Before Rod The Mod became Rod The Superstar Sellout, he was a hungry young rocker who had the talent to match. He always had an instantly identifiable voice (first heard in the Jeff Beck Group whose first two albums helped pioneer heavy metal), but way back when he was also a strong songwriter and gifted interpreter who was backed by a tough band whose key players included Ronnie Wood (bass and guitar), Ian MacLagan (organ and piano), and Mick Waller (drums). In fact, I'd argue that Wood (who along with Stewart and MacLagan also simultaneously served time in The Faces) never sounded more inspired than when teamed with Stewart in the early '70s, while Martin Pugh also contributes to the band's formidable guitar attack. Yet of course the star of the show is Rod himself, especially on the two ballads that highlight the album, the traditional (and self-explanatory) "A Man Of Constant Sorrow" and the absolutely gorgeous "Handbags And Gladrags" (written by Michael d'Abo, who also plays piano and arranges the song), on which Rod's vocal is as resonant and affecting as he would ever get. Those of you who think of Rod as a sappy balladeer or that "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" guy would do well to check out raucous rockers such as "Street Fighting Man" (yes, the Stones song, though it sounds nothing like the admittedly superior original until the 3:30 mark) and "An Old Raincoat Won't Ever Let You Down" (which is actually the title of this album in the U.K.), where you'll be surprised to hear how rough the slide guitars sound. "Blind Prayer" is an edgy and impassioned rocker that spits in the face of Rod's slickly polished later stuff, while prominent piano and call and response vocals with producer Lou Reizner are what I remember most about "I Wouldn't Ever Change A Thing," which, interestingly enough, features Keith Emerson on keyboards. Not content to coast, "Cindy's Lament" has more raunchy riffs along with Rod's raspy vocals, though like several songs here it gets by more on its powerful performance than on hooky songwriting, the lack of which is probably why this album wasn't a major hit. The album does have a few gems, though, particularly the two aforementioned ballads, and it's as good a place as any to start with Rod's storyteller-based songwriting style (his later box set was called Storyteller for a reason) and musical merging of earthy folksy elements (unsurprisingly, Bob Dylan is a big influence), blueswailing, and straight-up rock n' roll. "Dirty Old Town" (written by Ewan MacColl, as only half of the albums somewhat skimpy eight songs were written by Stewart) ends the album on a relatively low-key note, but Rod would only continue to get more ambitious (and better), at least for a little while.
Gasoline Alley (Mercury ’70) Rating: A-
Actually, this is more of the same, though there are slight differences. For one, Rod only pens three of the albums nine songs (one in collaboration with Wood), the layered guitars are even more prominent but at the expense of the keyboards, and the album is more likely to feature violins, mandolins, and other such folksy instrumentation within the band’s loose (but not too loose) and lively sound (acoustic guitar virtuoso Martin Martin Quittenton is a welcome new addition to the band’s ranks). That richly authentic sound, again led by Wood’s gritty guitar playing, Waller’s huge, bottomed out wallop, and Stewart’s inimitable vocals, is again this album’s primary attraction, though there are several stellar songs as well. In particular, I love the guitars on the catchy title track, his cover of a then-obscure Bob Dylan ballad (“Only a Hobo”) sounds definitive, the earthy sing along melody of “My Way Of Giving” is extremely enjoyable (plus covering a Small Faces song was a ballsy move given that he had just replaced Steve Marriott in the Small Faces), “Cut Across Shorty” is a chaotic jam with incendiary intertwining guitars and inspired playing by the whole band, who even manage to upstage Stewart on this one, and “Lady Day” is a sentimental, gently melodic ballad which features more wonderful slide guitar. Elsewhere, I enjoy his distinctive covers of Bobby Womack’s (by way of The Rolling Stones, I’d suspect) “All Over Now” and Elton John’s “Country Comfort,” yet these songs don’t seem entirely necessary given their superior well known previous versions, and the album starts to lose some steam towards the end. Don’t get me wrong, rich guitar textures also appear on “Jo’s Lament,” but it's also a bit boring, and "You're My Girl (I Don't Want to Discuss It)" is a generic riff rocker that ends a very good album on a disappointing note. Still, Gasoline Alley makes for a fine companion piece to The Rod Stewart Album and is the superior effort of the two; it’s too bad that Rod couldn’t bottle this album’s rough yet right sound for some of his later releases.
