CANNED HEAT: ONE MORE RIVER TO CROSS (1973)
1) One More River To Cross; 2) L. A. Town; 3) I Need Someone; 4) Bagful Of Boogie; 5) I'm A Hog For You, Baby; 6) You Are What You Am; 7) Shake, Rattle And Roll; 8) Bright Times Are Comin'; 9) Highway 401; 10) We Remember Fats.
A marginal improvement here, but one that probably came too late: this was Canned Heat's one and only album recorded for Atlantic, before the industry people took a good look at the awful state in which the band had put itself with too many drugs and way too much personal discord and disarray for such a quintessential peace-and-love outfit, and dissolved the contract in horror. But they did have enough time to produce this record, for which purpose they moved from California to Alabama and were rewarded with some precious studio time at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio — sure enough, with the Muscle Shoal Horns for comfort and assistance.
The shift in sound is immediately obvious: instead of sounding like a third-rate clone of The Band, the title track makes them sound like a B-grade contemporary R&B outfit, with a strong, assured groove, uplifting brass fanfare, and focused piano and guitar parts that almost seem to be suggesting, in the wake of the New Age disaster, that we have cleaned up our act, toughened our defenses, and ready to make a brand new start here at Atlantic. So the country-rock sound didn't work out — well, life is not always a rose garden, but now, with the generous support of our friends in the R&B business, here we are now, in the passenger seat of The Soul Train (sorry we couldn't afford 1st class, though), making a hot, sweaty dance number out of this Daniel Moore song. Hey, life is good if you really really make yourself believe in it!
On the whole, the record still retains the laid back, lazy-friendly atmosphere of The New Age: the only time it goes for something a lil' more snappy is on James Shane's ʽYou Am What You Amʼ (yes, a good eight years before Zappa's You Are What You Is — an earlier chapter of the miserable adventures of the verb ʽto beʼ in popular music) — a mid-tempo funk rocker with echoes of Funkadelic, with perfect coordination between bass, drums, guitar, piano, and horns, and I mean it: I have no idea if all the resident band members are actually involved in the groove, but it totally gets you going. Four minutes of total precision and friendly aggression, and although you can still sense a bit of stiffness compared to how any true giants of funk would have done it, I am still honestly amazed at how well they managed to pull it off, given that Canned Heat and funk music seemed to be incompatible entities all that time, due to their preference for Hooker-style boogie and rigid Chicago blues.
Most of the other tracks are merely okay, saved by an honorable level of diversity (slow soulful blues on ʽI Need Someoneʼ, a revisiting of rockabilly on ʽShake, Rattle And Rollʼ, a fast-tempo boogie with hysterical electric guitar soloing on ʽHighway 401ʼ) and a higher level of energy than last time around, although it is still quite a shame to see Henry Vestine, once a beacon of hope for Canned Heat's average instrumental powers, now largely reduced to the part of a bit player — I guess the drug issue affected him as much as everybody else. Still, it all goes smooth enough until they get to the last track, which is where the Shitwave of Cheap Embarrassment finally reaches the shore: ʽWe Remember Fatsʼ is a stupid-beyond-belief medley of most of the major hits of Fats Domino, one verse or so at a time, lumped in a five-minute cornball with the intended (actually, explicitly stated in the intro) goal of making all the fans of Chuck Berry and Little Richard remember Fats Domino as well.
I mean, you'd think, from that introduction, or that title, or the "goodbye fat man..." outro at the end, that Fats were dead or something — when, in fact, he is still alive and kicking well into 2016 (well, not sure about kicking, but still, he's in a better state, I guess, than most of the original members of Canned Heat, and that says a lot). Nor does it make that much sense to say he was not remembered by anybody outside of Canned Heat or the Muscle Shoal Studios in 1973; and to actually think that somebody's effective introduction to the sound of Fats Domino could be via a five-minute medley by a barely functional, minimally popular Canned Heat would be sort of preposterous. So, blame it on substance abuse and that annoying «educationalist» mentality that often accompanies B-level bands who think that if they cannot be geniuses, they can at least stake their claim as schoolteachers.
Still, at least the revitalized sound of the band on the title track and their totally unexpected mastery of the funk idiom on ʽYou Am What I Amʼ could perhaps have pointed out a way to a better future — if only they'd succeeded in overcoming their problems, getting their heads properly re-screwed on their shoulders, and concentrating on all their primary strengths. Unfortunately, adaptation to new rules of life past the Flower Power age proved impossible in the end; after a failed attempt to produce a second album for Atlantic, they found themselves without a record contract, and then, after one particularly scandalous gig in 1974, where The Bear is said to have gone crazy on the crowd — without half of the band's members. Accordingly, 1974-75 should have been the end of the road for Canned Heat; surprisingly, it was only one more catastrophe over the course of a long, strange, endless journey, so read on.