Look Into The Future (Columbia '76) Rating: A-
Most people aren't even aware that Journey recorded three albums prior to Steven Perry joining the band, which isn't that surprising I guess as the band themselves seem to have all but disowned them. I'm not quite sure why, because although the commercial success didn't come until after Perry joined the fold, the band's first three albums recorded after guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist-singer Gregg Rollie left Santana are actually quite good. Quite good in a style that's completely unlike their later albums, I should add, as 1975's Journey , 1976's Look Into The Future, and 1977's Next are much more progressive and not nearly as commercial as the later efforts spearheaded by Perry. Anyway, if you like one of these albums you should probably investigate all three (I’m partial to the first two in particular), and I'm reviewing the band's second one because it contains the 8-minute title track, which is just about the best thing the band ever did, with or without Perry. This truly great, EPIC power ballad is just about the definition of a "lost gem," as it features an excellent vocal and richly textured keyboards from Rollie, soaring guitar solos from Schon, and explosive drumming from Aynsley Dunbar, who impresses throughout the album. Indeed, this album is primarily a showcase for Schon and Dunbar, who often get to stretch out and strut their stuff, generally with extremely impressive results. Granted, there are times when maybe the band lacks focus, as sometimes these "songs" are really more jams than songs proper, but fortunately this version of the band (with Ross Valory rounding out the lineup on bass) could really jam. I'll refrain from naming too many other highlights because I rather like listening to the whole album, but a great cover of The Beatles' "It's All Too Much" (itself something of a "lost gem" in the first place) and the 7-minute "I'm Gonna Leave You" (which likely inspired Kansas' far more famous "Carry On Wayward Son") are also worth mentioning, and those of you who like instrumentally-based hard rock (think early Santana without the congas more so than later Journey) should give this album a try, as in its own way I enjoy it just as much as Perry-era high water marks Infinity and Escape, though it doesn't sound anything like either one of those albums.
Infinity (Columbia '78) Rating: A-
The band's first three albums were progressive-minded efforts that didn't win Journey much of an audience, so they decided to go in a different, more commercial direction. Infinity was the band's fourth album and their first with singer Steve Perry, whose wondrously high-pitched pipes ushered in an era of phenomenal success, though first singer Gregg Rollie also shares the mike for some vocal tradeoffs on a couple of tunes. The album's best known songs are "Lights," a romantic power ballad (soon to become the band's calling card), "Wheel In The Sky," an evocative yet intense mid-tempo rocker, and "Feeling That Way," a fantastic summertime song with a dynamic Perry vocal that segues into the catchy sing alongs of "Anytime;" these last two songs are almost always played in tandem on the radio, a la "Heartbreaker/Livin' Lovin' Maid" or "We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions." Elsewhere, "La Do Da" is an enjoyably upbeat rocker that successfully grooves along despite its ridiculous lyrics, while "Patiently," "Something To Hide," "Winds Of March," and "Opened The Door" are other pretty, highly worthwhile power ballads with varying moods and prime vocal performances from Perry. Aside from the so-so rocker, "Can Do," the second half of the album is a bit ballad heavy, but even their ballads usually include a Neal Schon guitar solo and some Perry vocal acrobatics to spice things up, plus "Winds Of March" even has an explosive jam ending a la their earlier albums. Inviting vocal harmonies are another Journey asset, and though there's nothing original or unpredictable about what this incarnation of Journey does, this doesn't change the fact that Journey are very good at working within their chosen style. They have their cheesy faults, but Perry has a terrific voice and you can't tell me that when the drums kick in and Perry sings "when the summer's gone..." on "Feeling That Way" that it's not a great rock 'n' roll moment. True, it may not be hip to like Journey, and they're often derided as "bland AOR" or "corporate rock" (witness their absurdly low ratings across the board in the Rolling Stone Album Guide), but they were a big part of my teenage years, and at their best I still find the band's catchy melodies and dramatic delivery extremely listenable and pleasurable.
