Jim Seals & Dash Crofts

Get to Know… Seals & Crofts

Jim Seals & Dash Crofts

There was once a time when the term “soft rock” wasn’t used as a pejorative, but that was long before I started listening to music. These days it’s just lazy music critic/fan shorthand for “boring” or “bland.” Seals & Crofts often gets trotted out as one of the textbook examples of the bad kind of soft rock, and in all honesty it’s not entirely undeserved. But for a time in the 1970s, they were among the finest purveyors of pop music in America — regardless of label.

If any act from the era deserves to have their legacy re-evaluated, it’s the duo of Jim Seals and Dash Crofts. So that’s what this edition of “Get to Know…” will set out to do. I hope by the end you’ll agree with me that just because music is soft doesn’t mean it’s not good.

(Previous editions of this series covered Genesis, Vince Guaraldi, and David Lee Roth.)

Seals and Crofts (1969) album cover

Seals and Crofts, 1969 (buy)

Seals & Crofts’ self-title debut sounds very much at home with contemporaries like Crosby, Stills & Nash and (a few years later) America. This set of “wandering troubadour music” features some punchy production, and their distinct duo of countrified mandolin and acoustic guitar.

The group reaches a little too far in places — the horn arrangements in “Sea of Consciousness” are a bit much, but the intertwining dual vocals are already beautifully formed. Some of the lyrics are too flowery for their own good, such as on “Earth” (“Give me a castle in the sun / where rainbows have ends and the people are one” ), but I suppose at least of this can be attributed to the duo’s burgeoning involvement in the Bahá’í Faith.

A few missteps aside (the album grinds to a halt with the gloopy “Birthday of My Thoughts”), this is a fine debut LP. The music is in turns propulsive and delicate, and there is no doubt that this duo has had years of experience leading up to the release.  “In Tune” in particular zips along quite nicely.

Seals and Crofts - Down Home album cover

Down Home, 1970 (buy)

For their sophomore effort, Seals & Crofts threw a little grit into the mix. The result is an album that’s still highly melodic — and definitely still rooted in country and folk — but has a little more bite and harmonic complexity. Songs like “Purple Hand” and the haunting “Hollow Reed” feel a little more complete and fully-formed than similar ones on the duo’s debut.

The roots rock sound on portions of Down Home is at least partially attributable to producer John Simon, who produced the first two albums from The Band. Tracks such as “Tin Town” and “Leave” clearly bear the imprint of The Band, albeit in a more laid back way. Because hey, this is Seals & Crofts we’re talking about.

Although neither of the group’s first two albums lit up the charts, they were gaining some traction. They had earned enough of a following by now to attract the interest of Warner Bros. Records, which signed them in early 1971. With a growing fan base and backing from a major label, Seals & Crofts were poised for a commercial breakthrough.

Seals and Crofts - Year of Sunday album cover

Year of Sunday, 1971 (buy)

Unfortunately, this wasn’t it.

For the group’s Warner debut, bassist and longtime collaborator Louie Shelton moved into the producer’s chair and the results are striking. The uptempo numbers are more vibrant — album opener “When I Meet Them” is fantastic — and the gentler songs still make enough of an impact to avoid floating away into nothing (“Antoinette”). The songwriting is also more consistent and nuanced, with none of the clumsiness that popped up on the first two releases.

Year of Sunday had the makings of a commercially successful album, minus one important thing — a great single. Oh the material is strong (even though the overtly religious and spiritual lyrics seem heavy-handed now), but there are no irresistible hooks or catchy choruses — although “Sudan Village” comes close. So it’s not entirely surprising that the record peaked at #133 on the Billboard album chart. Luckily this happened in the days when record companies didn’t bail on acts at the first sign of trouble.

Seals and Crofts - Summer Breeze album cover

Summer Breeze, 1972 (buy)

And it’s a good thing Warner didn’t. Seals & Crofts earned a spot opening for Chicago in the summer of ’72, and the exposure they gained had at least something to do with the massive success of Summer Breeze (released that August). But more than that, they simply picked the perfect time to issue their best album.

There’s a reason why this was the first — and for a time the only — S&C studio album to be issued on CD. It’s the perfect marriage of the duo’s fully-developed artistic and spiritual sides with their new-found pop songwriting skills. The arrangements are tight and the performances are dead on, but the album never feels anything but organic and loose.

The gorgeous “Hummingbird” opens the album, and really is a perfect piece of songwriting in my estimation. The rest of the album explores familiar styles for the pair but has a laser focus that previous records lacked. The medieval-style balladry (“Funny Little Man” and “East of Ginger Trees”) is delivered with less of an affectation, while the more rock-oriented songs (“Say” and “Yellow Dirt”) show that this is not music for wimps.

And of course, not much needs to be said for the classic title track. It hit #6 in 1972, the highest chart position they would attain. The album spent 100 weeks on the album charts and went gold, and deservedly so.

Seals and Crofts - Diamond Girl album cover

Diamond Girl, 1973 (buy)

The breakthrough of Summer Breeze set the stage for even more commercial success, and they Seals & Crofts disappoint. The jazz-influenced title track hit #6, duplicating the peak of “Summer Breeze.” Personally, I prefer the less-polished, more organic sound on Summer Breeze, but I can certainly understand why Diamond Girl hit it big.

Other than the sure-fire hit single “Diamond Girl,” “We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” is the other great song from the record and it barely missed cracking the Top 20.

Diamond Girl cemented the move toward a band-oriented approach, which Seals and Crofts would later come to lament. Although the duo was clearly still the focus of the music, they were now part of a much bigger machine.

Seals and Crofts - Unborn Child album cover

Unborn Child, 1974 (buy)

Most of the attention for Unborn Child was focused on the title track, a fiercely pro-life number written in the wake of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. And with lines like, “Oh unborn child / if you only knew just what your momma was plannin’ to do / You’re still a-clingin’ to the tree of life / but soon you’ll be cut off before you get ripe,” it’s hard to imagine how the band could not alienate some people.  Not surprisingly, although the album reached #14 it didn’t sell as well as the previous few albums and yielded no hit singles.

Production-wise, Unborn Child is lush and a bit dense compared to its predecessors. The whole thing is nearly crushed beneath layers of orchestration in places, especially the front half. Of all the albums Seals & Crofts had released to date, this sounds the most firmly rooted in the stereotypical ’70s soft rock sound. Not that the group had a ton of crunch to begin with, but this is a little too polished.

Still, there are highlights. “Dance by the Light of the Moon” is a deftly composed pop/country tune with a little fire and some neat steel pedal guitar in the chorus, while “King of Nothing” — the second and last single from the album — and “Ledges”  are breezy and catchy enough to overcome stuffy production. Album closer “Big Mac” is surprisingly energetic and sounds like it belongs on a different album.

