The Eagles are one of those bands who are both underrated (by the mainstream press who loathe their "smarmy" attitude and "mean" lyrics despite the fact that the same charges could be leveled against critic faves like The Rolling Stones) and overrated (by the mainstream radio programmers and fans who think they’re one of the very best bands ever based on a dozen or so hummable hits), and as usual the truth falls somewhere in between the two extreme viewpoints. Even their harshest critics couldn't deny that they were ultra-competent and professional musicians, as each member had been around the block a few times, most recently providing backup support for Linda Rondstadt, before joining forces together. The Eagles were comprised of guitarist Glenn Frey, at first the unofficial leader of the band, drummer Don Henley, who would soon rise significantly in importance (he co-writes only one song here), bassist Randy Meisner (ex Poco, Rick Nelson), who also provided the band’s signature high-pitched harmony vocals, and guitarist Bernie Leadon (ex Dillard & Clark, Flying Burrito Brothers), an outstanding country picker who could play any stringed instrument. The fact that each band member could sing and write made them quite the collection of talent, and never was the band more democratic in their approach than on their debut album, as Frey, Leadon, and Meisner each co-wrote three songs and they all share lead vocals. Recorded for David Geffen’s fledgling Asylum label, the album was produced by Glyn Johns, who accentuated the band’s laid-back attributes, perhaps too much so as the overall sound is almost too note perfect and lacks excitement, though it’s rarely less than pleasant. Certainly the three hit singles are all outstanding. Primarily written by Jackson Browne (though Frey got a co-credit as well), “Take It Easy” contains all the band’s best characteristics, notably a catchy, easy going melody, clever wordplay, some fine acoustic pickin’, and pristine vocal harmonies. Written by Jack Tempchin, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” is another laid-back winner, this one slower paced, with lovely chiming guitars, Frey’s smooth, sleepy lead vocals, and of course more singable harmonies being the main attractions. Revealing the band’s versatility, “Witchy Woman,” sung by Henley in his trademark rasp, is altogether different, being a much tougher rock outing with pounding drums and a moody, mysterious vibe, not to mention the first of several cynical lyrics that would get the band branded as sexist by some. None of the album tracks are near the same level as the hits, but most are solid enough. The least impressive among these are probably “Chug All Night,” a generic rocker that’s kinda dumb, and “Take The Devil,” a sparse, intense Meisner effort that’s definitely different but never really ignites. As for the best of the rest, “Most Of Us Are Sad” is a pretty, passionate ballad with a universal theme, and “Nightingale,” another Browne composition, is a good rocker, in as much as a Jackson Browne song can rock, anyway. “Train Leaves Here This Morning,” a Leadon co-write with Gene Clark from back in their Dillard & Clark days, is very relaxed and understated but quite agreeable, while “Earlybird” is a solidly pleasing banjo/guitar showcase (remember, these guys were ultra-competent). Finally, Meisner’s “Tryin’” enjoyably ends the album with his trademark high-pitched vocals, a singable chorus, and even some wailing guitar, as the band shows that they can in fact rock out somewhat when the mood so moves them. Most of the time, however, they're content to mine the countrified “soft rock” sound that most people think of when they think of The Eagles, who would soon grow to (in the words of biographer Laura Jackson) “become a symbol for a relaxed, rich, don’t-give-a-fuck lifestyle” that represented Southern California. As such, it’s easy to see why massive success beckoned in this band’s not too distant future, but The Eagles offers up only modest pleasures. After all, there’s laid-back, and then there’s too laid-back, which can become pretty boring, and though the band had their own distinctive sound and were comprised of high quality singers and musicians, there are times when I wish that they'd sweat just a little bit.
