ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND: WIN, LOSE OR DRAW (1975)
1) Can't Lose What You Never Had; 2) Just Another Love Song; 3) Nevertheless; 4) Win, Lose Or Draw; 5) Louisiana Lou And Three Card Monty John; 6) High Falls; 7) Sweet Mama.
With the Allmans now becoming a modest-power hit machine, each new death of a band member only energizing and focusing the remaining ones even further, nobody could have predicted in 1973 that Brothers And Sisters would be the last undisputable jewel in the crown. But maybe I am exaggerating here. Maybe it was, after all, predictable, that both Gregg and Dickey would end up quarrelling with each other. That they would start releasing solo albums, and thus, becoming less interested in pooling their «brother» talents. That two years of bickering, booze, drugs, and Cher (whose tumultuous affair with Gregg still remains one of the most absurd blips on the celebrity radar) would eat their credibility from inside out.
But it is also possible that none of these factors are truly responsible for the depressing effect that Win, Lose Or Draw can produce on people. Perhaps it's just that, after Brothers And Sisters, there was nowhere to go but down. No matter how weak the follow-up is, it cannot be said that the band did not try. On the contrary, I think Win, Lose Or Draw tries way too hard to simply give the people what they want — another formulaic Allman Brothers Band™ record. Forgetting, in the meantime, that none of the Allman Brothers' records, up to now, have ever been made in strict accordance with formula.
The kicker is that almost every song on Brothers has its near-exact counterpart on Win. The rock and soul sound of 'Wasted Words' is reprised on 'Can't Lose What You Never Had'; the reckless country romance of 'Ramblin' Man' becomes 'Just Another Love Song' (albeit at a slower, more balladeering tempo); 'Come And Go Blues' = 'Nevertheless' (languid blues-rock). The instrumental world of 'Jessica' gets an overweight brother in 'High Falls', and the restrained exit music of 'Pony Boy' becomes the 12-bar finale of 'Sweet Mama'.
«Companion albums» like these are not necessarily a bad thing — think of such classic pairs as Aerosmith's Toys In The Attic vs. Rocks, or Queen's pair of Marx Bros. tributes. But the band's creative members have to be on a roll to make it work, and neither Gregg nor Betts were, so it seems, in the same spirits. Actually, Gregg fares a little better; I am not a major lover of his dreamy country-blues stuff, but the title track is as good a sample of it as any, and both 'Nevertheless' and 'Can't Lose What You Never Had' — the latter a drastic, unrecognizable reinvention of an old Muddy Waters tune — are honest-to-goodness midtempo rockers whose mission is to wallow in pain, and that they do. 'Can't Lose' is, in all likelihood, the album's highlight, with its clever spiralling duet-riffs from Betts and Leavell and some frantic bits of soloing from Dickey, especially after the false ending where it seems like the man has been unjustifiedly cut off just as he was really really beginning to get into it.
But then he never really does. 'Just Another Love Song' is no 'Ramblin' Man', after all — just another piece of indistinguishable hillbilly entertainment, of which you can find billions of at least equal examples throughout the decade. And 'Louisiana Lou' is roots-rock by the numbers, clichéd, boring, enlightened briefly by one of Leavell's patented sprinkly piano solos, nothing else of interest. Betts' own guitar playing is unexplainably hushed, over-restrained, hidden behind the drums and pianos, and stripped of the crisp, piercing tones that did so much in the adrenaline-raising department on Brothers.
The biggest disappointment, highly symbolic of the band's breakdown, is 'High Falls'. Beginning with a two-minute atmospheric series of rhythmless cascades — reminiscent of 'Les Brers In A Minor' — it eventually becomes one of the band's jazziest compositions, yet its inevitable inferiority to 'Dreams' and 'Elizabeth Reed', whose successor it vainly tries to pass itself for, is blazing so ardently that it is hard to «love» the thing in the same way that we reserve for the Brothers' trailblazing instrumentals. The main theme is cutesy-pretty, and both Leavell and Betts deliver technically decent solos, but there is no big point to these solos.
Clocking in at fourteen and a half minutes, 'High Falls' is the longest instrumental they ever included on a studio record — and something tells me that it only needed to be fourteen minutes long because they must have been at a loss coming up with actual songs for the record. A sharp contrast with 'Jessica', whose shorter solo passages managed to convey far more emotion. For me at least, 'High Falls' only works as pleasant background music, never even for a single moment rising sufficiently high above the ground to take you with it. One can always argue, of course, that, where 'Jessica' was supposed to represent the state of ecstatic, overflowing happiness, 'High Falls' is supposed to be more contemplative, a calmer, but no less contented, observation on the beauty and harmony of nature. Possibly so, but if I want calm and contemplation, I go for my ambient Eno albums. The Allman Brothers Band, on the other hand, came into this world kicking serious ass, and there is little need for us to see them so «relaxed». There is nothing in 'High Falls' that makes it superior to, say, an old Quicksilver Messenger Service jam.
Overall, Win, Lose Or Draw lands somewhere near the «Draw» mark: it is not a bad roots-rock album, but it is a disgrace to the name of the Allmans, the first, but far from the last, clear sign that the loss of Duane and Oakley did, after all, seriously undercut the band's fortunes. A thumbs down rating would indicate that the album is essentially worthless, which is not so — I believe that 'High Falls', despite its shortcomings, is still well worth getting to know — but a thumbs up is equally out of the question, since I do not want to convey the false impression that it is in any way comparable with the band's golden/silver periods.
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