Every Picture Tells A Story (Mercury ’71) Rating: A+
The big commercial breakthrough came with Every Picture Tells A Story, which established Stewart as a superstar, hitting #1 on both sides of the Atlantic on the back of "Maggie May," his signature song and a massive hit single. The album on the whole has a more commercial, soul-influenced sound, and Stewart gives off the assurance of a born storyteller on several self-penned classics, starting with the title track, a reckless rocker with a gruff charm. The quality then dips with three (four, really) very good but not great songs. His soulful cover of T. Anderson’s "Seems Like a Long Time" is simple but effective, with gospel-ish female backing vocals supplying the sing along chorus. Arthur Crudup's "It's All Right" may or may not have birthed rock n' roll when it was recorded by Elvis Presley at Sun Studios in 1954 (it depends on who you ask), but as with that classic this version gets by more on the band's inspired playing (the guitars really go at it) than on its fairly generic melody. At the 4-minute mark the song transforms into an uncredited (and in my opinion unnecessary) 2-minute version of "Amazing Grace," which leads into a countrified cover of Bob Dylan's then-obscure (Rod Stewart the musicologist? What young listener would even believe that today?) "Tomorrow Is a Long Time," a pleasantly short breather before "Maggie May," an all-time great growing up tale that may be the ultimate "seduced by an older woman" song ever. I could live without the 30 second intro that is unique to this album version, but the rest of the song is pretty much perfect, with a bright and inviting melody, a nice mix of acoustic and electric guitars, and best of all Rod's heartfelt vocal delivery and fantastic lyrics about a young lads loss of innocence. Obviously that career high point would be tough to top, but the rest of side two is terrific as well, starting with the pretty, evocative "Mandolin Wind," on which I welcome the return of the folksier instruments that appear with far less frequency on this album. I like it when the mandolins kick it up a notch about halfway through, and I love it when the drums and Stewart (i.e. “baby I love you!”) take it up several more notches towards the song's dramatic ending. As previously stated, though this album still has its share of reflective, folksier moments, there's definitely a more pronounced soul influence this time, so it makes sense that Stewart would cover The Temptations' "(I Know) I'm Losing You." I prefer the intense original, largely due to the incredible urgency in David Ruffin's phenomenal lead vocal performance, but this hard rocking attempt is also great in its own way, in large part due to its exciting jam ending. Finishing with a flourish, Rod then makes legendary folk troubadour Tim Hardin's "Reason To Believe" his own; though the church-y keyboards are overly prominent (the mournful violin really hits the spot, though) and the overall performance a tad too tasteful, the plusses here easily overwhelm the negatives, resulting in another classic track. So, for those of you keeping score at home, that makes five fantastic songs and three very good ones (plus the reading of "Amazing Grace"), the highest percentage of standout songs on any Rod Stewart album yet, though perhaps a little grittiness in the performances was sacrificed to make the songs more accessible. It's a mild compromise that I for one don’t mind at all, as this was easily his best album to date, and decades later Every Picture Tells A Story is still rightfully regarded as the peak of Rod Stewart's long (and alas, mostly underachieving) solo career.
Never A Dull Moment (Mercury ’72) Rating: A-
Rod was on a roll, and he was smart enough at this point to not fix what wasn't broken. Featuring the by now customary mix of Stewart originals (three co-written with Wood and one with Quittenton who had also co-written “Maggie May”) and well-chosen covers, as well as another near flawless mix of electric and acoustic instruments, Never A Dull Moment was basically a slightly harder rocking sequel to Every Picture Tells A Story, though it lacks as many high points as the previous release and is therefore slightly inferior as a result. But only slightly, as "True Blue," "Lost Paraguayos," and "Italian Girls" are distinctive, hard-hitting originals with strong melodies (note the increased use of electric organ on this album), good lyrics that are humorous, poignant, and surprisingly humble (though you'll likely snicker at the "never been a millionaire" line that leads off the album), and (as usual) even better performances by a great singer and his talented backing band who fit him like a glove. I suppose the folksy Bob Dylan cover ("Mama, You Been on My Mind") was predictable (it's quite the pleasant accordion enhanced ballad, though), and his draggy, Stax-influenced cover of Etta James' “I’d Rather Go Blind” is soulful but also a bit boring. However, his impressive reading of Jimi Hendrix's "Angel" is a nice surprise, and the album has at least two stone cold classics in "You Wear It Well" and "Twistin' the Night Away." The former is an obvious sequel to "Maggie May" that isn't up to that standard but is excellent in its own right, while I can't help but feel pangs of nostalgia when considering the latter. I mean, only a supremely confident singer would dare cover the great Sam Cooke (always one of Rod's biggest influences), and this raucous finale more than holds its own with even the best (live) Cooke versions. Regrettably, the song provides a fitting closing to not only this fine album but to the prime (from an artistic standpoint) of Rod Stewart's career. But what about the rest of Stewart's career, you ask? Well, hot on the heels of this successful album he basically (by his own admission) got a big head, and as such limousines and leggy blondes became more of a priority than his music, which more and more began to consist of overly slick and uninspired pop crap. Oh, he could still write a good tune here and there (i.e. "Tonight's The Night," "The Killing Of Georgie Pt. I & II," “I Was Only Joking”), and he didn’t totally forget how to do good covers either (i.e. “I Don’t Want To Talk About It” and “The First Cut Is The Deepest”). He still gave his fan's their money's worth in concert, too, but the spark that made his early recordings so special seemed to disappear. It didn't help that he ditched his great backing band for less sympathetic studio musicians, nor did the fact that Stewart's professional, middle-of-the-road music sold millions give him much incentive to return to his roots. Perhaps I'll review some of his other albums later on (he has a fair amount of later songs I'd consider guilty pleasures, and it also helps that Rod seems an affable sort who in later years seemed to regret the way he squandered his talent), but probably not, instead electing to follow the advice of the 1992 Rolling Stone Album Guide, who advised listeners to "get the first four records of his shining moment - and honor an incredible singer by forgoing his tripe." Note: These four albums, his less successful fifth album Smiler, and several previously unreleased tracks are all available on the highly recommended 3-cd compilation Reason to Believe: The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings.
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