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Last updated: January 4th, 2017

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Friday, January 13, 2017

Fleetwood Mac – Kiln House

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 8
Overall Rating = 11


Following Peter Green's bizarre departure from Fleetwood Mac and until the group's success under the Buckingham/Nicks/McVie in-band songwriting conglomerate, they were in a seemingly perpetual transitional state. Fortunately, the first step in this transition was relatively safe and harmless. They completely avoided the more ambitious nature of the progressive blues style explored on Then Play On and opt for something far simpler. The biggest change here is that Jeremy Spencer is back in full force as the quasi-leader of the band (despite Kirwan being more present on the last album, although I guess he wasn't quite ready for the position just yet), but not in a way you would expect: long gone are his stale Elmore James rip-offs (there's only one significant rocking slide guitar part in that vein in an otherwise un-Elmore-like song), and instead we are graced with his other real love, 1950's rock & roll and pop.

The way Spencer displays his love for 1950's music almost comes off as a parody, since, whether on covers or originals, he emulates aspects of the decades' musical heroes in almost absurdly exaggerated ways, yet I don't question his sincerity, so I think it's best to describe these songs as tributes rather than parodies. After all, what better way to show you love the '50s than to be able to make fun of some of its flaws in a way that show they're a big part of the charm? There's only one exception where I think Spencer's intent was parody rather than tribute, and that's on "Blood on the Floor", which is so ridiculously over the top it ends up being my second favourite song on the album. The Elvis-like ballad could almost be passed off as a lost Elvis classic – Spencer's drawl comes pretty close to the real thing, especially on the belted parts contrasting the softer crooning, and the backup vocals of Kirwan and Christine McVie (yet to be an official member) sound even closer to their equivalent, Elvis' backup vocal group the Jordanaires – accompanied by an authentic old country backing (the sparingly played piano twinkles and subtle pedal steel guitars or pedal steel-imitating guitars are just lovely), but the lyrics are what turn the song on its head. It's hilarious hearing Spencer take the "my baby done me wrong" vibe so overused in country and taking it a step further by having the male character murder her in cold blood and getting caught for not hiding the evidence; while I probably shouldn't laugh or even grin at lines like "I shot my darlin'/Three times or more", the intonation they're sung in make it nearly impossible.

On only one occasion does tribute become rip-off, the none-too-subtly titled "Buddy's Song", where they essentially take the melody to "Peggy Sue Got Married" and stitch together a variety of references to other Buddy Holly songs, although at least they credit Buddy's mother instead of themselves (an idea later borrowed by Led Zeppelin on their Richie Valens rip off, funny enough). Yet despite the lazy way this was written, I actually think it's kind of clever, like the verse going "I'll rave on with the things you say/You say you're gonna leave but that'll be the day/Maybe baby, you don't know/I left Peggy Sue, a long time ago" sung in Spencer's perfect Holly-style vocal hiccup, the soft-toned Bo Diddley beat à la "Peggy Sue"/"Not Fade Away" and the cute harmony vocals. My favourite part, other than the quoted verse, is probably the quasi-instrumental interlude, where the harmonies wordlessly sing around the chord progression before Kirwan rips out a one-line guitar solo with such a thick, brazen tone you'd think you've suddenly found your way to a Brian May solo. No, seriously, the tone here is almost identical to the glammy guitar style of Queen's masterful stringbender, and at a time when they were nobodies going by the name of Smile, too.

The most rocking of Spencer's tributes is one of two where they actually credit someone else legitimately, in a cover of little known Fats Waller tune "Hi Ho Silver". Who they're actually paying tribute here isn't exactly clear, but if I were to guess, I'd probably suggest Chuck Berry – in the way they boogie on relentlessly as they, like Berry, transform jazz-blues into rock 'n' roll – and Little Richard – whose fiery vocal howling probably inspired Spencer for his ragged powerful screams – although there's a bit of Spencer's favourite blues heroes in the lead guitar playing, since he plays slide here, possibly his best performance on the instrument too, with a juicy tone and a sloppy set of notes that make it sound like your above-average mid-'60s garage rock band. If they had picked another song to cover, though, it wouldn't have been as effective, since this tune actually has a number of hooks, in the snarling verses, the punchy backup vocal-based "honey hush" pre-chorus, and the refrain itself, where the backup vocals and Spencer come together to hammer the title into your brain, and they probably couldn't have incorporated that stomping, quasi-heavy metal riffage (that's most prominent in the intro) in any other old jazz-blues song.

The opening "This Is the Rock" is probably the most "perfect" of Spencer's tributes, in that there are no hints of modern influence, parody or ripping off, even if this excellent slice of rockabilly could have easily been written and/or performed by Carl Perkins or Gene Vincent: the shuffled drumming, the grooving, walking bassline, and the absolutely perfect guitar parts – in tone and note selection, during the main song as well as in the solo, it could be Elvis' Scotty Moore making a guest appearance, for crying out loud! – on the musical side, the fake-dancing craze promotion and instruction in the lyrics, and one more terrific Jeremy Spencer vocal part that nails just about every aspect you'd expect him to, down to the brief, nearly unaccompanied pause where he deepens his voice at the end of the refrain like on so many classics of the '50s, the song just about puts to shame any other tribute to the 1950s I can possibly think of (I'm looking at you, sudden craze in the '80s to go back to the '50s in bands like the Stray Cats)!

