Bishop and Bloomfield laid the groundwork for having two searing guitar players in one band. The second album, East-West, was even better, featuring the majestic instrumental title track that combined hard-core blues with Eastern raga rhythms for a song that was both thrilling and incredibly influential. By the time of Keep On Moving, the Sixties had taken their toll. Bishop and Bloomfield had moved on, and Butterfield had embraced some of the hippie-isms that ruled the day. Hence tracks like album opener “Love March,” custom-made for the Woodstock generation and light years from the urban grit of their first album. Keep On Moving is a decent record. There’s nothing terribly wrong with it, but it also lacks much of what made the Butterfield band so great. Except for a stinging solo on the terrific “Where Did My Baby Go?” there’s a noticeable absence of burning coals lead guitar. I understand that it’s almost impossible to replace Mike Bloomfield, but it seems like they didn’t even try. Here there’s more of an emphasis on horns. The horns sound great, but there’s still some magic missing. A great deal of the album is simply very ordinary: “Love March” is a cute piece of nostalgia for aging hippies, “No Amount Of Loving,” “Morning Sunshine,” “Losing Hand,” “Love Disease,” and the title track are nothing special. Only “Where Did My Baby Go?”, “Buddy’s Advice,” and “Walking By Myself” stand anywhere near the level of Butterfield’s best material. The true highlight of the album is Paul Butterfield’s soulful voice and amazing harmonica, both of which elevate even the most mundane tracks to a higher level, making Keep On Moving a rewarding, if uninspiring, listen.