Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Love That Never Was

History is written by the winners, they say, but sometimes winning takes a very long time. For Arthur Lee, there was a trajectory that seemed fairly straightforward through the first three albums of his band Love, followed by decades of fits, starts and blind alleys. But the fact is that little of that had to do with the actual music. And, besides, the cream always rises to the top. Since 1995, the primacy of Arthur Lee and Love has continued to grow, as both a hidden influence on the past and a more obvious one on contemporary musicians.

Now, thanks to the intrepid work of the founders of High Moon Records, we have Black Beauty, an important missing link in the canon now available for all to hear. But first a brief moment of context. The third Love album, Forever Changes is a lushly arranged suite of phantasmagoric songs, a stunning accomplishment that ranks with the best records of the rock era. It is also an anomaly in the work of Arthur Lee. Keep in mind that Love first burst on the scene with an almost punk take on Burt Bacharach's Little Red Book and that their biggest chart hit was 7 And 7 Is, a furious rocker. At the time, Forever Changes sold poorly, which you can blame on philistines, lack of touring - or maybe on the fact that much of the "rock" in the Love recipe to which listeners had become devoted had been drained out of the sound.

While I treasure Forever Changes as much as the next guy, I also love Four Sail, the album that came after, where Lee convened a new version of the group and unleashed some of his most blistering music to date. Hendrix became an obvious sonic antecedent, but considering the fact that Jimi's first appearance on wax was as a hired gun on a session produced by Lee in 1965, one Lee came by honestly.

Between Lee's own eccentricity and the volatility of the music biz it's only natural that there would be a great lost album to resurrect. Also due to eccentricity and volatility, it's natural that the question of whether it's a Love album at all, or an Arthur Lee solo album, would need to be raised in the excellent and comprehensive liner notes. The most definitive answer is that since Lee was willing to release it in 1973 as a Love album then it is one. Also, while the contributions of Bryan MacLean and the other members on the first three albums shouldn't be discounted, it's clear that Lee is the dominant architect of their sound and all that followed.

So what do we get on Black Beauty, after the years of searching and the extensive work reclaiming good sound from a fragile 35 year old acetate, the only source available? Besides the technical aspects, executed with unbeleivable dedication and love, High Moon has also outdone themselves with the CD packaging, housing the disc (a limited edition of 5,000) in a little bound book containing the aforementioned liner notes and dozens of fab photos. I'm sure the vinyl (released in 2012) is just as well done, but they've also also found a few bonus tracks to beef up the original 10 songs.

The opener, Young & Able (Good & Evil) is a bluesy burner that Lee called his "civil rights song," but he was probably being somewhat tongue in cheek as the lyrics mainly refer to the rainbow coalition of females that he would like to get with. Musically, the song immediately shows the chemistry he had with his new band, with guitarist Melvan "Wonder" Whittington spraying off hot leads that mesh perfectly with Lee's rhythm guitar, and bassist Robert Rozelle and drummer Joe Blocker firmly in the pocket. The sound is a bit raw, but still dimensional, with a nice feeling of the room surrounding the players.

Midnight Sun keeps things fiery, with an epic quality that owes a little to Jimi's Axis (Bold As Love), but with no lack of conviction and passion. Can't Find It is a gorgeous ballad, with one of Lee's greatest vocal performances, so natural and vulnerable that it hits you right here. His sadness and confusion are given a different voice in Whittington's alternately weepy and explosive guitar. "Every time I cry my heart out/And every time I play the fool/There's gotta be something in this lonely world for me/But I can't find it." This is pure Arthur Lee, undefended and pleading for understanding and acceptance. As usual he finds the answer in the music; the next song, Walk Right In, is based on a 1929 song by Gus Cannon and his Jug-Stompers, a simple invitation to "Walk right in and sit right down."

Skid is also from a source other than Lee's pen, a product of a one-time collaboration between Riley Racer (Love's road manager) and poet Angela Rackley. Its minor key hue is perfect for Lee and Racer's dobro fills out the sound, while Whittington provides floating accents that are exactly right. One of the biggest surprises of the record is Beep Beep, which marries one of Lee's sing-song melodies to a Caribbean approach. It sounds not unlike a song by The Equals and the chorus ("Beep beep, slow down man 'cause you're going too fast") might be a joking reference to Lee's automotive style. In any case, it's delightful, with harpsichord and steel drums seamlessly incorporated into the track, a rare moment of almost pure levity. Could've been a hit!

Stay Away is a menacing strut with all the cowbell you could want and Lee giving maximum sneer. Lonely Pigs shows the versatility of this edition of Love, with an almost proggy flavor to the refrain. It's an ode to the LAPD, who used to follow Lee around whenever he drove anywhere - both a price of success and a curse of racism, themes that underscore nearly everything here. Lee also makes a rare appearance on lead guitar, playing the solo in a beautiful, liquid tone. See Myself In You is another Lee special, all mid-tempo yearning with an impassioned vocal and and a power that belies its running time of just over three minutes. Strangely, the album closes with Product Of The Times, a live cut from 1970 that features an entirely different band. However, its barnstorming energy jibes with what comes before and inadvertently demonstrates the overall consistency of Lee's music.

Make no mistake, this IS the great lost Love album and any fan of the band that can look beyond the lacy filigree of Forever Changes should grab it immediately. If you're a vinyl junkie, go ahead and purchase it in that format. While the bonus tracks on the CD are definitely an added value, I'm not sure they're essential beyond the needs of completists. The first is the title song from Thomasine & Bushrod, a cinematic obscurity from the redoubtable Max Julien and an awkward fit for Lee. There's also 21 minutes of interview excerpts and three nearly concurrent live performances featuring the Black Beauty band with the addition of John Sterling on guitar. Anybody who's listened to the album won't need much convincing that these players could deliver on stage.

The last extra song is a take on Tom T. Hall's L.A. Blues recorded in 1996 with a band called Ventilator. It's OK, but hardly the sound I want echoing in my head when the album is over. Even so, High Moon have performed a real service with Black Beauty. Get on their mailing list - maybe they'll take on the first official reissue of Real To Reel, the horn-drenched funky soul album Lee delivered to RSO records in the wake of Black Beauty being shelved, and yet another lost gem from the annals of Love.


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