The true gem of Unborn Child, for me at least, is “Follow Me,” a stunningly beautiful, melancholy, and clutter-free number that takes its place among the duo’s best material.

Seals and Crofts - I'll Play For You album cover

I’ll Play for You, 1975 (buy)

Perhaps as a reaction to the backlash against Unborn Child, the subject matter of I’ll Play for You is decidedly neutral. The title track, with benign lyrics like, “Hear the band, hear the band / Won’t you let the music take you, hear the band, did manage to hit #18 on the Billboard singles chart. It was the group’s highest showing since “Diamond Girl” in 1973.

Musically, I’ll Play for You is uniformly stronger than Unborn Child, even if the duo had started to take a more formulaic approach. “I’ll Play for You,” replete with a string section and some Dixieland jazz flourishes, features a strong main melody and excellent vocal harmonies. The slightly dour and sparse “Golden Rainbow” features some nimble guitar work, while the soaring choruses on “Castles in the Sand” help make it one of my all-time favorite S&C tunes.

Other tracks of note include “Blue Bonnet Nation” — a peppy, electric song that is surprisingly rocking — and “Freaks Fret,” a smooth instrumental workout that recalls the arrangement on “Funny Little Man” from the Summer Breeze album. Unfortunately there are some vanilla-flavored duds as well — “Ugly City” and “Truth About a Woman” could’ve been released by any number of contemporary soft rock acts of the day, which is to say that they’re competent but totally uninspired. The final song, “Fire and Vengeance,” sounds like it was stolen right out of Chicago’s mid-’70s songbook. I can’t decide if that’s a good thing.

Seals and Crofts - Get Closer album cover

Get Closer, 1976 (buy)

It’s almost impossible for me to listen to the opening track on this record, “Sweet Green Fields,” without hearing Busta Rhymes’ 1998 hit “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See.” The latter samples the memorable bass line from the former’s verses, and to great effect. As it stands, “Sweet Green Fields” is an excellent tune — a great mixture of sweetness and grit, and opens Get Closer in style.

Then there’s the title track, the duo’s last U.S. Top 10 single. It’s a beauty for sure, and some lovely background vocals by Honey Cone’s Carolyn Willis really sweeten the deal. It’s fully produced yet surprisingly uncluttered.

The remainder of Get Closer is a bit inconsistent. “Red Long Ago” features excellent vocal harmonies and a fairly epic arrangement — for Seals & Crofts that is — but there are too many pretty but ultimately inconsequential soft rock ditties like “Goodbye Old Buddies,” “Million Dollar Horse,” and “Baby Blue” to recommend this LP to anyone but fans. That said, the final song here — “Passing Thing” — is a real gem and effectively hearkens back to the best moments from Summer Breeze.

If you’re into soft rock then you can’t necessarily go wrong with this album – but even as a S&C apologist I recognize that there’s not a great deal aside from its three best songs to make it stand apart.

Seals and Crofts - Sudan Village album cover

Sudan Village, 1976 (buy)

Live albums tend to fall into one of two categories: essential or inconsequential. Sudan Village, as it happens, sits somewhere in the middle. What it offers are much beefier, slicker takes on cuts from Year of Sunday and Summer Breeze on the one hand and seemingly out-of-left-field originals on the other. As for the older songs, “Sudan Village” opens the album and is the best of the bunch, with “East of Ginger Trees” a close second.

Then there are the new songs, or at least older songs that debuted on this record. “Baby I’ll Give It to You” features the return of Carolyn Willis on vocals and is so slick and mid-’70s contemporary you’d swear it was a Bee Gees B-side. Same goes for “Put Your Love in My Hands,” although it more closely resembles Chicago’s more commercial output.

The centerpiece of Sudan Village is the nine-and-a-half-minute instrumental jam “Thunderfoot,” which opens the second side of the LP. It’s a simmering, funky workout that is really quite good but feels utterly out of place on a Seals & Crofts album. It really sounds more like the kind of music bands like the Crusaders were pumping out around this time, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The final two songs are the only ones that truly sound like they were performed in front of an audience, although I have a hard time telling the difference between them. Break out your overalls and moonshine, because it’s time for hoedowns and hootenannies — “Arkansas Traveller” and “Eighth of January”! Yee-haw! They’re certainly fun, albeit an odd way to end the album. I guess you had to be there.

Note: Seals & Crofts provided vocals for the soundtrack to the 1977 basketball drama One on One, but did not write any of the words or music. It’s got the trademark S&C vocal harmonies and it’s worth listening to, but for the purposes of this overview I’m not going into detail on it.

Seals and Crofts - Takin' It Easy

Takin’ It Easy, 1978 (buy)

This is the crucial departure point for Seals & Crofts, and I can totally tell that they were feeling burned out around this time. Very little of the duo’s original identity is intact on Takin’ It Easy. That’s not to say this is a bad album, it’s just not really a S&C album. The pair only wrote one song on the first half of the album (“Midnight Blue”), and it is the least memorable track on it.

The rest of Side A is a mish-mash of sounds. The title track sounds like an Eagles B-side from Hotel California, but it is pretty strong. “One More Time” starts off promisingly with some very lush, early ’70s-era Beach Boys vocals but then devolves into a sappy and dated pop track. The hit single from the record, “You’re the Love,” is a decent piece of disco pop co-written by longtime producer Louie Shelton.

Even on the songs the pair wrote themselves, I get a definite “going through the motions” vibe. It all sounds very professional and competent, mind you, and even I can’t resist tapping my foot to “Breaking In a Brand New Love,” but it just feels all wrong. I mean, they actually pulled the “Moon/June” rhyming card.

This is music that dozens of other bands were producing in the late ’70s, and it lacks any of the group’s unique style — save for the closing track, “A Tribute to Abdu’l-Bahá.” The fact that Takin’ It Easy peaked at #78 is really no surprise at all.

Seals and Crofts - The Longest Road album cover

The Longest Road, 1980 (buy)

The first clue that something is amiss here is that Dash Crofts received zero writing credits on this album. Most of the songs were co-written by Jim Seals and Brian Whitcomb, who I know nothing about. In any case, the Seals & Crofts “identity” that I said was missing on Takin’ It Easy is just as MIA on The Longest Road.

The opening cut, “Stars,” is a late-period Steely Dan song for people who hate Steely Dan. It even features its own pair of crack jazz musicians, Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke.

I can’t say for certain that Crofts had checked out by the time this was recorded, but I’m going to assume so. His loss doesn’t result in bad music, just bland music that sounds hopelessly tied to the era. A line from “If and Any Day” puts it best — although even then it was written not by Seals or Crofts but by Michael Sembello and Marietta Waters — “Tell me how did I lose my way? / Isn’t there a door that leads to yesterday?”

