If you’ve ever dismissed Bob Seger as a bland, generic, middle-of-the-road rocker, and you’ve never heard this album (and most of you probably haven't), please shut up right now. You see, before his albums fronting the Silver Bullet Band (some of which I’ll review/defend later), Bob Seger led the Bob Seger System, a power trio consisting of Don Honaker (bass, vocals) and Pep Perrine (drums, vocals). Long out of print, the impossible to find (on CD) Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man is something of a “lost classic” that reminds us that before Seger started drawing comparisons to Springsteen and Mellencamp he was a peer of ferocious Detroit rockers like the Stooges, MC5, and Alice Cooper. The title track starts things off and is a total classic (it was even a minor hit, though for the most part Seger only had regional success until Night Moves broke big), with a beat that would make John Bonham proud, colorful keyboards, memorable macho lyrics, and a catchy chorus and high overall energy. “Tales Of Lucy Blue” is introduced by dark fuzzy guitar (Bob Seger, guitar hero? don’t laugh) and is an impressively intense, bluesy stomper with an air of menace, while some harsh guitar also propels “Ivory,” a hard-edged yet quite catchy and raucous sing along that sees Seger in full on soul shouter mode (even in the early days he had a great raspy voice). Alas, “Gone” is a trippy ballad that hasn’t aged well, but some hot harmonica (played by the All Music Guide’s Michael Erlewine!) and rumbling rhythms help make “Down Home” another highlight. The melodic “Train Man” is also very good, though it’s marred by some horrendous editing, as is the later “The Last Song (Love Needs To Be Loved),” an otherwise fine hippy anthem a la Love or the Jefferson Airplane. Indeed, the album does sound dated in spots, which, coupled with the poor production and questionable pacing (the albums only two long songs, the jam-based “White Wall” and “Black Eyed Girl,” are sequenced back-to-back in the middle of the album), makes this album quite obviously flawed. However, some psychedelic wankery aside, by and large it still kicks plenty of ass. In particular, “2+2=?” may well be the greatest anti-war song ever, with a furious, ferocious Nuggets-styled musical assault and troubling, deeply affecting lyrics (“Yes it's true I am a young man, but I'm old enough to kill, I don't wanna kill nobody, but I must if you so will”.... or “Well I knew a guy in high school, just an average friendly guy, And he had himself a girlfriend, and you made them say goodbye, Now he's buried in the mud, over foreign jungle land, And his girl just sits and cries, she just doesn't understand, So you say he died for freedom, well if he died to save your lies, Go ahead and call me yellow”... or “I'm no prophet I'm no rebel, I'm just asking you why, I just want a simple answer, why it is I 've got to die”). Simply exhilarating, but though “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and “2+2=?” are this album's obvious high points, I dig the whole greasy brew, and I hope you will too.
Noah (Capitol ’69) Rating: C
A bizarre second release if ever there was one. From the album's liner notes: "THE BOB SEGER SYSTEM -- FIVE! The first album was a trio, this album is more in many respects. It's more sound, it's more guts, it's more soul and it's more conflict...Conflict between two very different types of music. Side 1 is Bob Seger -- moody, dynamic, human. Side 2 is influenced by Tom Neme, a new and important addition to The System. It is this influence that is creating change. Seger will always be Bob Seger, any change must come from The System and Tom Neme." Say what? I guess the first question is, "who is Tom Neme?" And the second question is, "what happened to Bob Seger?" This has never really been made entirely clear, but obviously Seger was having some problems that prevented his full participation on this album, so this Neme fellow (who returned to obscurity immediately after this album, which predictably tanked) actually took over leadership of the band, penning 6 of this album's 10 songs and singing most of them as well. All things considered, it's not awful; the first two songs and the last song - all sung by Seger - are quite good, in fact. The title track delivers catchy hippy pop, with some notable sax contributions from Bob Schultz (the fifth member) and stellar singing from a fully engaged Seger, while "Innervenus Eyes" and "Death Row" are hard-charging, intense rockers that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Ramblin' Gamblin' Man. Unfortunately, the rest of the album has a much lighter, less substantial tone, and though Neme delivers some solid songs (the Seger sung "Lonely Man" and "Follow The Children," for example), by and large the album is rife with the type of filler you'd expect from a second tier (if that) talent. Actually, the album's longest and worst song, the unlistenable mess that is "Cat," is credited to Seger, Honaker, and Perrine, so there was little in the way of inspiration all around. There's not much to say beyond that, really; there's a reason that most of my reviews are of albums that I like, as I simply find it hard to get enthusiastic about reviewing an album that the participants themselves weren't all too thrilled about doing. So my apologies for this review if it sucks. Then again, aside from the few aforementioned bright spots, so does this album.