Evolution (Columbia '79) Rating: B+
Drummer Aynsley Dunbar is out and former Montrose drummer Steve Smith is in, but not much has changed, really, as Evolution continued the band's evolution (sorry, that was too easy) into a top-flight pop rock band. Although the album is more balanced than the ballad-heavy Infinity, its songwriting isn't quite as consistent, as several mediocrities, particularly towards the end of the album (in what would become a reoccurring Journey weakness), mars it somewhat, though there's certainly enough quality material here to make the album easily recommendable. The aptly titled "Majestic" briefly begins the proceedings with some soaring guitar heroics courtesy of Schon, whose crystal clear tone and sense of drama would prove a fine fit with Perry's theatrical vocals and Rollie's bright keyboards. "Too Late" is a melodic ballad with a singable chorus (plus the obligatory guitar solo), while "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'" became the band's first top 20 hit. In truth, the song is a melodic but annoyingly cheesy attempt at a "Hey Jude"-styled significance, but it certainly made for a good sing along in concert, with audiences swaying along with its "na na na na" chorus. Elsewhere, "City Of The Angels" and "Do You Recall" are likeable mid-tempo pop songs with standout harmonies, while the faster paced "When You're Alone (It Ain't Easy)" is another extremely catchy and singable entry. The other well-known radio song is "Just The Same Way," another catchy number on which Rollie sings the verses before Perry joins in on the chorus before Schon’s classy guitar solo closes it out; Schon’s stellar playing also highlights “Lovin’ You Is Easy,” another strong album track. Like I said before, there's some nondescript filler here and the high points don't rise as high as those on Infinity, but by and large Evolution was another winner.
Departure (Columbia '80) Rating: B
The flagship tune this time is "Any Way You Want It" (forever synonymous with Rodney Dangerfield in the movie Caddyshack), the band's biggest hit yet and arguably their best rocker ever, led by a fantastic Perry vocal, several superlative Schon solo spotlights, and a great fadeout ending (which was fast becoming another Journey trademark). Other typical Journey tracks include "Someday Soon," a simple but solid (big) ballad on which Rollie also sings (and Schon solos), and "Where Were You," a riff-based rocker with a melodic harmonized chorus. "I'm Cryin'" is a moodier, more intense ballad than usual, but "Good Morning Girl" and "Stay Awhile" are lush, pretty, string-drenched ballads in their more customary style. Alas, aside from Schon's flashy guitar heroics "Homemade Love" largely falls flat, and the boogie-by-numbers verses of "Line Of Fire" brings down its much better chorus. Elsewhere, the band stretches out a bit, as "Walks Like A Lady" offers a low-key, jazzy change of pace that Journey pulls off quite well. "People and Places" is another ambitious if not always successful number, with an almost a capella intro, a sparse keyboard-led melody, and Schon's soaring guitar solo being its most notable attributes. And though the guitar is mixed too far back on "Precious Time," on which it also probably wasn't a good idea to let Rollie's harmonica often lead the way, the song is another example of how Journey wasn't afraid to try new things (the album is titled Departure for a reason, after all). Still, for all the album's adventurous strengths, Journey are at their best as a highly commercial, supremely melodic pop rock band, and on the whole these songs simply aren't as memorable as the ones on the prior two albums.
Escape (Columbia '81) Rating: A
Jonathan Cain replaced Gregg Rollie on keyboards for this album, and his more prominent playing and songwriting contributions (often in tandem with Perry) would play a major role in shaping the sound of what is generally regarded as the "classic Journey lineup." Really, it all came together on this monstrously successful album, which spawned several massive hit singles and even led to the creation of a Journey video game (raise your hand if you remember), such was the band's popularity at the time. "Don't Stop Believin'" is perhaps the greatest Journey moment, marrying an inspiring message with a majestic keyboard melody and a great Perry vocal. When Schon kicks in on guitar it's hard not to think of Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci in the movie Monster or the last scene in The Sopranos, and on a personal note this song always reminds me of the '86 Mets, as I arrived home from a Journey concert just in time to see the fateful Bill Buckner misplay in Game 6 of the World Series. Other well-known highlights here include "Stone In Love," a nostalgic, melodic, feel-good rocker that's led by its simple but supreme summertime riffs, the synth-led, evocative ballad 'Who's Crying Now," which ends with an impeccably fluid guitar solo from Schon (come to think of it "Stone It Love" had a great extended outro guitar solo as well), and "Open Arms," a classic tearjerker of a power ballad whose schmaltzy sentimentality is offset by Perry's commanding vocal performance. The slow, dreamy ballad "Still They Ride" likewise has a lighter-inducing sing along chorus, while "Keep On Running" and "Escape" are highly charged rockers. "Keep On Running" has nostalgic lyrics about longing for escape, a theme that's echoed throughout much of the album (not surprising given its title; teenage love is another reoccurring theme), and though this fast-paced song isn't as hooky as some of the others, it grooves along nicely and of course has yet another singable chorus. The title track takes awhile to get going, but once it does it really takes off on a great second half surge, while "Mother, Father" is a haunting, atmospheric epic that also has its more melodic moments along with another strong guitar solo. Sure, as per usual there are a couple of lesser efforts towards the end of the album, in this case a couple of rockers ("Lay It Down" and "Dead Or Alive," neither of which are bad), but the hits here far outnumber the misses. As such, Escape is THE Journey album (not including greatest hits packages), as it offers prime escapist entertainment.
