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Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Cosmo's Factory

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 10
Overall Rating = 13


I don't know why, after nearly 40 years, Willy and the Poor Boys maintains its reputation as CCR's best album when their actual best album has been sitting in front of critics' noses the entire time. Indeed, their first of two 1970 albums – named Cosmo's Factory after Doug "Cosmo" Clifford's comment that the rehearsal process under John Fogerty's tutelage was like factory work – had to be seen as a success of some kind: after all, it spawned three double-sided singles, with all but one of those six original compositions charting at #2 on Billboard's Hot 100 (and that last one still made it to #4), and all of those originals plus one more as well as one of the four covers from the album are mainstays of classic rock radio to this day and are frequently used for their various greatest hits albums. Of course, it's hard for critics, back then as much as today, to consider an album great for its singles' commercial successes, but in this case I'll have to agree with the general public. John Fogerty penned seven distinct originals, seven of his very best, and chose four covers that showcased his and his band's talents as good or better than on their previous records.

The only reason I don't consider three of the four covers to be highlights of the album other than there being overshadowed by the rest of the record is that CCR have clearly out-grown this kind of old-fashioned rock 'n' roll/rhythm & blues style, although that certainly doesn't mean I won't enjoy these songs when they're on. After all, how can someone not enjoy Roy Orbison's "Ooby Dooby" in any rendition? The refrain is a goofy '50s expression-based delight, after all, and John's guitar work manages to convert the speedy early rock 'n' roll licks into something a bit more modern and hypnotic thanks to the tone of choice. Elvis' "My Baby Left Me" never having been one of my favourite of his Sun Records tunes (I've always preferred the similar "That's All Right, Mama" from the same composer, Arthur Crudup) I can't be particularly ecstatic about a cover of it, although I do enjoy Cosmo's jazzy drum intro, and any boogie from CCR is worth your time anyhow, even if John doesn't try to emulate Elvis (although that would be a vocal disaster, given the vocalists' stylistic differences). Of the non-highlighted covers, my favourite is "Before You Accuse Me", a rarity in the sense that it's a Bo Diddley song that eschews his infamous beat; rather, it's a generic 12-bar blues reimagined as a smokin' mid-tempo boogie, which CCR do plenty justice, thanks to John's patented howl being every bit as effective as Bo's slyer vocal style, not to mention the stinging guitar work (that even Eric Clapton of all people would emulate for his acoustic performance of it on MTV 25 years later) and the groovy piano buried in the mix.

Yet the one highlighted cover – one that only saw release as an (edited) single six years afterwards to promote a posthumous compilation album – is where you should truly pay attention, since not only is it the best song of this category of songs on the album, it's tied with one other song for the album's very best. Yes, I'm referring to the 11-minute reinterpretation of late '60s Marvin Gaye hit "I Heard It Through the Grapevine". In theory there should be nothing more incompatible than Motown's commercial soul pop and CCR's southern infatuation, yet that only goes to show how great a band CCR were if they could make it compatible with their style. Of course, it helps that the simple, dark, descending bassline makes perfect sense in the swampy context CCR play it in, and it's the kind of bassline that can repeated endlessly and only become more hypnotic rather than annoying. As usual, though, John is the star of the show, with his raunchiest, most powerful vocals that show he can do soul as good as any R&B star (even with near-falsettos at the start of the refrain) and the intoxicating guitar soloing in the jamming part. To the band's own admission, this wasn't so much as a jam as a rehearsed, extended instrumental section, but even if John's soloing here isn't improvised, it's as great as any of my favourite improvised solos (and it's a long list, mind you). There's a lot of minimalism at times, with slow, calculated and punchy licks, but there's also some speedier, sloppier, and garagier work, and sometimes there's funky string scratching; yet however you describe the soloing, as long as it goes on, you look forward to more, and it could have gone on for longer without John needing to repeat any parts of the memorable soloing. And it goes without saying that everything throughout its 11 minutes captures every ounce of the brokenhearted, paranoid vibe this anti-rumour song needed.

The originals, meanwhile, showcase Fogerty diversifying and even updating their roots rock sound. Take the opening "Ramble Tamble" – the only non-single of the originals – for instance. It may start off as a swamp-rocker along the lines of "Green River", but other than sporting a cheerier, more danceable riff than its predecessor (not to mention the jovial drive-along refrain "Ooh-ooh, down the road I go"), it doesn't stay in swamp mode for long. In fact, the bulk of the track shows the band going for an art rock vibe , and while some might be inclined to call the attempt trite, but to me it shows that minimalism can go a long way. There's nothing much to it than slow arpeggio guitars, jangly guitar chords, a descending three-note piano sequence and a build-use of melodic, lightly feedback-tinged leads, but there's an inimitable majestic atmosphere that to my and many others' ears matches if not surpasses the more complex atmospheres of progressive rock. Yes, it's out of context here, but the transition from swamp rock to art rock and back is seamless, so really there's nothing to complain about.

The other originals are far more straightforward (and shorter given their use as single sides), but nonetheless great. Well, maybe I've never considered "Up Around the Bend" to be great (and ironically it was the only b-side to chart higher than it’s a-side); it's a fine rocker with a stinging repetitive main guitar pick, a thumping one-note-per-chord bassline, catchy vocals all around (especially in the refrain) and some delightful country-esque soloing, but its repetitiveness gets on my nerves every few listens so I can't consider it a highlight. Conversely, I'm really quite fond of the closing "Long As I Can See the Light" (the only original not to get much radio airplay in the modern era despite its high chart position back in the day). Its melody and slow pounding rhythm might be similar to those of "Wrote a Song for Everyone", but I think that John's voice is more powerful here, and the way it combines with swirling electric piano chords and is replaced near the end by a gorgeous, breathy sax solo (played by John himself, no less) helps make it more soulful, almost like a redemptive antidote to the intense jealousy of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" which precedes it.

