Draw the Line by Aerosmith

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Draw the Line by AerosmithAerosmith‘s fifth album in 1977 came after the phenomenal success of 1975’s Toys in the Attic and 1976’s Rocks. Although the momentum continued to an extent with Draw the Line, this album is vastly different from those predecessors. It doesn’t sound quite as polished as their previous three albums, which is probably due in equal parts to the band’s desire to return to the blues-based rock of their first album and the musician’s own impaired state of mind during this well-documented time of excess. Lead singer Steven Tyler’s vocals are most deviant as he retreated to a darker, growling and wailing style voice.

The music on Draw the Line is murky and uneven. But lost in this murkiness is some legitimately excellent musical moments. The band abandoned studio experimentation for a simple, straight-ahead hard rock approach. Lead guitarist Joe Perry delved further into his loose style of Stones-inspired blues raunch, freely floating just above the band’s rhythm section. Jack Douglas co-produced the album with the band and also got involved in co-writing four of the album’s songs. The album was recorded in an abandoned convent outside of New York City called The Cenacle. However, this former holy place set the scene for the devilish situations which had an adverse affect on the album.

The sessions at The Cenacle were marred by in-fighting, extreme excess, and much drug use. This obviously had a negative effect on some of the songs, especially a few on the second side which appear to not be fully developed. As Tyler recalls; “The negativity and the drama sucked the creativity out of the marrow of my bones.”


Draw the Line by Aerosmith
Released: December 1, 1977 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Jack Douglas & Aerosmith
Recorded: The Cenacle, Armonk, NY, 1977
Side One Side Two
Draw the Line
I Wanna Know Why
The Critical Mass
Get It Up
Bright Light Fright
Kings and Queens
The Hand That Feeds
Sight For Sore Eyes
Milk Cow Blues
Group Musicians
Steven Tyler – Lead Vocals, Piano, Harmonica
Joe Perry – Guitars, Vocals
Brad Whitford – Guitars
Tom Hamilton – Bass
Joey Kramer– Drums

 

Draw the Line contains many tracks which are quite good but may take a while to adapt to as they are not immediately accessible. “I Wanna Know Why” is a straight-out rocker, with a nice piano lead by session man Scott Cushnie, a nice lead by rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford and good vocal hook by Tyler. “The Critical Mass” is much more interesting. This forgotten classic, includes a harmonica lead by the singer, whining guitars by Perry above a thumping bass of co-writer Tom Hamilton. Lyrically, the song is one of many that apparently explores the dark side of drug abuse as evident in the opening lyric;

Arriving in boats, black-hooded coats, tormentors climbed into my room
I crawled under my bed, covered my head, but they’re flushin’ me out with a broom..”

“Get It Up” was the band’s attempt at a pop song that, ironically, failed to move up the charts. It features a strong drum beat by Joey Kramer and a heavy dose of slide guitar by Joe Perry.
Perry then takes lead vocals on the next song “Bright Light Fright”, one of the rarest songs of the era for Aerosmith, which has almost never been played live by the band.
Backup vocals by Karen Lawrence
 

 
The true gems of the album are the songs which open each side. “Draw the Line”, whether intentionally or not, sounds distant and “vintage”, almost like its recording was caught by accident. The song features much back-and-forth interplay between guitarists Perry and Whitford that sounds improvised but works beautifully. The highlight of the song is Tyler’s climatic “screamed” final verse. “Kings and Queens” is the most original song on the album, written by Tyler, Whitford, Hamilton, Kramer, and Douglas and driven by unorthodox (for Aerosmith) instrumentation, including piano and synths, a bass lead by Hamilton, mandolin by Douglas, and banjo by guest Paul Prestopino. The song’s lyric delves into a swords-and-sorcery epic something usually reserved for more prog-rock oriented bands like Genesis or King Crimsom.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album is much less inspired with “filler” songs that are not quite terrible, but not really up to spec with the quality one might expect from Aerosmith during their finest era. “The Hand That Feeds” is the best of the three due mainly to the guitar work of Whitford. “Sight For Sore Eyes” was co-written by David Johansen of the New York Dolls, but falls short of being fully developed. The closer “Milk Cow Blues” is a blues classic which was originally written and recorded by Kokomo Arnold in and covered by such acts as Robert Johnson and Elvis Presley. But unfortunately, Aerosmith does not really advance this song much at all.