Mongrel (Capitol ’70) Rating: B+
On album number three, Seger sent Neme packing and took back his band, with a ballsy, hard rocking effort on which his raspy growl is again up front and center, as it should be. Alas, like the first two albums this one isn't available in the United States, but it's worth hunting down if you're a big fan of Seger, though it's not quite essential if you're not (certainly not at import prices). Still, this album sees The System (with the fourth slot being occupied this time by Dan Watson, who plays organ/piano and sings backing vocals) delivering consistent quality, with the stomping barroom romper "Lucifer" and an epic update of Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep-Mountain High" serving as the centerpieces. The passion and energy supplied on the latter long (7:18) song completely transforms it, and though perhaps its jam-based sections meander more than necessary (much like “White Wall” and “Black Eyed Girl” on Ramblin' Gamblin' Man), Seger's ragged vocals give even prime Tina Turner a run for her money (and that's saying something). Really, there's something to like about almost every song here; "Song To Rufus"" is a high energy pounder about a drug dealer, "Evil Edna" has some interestingly offbeat instrumentation (a truly wild guitar tone, mostly), "Highway Child" is funky, hard rocking, and features a smokin' Seger vocal, "Big River" is a ballad where the All Music Guide accurately noted "he first hits upon the wistful, passionate ballad style later popularized by "Night Moves"," "Teachin' Blues" is short but intense, "Leanin' On My Dreams" is bluesy and melodic with another anti-draft message a la "2+2=?" (only not nearly as good), and "Mongrel Too" stands out due to its slow, loping harpsichord-led melody and gospel chorus (sorry, I can't comment on "Mongrel," as my vinyl copy is scratched on that song, but based on the rest of the album and "Mongrel Too" I'm tempted to give it the benefit of the doubt). Most of the songs are mid-tempo, featuring pounding rhythms, bright colorful keyboards, and rocking blues-based riffs along with Seger's trademark hoarse vocals, and though it doesn't boast the diversity of Ramblin' Gamblin' Man, nor do its high points soar as high, Mongrel was a significant step up from Noah and, some generic songwriting aside, it's a fine album in its own right.
Back In '72 (Palladium/Reprise ’72) Rating: A-
One of Bob Seger's best albums, Back In '72 is also unfortunately unavailable on CD, as Bob apparently doesn't like his vocals on the album. I beg to differ, as his fiery vocals are impressive and passionate throughout, plus this album contains a fine batch of songs, encompassing three covers and six originals, as well as a nice mix of gritty, bluesy rockers and wistful ballads. Among the covers, I'm not all that fond of his boogie/gospel reading of the Allman Brothers Band's "Midnight Rider," but his versions of Free's "Stealer" and Van Morrison's "I've Been Workin'" are intense, tough, and hard rocking (the former more mid-tempo and controlled, the latter grooving more spontaneously and wilder). Seger's originals are some of his best, and there's not a weak track in the bunch. The chugging title track is simply a badass rocker, long before his songs became fodder for car commercials and condescending labels like "dad rock." "Rosalie," a tribute to a program director at a local radio station, is another signature Seger tune, even if it pales when compared to the later well-known Thin Lizzy cover version. Likewise, "Turn The Page" is one of Seeger's definitive songs, but this tame studio version simply can't compete with the better known version on Live Bullet. Still, both are fine songs that are worth hearing in these renditions as well, and the rest of the album is comprised of strong album tracks, including the soaring, soulful multi-tracked ballad "So I Wrote You A Song," the atmospheric keyboards and slide guitar-led semi-ballad "Neon Sky," and the sparse, pretty keyboard-heavy finale, "I've Got Time." On the whole, this is simply a very good, no frills rock 'n' roll album, one that often features keyboards and piano, as well as female backing vocals, in addition to the standard bass/guitar/drums setup. Here's hoping that Bob gets over whatever vocal imperfections he hears on this album and gives it a proper CD release.
