BEE GEES: LIFE IN A TIN CAN (1973)
1) Saw A New Morning; 2) I Don't Wanna Be The One; 3) South Dakota Morning; 4) Living In Chicago; 5) While I Play; 6) My Life Has Been A Song; 7) Come Home Johnny Bridie; 8) Method To My Madness.
Anti-americanists all over the world, rejoice: here is your chance to mark down yet another band gruesomely shot down by West Coast temptations. Oh, wait, that's just California. Well, maybe the Bee Gees did poke a bit of ironic fun at their move to Los Angeles, comparing their new home to a tin can — but in general, they took this change very seriously, making a solemn pledge to adapt and conform. Then they wrote a song called ʽCome Home Johnny Bridieʼ, and the world shuddered, sputtered, and shut them out.
It is important to realize, I think, that one does not simply lose one's talents overnight, even with the added inconvenience of jet lag. Play To Whom It May Concern and Life In A Tin Can back-to-back, several times, and the basic songwriting components will be quite similar. But one may, and one frequently does make wrong stylistic moves — and for the Bee Gees, their first attempt at thoroughly «americanizing» their music was a disastrous one. It's not as if they always were so utterly-baroquishly «European» to-the-bone (after all, they did hail from Australia): they certainly did their blues, folk, and country homework with diligence. But it is one thing to draw on «rootsy» influences when you make them a part of a large bubbling whole — and a completely different one when your ideology is, «hmm, this John Denver guy seems to be all the rage with the chicks right now — so why don't we get together and show him that no one beats three Gibb brothers at any game they choose?»
Odd enough, this manner of thinking did not even help them put together a proper album — this one clocks in at thirty-two minutes with just eight songs (remember that Trafalgar, on the contrary, ended up spilling over the regular cassette-side length — that should tell us a thing or two about the importance of inspiration), all of them either soft-rock ballads for L.A. housewives or, occasionally, country-pop shuffles for retired cowboys. The songs sorely lack the grand and complex orchestrations of Bill Shepherd, but what is worse, they lack the grand ambitiousness that was so important for albums like Trafalgar — I mean, if you are going to add strings, go for total overkill, flush out the basements and flood up the penthouse with these overdubs, or else it simply does not work. Just the way it does not work with ʽSaw A New Morningʼ, which opens the album with false-ringing promises of fresh hope but lacks the proper muscle to support its optimistic smile. It isn't particularly poorly written, but it is written, and arranged, on a shallow level, and has nothing to add to the initial «sunny» impression.
Nor does it work when they present real juicy offerings to the great god of softness and silkiness — ʽLiving In Chicagoʼ seems to pretend that it is melancholic and introspective, but in reality it is simply soporific, and they drag it out to an almost six-minute length on the dubious strength of one, not very interesting, musical idea and one seemingly «deep» lyrical line: "if you're living in Chicago, you're alone". Really? Is that why you guys decided on Los Angeles, or was it actually something about the climate?
I have always liked, and continue to like, exactly two songs on this album, which seem solid enough to be salvaged for future consumption. One probably came about by accident: Barry's ʽWhile I Playʼ starts out with a rather pathetic variation nod to the Beach Boys ("I cry tears of emotion to spread across the USA" = "If everybody had an ocean across the USA"), but then quickly steps out of it and brews some refreshing dark clouds, mostly courtesy of guest star Rick Grech (of Family, Blind Faith, and Traffic fame) who happened to be passing by the band's L.A. studio and beefed up the song with some moody, subtly threatening bass and violin lines. This gives the start of Side B a much-needed change of tone after the relentless wimpy mush of Side A — too late to save the whole record, but a good reason to come back to it sometimes.
Then, after one more Robin tearjerker (ʽMy Life Has Been A Songʼ, which so needs a solid Bill Shepherd orchestral arrangement instead of Tommy Morgan's country harmonica) and one of the band's least convincing Americana excourses in history (ʽJohnny Bridieʼ — gunslinger tales do not come easy for Barry), comes the potential knockout: ʽMethod To My Madnessʼ is a worthy Bee Gees epic, with typical nonsense lyrics that can still be breathtaking — as little sense is contained in the line "I've played the game, still it's not worth it, like a woman in the rain", that "woman in the rain" bit where the brothers swoop up to the skies is the second, and last, time on the record where I find myself forced to sit up and take notice (first time is when Grech breaks through with that spooky fiddle loop on ʽWhile I Playʼ, of course).
After a decade or so since my last listen, Life In A Tin Can no longer sounds so appalling or disappointing as it used to — I can now appreciate the songwriting and singing qualities of ʽSaw A New Morningʼ and ʽI Don't Wanna Be The Oneʼ, and better see the melodic links to their previous records. But that does not eliminate the general feeling of «misguided-ness», and the critics have been right about this from the start — Lost In L.A. should have been a much better title for the album. Apparently, so it seems, the Gibbs always needed a fatherly figure to get them in focus — be it Ossie Byrne, Robert Stigwood, Bill Shepherd, or soon-to-come Arif Mardin — and this was the first time when they suddenly found themselves without one (the album was completely self-produced, for that matter). Maybe they even wanted to try hitting it on their own — just to test their own strengths and limits, for once. It did not work, but they did learn their lesson. An understanding thumbs down.
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