The album didn’t chart at all, and the “First Love” single barely cracked the Top 40. If Takin’ It Easy hinted that the duo of Jim Seals and Dash Crofts might finally be a spent creative force, The Longest Road confirmed it. Warner Bros. dropped the pair from the label, and other than some subsequent appearances at Bahá’í gatherings, a brief reunion tour in the early ’90s, and a Dash Crofts 1998 solo record, they pretty much walked away from the music business altogether.

Seals and Crofts - Traces album cover

Traces, 2004 (buy)

So what to make of Traces, the first proper Seals & Crofts studio record in almost 25 years? Well firstly, there is very little in the way of new material here. Most of the record’s 10 tracks are re-recordings of old songs, with only three that had never appeared on a Seals & Crofts album before. Well on the plus side, the harmonies still sound sweet nearly a quarter century after the fact. And they don’t stray too far from the original arrangements, so there are no nasty surprises in store.

Of the two totally new songs, “Change the Copper Into Gold” is an effectively low-key number with a modern, synthesized bed, while the more upbeat and catchy “Paint You” wouldn’t sound out of place on a station specializing in modern adult contemporary. Neither is iconic in any way, but they’re not bad either.

It seems fairly likely at this point (June 2012) that Traces will be the final album from Seals & Crofts, and truth be told, that’s OK. It helps to wash out some of the bad taste from The Longest Road, and provides a little bit of musical closure. They even get their children involved, as Juliet Seals and Amelia Crofts handle some vocals. So all in all, not a bad way to cap off a mostly excellent career.

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David Lee Roth, Eat 'Em and Smile

Get to Know… David Lee Roth

Get to Know... David Lee Roth

For a brief time following David Lee Roth‘s acrimonious departure from Van Halen in 1985, it seemed the flamboyant frontman would be able to match his former band mates step for step. But as the 1990s rolled on, Roth’s commercial fortunes declined and he became a punchline of sorts. Quicker than you could say “bozedy bozedy bop!” Diamond Dave went from headlining arena shows to rolling out a much-ridiculed Las Vegas lounge act and getting busted for buying pot in New York City. And the less said about the short-lived 1996 Van Halen reunion the better.

But defying all expectations, David Lee Roth officially came home to VH in 2007. The band — with Eddie’s son Wolfgang replacing Michael Anthony on bass — hit the road in September of that year and raked in an astounding $93 million by the time their North American jaunt ended in July 2008. After lengthy break, Van Halen Mark 4(?) has just released A Different Kind of Truth to overwhelmingly positive reviews. A lengthy tour is slated to kick off this weekend, and is scheduled to run through the end of June.

So all’s well that ends well for Diamond Dave, right? I suppose so. But lost in all the Van Halen hype is the fact that in the years between his time in the band, Roth managed to put out some pretty good music. So let’s get to know David Lee Roth, shall we?

Crazy from the Heat (1985)

David Lee Roth, Crazy from the HeatWhile Dave was still officially in Van Halen when this four-song EP was released in January 1985, the 1984 tour had already finished and he was on his way out the door. Many have argued that Crazy from the Heat, and the success it brought Roth, helped to hasten his exit. Roth scored two Top 20 Billboard singles from this record, “California Girls” and “Just a Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody,” both of which were also promoted a pair of the most memorable videos MTV ever aired.

They also happen to be the two best songs on the EP, although Dave’s take on “Easy Street” (originally released by the Edgar Winter Group in 1974) is even brassier and bolder than the original. I do also dig his appropriately languid cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Coconut Grove,” one of that band’s better songs.

More than anything else having to do with music, Crazy from the Heat was a statement record. Dave was clearly attempting to test the waters as a solo artist, and found them pretty inviting. And while Eddie wanted Van Halen to become a more mature, respectable rock band, Dave just wanted to party. It’s hard to blame him — it was the ’80s after all. Unfortunately, this EP and its accompanying videos also provided Dave’s detractors with further “evidence” that he was too much of a clown to be taken seriously.

But c’mon, listen to this record. Does Dave sound like he even wants to be taken seriously?

Eat ‘Em and Smile (1986)

David Lee Roth, Eat 'Em and SmileRoth was smart enough to realize that a full album of lounge-ified covers would do little to keep the momentum of his new solo career going, so he did what any sensible person in his place would — he recruited the best musicians he could find to compete directly with his old band. I’ll leave it to others to continue the 5150 vs. Eat ‘Em and Smile debate, but will simply say that I can’t see how Dave could’ve released a better hard rock record.

First off, let’s talk about the band. Super groups are a risk proposition. All the talent in the world don’t mean shit if there’s no band chemistry. Fortunately for Dave, the mixture of Steve Vai (guitars), Billy Sheehan (bass), and Gregg Bissonette (drums) gelled quite nicely. In retrospect it was too good to last, but it appeared that Roth had struck lightning a second time.

Everything about this album is larger than life, and it all starts with one the truly great songs from the DLR catalog — “Yankee Rose.” You’d swear this quartet had been playing together for a decade.

There are fireworks to spare on Eat ‘Em and Smile. Vai, Sheehan, and Bissonette hold a virtuoso clinic on scorchers like “Shy Boy” and “Elephant Gun,” while slower tunes like “Ladies’ Nite in Buffalo?” and “Big Trouble” still pack plenty of punch. But of course this is a Dave album after all, so the presence of electrified lounge tunes like “I’m Easy” and “That’s Life” should come as no surprise.

Skyscraper (1988)

David Lee Roth - SkyscraperIf you believed the talk that Roth left Van Halen because he hated keyboards and more sophisticated production, Skyscraper must have been quite a shock. There is a noticeable layer of high-gloss sheen applied to the entire record, which is still tons of fun but trades some amount of raw, visceral thunder for pop-rock lightning.

Nowhere is this more evident than on “Just Like Paradise,” a collaboration between Roth and keyboardist Brett Tuggle. I love the song, but the fact that it was reportedly considered as the theme song to Beverly Hills 90210 should tell you all you need to know about its sound. Elsewhere, high octane tracks like “The Bottom Line,” “Hot Dog and a Shake,” “Perfect Timing,” and “Two Fools a Minute” mimic the style of Eat ‘Em and Smile even though they are more poppish when run through the Skyscraper filter.

This album sounds very much like a Roth/Vai effort, with Sheehan pushed to the margins to an extent. The two did co-produce in place of Ted Templeman. I can hardly blame Sheehan for bolting the Roth camp for Mr. Big before the Skyscraper tour got underway.

