BADFINGER: STRAIGHT UP (1971)
1) Take It All; 2) Baby Blue; 3) Money; 4) Flying; 5) I'd Die Babe; 6) Name Of The Game; 7) Suitcase; 8) Sweet Tuesday Morning; 9) Day After Day; 10) Sometimes; 11) Perfection; 12) It's Over.
There is clearly a certain distance that separates Straight Up from No Dice, but it is hard to express it in words — with the solid, but not spectacular consistency of Badfinger through those five years during which the band members somehow managed not to hang themselves, it takes a little getting used to their style in order to spot the evolution.
It might have something to do with the experience that the band gained from playing on Harrison's All Things Must Pass: Straight Up seems to aspire to bigger pop heights, sometimes even to «epic» heights, as if George and Phil Spector somehow showed these kids the light, and the light quickly led them away from the well-focused, but thin sound of No Dice. This is not necessarily a good thing.
On one hand, it does result in a more consistent listening experience — not only is there not a single utter embarrassment here, like ʽWatford Johnʼ, there are also fewer straightforward «Beatlisms», with the band striving further and further towards their own identity. But on the other one — surprisingly, there's always that other one — this does come at the expense of some of the «pure fun» quotient. Here, Badfinger are getting more serious, more philosophical, more pensive and gloomy, and no matter how hard you try to tackle the «power pop» tag on Straight Up, it always seems to come off in a matter of minutes. ʽI Can't Take Itʼ and ʽNo Matter Whatʼ — there's your power-pop: happy crunchy riffs and life-asserting choruses. These songs are more like «epic folk-pop» or something.
The original Straight Up was rejected by Apple, allegedly at the instigation of Harrison himself, and for good reason: the recordings, some of which are now available as bonus tracks on the CD release, sound like demos — with the song structures, lyrics, and melodies fully worked out, but the production and playing leave quite a lot to be desired. Harrison volunteered to produce the new sessions himself, and even ended up playing on a few tracks (he is distinctly credited for a guitar duet with Pete Ham on ʽDay After Dayʼ), but eventually fell out of the project because of the Concert for Bangladesh — where Badfinger actually backed him to return the favor, earning some ambiguous onstage praise from George ("I don't know if they're coming through on the acoustic guitars", quoth George during the band introduction part).
So Todd Rundgren was brought in to complete the sessions, and a fine job he did, with a thick, heavy, and at the same time crisp / sharp production style — re-injecting as much basic pop rock energy as possible into what began life as a somewhat limp folk-pop exercise. Whether this helped the band commercially is hard to guess: both Straight Up and its singles did moderately well on the charts — ʽDay After Dayʼ even broke them into the US Top 5 — but, on the whole, sales and chart positions could hardly be called impressive. There was nothing «titillating» about this kind of music, be it from a T. Rex, Led Zep, or Jethro Tull point of view; and the lack of a golden-voiced singer prevented the band from hitting it with the housewives, either. (I do have to say that quite a few of these here songs could have used a different vocal approach — Pete Ham bravely, but pointlessly sacrificing his weak throat on ʽTake It Allʼ is hardly the most pleasant experience of my life).
And yet, a careful listen to Straight Up reveals more individual character and maturity than No Dice. The place of ʽNo Matter Whatʼ, with its seriously clichéd lyrics and, what's worse, somewhat exaggerated attitudes, is here taken by ʽBaby Blueʼ, an entirely different type of bombastic love anthem — with open slots for some personal insecurity and some credible tenderness, condensed and then exploded with each chorus release of "my Baby Blue...". And instead of ʽWithout Youʼ, written according to the strict rules of the sentimental love ballad canon, we now have ʽName Of The Gameʼ — a piano-driven proto-power ballad with philosophical aspirations, clearly inspired by all that extra time shared in George's company; its hooks may not be as well pronounced as on ʽWithout Youʼ, but, on the other hand, there is no danger of ever sniffing a whiff of cheese on this particular occasion.
I am not a huge fan of ʽDay After Dayʼ, if that means somehow singling out this song from the rest of the Badfinger catalog and putting it on some Top 10 pedestal or other. Its main vocal hook seems based on a cheap trick (extra loudness emphasis on the song title in the chorus) and its main instrumental hook seems based on a cheap flourish (don't those piano notes they hit at the end of each chorus sound a bit Carpenter-ish to you?). However, for many people the chief point of attraction here is the Harrison / Ham slide guitar duet (which allegedly took a very long time to work out correctly, and was the chief problem that prevented the band from including the song in their live setlist) — and here I'd have to agree: all the lovers of George's slide style circa 1970-73 will want to include this resplendent example in their collection (and Pete is certainly no slouch, either, when it comes to standing up to the master).
Meanwhile, Joey Molland emerges as the band's only true rocker-in-residence: ʽSometimesʼ and ʽSuitcaseʼ add a necessary pinch of kick-ass excitement (the latter actually rocks harder in its original version, with distorted rhythm guitar exchanged for a slide guitar and electric piano arrangement under Rundgren's supervision), although the "..tell me why" at the end of the first verse ʽSometimesʼ brings on uncomfortable associations with the Beatles' ʽWhat Goes Onʼ. In addition, Molland and Evans collaborate on ʽFlyingʼ, which also happens to share its title with a Beatles song and its attitude with colorful psychedelia — but actually sounds more like contemporary solo McCartney than anything circa 1967.
By the time Straight Up finally hit the record shelves, the band was already being ripped off by its managers, but its problems had not yet struck full time; consequently, Straight Up is the last relatively «cloudless» Badfinger record — its «dense», «serious» sound has more to do with a sincere desire to grow up and plant themselves some relevance, rather than with drawing inspiration for their art from their personal problems. I am not sure they were quite up to the task, and, faced with an uneasy choice between the «early misguided blunders» of No Dice (ʽWatford Johnʼ) and the occasionally forced, not-too-natural «seriousness» of Straight Up (ʽPerfectionʼ — I have no love for this song at all; it just adds some stuffy bullshit philosophy to an acoustic riff that re-writes ʽNo Matter Whatʼ) — I'd rather choose No Dice, albeit by a very thin margin.
Still, any album with the forceful delicacy of ʽBaby Blueʼ, the slide gorgeousness of ʽDay After Dayʼ, the toe-tapping catchiness of ʽSuitcaseʼ, the sweet bitterness of ʽSweet Tuesday Morningʼ and so on — any such album is a respectable thumbs up by definition; and anyway, Badfinger were not really a band that would dare to, or be capable of significantly overstepping their limits. In fact, probably the only way they could have recorded a bad album would be to live and let live all the way up to the mid-1980s; fortunately for us and unfortunately for them, the silly people at Apple Records took all the necessary precautions so as not to let that happen.
Check "Straight Up" (MP3) on Amazon