Frontiers (Columbia '82) Rating: B
This one is even more frontloaded than usual, with five stellar songs followed by five fairly forgettable tracks. Perhaps the band was a bit overworked at this point, having toured and recorded nonstop for several years now; contrary to their lame "corporate rock" tag, Journey's success was largely due to Perry and co.'s perspiration, not as a result of some marketing plan drawn up in a conference room by record company bigwigs. They sound tired at times, and Perry's voice is slightly more frayed and less immaculate than usual. Really, this would've made a great EP, and the band's decision to exclude recent soundtrack songs such as "Only The Young" (Vision Quest) and "Ask The Lonely" (Two Of A Kind) was unwise given the excellent quality of those songs and their comparatively weak replacements. Still, "Separate Ways," a hard charging rocker with a memorable synth line and loads of drama, became an instant Journey classic that was the song when I saw them in concert (its video is also among the most unintentionally hilarious ever). "Send Her My Love," another breakup song (this album's primary theme, I guess; I have no idea why it's called Frontiers), was a memorable ballad with a melodic, singable chorus accompanying moving lyrics lamenting the loss of a loved one. "Chain Reaction" is a chugging rocker that's a little too KISS-like (i.e. cheesy) on the verses, but though this one isn’t quite “stellar” as previously advertised, at least it has a good groove and chorus, while the underrated "After The Fall" is all about its airy chorus. Along with "Separate Ways," this album's signature song is "Faithfully," one of the definitive power ballads with a great Schon/Perry climax and heart tugging lyrics about missing the missus on the road road (Steve Smith’s drums sound great as well, in fact I always air drum to his fills as the song reaches its climax). Unfortunately, aside from the agreeably melodramatic semi-ballad "Troubled Child" and the brightly hooky “Rubicon,” neither of which are exactly highlights (more like “best of the rest”), the album's second half is largely unmemorable; I'm hard pressed to remember a single thing about the title track, and the only reason I remember "Back Talk" is because it's among the band's most grating songs. "Edge Of The Blade" could be a lot hookier as well, but at least I like Schon's guitar work and the song's overall drive, a drive that is too often lacking elsewhere. Also, Cain's increasingly dominant keyboard embellishments have a distinct '80s vibe, making some of the album sound dated (a charge that could be leveled at several of their other albums as well, I suppose). So, given that you can also get the five key songs here on Essential Journey, I'd say that Frontiers is primarily for completists.