But let’s not think for a minute that this album is simply a lesser version of Dave’s first album. Two of the album’s best songs show definite signs of growth. The title track is a propulsive, almost proggish number that hints at the kind of engrossing, substantial music Roth and Vai could have kept making together. It’s followed up by “Damn Good,” a shockingly sentimental and subdued acoustic number that sure sounds like a wistful look back at Dave’s time in Van Halen. That’s how I read it anyway.

A Little Ain’t Enough (1991)

David Lee Roth - A Little Ain't EnoughFans couldn’t have known at the time, but David Lee Roth’s brand of music — call it hair metal, cock rock, pop metal, or whatever you want — was about to became an endangered species as the 1990s dawned. But to his credit, he came out swinging on what was to be his last hurrah as a commercially viable artist.

He did so without Steve Vai, who left after the Skyscraper tour. Roth, with ever a keen eye for talent, hired 20-year-old guitar phenom Jason Becker to take his place. With Becker on board and producer Bob Rock manning the controls, Roth set about recording a less fussy, more blues-influenced collection of hard rock tunes.

From a purely artistic standpoint, A Little Ain’t Enough doesn’t hit as many highs as Roth’s earlier albums but is more consistent and effective than Skyscraper. Partial credit goes to Rock, who was fresh off the success of Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood album and was in the process of producing Metallica’s self-titled juggernaut album. A Little Ain’t Enough packs a solid punch, even when the songs don’t click. And when you get a winner like the opener, “A Lil’ Ain’t Enough,” the results are great (even if the video is laughably cheesy even by Dave standards).

If you bailed on Dave around Skyscraper or never gave him a shot in the first place, I highly recommend this record. There are rock-solid burners like “Hammerhead Shark” and “Baby’s on Fire” to go with Halen-esque material like “It’s Showtime!”, one of Becker’s finest moments on the album.

Sadly, as good as A Little Ain’t Enough is it had two things working against it, neither of which were in Dave’s control. As mentioned earlier, the so-called Grunge scene (man how I hate that term) was poised to lay an extinction-level event on this type of music. While Van Halen made it through relatively unscathed, few other acts of the era did. While the album did barely miss Platinum certification in the U.S., it was the end of Dave as an arena act and a big seller.

Secondly and most tragically, Jason Becker was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) during the recording sessions. He was unable to join the band on the supporting tour and was replaced by Joe Holmes. Although Becker was given three to five years to live, he is still alive and composes music with the aid of a special computer.

Your Filthy Little Mouth (1994)

David Lee Roth - Your Filthy Little MouthExit Hammy Showman Dave, enter Complex Singer-Songwriter Dave? Well, not quite. But it’s safe to say that with the assistance of producer Nile Rodgers, Dave made an honest attempt to stretch his creative vision further than he ever had before. So while Your Filthy Little Mouth is by no means Roth’s best album or even his most consistent one, it is his most interesting album.

The album starts with a trio of solid but standard DLR rockers — “She’s My Machine,” Everybody’s Got the Monkey,” and “Big Train.” They’re all good and capably performed, but without a true guitar virtuoso like Vai or Becker to take them over the top, they lack a certain something. Perhaps feeling gun shy by this point, Roth called in old buddy Terry Kilgore (a cohort from his pre-Van Halen days) to handle guitar duties. He turns in a credible, workmanlike performance, but that’s about all I can say.

Had the rest of Your Filthy Little Mouth played out like the first three songs, it would have been a decent but ultimately forgettable record. But Dave mixes it up on the rest of the album with a batch of tunes that will either titillate or turn off, depending on your outlook. One song that does it for me is “Experience,” a slow-burning, bluesy tune where Kilgore does shine and that contains some of Dave’s best lyrics ever (“‘Till I finally made it, life was kind of hit or miss / and after I made it, life was ‘take a hit of this’ / and I’d love to talk philosophy, but I gotta take a piss / man, that philosophy runs right through ya.”)

From there, there’s a rather weak stretch of four songs. The brass-laden “A Little Luck” is peppy and fun enough, but I can see why longtime fans scoffed. Then there’s “Cheatin’ Heart Cafe,” an ill-conceived stab at contemporary country, right down to the shared lead vocals with Travis Tritt (who, by the way, sounds so much like Dave that it’s hard to tell the two apart). “Hey, You Never Know” is an improvement and has more killer Roth lyrics, but is almost toothless. And finally we have “No Big ‘Ting,” which attempts to merge pop and reggae but is better on paper than on record.

The album is redeemed on the last two new tracks — a strong cover of Willie Nelson’s subdued “Night Life” and “Sunburn,” a dusky, slinky tune that’s easily the best Roth/Kilgore composition on Your Filthy Little Mouth.

DLR Band (1998)

David Lee Roth - DLR BandWhile it took four years for Dave to release the followup to YFLM, he kept himself pretty busy in the meantime. He recorded two new songs with Van Halen for their 1996 greatest hits compilation, seemed to have rejoined the band, and then found himself on the outs once again. He released an autobiography and a compilation record (with one new song) in 1997.

Having read Dave’s book, I know that he was pretty pissed over the whole reunion debacle. He took his anger out on Eddie in words, and on DLR Band he gunned for Van Halen musically. With his best backing band in years in tow (featuring guitarist John Lowery, aka John 5, and drummer Ray Luzier) Roth not only answered Van Halen III but outdid it in most respects. “Slam Dunk!” is an absolutely smoking track, as are “Counter-Blast,” “King of the Hill,” and “Relentless.”

There are shades of YFLM as well, especially on the tracks co-written by Terry Kilgore (“Going Places…,” “Right Tool for the Job,” and “Tight”), but they work better on this record as changes of pace. The fourth Roth/Kilgore song, “Black Sand,” is the best song I’ve heard from the pair and is a great album closer. Overall, DLR Band is a strong album and reinforced my belief that Van Halen blew it by not bringing Dave back on full-time.

Diamond Dave (2003)

David Lee Roth - Diamond DaveAnd now we come full circle on Diamond Dave’s solo career – with a covers album. Well, mostly covers. Released the year after Roth’s stranger-than-fiction co-headlining tour with Sammy Hagar, Diamond Dave seems like a pointless vanity project at first. The thing is, it’s really good for what it is.

Boasting a lineup of Roth’s past collaborators (Nile Rodgers, Ray Luzier, Gregg Bissonette, and Brett Tuggle) and a few ringers (drummer Omar Hakim and Edgar Winter on sax), Diamond Dave is in turns bluesy, laid back, rocking, and just plain odd. Although Roth’s voice is clearly not what it used to be, he wisely sticks to songs that highlight his abilities rather than strain them. “Stay While the Night Is Young,” in particular, is a highlight.