Soon after Draw the Line, internal fueding led to the departure of both guitarists Perry and Whitford for more than half a decade, resulting in a couple of albums with other guitarists. The reunited Aerosmith did make a remarkable comeback in the late eighties, reaching pop heights like never before. However, music of the same quality from the mid seventies would not quite be created again.

~

1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.

 

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Boston

Review of Boston

Classic Rock Review Album of the Year, 1976
BostonAlthough portrayed as a true “band”, Boston was really pretty much a solo project by engineer Tom Scholz. An M.I.T. graduate then working for Polaroid, Sholz built a home studio in Massachusetts in the early 1970s and began experimenting with innovative sounds and developing songs. Sholz formed a band called Mother’s Milk with singer Brad Delp and guitarist Barry Goudreau , but was soon unsatisfied with the live sound and disbanded the band in order to concentrate on the studio work (although Delp continued as the primary vocalist). A perfectionist, Scholz worked on the demos for about seven years, frequently submitting tapes to record labels only to be rejected. Finally, in 1975 Sholz got the attention of Epic Records who signed Sholz and Delp under a few conditions. They had to perform a live audition, which meant that a full band had to be assembled. Also, Epic refused Sholz’s request to use his demo tapes from home, insisting that all material come from a “professional studio”. It appeared the entire album had to be re-recorded and seven years of work scrapped.

However, Scholz found an ally in producer John Boylan, who had the makeshift “band” doing sessions at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles while Sholz was back in Massachusetts finalizing his demos and transferring them to a professional, 24-track format. It was a very elaborate (and Expensive) diversion, but in the end it was well worth it. Aside from Delp’s vocals and most of the drum tracks, very little of the recordings from Capitol Studios was used in the final mix of the Boston album, which is all the more incredible when you consider the absolutely innovative nature of the album’s sound.

Arriving in August 1976, Boston resurrected the classic rock format which seemed to be giving way to the new, divergent genres of punk rock and disco. Scholz’s innovative use of self-designed equipment would be reproduced and replicated throughout the subsequent years, especially the 1980s. While the fusion of hard rock with delicate motifs and layered melodies and harmonics had been done in the past by artists like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Yes, and The James Gang, it was mastered by Boston.
 


Boston by Boston
Released: August 25, 1976 (Kirshner)
Produced by: John Boylan & Tom Scholz
Recorded: Foxglove Studios, Watertown, MA, October 1975 – April 1976
Side One Side Two
More Than a Feeling
Peace of Mind
Foreplay
Long Time
Rock and Roll Band
Smokin’
Hitch a Ride
Something About You
Let Me Take You Home Tonight
Band Musicians
Brad Delp – All Vocals, Acoustic Guitars
Tom Scholz – Guitars, Keys, Bass
Barry Goudreau – Guitars
Sib Hashian – Drums

 
If there is any any flaw in the Boston album it is that they got the sides wrong. While each side works well as a cohesive unit, the album should have started with side two, with the introductory “Rock and Roll Band”, and worked its way up to the fantastic side one, closing with “Long Time”. In this spirit, I’ve decided to review the second side first.

“Rock and Roll Band” is an ironic song in that Boston never really was a “band” before the production of this album. The project started just with Sholz, Delp, and drummer Jim Masdea trying to recreate the recordings that Sholz was recording, but never really reaching any point of notoriety live. Masdea, who left shortly before the Sholz and Delp were signed to Epic, did perform the drums on this track but none others. When the record label insisted on a full band doing a live audition of the material, Sholz enlisted the rest of the players and the “band” was formed.

Boston

“Smokin” was originally written by Brad Delp as a piece called “Shakin” and contains an upbeat grove in the same vein as Grand Funk though topped off by the unmistakable sound of Boston. A long jam in the middle is dominated by Sholz’s organ work and the steady, consistent drumming of Sib Hashian. “Hitch a Ride” is a beautiful ballad and a true classic by Boston. It is first dominated by the acoustic guitar through the verses under the restrained vocals by Delp. A peculiar yet entertaining organ lead comes after the second chorus, but the long ending featuring a double-tracked electric guitar lead may is the real treat. It may be one of the finest guitar leads ever performed. The song’s meaning has long been in dispute. With lyrics like –

Life is like the coldest winter, people freeze the tears I cry”

and –

Gonna hitch a ride, head for the other side
Leave it all behind, never change my mind…
Freedom on my mind, carry me away for the last time”

Some may be led to believe that this beautiful song is actually about taking one’s life, especially in light of Delp’s suicide in 2007 (although Delp did not write the song).