Desperado (Asylum ’73) Rating: B+
This concept album's rock star as Western outlaw analogy seems laughable today given the band's subsequent smug, rich rock star status, but you have to remember that when this album was being recorded it was just a neat idea by a new band trying to make it big. The reason this album didn't make it, at least not when compared to their other more commercially successful albums (it peaked at a modest #41 on Billboard), is because it lacked hit singles and some of its songs aren't all that memorable. The band's mixed message also didn't help; the famous cover photo was pure country while the actual music veered more towards rock, and the band briefly slipped between the cracks as a result. "Tequila Sunrise" saw the band, and particularly Frey, at their laid-back best, and the title track, a pretty orchestral piano ballad that provides a warning of sorts to you loner types, was also later deemed one of their "greatest hits," but neither song was actually a hit, in fact "Desperado" wasn't even released as a single. As for album tracks, "Doolin' Dalton" is obviously the album's key track along with "Desperado" from a thematic standpoint (the song is reprised twice, for starters), and it's an evocative album opener. I like the way the lonesome harmonica cries out, and the way the riffs wail on what is essentially a ballad. Elsewhere, "Twenty One" and "Doolin' Dalton (Instrumental)" are short bluegrass showcases for the band's most accomplished musician (Leadon), while "Out Of Control" is a fun, rowdy riff rocker, song slot #3 apparently being the position reserved for big dumb rockers, a la “Chug All Night.” "Certain Kind Of Fool" is a rare Randy Meisner showcase, as he steps back on this album while Don Henley steps to the fore, co-writing eight of this album's 11 songs and firmly establishing a songwriting partnership with Frey, much to the chagrin of Meisner and Leadon. Anyway, I like a lot of Meisner's vocals, in fact he was probably the band's most important harmony singer, and I like this sensitive semi-ballad as well even though his lead vocal is annoyingly shrill at times. "Outlaw Man," an intense, atmospheric rocker written by David Blue, is another good song despite being rather cliché ridden, and "Saturday Night" is a wistful ballad with the band's trademark harmonies and more impressive Leadon pickin', while "Bitter Creek" is a moody Leadon song that features the band's customary laid-back strengths, though it took a while to grow on me and could certainly be hookier. Actually, that's the biggest problem with the album on the whole; I appreciate the band's tougher sound, and even the lyrical concept is interesting, forced though it may be at times (the "Doolin' Dalton/Desperado (Reprise)" finale exists primarily to provide thematic closure). Again, the musicianship can't really be faulted, with Leadon in particular standing out, and the singing is strong as per usual as well, with Henley asserting himself as an emerging go-to guy. Unfortunately, though there's lots to like about this album, it's also sometimes bland and could use a snappy chorus or two, not to mention a sense of humor.
On The Border (Asylum ’74) Rating: A-
Glyn Johns wanted the band to stress their country side but the band (particularly Frey) wanted to stress their rock side, so Johns was sent packing during the sessions for this album having only completed two songs ("Good Day In Hell," "Best Of My Love"). Bill Szymczyk had done production work for Joe Walsh (among others; more on Mr. Walsh later), with whom the band shared management, so he was drafted in and things immediately went much smoother. Seeking to beef up their sound, guitarist Don Felder was drafted into their ranks as an official band member, and he makes his present felt by adding some needed guitar muscle to tracks such as "Already Gone" and "Good Day In Hell." "Already Gone," written by Jack Tempchin and Robb Strandlund, is one of several songs composed by outside writers (J.D. Souther co-writes three songs), but it could've come from Henley or Frey just as easily given that thematically it continues the band's ongoing distrust of women (perhaps for good reason for all we know). Musically, it sounds almost like a pumped up "Take It Easy" and is highlighted by its catchy chorus and Frey and Felder's dueling guitars. I really like the guitar licks on "You Never Cry Like A Lover" and "Is It True?" as well, all the more surprising given that both are ballads. The former is a Henley-sung contribution about a cold-hearted woman, the latter is Meisner's lone composition and is an extremely strong effort on his part. On the more rocking side, "Good Day In Hell" boasts some serious slide guitar heat, and "James Dean," a popular radio track, is similarly highlighted by screaming guitars, though I'm less fond of its twangy vocals. On the whole, though, the country is fading to the background as the rock steps to the forefront, just as Frey and Henley had wanted it. Basically, the best songwriters in the band were increasingly calling the shots and squeezing out the others, at least that's how Meisner and Leadon saw things and as a result the sessions for this album were fraught with tension. The end result was well worth it, though, as this was the band's most varied and best album yet, only sagging somewhat in its mid-section with Leadon's "My Man," a bland but perfectly pleasant country rock tribute to former Burritos bandmate Gram Parsons, and the title track, a generic mid-tempo rocker (update: actually, "On The Border" has grown on me as well as I like its riffs and creative blending of voices). As for the rest of the songs, "Midnight Flyer" is a fun, fast-paced, bright and catchy bluegrass number on which Leadon again shows his fine fingerpicking skills, while stellar ballads come in the form of "Ol' 55," a Tom Waits cover with appropriately pretty yet mournful pedal steel guitar and perfectly traded off vocal leads and harmonies, and "Best Of My Love," a classic Henley ballad that became the band's first of five #1 U.S. hits. I like this album a lot.