There is no attempt at a career reinvention on Diamond Dave, nor is this a desperate stab for relevance — that’s kind of out of the question at this point anyway, Van Halen reunion notwithstanding. This album sounds and feels like a labor of love all the way. It makes for a really fun listen, which is pretty much what Dave has always been about.

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Get to Know… Genesis – Pt. 1

With the recent news of Phil Collins’ retirement from music, I thought it would be a good time to run this two-part Genesis overview again (originally published on March 10, 2008). I think a proper assessment of Phil’s whole career will reveal that he was an important figure in 20th century popular music, and all the cheesy Disney soundtracks in the world can’t take away the great work he did.

Since one of my favorite things in the whole world is telling people about music I love, I’m starting a series of overview articles dedicated to some of my favorite bands. Similar guides abound on the Internet, and two sites in particular that produce excellent ones are Popdose and the AV Club. The first entry in the series I’ve dubbed “Get to Know…” is for Genesis.

Depending on your age, you either remember them as the band with the bald lead singer and goofy ’80s videos or the really weird lead singer with all the costumes. Of course both of these are gross oversimplifications, as over the course of forty years and fifteen studio albums Genesis staked out an impressive claim — first as one of the giants of progressive rock in the ’70s (along with Yes, King Crimson, ELP and others) and then as one of the most commercially successful acts of the ’80s and early ’90s.

A recent reunion tour featuring the longest-lived incarnation of the band (Phil Collins, Tony Banks, and Mike Rutherford) wrapped up late last year, so I figure now is as good a time as any to take a long view of Genesis, for those both familiar with and new to the group.

From Genesis to Revelation album cover

From Genesis to Revelation, 1969 (buy)

The debut effort from Genesis was released just two years after the group’s formation at an English boarding school. The album features the lineup of Peter Gabriel (vocals), Tony Banks (keyboard/piano), Anthony Phillips (guitar), Mike Rutherford (bass and guitar), and John Silver (replacing original drummer Chris Stewart, who appeared on one song).

From Genesis to Revelation is certainly enjoyable, if not very original or daring. It is full of compositions clearly indebted to early Bee Gees (such as “The Silent Sun”), and also lacks the panache and musical dexterity of later albums. Still, not bad for a debut from a bunch of teenagers with no professional experience. Note: this album has been repackaged numerous times with different covers and track listings, largely because the rights are still owned by original producer/manager Jonathan King.

Trespass (1970) album cover
Trespass, 1970 (buy)

This is where the Genesis sound really begins to take shape, although it’s not quite there yet. The song structures are much more fleshed out, and the somewhat poppy sensibilities of the debut are mostly discarded in favor of grander musical statements. This new formula works to great effect on some songs (the gorgeous “Dusk” and the bold “Visions of Angels”), but viewed in comparison to what was just around the corner, Trespass lacks quite a bit. The standout here is the closing number, “The Knife”, a scorcher that became a staple of the band’s live shows.

Just as Trespass‘s songs marked the musical transition of the band, so to did the credits. John Silver was replaced on drums for this album by the overmatched John Mayhew, who himself wouldn’t last long. Following the album’s release co-founder Anthony Phillips also departed, a blow that almost put an end to Genesis before things had really gotten started.

Nursery Cryme (1971) album cover
Nursery Cryme, 1971 (buy)

With the additions of guitarist Steve Hackett and drummer/vocalist Phil Collins in 1970, Genesis at last boasted a lineup of musicians fully capable of executing their ambitious musical vision. They wasted no time in proving it, as album opener “The Musical Box” fused offbeat humor, delicacy, and power in a ten-minute-plus prog rock classic.

The end result is a more consistent and satisfying record than either of the first two. This is also due in part to Gabriel’s increasingly assured vocals and more cohesive — though no less fanciful — lyrics. The group also benefits from the skills of Collins — one of the finest drummers of the decade — and Hackett, whose meek onstage persona did not match the fire of his recorded performances. Check out “The Return of the Giant Hogweed,” another fine example of the power of this lineup.

Foxtrot (1972) album cover
Foxtrot, 1972 (buy)

With their lineup finally solidified (for the time being at least), Genesis expanded on the sounds explored on Nursery Cryme and did so to astonishing effect. The opener, “Watcher of the Skies,” announces itself with Banks’ booming Mellotron and develops into a captivating sci-fi story in 6/4 time. It is still a fan favorite.

Foxtrot not only showcases the band’s musical growth, but Gabriel’s increasingly cohesive and enjoyable lyrics. The highlight for me is “Get ‘Em Out by Friday”, a humorous sci-fi tale about greedy property owners of the future who force people into smaller and smaller apartments (“flats” if you will), with the ultimate goal of reducing human height in order to fit more rent-paying customers into their buildings. Elsewhere, the band does their best Yes impression on the grand “Can-Utility and the Coastliners”.

All of this sets the stage for “Supper’s Ready”, one of the crown jewels of progressive rock. Composed of seven sections and clocking in at just under 23 minutes, this is not a song for the faint of heart (nor the short of attention span). Of course, any song featuring sections entitled “Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men” and “Apocalypse in 9/8 (Co-Starring the Delicious Talents of Gabble Ratchet)” is likely to be a bit on the complex side. Had the group attempted a suite of this magnitude just a year or two earlier it would likely have been crushed by its own ambition. But coming when it did, it is a perfect summation of just how much the band had grown in terms of both their compositional and performing acumen.

Selling England By the Pound (1973) album cover
Selling England by the Pound, 1973 (buy)

Genesis returned in October 1973 (after the release of a record label-mandated stopgap live album earlier in the year) with Selling England by the Pound, the most resolutely British entry in the band’s catalog. While the album lacks the tension and visceral power of Foxtrot (save for the dynamic “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”, which features an early example of guitar tapping from Hackett), its more moody and reserved nature works to its benefit.

The only real surprise (and a very good one at that) on the album is “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe),” the closest Genesis came to pop songwriting during the Gabriel years (the first album notwithstanding). It’s a rare lighthearted moment on a record that is pretty serious on the whole. Another minor gem is “More Fool Me,” a pretty acoustic number that showcased Phil Collins on lead vocals for just the second time during the Gabriel era.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Firth of Fifth”, which provides a showcase for Tony Banks’ impressive playing and is a prime example of Genesis at the peak of their powers.

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) album cover
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, 1974 (buy)

Every concept album I’ve heard that actually attempts to communicate a narrative falls short in that regard, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is no exception. Luckily it doesn’t matter, because the music is just so damn good. The credit for that goes mostly to Banks, Rutherford, and Collins, who apparently wrote the lion’s share of Lamb‘s music as Peter Gabriel was consumed with tending to his ill wife and working with filmmaker William Friedkin on a film project that never took off.

