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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Blood, Sweat & Tears: B, S & T 4

BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS: B, S & T 4 (1971)

1) Go Down Gamblin'; 2) Cowboys And Indians; 3) John The Baptist; 4) Redemption; 5) Lisa, Listen To Me; 6) A Look To My Heart; 7) High On A Mountain; 8) Valentine's Day; 9) Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While); 10) For My Lady; 11) Mama Gets High; 12) A Look To My Heart (duet).

An unexpected improvement upon the band's disappointing third album — suddenly, the band wakes up and remembers that writing songs can be as much fun as covering them (not to mention much more satisfactory in the financial scheme of things). Nine out of eleven tunes are originals, and a tenth one is contributed by Al Kooper, still the «blood» of the band where Clayton-Thomas could have been its «sweat» (and the proper «tears» had yet to come). Only one bona fide cover remained, because what is a Clayton-Thomas era BS&T album without an authentic cover of an R&B standard? Original songwriting be damned, nothing can get an audience on its feet as effec­tively as good old Motown — and ʽTake Me In Your Armsʼ is as good a choice as anything.

The point is not that Clayton-Thomas, Katz, Halligan, and Lipsius suddenly turned into genius songwriters. The point is, their investment in trying out new chord combinations gives the band a sense of purpose, even if that purpose is rarely satisfied. Most amazingly, it seems to somehow procure some much needed dignity for David's voice: be it on the introspective country waltz of ʽCowboys And Indiansʼ, on the tough blues-funk of ʽRedemptionʼ, or on the courteous folk bal­ladry of ʽFor My Ladyʼ, he sounds a little more thoughtful and a little less flashy / corny than he did on most of 3. A little original songwriting may go a longer way than one usually thinks?.. Or is it just a misguided gut feeling?

The decision to start out on a hard rock note, most likely influenced by the Zep-dominated tastes of the time, does feel somewhat pathetic, especially considering that ʽGo Down Gamblin'ʼ isn't really much of a classic — its generic and not particularly memorable blues chords are not even much of a match for the brass riff of ʽLucretia Mac Evilʼ. Competing with the «monsters of rock» did not pay off: thoughtlessly released as a single, the song only went as high as #32, and why should it have gone any higher, with the market already oversaturated with bulgy riff-rockers? (And most of the fans of bulgy riff-rockers had little interest in hearing a bunch of sissy brass instruments overclouding the guitars, anyway).

But it gets better from there: ʽCowboys And Indiansʼ exudes some simplistic nostalgic sentimen­talism — co-written by Halligan with Terry Kirkman from The Association, it challenges David to convince us that the protagonist does prefer, nowadays, to «play the Indian» rather than «play the cowboy», and in order to do that, the guy chooses the «mumble-in-your-beard» style that suits him much better than the Tom Jones posturing. The song is written in relatively free style, more like a distracted Van Morrison type of rambling than a verse-chorus thing, but the brass arrange­ment gives it a bit of grizzled-heroic atmosphere, and ultimately, it works.

ʽRedemptionʼ is more impressive for its funky instrumental section, with plenty of punch contri­buted by the bass and drums, than for any main melody, but, unlike ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ, this is a groove that they worked out all by themselves, and it is far more effective. ʽLisa, Listen To Meʼ is a pretty damn good «roots-pop» ditty, too, highlighted by a classic fuzzy psycho-riff from Katz — by all means, it should have been the first single from the album, not the second one: by the time it hit the market, ʽGo Down Gamblin'ʼ had already flopped, and the band was spin­ning down commercially at an alarming rate.

The second side of the LP is unexpectedly dominated by Katz compositions: formerly relegated to the duty of contributing one or two lushy-mushy folk ballads per LP, he now has a whoppin' four songwriting credits — of which only two are ballads (ʽValentine's Dayʼ sung by Katz him­self); ʽHigh On A Mountainʼ is a slow and rather boring attempt at a hymn, and ʽMama Gets Highʼ is a piece of old-school vaudeville, which would probably not be deemed good enough for Cabaret, let alone a respectable rock band. All of which just goes to re-confirm the old truth about sleeping dogs — Katz was not improving as a songwriter by expanding his range. Still, somehow, I'd rather have these limp attempts at living than yet another bunch of Traffic, Laura Nyro, and The Band covers. (Speaking of which, Al's ʽJohn The Baptistʼ sounds uncannily like a Band song from circa 1969 — and, what's even more funny, Al's own version of the song, re­leased the same year, is so much more overproduced and stuffed with brass overdubs that it ends up sounding more like typical Blood, Sweat & Tears than the BS&T version!).

Cutting a long story short, very little of this stuff is impressive, but it holds together well, and the album as a whole is a «moderate grower», becoming a wee bit more friendly and invigorating with each new listen rather than the opposite. Unfortunately, 1971 was not a good year for «mo­derate growers»: the public, already disappointed with what had been offered to them the year before, could do with nothing less than a strong jolt, and a strong jolt is one thing that BS&T4 does not manage to deliver even once — ʽLisa, Listen To Meʼ is a good song, but much too plain to attract the required attention. Alas, the lack of commercial success shattered the band's self-confidence, and what could have been a new humble beginning proved instead to be the begin­ning of the end.

Check "B, S & T 4" (CD) on Amazon
Check "B, S & T 4" (MP3) on Amazon

3 comments:

  1. "And most of the fans of bulgy riff-rockers had little interest in hearing a bunch of sissy brass instruments overclouding the guitars, anyway."
    Hammer, nail, head. They (like me) could relatively often appreciate power pop and prog rock, including the bombast of Keith Emerson, but hardly the ingenuity of say Gentle Giant. That band learned that the hard way when opening for Black Sabbath during a short tour.
    The usage of brass and violins (I played that instrument myself back then) in the 70's was invariably considered sissy indeed, unless perhaps you did it like Stevie Wonder with Superstition.
    As I got interested in pop/rock in 1976 you won't be amazed that I either don't know or don't remember Go Down Gambling.

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    1. When did GG open for Sabbath? That would be a weird bill.

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    2. In 1972 at the Hollywood Bowl, just before they embarked on their "Octopus" tour. they were booed and heckled as they pulled out the violins and cellos for "Funny Ways", and then someone threw a cherry bomb on to the stage. Phil Shulman ushered everyone off and then screamed at the crowd "You guys are a bunch of fucking cunts." I believe this was one of the factors that prompted him to leave the band soon after.

      I would have gone to that show for both acts. The goofy stoner heavy metal godfathers + the most eccentric act in prog rock? Sold!

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