One Of These Nights (Asylum ’75) Rating: A-
The Henley-Frey songwriting partnership was on a roll, and One Of These Nights further established the band as superstars, spawning three top 5 hits, including the #1 hit title track, my single favorite Eagles song (yes I like it even better than “Hotel California”). This evocative, seductive smash has an r&b influence and features great Henley/Meisner falsetto vocals, not to mention an unforgettable bassline, catchy repeated riffs, and a supremely melodic Don Felder guitar solo. The other two major hits were “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Take It To The Limit,” and both are top-notch as well. Of course, the former, about yet another conniving she-devil, got the critics in a lather about the band’s sexist streak, but I like Henley’s defense: “rock ‘n roll is sexist and always has been. To single out The Eagles for that is absurd. We weren’t any more sexist than anybody else.” I agree about the former part, not sure about the latter but feel that too much has been made of it in any event; a good tune is a good tune, and “Lyin’ Eyes,” despite some clumsy lyrics (“she is heading for the cheating side of town” – I'll have to make sure my wife doesn’t go there!) and an overly long length (6:22), sees Frey showing off his characteristic, and quite enjoyable, laid-back strengths. Elsewhere, Randy Meisner steps to the fore with a spectacular lead vocal on “Take It To The Limit,” another instant classic albeit one that’s a bit heavy on the orchestration, and he also sings lead on the stellar “Too Many Hands,” a mysterious, intense guitar heavy album track that’s also notable for its tabla-based percussion. Though as per usual the hits are the best songs, there are other strong album tracks as well, including “Hollywood Waltz,” a classy Henley ballad whose great extended ending deserves a special mention, as does its pretty pedal steel guitar and atypical harmonium accompaniment. Indeed, though they never veer too far from their core sound, the band attempt new things throughout the album, and a world-weary tone dominates the band’s increasingly disillusioned lyrics. This is perhaps best exemplified by “After The Thrill Is Gone,” another stellar ballad on which Frey and Henley alternate lead vocals and whose line, “what can you do when your dreams come true, and it’s not quite like you planned?,” anchors the album from a thematic standpoint. As for the remaining tracks, two were penned (or co-penned) by Bernie Leadon. “Journey of the Sorcerer," later used as the theme music for Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series, is a sweeping, atmospheric instrumental that’s interesting but is also about double the length (6:38) it should've been, and “I Wish You Peace” is even more problematic. Co-written with girlfriend Patti Davis, daughter of Ronald Reagan, the band were rightfully none too fond of it and put it on the album to appease Leadon, who had been dissatisfied with his role in the band. He ended up leaving anyway, which was a natural parting of the ways given that his strength was as a folk/country/bluesgrass guitarist and the rest of the band was moving in a more mainstream pop rock direction. Anyway, we’ll talk about his replacement soon enough (as if you didn’t know already), but back to this album, on which Don Felder gets his only lead vocal with the band on “Visions,” an enjoyable if minor rocker. On the whole this more reserved album lacks some of the energy and excitement of On The Border, but there’s no denying that most of this album is extremely strong from a songwriting and performance standpoint.