Despite the fragmented songwriting approach and friction within the band, Lamb is a winner. Musically it consists of one half relatively straightforward (for Genesis) rock songs and one half dark and atmospheric numbers. Which half I prefer depends on my mood, as they are both excellent in their own right. The first-disc hooks are undeniable in songs such as the opening title cut, “Counting Out Time,” and “Carpet Crawlers,” while second-disc numbers like the menacing free-form of “The Waiting Room” and the jittery prog of “The Colony of Slippermen” are some of the band’s most bizarre entries.

With The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Genesis had covered just about every musical area they were capable of under the umbrella of progressive rock, and they did so with style. But given the rising creative tensions within the band, as well as their own volatile lineup history, it was probably only a matter of time before another big change came. And it did come in August 1975 when Gabriel published a letter called “Out, Angels Out”, in which he announced his departure from Genesis.

The rest of this story picks up in Part 2, but first I thought I’d leave you with a video of the group performing “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” in 1973. As this clip demonstrates, a crucial part of the Gabriel-era band’s live show (other than the music) was the theatrics, which they brought in spades.

Get to Know…Vince Guaraldi

Had he never recorded a note for any of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts specials, Vincent Anthony Guaraldi’s legacy as a brilliant composer and pianist would still be secure.  His joyful and supremely melodic style is as immediately recognizable as any in music, and more than thirty years after his death his admirers encompass a wide range of musicians and music lovers; from casual jazz fans to purists, and even to outright jazz haters who proclaim, “I don’t really like jazz, but I love his stuff.”

For this primer of Guaraldi’s recorded output, I’ve categorized his music into three main areas rather than go with a strictly chronological approach.  These categories are not meant to be rigidly applied, but for the novice I think it makes more sense this way.  There’s great music to be found in each area to be sure, so I definitely recommend trying a little bit of each category.  This is by no means a comprehensive discography (although this site is), but rather it highlights his most important/interesting work and is a great place to start if you want to build a Guaraldi collection.

But first, a bit of background…

Early years

Vince GuaraldiBy the early 1950s, Vince Guaraldi (born in San Francisco on July 17, 1928) was already one busy musician.  He played a number of low-profile gigs at weddings and tiny venues before receiving his first big break as the intermission pianist at a place called the Black Hawk.  His main duty?  Filling in for piano legend Art Tatum in between sets.  Yeah, no pressure there.

Eventually Guaraldi’s Bay Area connections brought him into contact with Cal Tjader, a vibraphonist and early proponent of Latin jazz.  It was as a member of Tjader’s new trio that Guaraldi entered the studio in November 1951 and made his recorded debut on The Cal Tjader Trio, released as a 10″ LP on the Fantasy label.   Guaraldi appeared on a number of Tjader releases throughout the decade, and it was during this time that he began to develop his own musical voice.

From about ’53 to ’55 Guaraldi spent most of his time not in the recording studio, but honing his style in venues around the North Beach area.  In 1955 he began to strike out on his own, and formed a trio with guitarist and longtime friend Eddie Duran and bassist Dean Reilly.  The three became a fixture at the hungry i club in San Francisco, and in August  ’55 Guaraldi entered the studio (with different personnel) to record the first album featuring his name – Modern Music From San Francisco.  In truth, however his quartet shared the billing with Ron Crotty and Jerry Dodgion’s groups as well.

Guaraldi’s first recorded sessions as a leader played it pretty safe, but are nonetheless worth checking out.  Toward the end of his recording career he returned to a more conventional post-bop style, but with more interesting arrangements and a much looser vibe.

Straight Jazz

Vince Guaraldi Trio album cover

Vince Guaraldi Trio, 1956

Not yet thirty years old, Guaraldi made his full-length recorded debut as a session leader in 1956.  The trio of Guaraldi, Duran, and Reilly turned in a fairly mild and understated effort featuring standards such as “Chelsea Bridge,” “Django”, and “Fascinating Rhythm”.  Guaraldi contributed just one original, “Fenwyck’s Farfel”.   As debuts go it’s competent and pleasant, although it really only hints at what was to come.

A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing album cover

A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing, 1957

While Guaraldi’s second album with his trio explores similar musical themes as the first, it’s an altogether more cohesive and enjoyable set.  Make no mistake, his intention here is not to get you dancing in the aisles or even doing much more than tapping your feet.  This album showcases the sensitive and introspective side of Guaraldi, who offers one very good original composition with “Like a Mighty Rose.”

Right around the recording of Flower, Guaraldi returned to the Tjader camp for a second stint and it’s there that he spent most of his time during the rest of the ’50s.   What I’ll call Phase 1 of Guaraldi’s career basically continued until the early 1960s.  When he finally returned with an album of his own in 1962, it proved to be the beginning of great things (see the first album in the next section).

The Eclectic Vince Guaraldi, 1969

Ah yes, the Vince Guaraldi freak-out album. Let’s just say that there is some real truth in advertising with this one, but I’m going to defend this album from its many detractors. This is clearly the work of an artist with a lot to say and a willingness to take some real chances. The opening cut, “Nobody Else,” is a wistfully melodic original that seemed to herald a pretty sedate but enjoyable disc. Then comes the nearly seven-minute “Lucifer’s Lady”, as close to psychedelic rock as Guaraldi ever came.

But wait, then there’s “Black Sheep Boy”, a cloying pop number (with string section) that features lead vocals by the man himself. It’s one of two numbers featuring the vocal stylings of Guaraldi, and I like them. Sure he’s not a strong singer in the traditional sense, but there’s an earnestness and sincerity that comes through on these songs and works for me. But I totally get how some are turned off by his singing.

The one track that many seem to bag on is Guaraldi’s cover of the Beatles chestnut, “Yesterday.” Yes it has a string section and is cheesier than a grocery store dairy case, but something about it just scratches me where I itch. I’m a sucker for this type of smooth, AM gold-ish music from time to time and I love this take on Paul McCartney’s most covered song.

Brazilian/Latin Jazz

Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus album cover

Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, 1962

Having already spent considerable time exploring the Latin jazz sound in Cal Tjader’s groups, Guaraldi decided to record an album containing covers originally released on the soundtrack to the 1959 film Orfeu Negro (known to us as Black Orpheus).  That music, composed by Luiz Bonfá & Antonio Carlos Jobim, ultimately helped to usher in the Bossa Nova craze in the United States.  Guaraldi’s by-then unique style meshed perfectly with the lush, sophisticated melodies and rhythms of Bossa Nova, and he finally broke free artistically.