Beautiful Loser (Capitol ’75) Rating: B+
After a series of albums (Brand New Morning, Smokin' O.P.'s, Back In '72, Seven) that saw limited success, Bob Seger was a bonafide journeyman who had years of hard work under his belt but precious little to show for it beyond a hardcore regional following. Beautiful Loser, Seger's last album before hooking up with the Silver Bullet Band, only hit 131 on the Billboard charts, but it started to set the stage for his later success, as the title track and "Katmandu" both became well-known album tracks, if not exactly hits. The title track, a lovely piano ballad, is a classy, laid back ode to underachievers, while Seger's disillusionment with his lack of success is apparent on "Katmandu," which musically is a catchy, fast, fun (if overly long) rocker obviously inspired by Chuck Berry. "Nutbush City Limits," a high energy stomper originally performed by Ike and Tina Turner a couple of years earlier, is the albums only other big time rocker, though "Black Night" is another solidly enjoyable mid-tempo rocker. The rest of the album is comprised exclusively of ballads, most of which are acoustic/piano-based with the occasional string accompaniment, while the reflective, introspective lyrics often focus on the loneliness of life on the road. "Jody Girl" is a quiet, wistful, moving meditation about a love that started strong ("'aint it hard to forget") and ended up elsewhere, while the short but sweet "Travelin' Man" presents a familiar rock 'n' roll theme (life on the road) along with some fluid harmonized guitars and bright keyboard parts. Some melodic, soulful guitar also props up the sentimental "Momma," another strong album track, while "Sailing Nights" and "Fine Memory" end the album with a pair of moody late night ballads, the lonesome former one containing periodic passionate vocals, the nostalgic latter one low-key all the way. All in all, this album lacks originality and diversity, the production and performances can be a tad tepid, and the overall running time is a scant 32 minutes. Still, these are good songs, sometimes very good, though the fact that Live Bullet takes and generally improves upon this albums five best songs ("Beautiful Loser," "Katmandu," "Jody Girl," "Travelin' Man," "Nutbush City Limits") makes Beautiful Loser somewhat superfluous for anyone other than hardcore Seger fans.
Live Bullet (Capitol ’76) Rating: A-
Beginning his fruitful association with the Silver Bullet Band (guitarist Drew Abbott, bassist Chris Campbell, keyboardist Robyn Robbins, saxophonist Alto Reed (real name: Tom Cartmell), and drummer Charlie Allen Martin), Live Bullet is an electrifying live showcase, as rock music's ultimate everyman preached his high energy rock 'n' roll gospel to the already converted in his hometown of Detroit. Although it's missing some essentials ("2+2=?," "Back in ’72," "Lucifer," and "Rosalie," for example), and a couple of songs ("Nutbush City Limits," "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man") are inferior to their studio counterparts ("Heavy Music" drags as well but I've never heard the original), overall this album provides an extremely successful summation of Bob Seger's career to date. This version of "Travelin' Man" easily bests the original, and the way it seamlessly segues into "Beautiful Loser" is a classy, inspired touch, maybe the best moment here. The cover selections are well done and aren't overly obvious: "I've Been Working" successfully revisits Van The Man, their version of "Bo Diddley" (originally done by, surprisingly enough, Bo Diddley) highlights the group's groove/jam-based attributes, and Chuck Berry's "Let It Rock" provides a raucous, crowd pleasing finale. Actually, "Katmandu" and "Get Out Of Denver" sound more like Chuck Berry songs than the Chuck Berry song, and both are definitive versions, as is "Turn The Page," which shames both the original and the later Metallica cover and still stands as one of rock's great "road songs." That song is a rare ballad along with the several Beautiful Loser songs, as Seger and co. rightfully focus on fast, hard rocking songs such as the whiskey soaked, Lynyrd Skynyrd-ish "U.M.C. (Upper Middle Class)," which contains some killer slide guitar, and "Lookin' Back," a short but sweet sing along which shows that old radical Seger in the lyrics and isn't easily available elsewhere. Finally, Bob Seger had the proper forum to fully showcase his talents, and the people were actually listening, Live Bullet becoming by far his most successful album to date and setting the stage for the massive success of Night Moves. All these years later, it's simply a flawed but undeniably classic live landmark that showcased Bob Seger and his red hot Silver Bullet Band in peak form.