The two songs that go for a '50s folk-pop sound à la Everly Brothers and the like are nice as well, but they're a bit lesser than the rock/rockabilly pastiches. Still, the original one, "One Together", with its soft strummed acoustic and jangly electric guitars or light bluesy guitar solo, the contrast between Spencer's quasi-whispered vocals and the distant, loudly echoing backup vocals, and the smooth switch between the romantic major key verses and refrains and melancholic minor key middle eighth, is pretty and hooky enough to be an asset to any music collection, and the closing cover "Mission Bell" is even a minor highlight, thanks to the way pretty descending guitar arpeggios, twinkling pianos, soft, tapping percussion and church bell-like embellishments intertwine, especially in the instrumental interludes, not to mention more adorable contrasting vocals, this time pitting choral backup vocals against Spencer's soft, starry-eyed croon in a lyrical call-and-response that's definitely cheesy ("Higher than a mission bell (How deep?)/Deeper than a wishing well (How strong?)/Stronger than a magic spell" is just the beginning of it), yet it's a good kind of cheesiness that's cute in the naivety that could only exist in the 1950s and earlier yet that FM captures perfectly well here.

That leaves a little under half of the album for Danny Kirwan to try and think of the band's next direction following what was started on Then Play On, and while he's not nearly as successful as he was on that album or as Spencer is on this album, you see a certain development in his songwriting. The only song I don't especially adore is the instrumental "Earl Gray". It's in a similar style as the instrumentals on Then Play On – the same textural intertwining guitars playing melancholic melodies – but it misses the mark in capturing that kind of chilling atmosphere he and Green had great success with (and maybe it's Green's absence itself, since he was the one with the more serious emotional issues between the two, that's the root of the problem), and it's also quite a bit more repetitive than those compositions, cycling through the same melody with little variety.

He also delivers a couple of generic rockers as second and second-to-last track of the album, but they're certainly better rockers than the ones he penned on the last original-dominated FM record (aside from "Coming Your Way", naturally). "Station Man" is the better of the two, with a solid mid-tempo that's at least somewhat hypnotic, thanks to some soulful harmonies from Kirwan, Spencer and Mrs. McVie as they belt out the title and Kirwan's nasally solo vocal parts (which for some reason remind me of Brian Eno's vocals on his own self-penned rockers) and some fine guitar riffage and soloing from both Kirwan and Spencer (who co-wrote the tune), especially the part near the end where the riffage is crunchy and funky and the chord choice reminds me of the final chords to the Who's "We Won't Get Fooled Again" (most likely a huge coincidence). "Tell Me All the Things You Do" is a bit speedier, with the guitars now accompanied by chugging electric piano trills and fills and some tasty wah-wah leads to keep your attention. While it's possible to be annoyed by the fact that the lyrics consist only of the title being repeated (and not in a clever way like the Beatles did on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"), it helps to know they barely register next to the attractive musical part.

What raises his reputation on this album in my eyes... err... ears... is that one of his originals (co-written with the rhythm section, although I can hardly guess why) is actually the best song on the album, side one closing "Jewel-Eyed Judy". It starts off as a ballad, with slow arpeggios, ethereal guitar leads, and hypnotic, ringing electric piano chords, where Kirwan sings some vaguely psychedelic imagery to a wavering melody in a shaky tenor that occasionally breaks out into delicate falsetto. As it slowly gains intensity throughout the verses, it eventually peaks with the refrain, where Danny desperately shouts out "Jewel-eyed Judy, please come home/Jewel-eyed Judy, don't leave me alone" to the backing of fat, distorted power chords, dissonant electric piano runs and splatters of stinging guitar leads. Strangely enough, the soft and quiet/heavy and loud dichotomy of the song, especially with the relatively simple chord progressions and melodies, reminds me quite a bit of Nirvana's use of the dichotomy on their Nevermind album. It's most likely a sheer coincidence, but it's the kind of coincidence I love when a band that has absolutely nothing to do with a genre manages to predict a significant aspect of it. Too bad it wasn't a very successful single (it only seemed to chart in the Netherlands, and at the mild spot of 42 on their charts at that), because then it could have been the standard way before guitar tones and drum recording became the mess it was when grunge did exist (no offense to fans of those genres, which thanks to its biggest innovators I technically am as well).

It may be a strange way for them to start the decade, but I think this album is pretty damn good for a band that seemed to be falling apart. Given its contents, it could never aspire for much more than an 11/15, but that's high enough to make it easily recommendable. Really, my only complaint is that the album is pretty frontloaded (four of the five major highlights are on side one, and the fifth comes shortly after as it starts side two), and if not for the only minor highlight closing the album, the album that start out so strong would seem like a disappointment overall. Not that a significant rearrangement of the album's order would make me change my mind on the grade or anything (realistically it's only the difference between a low 11 and a solid one), but to say that it doesn't impact the overall impression it gives ignores my belief of the importance of track order. Oh well, none of that matters. Just get this if you want to hear some good-to-great '50s tributes and a song that could possibly (or not) be the blueprint to Nirvana's biggest successes.

P.S. Probably not useful information, but this might be my favourite FM album cover. What better for a mostly nostalgic album full of youthful tunes than a cute cartoon?

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