CACTUS: CACTUS (1970)
1) Parchman Farm; 2) My Lady From South Of Detroit; 3) Bro. Bill; 4) You Can't Judge A Book By The Cover; 5) Let Me Swim; 6) No Need To Worry; 7) Oleo; 8) Feel So Good.
If you have no idea why this band named itself Cactus despite none of the members being from Arizona State, take one look at the album cover and you will see why (and if you need an extra hint, you must be a sexless saint from Heaven itself). Musically more relevant, though, is the fact that Cactus were formed out of the ashes of Vanilla Fudge (if fudge can even be reduced to ashes in the first place), when that band's rhythm section, Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice, recruited guitarist Jim McCarty and vocalist Rusty Day and began realizing their evil plan to become the American Led Zeppelin. Originally, they wanted to have Jeff Beck, but that did not work because Beck had a car accident — besides, he wasn't exactly American, so the experiment wouldn't be pure enough. (To be fair, a few years on they did get to play together for a while, but it still did not work out: Beck never could stand longtime partners).
Anyway, if you are not all that much into second-rate or third-rate hard rock bands, there is little reason for you to bother checking out this one. However, as far as ballsy-bluesy heavy rock with no experimental vibe whatsoever is concerned, Cactus is a good bet. Musically, it is not even Vanilla Fudge so much whose tradition they are inheriting here, but Blue Cheer — same brand of loud, arrogant, alcohol-fueled rock, although in between all four of them, there is definitely a higher level of skill involved. Songwriting here is just about level zero, but these guys can play, for sure: in fact, the Bogert/Appice rhythm section may be just one notch below the Jones/Bonham section, and only because Appice is somewhat overdoing it (he wants to out-Bonham Bonham so much that he nearly blows his drum set to bits even on the ultra-slow blues numbers like ʽNo Need To Worryʼ, which is really confusing).
Appropriately, Jim McCarty is a very good guitar player as far as not-particularly-inventive guitar players go: he has no mastery of, or no interest in various tones, effects, and gimmicks, so he is neither Beck nor Page in that respect — but his phrasing is clever, his fluency is admirable, and he can do it in a variety of styles, from basic boogie to blueswailing to garage hooliganry without sounding too boring in any of these. The vocalist, though, is just a well-spirited (with a passion for the spirits, that is) gentleman with good barroom standing: no more, no less.
The «highlight» of the album is their cover of Mose Allison's ʽParchman Farmʼ; the idea is to take Blue Cheer's reinvention of the track as a heavy rocker and pump it up even further, speeding up the tempo to insanity and going all-out crazy. The effect is rather facetious — this is one kind of thing for which the real Led Zep would never fall, no matter how much they liked covering old bits of rock'n'roll in their live sets — but as a bang-your-head-against-the-wall musical joke, it works, and in fact, provides the finest three minutes of excitement on the entire album. I mean, say what you will about lack of taste and stupidity, but good old speed counts, especially when it's pumped by professionals.
The problem is that next to the flamboyant opener, everything else sounds like one major disappointment after another. The anti-climactic follower is ʽMy Lady From South Of Detroitʼ, a very generic country waltz that's neither too sentimental nor too humorous; and the follow-up to that is Leiber & Stoller's ʽBrother Billʼ, done in a fun, but way too slow manner (for a twice-as-fun version, check out Eric Burdon's passionate reading on the 1977 Animals reunion album); and the follow-up to that is Bo Diddley's ʽYou Can't Judge A Book By The Coverʼ, where, actually, the point is that they do it slow, slow, slow, expanding it to six and a half minutes of your time, much of which is wasted on predictable repetition. The other point is that sometimes they also show you how they respect contrast — launching into brief fiery sections of distortion madness, only to slow down to an acoustic bluesy crawl 15 seconds later. Aaargh.
On the second side, there is one more ultra-slow blues (ʽNo Need To Worryʼ, which is like their answer to ʽI Can't Quit You Babyʼ, but they don't know how to make this thing interesting) and an additional bunch of semi-originals that are either semi-stolen (ʽFeel So Goodʼ lifts its verse melody from Steve Winwood's ʽI'm A Manʼ) or would be semi-stolen (I think Lynyrd Skynyrd's ʽI Ain't The Oneʼ may have at least been influenced by ʽLet Me Swimʼ — although probably they should just both be traced to a third party. Damn those three-for-a-penny chord progressions). They are at their best when they just lay down all pretense and boogie — ʽOleoʼ, with a nice barroom chug and a good bass solo from Bogert, is probably the best track on the second side. Oh, did I mention yet that ʽFeel So Goodʼ has a lengthy drum solo? Not that you wouldn't guess if I didn't. An album like this can't do without a drum solo.
One thing I will say for these guys — when they are at their best (which is not too frequent), they do lay down a thick, brawny, scruffy, rambunctious sound that is not very easy to come by (although they did have plenty of competition from Slade on the other side of the Atlantic). You'd have it either too «artsy» and experimental, like with Led Zep or even Deep Purple; or you'd have it much too serious, like Grand Funk Railroad. These guys are just perfect for a small evening adventure with a six-pack.