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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Odds & Sods #32

As Safe As Yesterday Is (1969)

Like with any other supergroup at the time, I imagine expectations for Humble Pie's debut were quite high (not quite as high as expectations set for Cream, Blind Faith and Derek & the Dominoes; as well known as the Pie's members' origins were by 1969, there's no doubt in my mind that any Eric Clapton-related project would be even better known by the British music-listening public at large). After all, the Small Faces had only a year earlier released Ogden's Nut Gone Flake; what would have been the band's Tommy ended up being their Abbey Road. With Steve Marriott at the helm of this new outfit, perhaps we might have continued on that path.

For the most part, though, this is a departure for Herd alumnus Peter Frampton. What we have here is a blend of heavy psychedelia (bordering on proto-metal, like Steppenwolf but better), roots music and elements borrowed from early art rock bands. For bassist Greg Ridley, this is certainly not different from his stint with Spooky Tooth, and it's similar to Marriott's final works with Small Faces but without the music hall-inspired whimsy that was every bit as important as the heavier sounds on said album. The biggest improvement from those two bands is definitely Frampton's guitar playing (even if the Tooth's Luther Grovesnor and Marriott himself are fine players), since all three groups have excellent vocalists.

Anyways, the band have a terrific sound going for them on this LP. While they are indeed a "heavy" band, this isn't the kind of aggressive, sludgy mess you might encounter on an early Blue Cheer record (or God-forbid, any of the talentless hacks they might have "influenced" over the years). It's actually quite tastefully produced, with a mixture of guitars – both electric and acoustic – organs, pianos and their trusty rhythm section. If I were to sum up this sound, I'd probably just call it Phil Spector-ish hard-psych rock, which certainly isn't anything to sneeze at.

Unfortunately, as aurally pleasant as the album may be, it seems as though the band forgot to write some songs to go with their sound. Sure, there are riffs, lyrics, refrains and solos, but they tend not to stick in your memory. Okay, there are a few riffs that stand out. The opening riff of "Buttermilk Boy", for instance, is quite a groovy one, and it resurfaces during its chorus as well. The verses, on the other hand, only stick to your mind because the guys trade off vocals in a fairly chaotic manner. Another riff that sticks is the psychedelic slide-like one in "Stick Shift", although having Peter sing the same melody in unison can be a little disconcerting.

On the title track, after every couple of lines in the verses, the hippy-esque organ pattern is paired up with a slightly country-esque acoustic guitar lick, the only thing, aside from a real stomping boogie at the end and occasional melodic moments, that keep the song's snail-like pace from putting you to sleep. A final riff is on the song "Bang!", the weakest of the songs to carry any riffage. It's just a generic rocker that's only livened up a little bit by a bass riff that develops the riffs of Little Richard's "Lucille" and Bo Diddley's "Roadrunner" (unrelated to the Motown song of the same name that Humble Pie actually would include in their setlist after Frampton's departure).

I also count a few vocal hooks, however minor. The aforementioned "Buttermilk Boy" has a semi-catchy chorus, even if the best part is the rather silly bit at the end that goes "before she lets her knick-knick-knick-knick-knickers down" (the first of many occasions where the band shows their perverted sense of humour). I suppose "Stick Shift" and its nagging melody count as well; whether I find it annoying or catchy really depends on my mood. Far preferable is their cover of Steppenwolf's "Desperation" (my previous reference to that group is not as unfounded as it first seemed, now is it?) What's funny is, while this version is more soulful than the original, its melody sounds less like a rip-off of some Solomon Burke tune. I even consider "Alabama '69" to be a highlight; this parody on country is musically tasteful, and the chorus of "when will we be free" is memorable and sung convincingly.

The rest is not all that interesting. Steve's former Small Faces bandmate Ian McLagan's donation, "Growing Closer", is nice, as it alternates between soft, flute-based interludes and the raga-pop of its verses. The last three numbers, on the other hand, I can hardly recall at all. The bonus tracks improve the situation a bit, though. The group's debut single, "Natural Born Bugie", is a damn fine boogie – which, considering some of the band's later work, is certainly no surprise – even if this one is propelled by an electric piano rather than guitars, which are technically still present. I'm not even bothered that it sounds a lot like Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie"; I guess it shouldn't have to bother me, considering it's not a complete rip-off (the Beach Boys are far more guilty of stealing from the man). Its b-side sounds like late-period Small Faces, which makes sense since it's an outtake from some post-Ogden sessions. It's probably a bit more memorable than some of the weaker stuff on here too, or maybe it's just the female backing vocals adding some extra punch.

While I do enjoy listening to this record, and as background music, its only peers are instrumental albums like those by Booker T. & the MG's, the songwriting's somewhat lackluster quality remains unnerving. Fortunately, the band would improve in this field, although only after dropping the general sound on here and any of these creative embellishments – like flutes and sitars – that owe so much to the psychedelic era. But all in due time.

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