Closing out the second side, the album’s final two tracks are the closest to standard pop songs with standard subject matter. “Something About You”, although a fine song by any standard, is the closest thing to a throwaway song on this album as it is nothing spectacular compared to the rest of the material on the album. “Let Me Take You Home Tonight” is much better, a true pop song with the highest production value. It has a beautiful arrangement among the acoustic, electric, and organ parts and a very melodic bridge with a counter-melody. It all wraps up with an upbeat, revival-like coda section that fades to the end.

With a rather unique fade in which only serves to add more mystique to the song, “More Than a Feeling” the first song on the first album, is the greatest song Boston would ever create. It is a perfect rock song in many ways, beginning with a pleasant acoustic folk riff that launches into an incredible rock riff linked by a short, space age guitar lead previewing the fantastic harmonized electric guitar of Tom Sholz. The most fantastic item in this department store full of ear candy, Sholz would go on to patten this sound with the development of the Rockman. In “More Than a Feeling”, the guitar lead is played over a quite complex yet totally melodic progression, with the final note seems to sustain into infinity under the vocals of Brad Delp vocals in the final chorus. The song itself took five years for Sholz to perfect and his diligence sure paid off.

An acoustic intro betrays the hard rocking tenor of “Peace of Mind”, a commentary on work/life balance. Here Delp’s harmonies shine brightest through the choruses and there is also some great bass by Sholz, proving his talents on yet another instrument. On “Foreplay”, the album’s oldest piece, Sholz plays the organ and clavichord in a space age instrumental consisting of rapid triplet arpeggios played on a Hammond M3 organ. All “effects” were performed on guitar by Sholz, as the band swears that not a single synthesizer was used on the album. “Long Time” is the perfect closing song, starting with a great lead guitar which pierces through the very basic rhythm by the organ and bass as the song kicks in and accents each verse nicely. The choruses switch up and are dominated by a strummed acoustic guitar and what sounds like an electronic hand clap. But even with this radical departure, the song flows perfectly from one section to the other.

Boston became the most successful debut ever by an artist and remained so for over a decade, selling a million albums in less than three months and nine times that figure over its first decade. The band would put out a similarly-styled follow-up with Don’t Look Back two years later, but Sholz felt that effort was “rushed” and it did not fare nearly as well critically nor commercially. In reality, Boston would be that unique super nova by the band which could never be replicated. It was also the rare piece that was extremely excellent, extremely popular, and has held up over the decades, and that is what makes it Classic Rock Review‘s album of the year for 1976.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

 

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Rocks by Aerosmith

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Rocks by AerosmithWe commence our look at 1976 with a review of the fourth of four great albums by Aerosmith that launched their career during their classic period of the 1970s. Starting with their self-titled debut in 1973, Get Your Wings in 1974, and Toys In the Attic in 1975, Rocks is probably the most aptly named of these as it completes the slow metamorphosis of the band from the heavy blues sound of their to a pure, raw rock band. The album was a commercial success and became a great influence on the prolific hard rock and heavy metal sound throughout the next decade and a half.

Although Rocks is less pop-oriented than the band’s previous album, it carries on many of the same trends that began with that album. These include exploring (and/or inventing) different sub-genres like rap rock and funk and finishing up with a “power ballad”, which was still a fresh concept for hard rock bands in the mid seventies. However, Rocks is by far the most cohesive Aerosmith album. It is solid from top to bottom and a real jam with a mixture of tight riffs and improvised leads throughout. The production is at once clean and dense and the overall sound is still fresh-sounding to listeners three and a half decades later.

The content of the album ranges from themes of longing and nostalgia, to darker themes of impending doom and death, to songs which celebrate the rock n roll lifestyle in general. The music includes strong input and participation from each band member with compositions being penned by four different songwriters.

