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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Odds & Sods #34

Down by the Jetty (1975)
***1/2

Whatever the term "pub rock" might mean today, it's a title that fits the sound of this album pretty damn well, in that it's just simple, easy-going, good-time beer-drinking music. It came out at the perfect time, too; in the mid '70s, not everyone was meant for prog rock or metal or roots rock or glam rock. They needed some good time rock 'n' roll that hearkens back to the days of the bluesier British Invasion bands without veering off into the four "advanced" genres that only borrowed from them. And that's what these rowdy bunch of Brits do, taking the general sound of the Yardbirds, the Animals and the like, or even earlier British bands like Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, update it for their times in terms of guitar tone – albeit while keeping the recording in mono.

Sort of like the Yardbirds' earliest recordings, the sound could be called "formulaic", in terms of the overall approach to this kind of simple blues rock, but at least it's a formula of their own invention: the biggest thanks should go to Johnson, whose refusal to play with a pick allowed him to play all kinds of rough, gruff stuttering riffs while playing leads in between chords, removing the necessity for a second guitar player, although Brilleaux's sandpaper vocals predicting the style of AC/DC's Bon Scott and his honking harmonica playing on selected tracks are assets as well. And just for the sake of rounding up the whole line-up, the rhythm section, John B. Sparks on bass and The Big Figure (really?) on drums are solid at keeping the rhythm for Brilleaux's howling and Johnson's diverse guitar attack.

Of course, even if say it's formula, there's enough from song-to-song to break up said formula. The covers are the least involved with the formula, except one, a composition of Johnny Kidd's early to mid '60s lead guitarist Mick Green, "Oyeh!". The difference is it doesn't follow said formula, but serves as its blueprint. Everything I said above about the simple driving rhythm section and Wilko's guitar playing that alternates between rhythm work and leads with such ease can be found here, so the only thing that makes this somewhat disappointing is the lack of vocals, since it ends up sounding like a backing track to one of their original compositions. As for the other three covers, though, they diversify the proceedings despite being amped-up blues rockers. Their rendition of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" doesn't emulate the brilliant Animals' version, but rather the decent Yardbirds' version; in fact, the combination of Lee's blues harp and Wilko's nasally vocals sounds suspiciously like the Yardbirds' Keith Relf, which is pretty much the most interesting thing about it.

It's really the two covers surrounding the album's sole instrumental that are worth the most of your attention. "Cheque Book" is a laid-back mid-tempo boogie that's perfect for a Sunday drive on the highway, but the most interesting aspect of it are Lee's vocals; not only does he follow the lazing, yet rocking vibe of the track, he does so with a particularly gravely voice that – get this – predicts Bob Dylan's vocal performances from 1978 onward. My favorite cover, and one of the LP's major highlights, is the closing live medley of Larry Williams' "Bony Moronie" and '50s mambo-based novelty tune "Tequila"; given the band's strong live reputation (and the high critical regard of their first live album), that shouldn't be too much of a surprise, but the success of the tune is the melding of Wilko's rhythmic guitars with two guest sax players, Bob Andrews and Brinsley Schwarz (actually the keyboard player of his own, self-titled band), giving it a 1950s brass-based rock feel, especially with their swinging handling of the "Tequila" riff. The only complaint I could voice is that the actual combination makes no sense. What does falling in love with a skinny girl under an apple tree have to do with going south for some tequila?

Anyways, on to the originals: ironically the two songs that follow the band's general formula are the weakest. "That Ain't the Way to Behave" is a decent, Wilko-sung, harmonica-based, slow shuffle, which otherwise sounds like a rather timid Yardbirds' outtake, and "Twenty Yards Behind" is a decent, Wilko-sung, harmonica-based, fast shuffle, which otherwise sounds like a slightly better Yardbirds' outtake (possibly because Wilko's voice and Lee's harmonica sound even more like Mr. Relf). So it shouldn't be surprising that the songs that utilize the band's notable sound that make up the record's highlights. As the introduction to that sound to listeners, the opening track/flop second single "She Does It Right" is a real treat, with a riff based on crunchy staccato chords followed by weaving lead bends and going full circle, and Brilleaux doing his "probably objectifying women without too much sleaze" schtick along to a speedy melody that metamorphoses into the "so simple it should be idiotic" refrain. Actually, the enunciation he uses, where he just stops short after uttering the title, makes it seem like we're the idiots for not knowing that she does it right...

Their debut single (also, an undeserved, though understandable, flop), "Roxette", is markedly better, as well as my favorite song on the LP. The interaction between the bass and guitar – with the former playing a three-note, self-interrupting sequence and the latter replying half a second later with some crunchy chords in a four-note-based riff – is the main hook, although Brilleaux's vocals, where his grumbling aims for a Howlin' Wolf-type growl, and his thick, distorted harmonica blasts for the solo, aren't too shabby either. If anything, "Keep It Out of Sight" should have been a single as well (though it probably wouldn't have fared much better either, I'm afraid), with Johnson contributing a slightly darker riff, augmented by a bassline that seems to descend while the guitars rise, and some particularly stomping drums and a seedy, almost paranoid lead vocal, justified by what I believe to be lyrics about waiting for one's drug dealer (that's what the refrain of "The good times are coming/Just wait until you tell 'em right/Keep it out of sight" tells me anyhow).

It could have at least been a b-side, since it's hardly worse than the b-side to "She Does It Right": indeed, "I Don't Mind", a fun application of their style to a quasi-Bo Diddley beat/proto-Motörhead jackhammer style, anchoring the verses on one single tribal chord rhythm but the refrain on two, for a pseudo-attempt at diversity that only works for this kind of energized beer-guzzling music. There's one final highlight in the quasi-title track, "All Through the City" (whose refrain contains the album title), which also could have been a single. Aside from having the most memorable refrain, it also has a terrific riff that once again pits guitar against bass, with Wilko squawking out some funky riffage followed by the bass escaping from its clutches for a brief, five-note chromatic rising bassline. Actually, I guess "The More I Give" could potentially be a highlight; by adding some swirling organ to their sound, the chunking guitar chords acquire a quasi-reggae vibe, and Lee's stuttering vocal melody complemented by harmonies in the refrain add to that feel as well. And for the shake of name-dropping everything, the change to the formula in "One Weekend" is the addition of backup harmonies, where they respond to every verse line with "one weekend of your love" whether it fits whatever Lee just sang or not, to humorous effect.

So while this isn't a great album, it's still a very good album, and an easy 3-and-a-half star rating one. For an album that focused so much on music from a full decade earlier, it does sort of point the way to the future with blues-rock bands focused more on the latter than the former, like AC/DC, and this is something that group's more open-minded fans might enjoy. At the very least, the riffage and star focus on the guitar player should remind them at times of Malcolm and Angus Young, respectively, and Brilleaux's caveman-esque grumbling, as I said in this review's intro, reminds me a lot of Bon Scott, and while the songs are more laid-back and less focused on making regular rock 'n' roll epic, it perhaps makes it more accessible to those who find AC/DC over the top (which is something I hardly agree with, but never mind that). I should mention that there's a double-disc version that includes an unreleased b-side and some outtakes on disc 1, and a stereo version of the augmented first disc as well as a handful of extra live tracks. Perhaps it overdoes it a bit (and I can't imagine the band getting their who-gives-a-shit-about-today's-standards nostalgia for rock 'n' roll in stereo anyhow), but maybe there's something of interest in the live tracks and some of the outtakes.

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