The Greatest Hits 1971-1975 (Asylum ’76) Rating: A
You really can't review The Eagles without at least mentioning this album, can you? After all, it's been certified platinum worldwide 40+ times over and is (at the time of this writing) the biggest selling album in the United States ever, even surpassing Michael Jackson's Thriller. Say what you will about their albums, but The Eagles rarely faltered when it came to their singles, and this brief collection distills the obvious highlights from their first four albums when Bernie Leadon was still with the band. The Eagles ("Take It Easy," "Witchy Woman," "Peaceful Easy Feeling"), Desperado ("Desperado," "Tequila Sunrise"), On The Border ("Already Gone," "Best Of My Love"), and One Of These Nights ("Lyin' Eyes," "One Of These Nights," "Take It To The Limit") are all succinctly represented, and though you're no doubt sick of most of these songs courtesy of constant radio overexposure over the years, there's still no denying that these songs sound good together. Though The Eagles’ ultra-smooth, laid-back country rock sound has often been criticized as being a product of manufactured professionalism that lacked passion, no one can deny that they were highly skilled singers and songwriters; certainly their millions of fans can attest to that. And though the popularity of The Eagles produced many inferior like-minded West Coast bands who greatly contributed to the general decline of rock music in the ‘70s, well, that’s really not The Eagles fault, is it? Fact is, there’s not a single less than stellar track on this concise ten-song collection, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable listen throughout, probably The Eagles finest hour.
Hotel California (Asylum ’76) Rating: A
Of course, it’s cheating to call a greatest hits compilation the band’s finest hour, so that designation really belongs to Hotel California, the band’s first album with new guitarist Joe Walsh (ex James Gang and at the time a notable solo performer in his own right), which went on to sell a whopping 16 million copies in the U.S. alone. The Eagles finest non-compilation album statement, Hotel California is an impressive concept piece about the pull of California and how the perils of “Life In The Fast Lane” can lead to an unfulfilling, loveless life of hedonistic decadence. Walsh’s distinctive playing gives the band a harder-edged rock presence that they had previously lacked, particularly on tracks such as “Life In The Fast Lane” and “Victim Of Love,” which rock harder than anything the band had done to date. The precautionary tale of “Life In The Fast Lane” is just about the definitive word on the sordid lifestyle of L.A.'s rich and famous, while “Victim Of Love” is another untrustworthy woman track on which Felder provides tough riffs as Walsh wails away on slide guitar. And then there’s the #1 hit title track, another guitar showcase that’s simply an all-time classic, there’s no point in even trying to deny it, from its evocative acoustic intro on through its dueling guitar climax. Never was the tag team of Walsh and Felder better utilized than on that exciting extended outro, and the song’s memorably evil lyrics are certainly haunting as well (is there anyone here who can’t sing along to every verse?). Lest there was any doubt before, on this album Don Henley asserts himself as the band’s primary lead vocalist, singing 6 of this albums 9 tracks and foreshadowing his subsequent solo success; he proves up to the task with some great performances, none more convincing than on the title track. Elsewhere, The Eagles old laid-back charms are also in evidence on songs such as the Frey-sung “New Kid In Town” (another stellar #1 hit) and Meisner’s "Try and Love Again," another unlucky at love song and a strong album track (dig its ringing guitars and airy harmonies). Less successful is Walsh’s pedestrian "Pretty Maids All in a Row," which doesn’t really seem to fit, particularly since his and Meisner’s high-pitched voices would’ve presented more successful changes of pace had they not been sequenced back-to-back. The "Wasted Time (Reprise)" isn’t exactly necessary, either, but the original "Wasted Time," a heavily orchestrated, regret-filled, soulful piano ballad, is another highlight. Rounding out the set list is “The Last Resort,” whose environmental warnings seem even more prescient today, as this epic 7+ minute ballad delivers a damn fine finale whose superb lyrics really resonate. All in all, this album has its overly slick and commercial faults, but it nevertheless is deserving of its classic status, as Walsh clearly injected some new life into the band, whose concerns seem more real and desperate this time out. As Henley himself noted: “Every band has their peak. That was ours.”