He also broke big commercially when DJs flipped to the B-side of the “Samba de Orpheus” single and started to play a Guaraldi original called “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” The song, alternately wistful and swinging (but otherwise not in the Bossa Nova style at all), is pretty much a perfect encapsulation of prime Guaraldi.  The song became an unexpected hit, leading Fantasy to re-release the album to highlight the song on the cover.  And to cap it off, Guaraldi took home the Grammy for Best Original Jazz Composition in 1963.

Vince Guaraldi - In Person

In Person, 1963

You certainly can’t accuse Fantasy Records of not striking while the iron was hot, which is exactly what they did with In Person.  Recorded in December 1962 at the Trident in Sausalito, California, this rush job of an album is actually a very worthy addition to any fan’s collection.  Despite the less-than-stellar production values (even by early 1960s standards this sounds too tinny), In Person wins due to Guaraldi’s vibrant and melodic playing.  Almost everything here is upbeat (lively bossa nova tunes like “Zelão,” “Outra Vez,” and “Chora Tua Tristeza,” as well as “Jitterbug Waltz” and one Guaraldi original, “Freeway”), which lends Guaraldi’s sedate and gorgeous reading of an old chestnut like “On Green Dolphin Street” even more impact.

The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi

The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi, 1964

Now deep into his Latin phase, Guaraldi took the additional step on this album of adding a string section to five of its nine cuts.  The effect is pleasant, albeit not terribly stirring.  If you listen to nothing else on this record check out the closing number, “Brasilia.” Its beautiful arrangement and chord structure will sound pleasantly familiar to fans of A Charlie Brown Christmas.


As great as Guaraldi’s other work is let’s face it, this is where most converts get their feet wet.  I certainly did.  And that’s OK , because the man was obviously inspired when he composed most of this music, so it’s by no means lesser Vince.

Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, 1964

As the story goes, Lee Mendelson heard “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio and knew that he had found what he needed for the score to an upcoming Peanuts documentary he was producing.  Although the film was never aired, Guaraldi’s soundtrack was released in 1964 and represents the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between him and Charles Schulz.

Many of the songs for the album were written to serve as character introductions (“Charlie Brown Theme”, “Frieda (With the Naturally Curly Hair)”, “Schroeder”), and it’s from this bunch that the timeless classic “Linus and Lucy” was welcomed to the world.  There may not be a more memorable or beloved opening bar in jazz history:

A Charlie Brown Christmas, 1965

What else can be said about A Charlie Brown Christmas?  It has the dual distinction of being one of the defining albums of both jazz and holiday music.  It’s not that Guaraldi’s playing was so much better than on other releases, so why makes this so special?  I can’t say, but I’ll tell you what I love about it.  For the soundtrack to an animated Christmas program, it’s effortlessly sophisticated yet endlessly accessible.

“My Little Drum,” Guaraldi’s twist on “The Little Drummer Boy”, contains that well-known melody but is haunting at the same time.  The combination of his ringing chords and the childrens’ choir gives it and other songs an ethereal quality.  Then there is the unbridled joy of “Linus and Lucy” and “Skating”, the latter of which is the song I hear in my head whenever I see the first snowfall of the winter.

Vince Guaraldi and the Lost Cues from the Charlie Brown Television Specials, 2006

This collection of musical cues really more for either Guaraldi completists or Peanuts aficionados.  The dozen cuts on this album (as well as a second volume released in 2007) were picked by Guaraldi’s son David, who has become the de facto face of the Guaraldi estate, and come from four TV specials from the 1970s: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, There’s No Time for Love, Charlie Brown, You’re a Good Sport, Charlie Brown, and You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown.  Although some songs are quite brief, they paint a good picture of Guaraldi’s music near the end of his life; whimsical, funky, and always impeccably performed. Take, for instance, the instrumental version of “Little Birdie” from Volume 2.


On the afternoon of February 6, 1976 Guaraldi completed work on the soundtrack to his 15th Peanuts TV special, It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown.  That evening he was scheduled for a performance at Butterfield’s in Menlo Park, CA.  While waiting in a motel room in between sets, Vince Guaraldi suffered a heart attack and died at age 47.

It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown aired on March 16 and included the following dedication in the end credits:

“For Vince, whose music will inspire us forever.”

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Get to Know… Genesis – Pt. 2

(Part 1 of my look at Genesis is here.)

And so begins the second part of our exploration of the music of Genesis, now sans the costumes and theatrics of Peter Gabriel. After auditioning some well-known and unknown singers, the group finally decided to let drummer Phil Collins assume the mantle of frontman. It was a risky move, but one that reaped immediate dividends…

Genesis - A Trick of the Tail (1976) album cover

A Trick of the Tail, 1976 (buy)

Any doubts over Genesis’ ability to function as a viable artistic unit post-Peter Gabriel were quelled with the release of A Trick of the Tail. While nothing on this album is quite as adventurous or weird as their previous work, it is no less satisfying. “Dance on a Volcano” gets things started with a bang, and sounds like it could have been recorded during the Lamb sessions. The song is a showcase especially for Collins’ impressive percussion skills.

Containing just eight songs and running around the 51-minute mark, there are no weak points on this record (although the title cut and “Robbery, Assault and Battery” are less than essential). Surprisingly, the real highlights of Trick are the slower numbers. “Entangled” is a moody and gorgeous acoustic piece concerning illness (and perhaps hypnotism) that fades into a haze of Mellotron, while “Ripples…” boasts a haunting chorus and an inspired “Firth of Fifth”-esque middle section featuring some wonderful interplay between Tony Banks’ piano/synths and Steve Hackett’s guitar.

Genesis - Wind & Wuthering (1976) album cover
Wind & Wuthering, 1976 (buy)

The second Genesis album of the post-Gabriel era could have been subtitled “The Tony Banks Experience”, as his musical vision seems to dominate the proceedings. He is in fact credited as the sole composer on three of the W&W‘s nine songs, as well as a co-writer on three others. The mini-epic “Eleventh Earl of Mar” is reminiscent of “Watcher of the Skies” in the way it opens the album with a blast of keyboards. This song and the second, “One for the Vine,” are some of the group’s last stabs at traditional progressive rock.

The rest of the album finds the band striking out in new artistic directions, with mixed results. The one-two instrumental punch of “Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers…” and “…In That Quiet Earth” are strong, as is the bittersweet “Blood on the Rooftops,” a potent pairing of caustic lyrics (castigating the British for ignoring the perils of the world) and delicate acoustic fretwork by Hackett.

“Wot Gorilla?” and “All in a Mouse’s Night” have their charms but feel forced and hokey by comparison. Of particular note is “Your Own Special Way,” a Mike Rutherford-penned ballad that offered a big clue as to the more commercial-friendly direction the band would eventually take. But not before another lineup change.