Night Moves (Capitol ’77) Rating: A-
Arguably Bob Seger’s best album, Night Moves showcases a great singer in vintage form, which wouldn’t have meant nearly as much if he hadn’t written some of his best songs ever. In fact, there’s not a track here that’s less than good, and quite a few exceed expectations, such as the terrific title track. An unforgettable coming of age ballad inspired by the movie American Graffiti, I especially love the last minute or so, i.e. "I remember, I remember, I remember" and so on. The nostalgic rocker “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” pits a strong melody against Seger’s gritty rasps and groans (like Springsteen, with whom he's often compared, few singers can say more with a wordless groan), while “Fire Down Below” has plenty of fire and is all nasty groove (dig the shout out to my hometown borough of Queens as well). Night Moves features a nice balance of stomping, attitude-soaked rockers, such as “Come To Poppa” (an Ann Peebles cover written by Earl Randle and William Mitchell, though her version is called “Come To Mama”) and “Mary Lou” (another cover, apparently, this one originally done by Young Jessie), and sweaty ballads, including the brilliantly evocative “Main Street,” whose sad riff rings out into the night, matched by equally sorrowful, vividly image rich lyrics. "Sunburst," an epic ballad turned rocker, takes some getting used to but is another keeper, while the stellar slide guitar and piano work stands out on the fun, '50s-styled "Sunspot Baby," as does Bob's story-based lyrics. Most of these songs, including the pretty if plain "Ship Of Fools," see Seger the middle aged man nostalgically and wistfully looking back on his life, and it’s an entertaining and enlightening trip back listening to this weary, bleary-eyed romantic’s heart on his sleeve musings. Seger’s tight backing band also remains one of the best in the business, making this a rare album that gives mainstream rock ‘n’ roll a good name. Note: Actually, on four of the nine songs, rather than the Silver Bullet Band, Seger is backed by the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who are in fine form as well.
Stranger In Town (Capitol ‘78) Rating: A-
After many years and ten albums, Night Moves suddenly and deservedly made Bob Seger a star. He wasn't about to mess with the formula, but fortunately Stranger In Town (so named because Seger was a stranger in the community of success and feared it would be taken away from him) is a similarly strong sequel. It features two rollicking rockers in “Hollywood Nights” and “Feels Like A Number,” whose soaring choruses and propulsive rhythms are really elevated by Seger's phenomenal vocals. "Hollywood Nights" in particular is one of Seger's best songs, as like "Night Moves" it builds to a fantastic finish, with Seger leading the way ("she had all of the skills...") along with subtle piano and female gospel backing. The melancholic “Still The Same” and “Till It Shines” are also great, the former a gorgeously low-key ballad again boosted by piano and gospel backing, the latter led by its evocative riffs and Seger's sighing vocals (with yet more piano, which seems to have increased in prominence on this album). Unfortunately, “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” is an annoyingly contrived "party song" that has become one of rock’s most overplayed tracks due to its inclusion in the movie Risky Business, featuring Tom Cruise’s famous underwear rendition. Elsewhere, “Ain’t Got No Money” is a rugged Frankie Miller cover that's good but musically (overly) echoes “Fire Down Below,” while “We’ve Got Tonight” is a desperate lust ballad that really tugs on your emotions provided you can forget the better known Kenny Rogers/Sheena Easton version (yuck) and the fact that it's practically drowned in strings and fairly screams "lite FM." Then comes the enjoyable piano-led groove of “Brave Strangers,” an underrated 6+ minute album track that evolves into a slower, grittier mid-section (on which I dig the smoky late night sax in the background and the female gospel backing vocals) before picking up steam again. Finally, the album closes with the sad yet lovely ballad “The Famous Final Scene” (man that lonely guitar crying out gets to me), thus ending the peak period of Bob Seger’s long career; in as far as commercial and critical success are concerned, the Live Bullet, Night Moves, Stranger In Town troika is tough to top. Note: There are no covers this time, but to quote Wikipedia: “Like its predecessor, the Silver Bullet Band backed Seger on about half of the songs and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section backed Seger on the other half.”