 


Rocks by Aerosmith
Released: May 3, 1976 (Columbia)
Produced by: Jack Douglas & Aerosmith
Recorded: The Wherehouse, Waltham, MA, February-March, 1976
Side One Side Two
Back in the Saddle
Last Child
Rats in the Cellar
Combination
Sick As a Dog
Nobody’s Fault
Get the Lead Out
Lick, And a Promise
Home Tonight
Band Musicians
Steven Tyler – Lead Vocals, Keyboards, Harmonica
Joe Perry – Guitars, Vocals
Brad Whitford – Guitars
Tom Hamilton – Bass, Vocals
Joey Kramer – Drums, Vocals

 

“Back In the Saddle” launches Rocks as it would launch concerts for years to come. The song starts with a dramatic build-up before giving way to an understated main riff with droning lead guitars by Joe Perry. It contains a cowboy-influenced double-entente lyric, repleat with sound effects to match the mood and lead singer Steve Tyler’s screaming hook. The song is one of the heaviest on the album along with “Rats In the Cellar”, a song that borders on heavy metal, but with a nice bluesy harmonica solo by Tyler. The song was inspired by the death of the group’s drug dealer and should jave been taken as a dark omen. “Combination” features dual lead vocals by Perry and Tyler with some nice instrumental sections including a frantic outtro.

Aerosmith in 1976

The hit song “Last Child” was co-written by guitarist Brad Whitford and is a very upbeat and entertaining song. It features Perry on the lap steel and guest Paul Prestopino on banjo and is a great example of the hip-hop rock that the band formulated in the mid-seventies, starting with “WalK This Way” and “Sweet Emotion” on the previous album. There is a great lead section and outtro, which makes ths song a classic. The “Home Sweet Home” theme is later reprised on the Tyler piano ballad “Home Tonight”, which once again features Perry on the lap steel as well as Hamilton, drummer Joey Kramer, and producer Jack Douglas performing background vocals.

The album’s second side includes some of the basic, straight-up rockers which somehow never seem to fade over time. “Sick As a Dog” was co-written by bassist Tom Hamilton, who plays guitar on the song while both Perry and Tyler play bass. “Get the Lead Out” is a good time, dance-promoting song that goes off on a few nice musical tangents while “Lick and a Promise” is about rock groupies and more generally, the rock audience audience.

The album’s best song is “Nobody’s Fault”, a great song with fantastic hook and poetic (albeit apocalyptic) lyrics;

“Holy lands are sinking, birds take to the sky
The prophets are all stinking drunk and I know the reason why…”

Co-written by Brad Whitford, this is a heavy song, almost metal, that uses thick analogies to tell of a coming, inevitable doom. Several members of the band have cited this song as among their favorites ever.

While it appeared like the band was ever-climbing in 1976, they were in fact at the apex of their early career which would falter due to hard drug use among band members. Although Aerosmith would put out a couple more decent studio albums plus a live album by the decade’s end, these paled in comparison to the great early albums. The band would soon face turmoil that would derail their career for nearly a decade before they would make of the great comebacks in rock history.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1976 albums.
 

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Third Stage by Boston

Tom Scholz is a figure unlike any other in the history of rock n roll. A natural inventor, Scholz studied at M.I.T. as a mechanical engineer. After graduating, he worked at Polaroid, where he learned the basics of audio engineering and began experimenting with his own sounds. Starting in 1969, he recorded and re-recorded the music that would comprise the debut album Boston, a masterpiece that was finally released in 1976 (Classic Rock Review will look at that album in December). After the phenomenal success of their debut, the band produced the follow-up Don’t Look Back in the relatively short time of just two years. Released in 1978, Scholz never felt like it was quite “done” and swore that he’d not rush out another album. It would be eight solid years before the next album, Third Stage would see the light of day.

This wasn’t intended to take so long. In fact, the first side was written and recorded between 1980 and 1982, but technical difficulties and an eventual lawsuit by the record company CBS slowed the whole process down. To Scholz, the successful completion of this third album turned into an obsession. He claimed to have pushed the record button over 1 million times and filled over 100 reels of tape with music. He decided to use separate 24-track tapes for music and vocals and synchronize via a new digital machine. But it turned out that the high tech machine “was a lemon” and so an engineer was hired to “use his thumbs” to keep each machine running in sync. Further, Sholz refused to use any orchestral instruments, synthesizers or MIDI synchronization on Third Stage – making his job as producer infinitely harder in the process, but preserving the sound’s integrity. The only deviation from the sound of the 1970s albums, was his own invention The Rockman, which he developed over the long course of this project and which would prove to be a much more lucrative product than the album ever was.

