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Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Average White Band: Show Your Hand


1) The Jugglers; 2) This World Has Music; 3) Twilight Zone; 4) Put It Where You Want It; 5) Show Your Hand; 6) Back In '67; 7) Reach Out; 8) T.L.C.

In 1973, this record was one of the biggest novelty items on the UK market. Plenty of British bands had by then already fallen under the influence of funk, but few, if any, were willing to con­sciously establish themselves as legitimate funk acts — because, well, it is a strange overseas black thing, and one does not want to look too ridiculous, openly aping an overseas black thing in­stead of dressing it up in patriotic clothes, like those early British R'n'B bands used to do at the dawning of the rock era.

The Average White Band knew that, and took some precautions. First, they called themselves The Average White Band — a brilliant PR move, immediately giving the entire act a tongue-in-cheek attitude that told listeners «do not take us too seriously», even when the actual songs might seem to be telling the opposite. Second, armed with all the Scottish verve they could muster (all the original band members were Scottish, although, curiously, each one was born in a different town), they practiced hard enough so as to pre-eliminate all possible accusations of «unprofessio­nalism». Third and most important — the point was to synthesize a particular version of «white funk», so that, for the well-trained ear, Show Your Hand could never be mistaken for a genuine «black» album, nor could it be claimed that it genuinely tries (and fails) to be one.

From the beginning, the sound of the AWB was very smooth and easy-going. This is not heavy psychedelic funk à la George Clinton, or wild party grooving à la Sly Stone. Most of the usual compari­sons are with the slightly watered-down-for-mass-consumption sounds of Tower Of Po­wer (or, perhaps, Earth, Wind & Fire as well). But even compared with these guys, the AWB are much more intent on keeping themselves in total check, never taking the direction of religious ec­stasy, common for black bands. This reduces the possible infectiousness of their groove power, but also reduces the risk of emotional embarrassment — because, let's face it, it is one thing to learn the basics of funk music and achieve perfect coordination between all the members of the band (and a pretty damn hard thing, too), and quite another to pile up «spiritualism» on top of the trade. It is fortunate for us that the AWB, in their better days at least, never even tried to invoke spirits dancing in the flesh.

What they tried to do instead was to flesh out the individual grooves to the point at which they started to resemble pop hooks. Watch the intro to 'The Jugglers' — a brief percussion flash that leads straight into a syncopated bass/keyboard riff that is not merely «danceable», but memorable, and even somewhat disturbing, which is appropriate given how, lyrically, the song seems to be about fighting addiction. It is not exactly a funk-pop masterpiece (the AWB were far too A to pro­duce pure pop perfection and, as I said, way too W to foment full-force funky flavour), but it is solid B-level entertainment with a brain.

And it is with these fast-played, precise, intelligent, and catchy funk tunes that the AWB make the grade. Show Your Hand may not have gained too much attention in the UK and remained completely unknown in the States (it was only released two years later, with a slighty different track listing), but up to this day it remains one of the band's finest hours. Of this fine hour, the fi­nest five minutes are unquestionably a cover of The Crusaders' 'Put It Where You Want It', an irresistible proto-disco tune that was already fine enough in its original incarnation, but is totally cooking here thanks to Malcolm Dun­can's lengthy sax solo at the end — joyful, inventive, hi­larious, infectious, and something else from a more obscure part of the thesaurus. The band seri­ously reworked the composition, adding lyrics as well to the formerly instrumental number — now it is a sort of a sex song that doesn't as much assert its se­xiness in a harassing manner as it learns to approach its subject with nonchalance. "Put it where you want it, lay it on the line, you can share your love around and I can share my time" — or perhaps not, whatever, just as long as that sax is blowing it all out.

Another major highlight is the eight-minute 'T.L.C.', whose complex web of scratchy guitar riffs, geometric figures laid out by the brass section, and tight vocal harmonies is not what I would call «ass-kicking» or «sweaty», but rather «subtle» and «well-nuanced». It's like a public love celeb­ration that, for some reason, you have to hold behind closed doors in the middle of a small audi­ence so as not to disturb the neighbours — compensating with subtlety and innuendo for the im­possibility of belting it out loud and proud. It might seem boring to some, but I prefer to think of it as funny — even touching, perhaps.

The odd average white magic does not work so well on slower, more lyrical numbers, such as the soulful 'Twilight Zone' and the title track, both of which move closer to bland, generic soft rock with little in the way of a backbone. At least 'Reach Out', although structured as an equally gene­ric blues-rocker, adds some much-needed grit to the proceedings, with respectable «sting guitar» work from one of the guitarists (Hamish Stuart, probably?).

Unfortunately, these songs already show the exact way in which AWB would be developing into WBAWB («Way Below Average White Band») in a few years. But as they started out, the high­lights were numerous enough to cancel out the lowlights — and even the lowlights were not that low, as even the worst songs here still feature well-written choruses; their main defect lies in the sanitized arrangements, and an awful «snowy» keyboard sound typical of very mediocre jazz-fu­sion acts of the time (keyboards are, indeed, the weakest musical link on this record). And even if my gut feelings didn't immediately feel like it, Show Your Hand is one of those strange albums that one could develop an almost intellectual attraction to — in a way, I believe I did, which ex­plains the thumbs up reaction better than simply saying «hey, nice groove».

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