Against The Wind (Capitol ‘80) Rating: B-
The following Bob Seger quote tells the story of this album: "I was aiming for a totally commercial album. Maybe it was a little too commercial, but I wanted to make sure I had three hit singles on it. I never had a No. 1 album and I wanted one." Well, Bob got his #1 album, but musically the results are rather underwhelming, as this ballad heavy collection is too safe and relaxed for its own good, Seger perhaps losing some of his hunger due to all the success. In general, the ballads are better than the rockers, two of which are terrible ("The Horizontal Bop," "Long Twin Silver Line"), and one of which is a fun change of pace but is basically more Chuck Berry by numbers ("Betty Lou's Gettin' Out Tonight"). The only real keeper on that front is "Her Strut," a stomping rocker with a good mid-tempo groove and playful lyrics that Seger insists aren't sexist. As for the ballads, they're definitely more Southern California than Detroit, and there's a dull Eagles/James Taylor stench to them. None of them are actually bad, but "No Man's Land," "Good For Me," and "Shinin' Brightly" are merely pleasantly boring. Fortunately, the three hit singles Bob so badly wanted are all really good, even if there's too much of a Kenny Roger-ish feel to "You'll Accomp'ny Me," a quiet, soulful, country-tinged ballad. "Fire Lake" also lopes along but has an especially haunting quality to it, helped by harmonies from Henley, Frey, and Schmit (Eagles producer Bill Szymczyk oversees things here as well). However, the best song by far is the title track, a gorgeous, deeply moving piano ballad that's musically reserved and lyrically reflective, wise even (great lyric: "wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then"). All in all, Against The Wind sees Seger a little too self-satisfied, and though it has several strong songs and a couple of classics that I consider to be among his very best, ultimately it's a deeply flawed, minor work, though I'm sure Seger's accountant would disagree. Note: This time out the Silver Bullet Band and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm section both backed Bob on five songs each.
The Distance (Capitol ‘82) Rating: B+
Big rebound by Bob and the Silver Bullet Band, who shine on a much tougher batch of tunes, particularly sax player Alto Reed, who is given several solo spotlights. Filled with memorable scenes and characters, this concept album about relationships (inspired by the movie Annie Hall) is short on truly classic songs but adds up to more than the sum of its consistent parts. It’s not perfect, as “Makin’ Thunderbirds” delivers generic if energetic rockabilly, a couple of ballads (“Love’s The Last To Know” and “Comin’ Home”) could be Against The Wind outtakes, and Jimmy Iovine’s production is on the slick side. Still, “Even Now” is a classic rocker with a dramatic vocal and devotional lyrics, and “Shame On The Moon,” a Rodney Crowell cover, deservedly was a #2 hit, being a stellar ballad with a loping country melody, pretty piano accompaniment, and West Coast harmonies. “Roll Me Away,” a mid-tempo rocker about a long road trip, was also a modest hit, and this time most of the album tracks are also rock solid, including the bluesy gallop of “Boomtown Blues,” the rumbling rhythms of “House Behind A House,” and the heavy mid-tempo stomp of “Little Victories,” about getting it together after a breakup and a fitting end to the overall concept and the album itself. Although it didn’t fare nearly as well commercially (though it did peak at a respectable #6 on the charts), and its peaks don’t rise as high, song for song The Distance was a better album than Against The Wind by a considerable distance. Note: This time out the lone song that the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section backed Seger on was “Comin’Home.”
