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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Blood, Sweat & Tears: No Sweat


1) Roller Coaster; 2) Save Our Ship; 3) Django (An Excerpt); 4) Rosemary; 5) Song For John; 6) Almost Sorry; 7) Back Up Against The Wall; 8) Hip Pickles; 9) My Old Lady; 10) Empty Pages; 11) Mary Miles; 12) Inner Crisis.

No Sweat? Really? Sure, the album cover is «funny» and all, but with the heated way the band throws itself on the glam rock barricades of the day, surely some sweat must have been sweated out while rehearsing and recording these tunes, not to mention performing them live before audi­ences who demanded that sweat from their performers. Preferably gleaming and glistening off their bare chests, for better effect.

With Steve Katz out of the band, the number of the original remaining members has now dwindled to two — the rhythm section of Jim Fielder and Bobby Colomby. (Additionally, Tom Malone replaces Chuck Winfield on trumpet, but he only lasted one year anyway, before leaving the band to accompany Gil Evans, and I don't blame him). The musical compass is now being provided by woodwinder Lou Marini and guitarist George Wadenius: in particular, they take it upon themselves to once again raise the quota of original songwriting — and to update the band's sound for those strange new times, when «flashy» seemed to take over «substantial».

There were three alleys now for the band to follow — with only one of them remaining the «ori­ginal» alley that BS&T themselves had a hand in constructing in the first place: instrumental jazz-rock / «fusion», here illustrated, first and foremost, by keyboardist Larry Willis' album-closing suite ʽInner Crisisʼ. The piece was, in fact, just a small fragment of the guy's creative mind — best illustrated on his solo LP from the same year, which, not coincidentally, was also called Inner Crisis and contained an alternate, even more harsh and funky version of the same compo­sition. Jazz fusion is not my favorite genre, so I cannot rave and rant about the great atmospheric wonders of the piece — but it is fairly adventurous, starting off on a solo piano note and then moving into a solid, riff-heavy groove (Jim Fielder offers lots of help on bass, too).

At the very least, ʽInner Crisisʼ sounds positively respectable next to the album's only other piece to contain some instrumental exploration: ʽAlmost Sorryʼ starts as «pub-rock de-luxe», then quickly turns into a portentous Vegasy piece, with hyper-loud trombone solos, hysterical synth parts and, ultimately, a vaudeville atmosphere — not so surprisingly, the brass / guitar / key­boards babble on the final couple of minutes sound eerily similar to the textures created by Alice Cooper on ʽWelcome To My Nightmareʼ (the song) a couple years later. Was Alice enough of a BS&T fan to get that influenced? In any case, it is one thing to combine vaudeville with parody, irony, and humorous titillation, as Alice does — ʽAlmost Sorryʼ is just boring in comparison.

But do not get me wrong: there is nothing truly trailblazing about No Sweat. On the contrary, the other two directions that it explores are not just traditional in themselves (soulful ballads and pompous rockers), but strictly follow recently established formulas. Two of the ballads, both con­tributed by Wadenius — ʽSave Our Shipʼ and ʽMy Old Ladyʼ — sound like totally bona fide Elton John songs, relatively convincing but spoiled by weak lyrics (no Bernie to save the day) and even weaker vocals (well, there is a reason, after all, why Elton John is celebrating his 60th anniver­sary at Madison Square Garden and Jerry Fisher is not — and it doesn't even have much to do with The Lion King or Princess Diana). In fact, the band is so well aware of the fact that it even hires Paul Buckmaster, Elton's trusty classic sideman, to oversee the orchestral arrange­ments — which happen to be the best thing about both of these tunes: Buckmaster had this mean, lean way with cellos, emphasizing them over violins, that automatically makes him one of the most distinctive, if not just plain best, string arrangers on that era's pop records.

Then there are the rockers — ʽBack Up Against The Wallʼ does sound like a smoothed-down version of the garage-era Alice Cooper, while Mark James' ʽRoller Coasterʼ, Randy Newman's ʽRosemaryʼ, and Traffic's ʽEmpty Pagesʼ are rootsier and/or funkier, but all four are equally loud, «triumphant», and designed to give you a good time in stretching your limbs, but not necessarily in getting an emotional high of any sorts. In other words, all of this is yer average «okay» music, perfectly adequate as a background soundtrack — no matter how seriously they try to make it loud enough for the foreground — but not really working on any other levels. Maybe that is really what the title of No Sweat is trying to tell us, except I think that the band members them­selves would be honestly pissed off at such a suggestion.

Overall, my final suggestion is that the album does no harm, but is mainly listenable for the sake of curiosity, especially if you are a big Elton John fan — like it or not, not everybody is physical­ly capable of nailing that style as expertly as they do on ʽSave Our Shipʼ — and especially if you are a serious fusion collector, in which case you do need to hear ʽInner Crisisʼ. (Then again, you might just want to head straight for the lion's den and get yourself a copy of Larry Willis' solo LP instead — certainly a better investment for the true fusion lover).

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