Rating: 6 (library disc)
For a band that only issued three albums (plus a live set), there sure are a lot of James Gang compilations. They’re mostly identical in track selection, give or take a few songs, but this one is probably the most useful because it comes with informative and enlightening liner notes by producer Bill Szymczyk. Despite the Slavic name, Bill’s not from Cleveland (rather, Muskegon), but the James Gang were, and their music embodies much of personality of that great town: perseverance, humility, and wry humor.
I’ve been accused of having a prejudice against “fun hard driving good time music”, but that’s just not true. The James Gang are exactly that, but they’re also tuneful, concise, and rarely self-absorbed. You probably know them from “Walk Away” (which I always thought was called “Seems to Me”), and “Funk #49” (as slaughtered by cover bands across the nation) both are worthy representatives of their style, the first with a propulsive syncopated bottom and luscious slide licks, the second with a wicked bass line and delightful percussion breakdown (all instruments overdubbed by drummer Jim Fox, who throughout the band’s career showed a fine sense of combining a funky backbeat with aggressive fills unlike some of his more famous contemporaries who over-relied on the latter).
However, the James Gang had a broader palette, with a gentle country-rock flavor on “Midnight Man”, epic keyboard pop on “Take a Look Around”, and a madrigal flavor (highlighted by a 12-string guitar played like a mandolin) on “Ashes, The Rain and I”. Another winner is “Asshtonpark”, a thumping instrumental with a front-loaded beat and clever use of the echoplex guitar effect. The real star of the band is guitarist and singer Joe Walsh, who’s much better in the first role, with a synthetic repertoire of licks and effects derived from the guitar heroes of the day but never seeming downright imitative. His tunes are usually sprightly and never monotonous, and the winking irony of most of the lyrics redeems his slightly wavery tone control. You never get the sense he’s showing off his guitar or voice, but rather serving the songs.
It’s not all wonderful, though: the Zeppelin homages (“The Bomber”, “Woman”) are simply grating, and the live tracks feature plenty of the worst that 70’s blues-rock had to offer. Plus Szymczyk seems to be offering a few scraps to collectors in the form of soundtrack cuts from the movie Zachariah, of which “Laguna Salada” is an instrumental filler and “Country Fever” a simply excruciating boogie number (it clocks in at 3:51 but I could have sworn it was at least twice that long).
So there you are, my defense of some “fun hard driving good time music”. Occasionally you might feel, in the words of Cole Bozman, like you “got hit by a mediocre album, driven by a guitar”, but when all the pieces come together, the James Gang lets you not only bang your head but hum along.
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