Once the CBS lawsuit was settled in Scholz’s favor, he was free to sign with MCA and release Third Stage in late 1986. It would go to become the most successful album commercially and spawn the band’s only #1 hit.
 


Third Stage by Boston
Released: September 23, 1986 (MCA)
Produced by: Tom Scholz
Recorded: Tom Scholz Hideaway Studio, 1980-1986
Side One Side Two
Amanda
We’re Ready
The Launch
Cool the Engines
My Destination
A New World
To Be a Man
I Think I Like It
Cancha Say / Still In Love
Hollyann
Primary Musicians
Tom Scholz – Guitars, Keyboards, Bass, Drums, Percussion
Brad Delp – Lead & Harmony Vocals   Jim Masdea – Drums

 
Although portrayed as a band, Boston was more like a duo with Scholz providing on the music, production, and performing most of the instrumentation and Brad Delp doing all the lead and harmonized vocals. The result is musically excellent but a bit weak lyrically. There is also a bit of disparity between the album’s earliest tracks on side one and the more recent material on side two, especially when it comes to Delp’s vocals.

“Amanda” was the very earliest song written for the project in 1980. A sweet and beautiful love song, with excellent, harmonized guitars, the song immediately reminded fans of the immense talent of Boston and, in turn, it became the band’s first and only #1 hit. “We’re Ready” follows as a nice compliment to “Amanda”, with it’s moderate, deliberate riff and beat, that does pick up at parts, but always manages to come back to earth and ease into the mood of the song.

The band then “launch’s” into the experimental and very majestic intro to “Cool the Engines”, in keeping with the their tradition of intro pieces. The song itself is musically superb with many areas of creative stop-and-start throughout. The lyrics do have a tinge of preachiness that may be a bridge too far for casual fans.

This brings us to perhaps the downside of “Third Stage”, the concept itself. Apparently coined by Scholz, the “third stage” is supposed to be that age of enlightenment beyond childhood and adulthood. It is portrayed most vividly in the song “My Destination” – a variation on the tune of “Amanda” that ends the first side and contains the lyric;

It’s not who you can be, it’s what you can see that takes you there, your destination…

In all, the theme comes off kind of new-age-y and forms a slight chasm between band and fan, especially during some of the more forgettable songs on the album’s second side, especially “To Be a Man” and the dreadful “Cancha Say (You Believe In Me)”.

However, the second side does contain a few highlights; the smooth and straight-foward rocker “I Think I Like It” and the pleasant closer “Hollyann”, which bleeds nostalgia for the 1960s and contains an interesting little organ solo in the middle, accompanied by little more than a strumming, acoustic guitar.

In the end, Third Stage would prove to be Boston‘s commercial peak. It would take yet another eight years for the band’s fourth album in 1994, Walk On (a project which, ironically, Delp “walked off”) and another followed near the end of the century. But Boston would never quite reach that sound again.

~
RA

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

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Don’t Say No by Billy Squier

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Bily Squier was an odd figure on the pantheon of rock. On the one hand, there is no doubt that he was a very talented vocalist with exception songwriting instincts and pop music instincts. Listening to his 1981 breakthrough, Don’t Say No, leaves one with little doubt that this is a bona fide and legitimate rocker. But then there is the other hand, something that’s a little odd, a little off, something you can’t quite put your finger on, but nonetheless was (probably) responsible for Squier not getting his due accolades through the years and decades. It certainly can be argued that being a little “off” adds a distinction or an “edge” that makes such an artist more interesting. This certainly was the case on Don’t Say No and its equally impressive follow-up, Emotions In Motion, in 1982.

A Massachusetts native, Squier had been performing live throughout New England since the late 1960s, including stints with the bands Magic Terry & The Universe, Kicks, The Sidewinders and Piper. This latter group released two critically acclaimed (albeit commercially unsuccessful) albums in the late 1970s and opened for KISS during the height of that band’s success. Squier departed Piper to launch his solo career in 1980 with his debut album The Tale of the Tape, which had a couple of minor hits.

