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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band: The Penthouse Tapes


1) I Wanna Have You Back; 2) Jungle Jenny; 3) Runaway; 4) Love Story; 5) School's Out; 6) Goodnight Irene; 7) Say You're Mine (Every Cowboy Song); 8) Gamblin' Bar Room Blues; 9) Crazy Horses; 10) Cheek To Cheek.

Usually, the decision to record an all-covers album serves as a sharp separation marker between the artist's "classic years" and the "creative slump" — The Band and Todd Rundgren immediate­ly come to mind. This is not a God-enforced rule: David Bowie, for instance, somehow managed to form an exception to it. But the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, unfortunately, did not.

This is a strange collection: beginning with two original — and not half-bad — numbers, but then dedicating most of the rest of its space to Harvey's "deconstructions", which are, to put it mildly, hit-and-miss. It's almost as if they'd started recording a proper album, but then ran out of ideas midway through studio time and decided to fool around instead. Tomorrow Belongs To Me may have been avaricious in respect to catchy melodies, but it still bubbled with creativity; Penthouse Tapes is the band arrogantly coasting, and they're loving it.

The selection is very, very Harveyesque: today, post-modernist freaks have arguably tried out every combination and concoction that is mathematically possible, but in 1976, only on an Alex Harvey record — not even on a Frank Zappa one — could you discover Del Shannon shaking hands with Jethro Tull, Irving Berlin ride in tandem with Alice Cooper, and Leadbelly and Jimmy Rogers sharing the apartment with the Osmonds. The very idea to put prog, glam, and pre-war blues together was so novel it could sell the album on its own. Today, though, it's dated in the nasty sense of the word: it doesn't really matter how outlandish your idea is unless you have the chops, brains, and guts to get it to work properly.

And out of all these numbers, nothing manages to captivate me with one exception: 'Gamblin' Barroom Blues'. I don't even know why. But I'm guessing that Alex sensed some sort of special common bond between himself and Rogers — both had a penchant for giving themselves up to bouts of drunken loneliness, and despite all of Harvey's trademark wildness, nowhere ever in his live show does he come across as more believable than when he morphs into this miserable, piti­ful little guy. The swagger of 'School's Out' goes nowhere — it is impossible for him to surpass the dark fires of Alice — but the retro-sadness of 'Gamblin' Barroom Blues' hits hard, much har­der, at least, than all of his stiff pre-war blues workouts on The Blues.

As for the originals, 'I Wanna Have You Back' is competent barroom rock in the 'Gang Bang' vein, and 'Jungle Jenny' is a Tarzan tale that does get to be both hilarious and insinuating ('Jungle Jenny can't get any'). There's also, I believe, some sort of cowboy original midway through the record, but I probably forgot about it for a reason. So, a couple good ones, but not enough to pre­vent me from thumbs down-ing the album, as I absolutely fail to see the point of these covers, and I deeply resent the idea of Harvey dragging the band down to the level of his pre-Sensational days. Zal Cleminson does not deserve to be wasted that way.

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