The Long Run (Asylum ’79) Rating: B
After the monstrous success of Hotel California, The Long Run was a major letdown from an artistic standpoint, though it was yet another #1 U.S. album that went platinum 7 times over. The album took almost three years to make, during which Randy Meisner left the fold, to be replaced by Timothy B. Schmit, who ironically had also replaced him in Poco. Constant pressure (much of it self-imposed) and a brutal touring schedule took its toll on the band, though Joe Walsh did manage to sneak in another hit solo album in 1978 with But Seriously Folks…, best known for its amusing single, “Life’s Been Good.” This album is definitely a hits-plus-filler affair, and even the hits are far from foolproof this time, though the overall album has been somewhat unfairly maligned given that the majority of its songs are still good. Part of the problem is in the lifeless, sometimes dated production techniques, but a bigger problem was simply a lack of inspiration on the part of its participants, as the pressures and indulgences of superstardom were taking their toll and being in the band had become a joyless chore. Still, though the atmosphere around the band didn’t provide the best surroundings for creativity, The Long Run nevertheless contained three significant hit singles (“Heartache Tonight,” the last of the band’s five #1 hits, “The Long Run,” and “I Can’t Tell You Why”) and several popular radio tracks (“In The City,” “Those Shoes,” “The Sad Café”). That said, I’ve never been a big fan of “The Long Run,” which, despite some good riffs and a catchy mid-tempo chorus has always sounded somewhat sluggish to me, or “Heartache Tonight,” a Frey-sung barroom stomper that rocks hard enough but is kinda dumb in a rednecky sort of way (p.s. it’s a co-write with longtime collaborator J.D. Souther, who had also co- written prior hits “Best Of My Love,” “New Kid in Town,” and “Victim Of Love,” and Bob Seger who also sings backing vocals). I far prefer the other well-known songs, starting with Schmit’s hypnotic, falsetto-enhanced ballad “I Can’t Tell You Why,” which was his major showcase a la Meisner’s “Take It To The Limit.” Granted, the synth-heavy song will likely be a bit too soft rock/smooth jazz/lite FM for you rockers out there, but there’s no denying its prettiness and I like its melodic guitar solo as well. Joe Walsh adds “In The City,” which like all of his songs doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the band’s output; still, it’s a very good effort that’s notable for its stellar slide guitar, gritty urban lyrics, and airy harmonized chorus. “Those Shoes” features the cool talk box guitar sound that Walsh had previously popularized on his own “Rocky Mountain Way” before Peter Frampton really took it to the bank, and I like it here as well, and I like it here as well, though you could argue that the band’s reliance on such gimmickry showed how inspiration was lacking this time out. Finally, “The Sad Café” effectively closes the album with a lonely Henley sung ballad that’s further propped up by sweet harmonies and a sultry sax solo. But wait, there’s more, and that’s the main problem with this album. Actually, the slow burning “King Of Hollywood” is another impressive album track due to its overall moodiness, notable guitar interplay and solos (especially towards the end), and even a quote-worthy lyric or two. But I’ve never cared for the forced funk of “Disco Strangler” (which has its share of supporters, it should be noted), “Teenage Jail” is an often-annoying attempt at a genre (hard rock) that’s best left to others (I like Walsh’s guitar playing on it at least), and “The Geeks Don’t Want No Freaks” is totally annoying and isn’t even worth talking about. Let’s face it, The Eagles have always had some nondescript tunes, but few of their songs are flat-out bad, so these songs really stand out for me, and for all the wrong reasons. That they were included at all showed just how difficult it had become for the band to put material together (remember “In The City” had previously been released as a solo Joe Walsh song as well, though I like this version better), and on the subsequent tour, later captured on the decent if heavily doctored Eagles Live album, it became increasingly evident that The Eagles had become a fragmented unit. Things came to a head when Frey and Felder brawled after a show; Frey left the band soon afterwards, for it was time to start the solo careers.
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