The most traditionally CCR-like track is "Travelin' Band", which is a given since it was one of two tracks recorded in late 1969, and with the lyrical content focused on the trials and tribulations of the rock musician's endless touring schedule, it might even be a Willy and the Poor Boys outtake. Essentially, it's John's rewrite of a Little Richard-style rocker à la "Good Golly Miss Molly", but oddly enough, unlike their actual cover of a Little Richard tune, this one seems even more authentic: the arrangement is mostly similar to their "Good Golly Miss Molly" cover, with stop-and-start vocal lines where John howls like few other white men from California can and searing guitar leads in between, but the addition of horns that would have been very comfortable on any one of Little Richard's original recordings add to the authenticity, and the way they combine horns with John's guitar is even somewhat reminiscent of the underrated period in Little Richard's career where Jimi Hendrix was his guitar player! It's a shame it's only a few seconds over 2 minutes, but then it's such a speedy little rocker it says and does all it needs to.

Another original that improves on the formula of an older one is "Run Through the Jungle". If you thought that "Sinister Purpose" was a poor attempt at making a "scary" rocker – and while I always thought it was decent, that doesn't seem to be a consensus – then "Run Through the Jungle" should definitely prove Fogerty's ability at cooking up that kind of atmosphere: the track is bookended by some harsh, thunderous white noise as if the opening and closing of some giant metallic door, and the main track itself –with an echoey, tremolo-laden descending blues guitar riff, a rough yet slightly mumbled Fogerty vocal and subtle yet poisonous harmonica fills – takes all the best dark elements of the blues and exploits them further. The influences of Howlin' Wolf (the vocals and harmonica), Robert Johnson (the "static" feel of the melody and vague lyrical imagery) and even Bo Diddley (the repetitive guitar hook and accompanying trembling tone) are clearly noticeable, but the song is still an original the way the clearly Wilson or Dylan influenced Beatles songs of the mid-60s were.

The last song of the album I came to really love is "Looking At My Back Door", but I'm glad I did, because it's certainly one of John's most charming lighter numbers, combining all of his favourite lighter roots genres (folk, country, rockabilly) with his pop sensibilities in the best way possible. Everything about it is charming, from the rhythmic acoustic guitar string-scratching, to the lazy slide leads echoing John's playful vocal melody, to the return of the Carl Perkins/Scotty Moore-style playing on "Cross-Tie Walker"; even the dippy "doo-doo-doo" hook before the title and the sudden shift in tempo to a lazy country shuffle at the end put a smile on my face. And to think this started out as a song that John wrote for his son's childlike imagination to run wild with (after all, he does reference giants doing cartwheels and elephants playing in a band). Never underestimate the role of a younger audience in a rock band's successes.

Finally, my favourite original, tying with "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" as my favourite song on the album, is the gorgeous ballad "Who'll Stop the Rain?". I'd even go as far as saying it's one of John's best written songs, both in the lyrical and musical sense. The subject matter, of political promises being broken or fundamentally flawed and the hopeful people who fall for it, is tackled in a very subtle way, with the explicit references related to the times kept to a minimum (I suppose "Five-year plans and New Deal/Wrapped in golden chains" is pretty obvious, but the New Deal was well over a quarter-century old and Soviet Russia had a multitude of five-year plans in its existence, so it can't really be pegged as a product of the late '60s/early '70s) and both the vocals and melody doing the themes justice by mixing in melancholy (the verses), hopefulness (the "Still I wonder/Yes I wonder" pre-chorus) and despair (the title line, especially with the unexpected minor chord resolve despite the major chords around it). And musically, as simple as it is, it's very poignant as well, with sparse, four-note guitar arpeggios and soft, rolling drums – which fit the title as if they were raindrops slowly pattering on your window – steady, yet not too brisk acoustic strumming to give it singer-songwriter appeal and some lovely harmonies in the pre-chorus and title line (which are probably just John overdubbing his own voice again, but it works). I even consider the lack of a solo to be a wise decision: in its place is a brief, instrumental bridge that takes a set of more upbeat major chords and makes them more uplifting than their simplicity would suggest. My description probably doesn't do the song justice, but then I struggle to describe the really brilliant ones succinctly enough.

There are days where I ponder the possibility of giving this one a 14 and boosting the band to a 4-star one, yet the things that make me hold back on that grade – the fact that, for all the improvements in the songwriting and arrangement department, this isn't exactly a hugely innovative album, or the fact that the album is a bit lightweight emotionally and only has a boost in resonance in the second half of the opener and in the last three songs – are enough to make my hesitation far stronger than my enthusiasm. Still, aside from greatest hits albums like Chronicle (which has nine of the eleven Cosmo's Factory tracks on its two 20-track volumes), this should be seen as the ultimate acquisition as a CCR album. The covers are no longer uncertain like on their debut or on their third album, the lengthy jamming is actually intelligently crafted, there's no conceptuality to worry about, and the songwriting is as great if not better than John's best on the group's first four albums. I don't think there's an 11-track combination using their first four albums that could surpass this one (though granted I haven't tried), which certainly says a lot about this album. If you don't already have it, get it today, and enjoy the best in simple, accessible-to-all roots rock.

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