Like A Rock (Capitol ‘86) Rating: B
After a long four year wait and some new blood in the Silver Bullet Band (guitarist Rick Vito and drummer John Robinson) came Like A Rock, another relationship themed album (Bob had recently broken up with his long time girlfriend and another subsequent sweetheart) that saw Bob Seger coasting on autopilot. OK, perhaps those of you who called Seger a bland, generic, middle-of-the-road rocker had a point, but this is still a pretty solid piece of work. The merely good first single, “American Storm," is an anti-drug song that sounds a little too familiar (think “Even Now”), but the title track, an everyman anthem now synonymous with Ford pickup truck commercials, is better, with some great slide guitar from Vito elevating this classy “power ballad.” “The Ring” and “Somewhere Tonight” are also above-average ballads, while “Miami” and “It’s You” see Seger doing his melodic mid-tempo thing, with successful albeit overly slick results. As for the rockers, I like the sax, trumpet, and piano embellishments on “Sometimes,” and his live cover of CCR’s “Fortunate Son” (a cd only bonus track) is enjoyable, but “Tightrope” and “The Aftermath” clutter up the middle of the album with gratingly synthetic, dated sounds that all but scream mid-80s! That these songs were co-written with one Craig Frost were perhaps an indication that inspiration was waning, and his subsequent career seems to bear out this fact, Still, he had his lone number 1 hit in 1987 with “Shakedown,” a dreadful contribution to the Beverly Hills II soundtrack, and his 1994 Greatest Hits album sold over 9 million copies in the U.S. alone despite a too safe track list that was underwhelming to long time fans (who obviously weren’t the album's target audience). Always one of rock’s more level headed good guys, Seger seems to have semi-retired to a life of domesticity; his later albums, The Fire Inside (1991) and It’s A Mystery (1995), are for hardcore fans only.
Face the Promise (Capitol ‘06) Rating: B+
I had absolutely no plans to review this comeback album, Seger's first in 11 eleven years (presumably from a financial standpoint he doesn't need to be more productive), but when I saw a copy of it in my local library I decided to give it a try. And lo and behold, it's much better than I expected it to be. True, it may lack the Silver Bullet Band (this is his first solo album since 1975's Beautiful Loser) and truly classic tracks, and the production is agreeably in your face but also somewhat heavy handed and overly slick, but this is his most consistent and fully realized album in some time. What this album does deliver is loud, heavy guitars, lots of gospel flavored female backing vocals (which sometimes sound out of place on the rockers), and more guitar solos than you’d ever expect on a Bob Seger album (props then to the session musicians who helped out). The album contains Seger's customary mix of intense rockers and soulful ballads, it's just that rockers like "Wreck This Heart," "Face The Promise," "Are You," and "Between" are heavier than I expected, especially coming from a grizzled vet now in his sixties. Among the highlights are "No Matter Who You Are," which at least feels like an anthem, and "No More," with its prominent orchestration and Meat Loaf-like melodramatics, but this albums strength is in its consistency. Other tracks stand out for various reasons, for example "Simplicity" due to the dominance of the horns and "Won't Stop" due to its soulful guitar crying out, but some songs like "Wait For Me" sound like retreads (in this case of "Against the Wind"), while the countrified boogie Kid Rock duet "Real Mean Bottle," a Vince Gill cover, strikes me as a contrived attempt at a hit (fortunately, the Patti Loveless duet "The Answer's in the Question" fares better). So, this album's not perfect, far from it, and of course it doesn't match his late '70s peak, which is where any neophytes should start with Bob Seger, but Face the Promise was still a welcome return, and a welcome return to form, from this recently inducted Rock and Roll Hall Of Famer.
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