For this sophomore effort, Squier invited Queen guitarist Brian May to act as producer. However, May had too many prior commitments and instead suggested Reinhold Mack, who recently produced Queen’s very successful 1980 albums The Game. This combination proved fruitful, as In the Dark reached the Top 5 on the album charts and spawned two Top 40 singles.

 


Don’t Say No by Billy Squier
Released: April 13, 1981 (Capitol)
Produced by: Reinhold Mack & Billy Squier
Recorded: The Power Station, New York
Side One Side Two
 In the Dark
 The Stroke
 My Kinda Lover
 You Know What I Like
 Too Daze Gone
Lonely Is the Night
Whadda You Want from Me
Nobody Knows
I Need You
Don’t Say No
Primary Musicians
Billy Squier – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Piano, Percussion
Cary Sharaf – Guitars
Alan St. Jon – Keyboards
Mark Clarke – Bass, Vocals
Bobby Chouinard – Drums

 
This “second tier” of songs are best exemplified with the final three songs on the album, which break from the normal pattern with differing tempos and acoustic textures. “Nobody Knows” is the only song that can be considered a ballad. Squier’s near-soprano vocals above a slowly-picked guitar line and just the right amount of bass and strings later gives way to the full band joining in and a fantastic double-tracked guitar lead that captures the mood perfectly. “I Need You” is a very good pop song, with a really cool new-wave-ish bass/synth riff, calm strummed acoustic and strategically inserted electric guitar during verses that becomes more forceful during the choruses. Unlike that smooth song, “Don’t Say No” is put together in bits and pieces with some interesting lyrics;

I live on the border-line, you come from the void…”

Which brings us back to that “oddness” that we mentioned at the top. Don’t Say No is littered with examples, mainly outtros of songs, such as the orgasmic chant at the end of the opener “In the Dark” or the frantic pick-up that ends “Lonely Is the Night”. But this is most evident on the album’s closing title track, which begins with a fade-in of the first verse and fades out completely near the end, only to re-emerge suddenly. Is this edgy or amateurish? Ultimately, the listener must decide. Some of Squier’s influences are apparent in a couple of other fine songs. “Too Daze Gone” contains many of the same blues-based elements utilized by Aerosmith in the 1970s, while “Lonely Is the Night” is a definite nod to Presence-era Led Zeppelin, but with an additional gloss layer that makes it very entertaining and radio-friendly.

Billy Squier

Of course, Don’t Say No is best know for the “hits” that are still heard on AOR and other media to this day. The opener, “In the DarK” has a very good sound with mixture of guitars and synths and a steady, staccato beat along with plenty of little riffs throughout that make this song a trans-era hit. Mack’s great production is apparent right from the start. “The Stroke” is a double-entendre with infectious lyric and riff and a steady, marching beat throughout. This marching continues through to “My Kindda Lover”, but with a sweeter demeanor, as compared to it’s totally cynical predecessor.

When we made our choice as to which albums from 1981 we would review, we decided that we would either choose Foreigner 4 and Don’t Say No (but not both) as they cover very similar territory as far as genre and quality. They are also similar being that the most popular songs on each album are pretty much the best songs on each album – something that, believe it or not, is really quite rare. But while it was difficult to determine if “Urgent” was superior to “The Stroke” or if “In the Dark” was better than “Juke Box Hero”, it was ultimately the second tier of songs that, in our opinion, gave Don’t Say No the edge. Even though there are some weak points on the album, overall this is the finest work that Billy Squier ever produced.

~

1981 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1981 albums.

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Freeze Frame by The J. Geils Band

Freeze Frame by J Geils Band

Freeze Frame is a confluence album, where a hard-working band with vast longevity in the bag reaches their heights towards the sunset of their career. It is a work that combines many elements of their traditional, rock n’ soul, party-time backbone with a new, (then) cutting-edge, approach that incorporates synthesized soundscapes and new wave entertainment. And Freeze Frame IS new wave in the truest sense – a well-produced collection that explores under-developed areas of the rock landscape.