Raised On Radio (Columbia '86) Rating: B+
After Frontiers the band members needed a break from one another, but they kept busy between Journey albums. Schon did an album with Jan Hammer that was released within weeks of Frontiers, and Hagar, Schon, Shrieve, and Aaronson came out in March '84. Perry's very Journey-like (much to Schon's chagrin) solo album Street Talk came out in May '84 and spawned four hit singles (also likely to Schon's chagrin), the most notable of which were "Oh Sherrie" and "Foolish Heart." Wielding even more power than previously, Perry saw to it that Vallory and Smith were canned, replaced by Randy Jackson (later to find fame and fortune as a record executive and American Idol judge) and Larrie London, respectively. Anyway, that bit of background information out of the way, Raised On Radio (Journey's last album before a ten year hiatus) is largely overlooked, even though it sold over 2 million copies and contains four songs ("Girl Can't Help It," "Suzanne," "Be Good To Yourself," and "I'll Be Alright Without You") deemed worthy of their 1998 Greatest Hits album. This is more of the same, really, as Journey maintains their pleasingly light and melodic pop rock standards on not only the fine above-mentioned songs, but also on the catchy piano rocker "Positive Touch" and the relatively rocking "Raised On Radio," one of several songs here with highly singable harmonies and nostalgic lyrics. The best songs here are "Girl Can't Help It," one of the band's catchiest and most melodic efforts that's notable for its airy harmonies and dramatic "fire!" punctuations from Perry, "Be Good To Yourself," an upbeat rocker with one of Schon's best guitar solos, and "I'll Be Alright Without You," a terrific ballad (which has become something of a "lite FM" standard) about love lost and moving on that contains another classy Schon solo. Elsewhere, "Once You Love Somebody" has a lightly soulful, slightly funky vibe, while "Why Can't This Night Go On Forever" ends the album with a slow ballad that's a perfect fit for prom night (I actually remember hearing it at my high school prom, though I'm old enough that my prom wasn't that long after this album was released). Anyway, this album is a bit mellower than most Journey albums, and Cain's dated, tinkly keyboards are still a hindrance (Journey's keyboards sound like their colorful album covers look). Also, like all of their albums Raised On Radio contains a few forgettable tracks on side two, but overall the album has an abundance of fine songs, and if you like lyrics that focus on love and optimistic music that makes you feel good, then Journey will probably win you over.
Essential Journey (Columbia '01) Rating: A-
As previously noted, critics dismiss Journey as "corporate rock" or as the unimaginative kings of arena rock, but I believe that the critics too easily overlook the band's obvious virtues. For one thing, the band's core trio possessed undeniable talent. Steve Perry's pure, high-pitched voice is a beautiful instrument, Neil Schon has a fluid, melodic guitar tone, and Jonathan Cain is a fine songwriter and able keyboard player. Secondly, the band has written loads of really good songs over the years, encompassing intense rockers ("Any Way You Want It," "Separate Ways"), melodic crowd pleasers (too many to mention), and, of course, dramatic power ballads ("Open Arms," "Faithfully"). Although Journey were album oriented artists (the cream of the crop being 1981's Escape), their albums were generally highlighted by their singles, and as such this 2-cd retrospective should contain all the music that most non-hardcore Journey fans will need. The album is put together much like Paul McCartney's Wingspan compilation, as the first cd contains the band's biggest hits (essentially replacing 1988's Greatest Hits collection except that it includes "When You Love A Woman" instead of "Suzanne"), and the second cd focuses on worthwhile album tracks and fan favorites. "Stone In Love," "The Party's Over (Hopelessly In Love)," "After The Fall," "Still They Ride," "Just The Same Way," and "Escape" are some of the songs that were regretfully omitted from the last hits collection that appear here, and at 32 tracks and a bargain price this album offers fans a good bang for their buck. That said, despite being the best Journey compilation available by a wide margin (the band's 3-cd box set, Time 3, has too much filler), Essential Journey isn't all that it could've been. First of all, there is no material from the band's first three pre-Steve Perry albums (again, the band acts as if they don't even exist). Perry's solo hits such as "Oh Sherrie" and "Foolish Heart" have also been overlooked, and significant songs such as “Too Late,” “When You’re Alone (It Ain’t Easy),” "City Of The Angels," "Suzanne," "Why Can't This Night Go On Forever," "When You're Alone (It Ain't Easy)," and "Walks Like A Lady" have been omitted in favor of more questionable selections such as "Line Of Fire" (from their 1981 live album Captured), "The Eyes Of A Woman" (from Raised On Radio), and "Baby I'm A Leavin' You" (from Trial By Fire, the band's lackluster 1996 reunion album). The most glaring omission, however, is the absence of one of the band's best songs, "Feeling That Way," especially since "Anytime," the song that this segues into and which it is synonymous with, is included (gallingly, the song was also left off both previous hits collections!). Fortunately, most of the bands biggest and best songs are here, and the album flows together well enough despite its seemingly random sequencing. Granted, there are times when their songs are a bit cheesy (in part because their lyrics are sometimes on the sophomoric side), but the band were also more experimental than they're commonly given credit for. Essential Journey, which provides over two hours of consistently enjoyable music, should go a long way towards drowning out the cranky critics who have long underestimated the band, for this is one journey that's well worth taking.