Genesis - ...And Then There Were Three... (1978) album cover
…And Then There Were Three…, 1978 (buy)

Feeling creatively squeezed by his bandmates and unhappy with having some of his compositions for Wind & Wuthering either relegated to the Spot the Pigeon EP or rejected outright, Steve Hackett left Genesis at the conclusion of the supporting tour for that album. The group forged ahead as a trio for the first time with …And Then There Were Three…, an album that marks the beginning of a new creative era for the group. While they retained some of their progressive tendencies on this record, it is decidedly a more slick and radio-friendly effort.

Despite the album’s FM radio trappings, it is not without merit — strong compositions like “Undertow,” “Down and Out,” (possibly Collins’ finest Genesis moment on the drums) and “Deep in the Motherlode” prove that simpler isn’t always worse. Still, it’s hard to overlook the weakness of tracks like “Ballad of Big” and “Snowbound”, while the top 10 UK single “Follow You, Follow Me” is either one of the best pop songs of the band’s career or a bland abomination (depending on your outlook).

…And Then There Were Three… is undeniably a transitional album, and not a recommended starting point for any Genesis inquirer. However it is absolutely worth a listen, for there are highlights to enjoy.

Duke (1980) album cover
Duke, 1980 (buy)

watch “Turn It On Again” (Banks/Collins/Rutherford)
The fragmented songwriting approach the trio of Banks, Collins, and Rutherford used on …And Then There Were Three… was tightened considerably on Duke, and the result is a quantum improvement both in consistency and quality. Quite simply, this album is the zenith of the Collins era and a perfect synthesis of arty/progressive elements and streamlined pop.

Discarding the fanciful storybook lyrics of previous efforts, Genesis infused Duke with themes of failed relationships (informed partially by Collins’ crumbling marriage) and heartache. This, combined with the cleaner and punchier production values, gives the record a powerful sense of intimacy and immediacy. Because of this, songs like “Misunderstanding,” “Alone Tonight,” and “Please Don’t Ask” avoid poppy triteness while still being accessible. And let’s not forget the all-time classic “Turn It On Again.”

The uptempo tracks are also strong here, as evidenced by album opener “Behind the Lines” and closers “Duke’s Travels” and “Duke’s End”, which together help give Duke the feel of a concept album (just one without a narrative). Fans of this album (and the song “Heathaze” in particular) would also do well to seek out “Evidence of Autumn,” originally released as the B-side to “Misunderstanding.”

Genesis - Abacab (1981) album cover
Abacab, 1981 (buy)

Inconsistency rears its head once again on Abacab, but the problem here is that instead of mixing up the commercial and edgier/artier tracks as on Duke and even …And Then There Were Three…, Genesis made Abacab too front-loaded. With the exception of the bold, horn-laced pop of “No Reply At All,” the straightforward numbers are clustered together at the end of the record. This makes for a real jarring listening experience. Compounding that problem is the fact that the album-ending trio of “Man on the Corner,” “Like It Or Not,” and “Another Record” are competent but uninspired.

Of the more challenging or arty songs on Abacab, only the abrasive and repetitive “Who Dunnit?” is a real misfire. So eEssentially, the album is carried by the strength of four songs — the opening title track seamlessly blends quirky melody and complexity as it chugs along for 7 minutes; “Me and Sarah Jane” is a punchy and melancholy tune with a rather dreary lyrical theme; “Keep It Dark” points the way to the more humorous songs (and videos) the group would later produce, and sounds inspired by Devo; and “Dodo/Lurker” is the darkest and heaviest song on the album, and ends on an utterly bizarre note as Tony Banks’ synthesizers replicate the sound of an unknown creature conversing with a human.

Genesis - Genesis (1983) album cover
Genesis, 1983 (buy)

Genesis (known by many as the Mama Album) offers much promise by way of the first song, the dark minimalism of “Mama”, which recalls Collins’ hit solo song “In the Air Tonight” from a few years previous. It’s also the high point of the album, which is the group’s most unabashedly commercial effort yet. Genesis likely alienated a lot of longtime fans in the process (while picking up a lot of new ones), but that’s to be expected any time a band tries to move past its original sound.

The result is a another hit-or-miss affair. The pop/art combo of “Home by the Sea”/”Second Home by the Sea” is actually weighed down by the more abstract (and dated) second number, while the more straightforward first one is the better composition. “Silver Rainbow” runs a close second behind “Mama” for the strongest entry on the album, while the less said about the silly “Illegal Alien” the better. The rest of Genesis ranks no better than decent, which is still pretty good.

Genesis - Invisible Touch (1986) album cover
Invisible Touch, 1986 (buy)

I don’t think it was possible to be alive in the mid-1980s and to not be exposed to at least one track from the commercial juggernaut that is Invisible Touch – seven of its eight songs were released as singles and it sold more than 6 million copies in the U.S. alone. But for the life of me I can’t think of one of them, save “Land of Confusion”, that I need to ever hear again (“The Brazilian” is good but too damn antiseptic.). And hey, how about that awesome video with the puppets?!

Genesis - We Can't Dance (1991) album cover
We Can’t Dance, 1991 (buy)

Surprisingly, I’m going to come to this album’s defense. Yes, it suffers from the same running-time bloat that many albums from the Golden Age of Compact Discs do (71 minutes!), but you could trim the fat and still be left with a good album. Take a gander at We Can’t Dance (GFS Edition):

  1. ” No Son of Mine” (another strong song centered on a strained personal relationship)
  2. “Jesus He Knows Me” (despite the atrocious video and trite lyrics, this is chock full o’ hooks)
  3. “Driving the Last Spike” (not an old-time Genesis epic, but a great story about the plight of 19th century British railroad workers)
  4. “Dreaming While You Sleep” (melancholy Genesis is always preferable to super-sunny Genesis)
  5. “Living Forever” (a skittering number that finds the band stretching out quite effectively over the last few minutes)
  6. “Fading Lights” (as close to classic Genesis as they sounded in many, many years)

That’s 44 minutes of very good music, enough to fill a full album back in the ’70s. I could do without the ’80s style production and somewhat easy listening vibe of We Can’t Dance — too much of this record sounds like an extension of Collins’ latter-day solo output — but you also have to remember that a group of ultra-successful musicians in their 40s probably won’t have the same fire as hungry upstarts in their 20s.

Phil Collins left Genesis in 1996 so he could to devote more time to producing shitty soundtracks, but rather than call it quits the band opted to move forward with new singer Ray Wilson. They released one album together, Calling All Stations, in 1997. That’s about as much as I want to get into that particular period of Genesis history. Seek the album out if only you are a completist.

Well, that about does it for Get to Know…Genesis. Join me next time when I profile, uh, well I’m not sure yet. But if I enjoy putting together the next piece half as much as I enjoyed this one, then I enjoyed this twice as much.