Although the band bears the name of founding guitarist J. Geils, this album really belongs to keyboardist, songwriter, and producer Seth Justman. Justman was a student at Boston University in the late 1960s when he followed the band, then known as “The J. Geils Blues Band”, which was then an acoustic trio led by Geils and virtuoso harmonica player Richard Salwitx, better known by his stage name, Magic Dick. Soon a local DJ known as Peter Wolf joined as front man and lead singer along with drummer Stephan Bladd and, with the eventual addition of Justman, the six-man lineup that would stay together for a decade and a half was in place.

Through the 1970s, the band achieved moderate commercial success with a few minor hits, but nothing like the worldwide fame that they would enjoy in the early 1980s with Freeze Frame, fueled by the Justman’s catchy and cleaver #1 hit “Centerfold”, which introduced the band to much of the mainstream pop world.
 


Freeze Frame by The J. Geils Band
Released: October 26, 1981 (EMI)
Produced by: Seth Justman
Recorded: Long View Farm, North Brookfield, MA, 1981
Side One Side Two
 Freeze Frame
 Rage In the Cage
 Centerfold
 Do You Remember When?
 Insane, Insane Again
Flamethrower
River Blindness
Angel In Blue
Piss On the Wall
Band Musicians
Peter Wolf – Lead Vocals | Seth Justman – Keyboards, Vocals
J. Geils – Guitars | Magic Dick – Harmonica, Trumpet, Saxophone
Danny Klein – Bass | Stephen Bladd – Drums, Vocals

 
The album is really a potpourri of songs that can be segmented into one of about three distinct categories. The first of these is the direct pop category, consisting of the smash hit “Centerfold” and the opening title song. Both are bouncy and catchy and lead by an airy and accessible organ riff and upbeat entertainment, while carefully flirting with some risque subject matter. “Freeze Frame” has a great stop-start chorus, and was itself a successful top-ten hit. The band also produced a couple of entertaining music videos for the brand new MTV for these songs, no doubt helping their climb in the charts.
 

 
The next category of songs are synch-dominated, pop-art compositions that deviate vastly from the band’s traditional sound. Here, Justman’s genius shines through as he accomplishes this deviation while he still preserves the album’s overall integrity. “Rage In the Cage” is a frantic collection of beat-based tangents that is spastic and entertaining. Some wild sounds are nicely placed bit by bit to project audio that is at once natural and artificial, with the natural drumming by Bladd complimenting everything else (bass, horns, harmonica, and synths) which straddle the line between synthesized and natural. “Insane, Insane Again” takes a very similar approach but with a frantic bass line by Danny Klein holding together the backbone. “River Blindness” starts like an episode of a television mystery, with bombastic horns, before it kicks into the the main riff and takes the listener on a musical journey to dark and mysterious relms that sounds about 90% synthesized, but with a heavy guitar by Geils near the very end.

The final category of songs on Freeze Frame maintains the band,s traditional rock/soul sound through the ballad “Angel In Blue” and the rockers “Flamethrower” and “Piss On the Wall”. The album’s closer with the quasi-vulgar title, at first appears as a somewhat frivolous homage to the band’s own legacy, albeit with some excellent blues harp by Magic Dick. But it also adds a bit of rebellious punk rock doom and gloom –

“…everybody’s shaking ‘cause the big one’s about to fall, I’m just trying to hold it steady while I piss on the wall…”

“Angel In Blue” is a pleasant tune with a melancholy tone, containing the biggest presence by Geils on the entire album. The song is masterfully constructed with just the right touch of organ and drum beat, and a nice ensemble of backing vocals and horns in the outtro.

There is one song that doesn’t quite fit into any of the above categories, the excellent ballad “Do You Remember When?”, which contains elements of the best of ALL these categories. If you like discovering truly great, “lost” songs – this is may be one. It has all the elements of a classic love song, but with such an edge and perfectly placed musical motifs – Geils repeated, 5-note guitar riff, organ, piano, strings, extra percussion, just the right amount of special effects, and interesting background vocals. It also contains the finest vocal performance by Peter Wolf, with an amazing high note near the end of the song, which he holds and variates for nearly 10 seconds.

In the story of rock, the J. Geils Band is not quite unique in being a longstanding quality act that finally gets their mainstream “break” near the twilight of their career (see Bonnie Raitt, REO Speedwagon, or Supertramp). But they may be unique in that their popular breakthrough is also their artistic masterpiece.

~
RA

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1981 albums.

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