Over the past few years, Chrysalis has been re-releasing albums by some of its biggest acts of the past like UFO. They have also released several archived sets, of which this is one, of all the recordings made by the so-called “white Jimi Hendrix”, Robin Trower. Two previous sets are fantastic; one contains his most potent work including the near-masterpiece Bridge of Sighs, while the other is a collection of blistering performances first heard on BBC Radio. This set, however, Farther on Up the Road: The Chyrsalis Years 1977 - 1983, could effectively be titled “The Years of Artistic Decline”. Unfortunately, over the course of these three CDs (which comprise six albums in total), there is a slim ratio of quality, especially stacked up against his previous solo work and the albums he made with Procol Harum in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
In City Dreams is first up. Largely made up of light FM rock and blues numbers that more or less lack any real grit or punch, it is a rapid departure from Trower’s previous works, and falls flat due to the approach of sweetening both the performances and the compositions. There are very few high points on this album, like the hard attacking “Falling Star” and the more traditional blues of “Farther on Up the Road”. Other numbers are embarrassingly subdued, such as “Bluebird” with its overtly sugary, hippy-dippy lyrics (“if you want to know his heart, listen—listen to the bluebird—siiiiing!”) and “Sweet Wine of Love”, which sounds almost exactly like the Doobie Brothers once Michael MacDonald showed up and ruined the band by giving them some of the most spineless “rock” ever performed. Elsewhere, the band manages to sound about as good as their “hard rock” contemporaries such as Bad Company (vocalist James Dewar even sounds bizarrely similar to Paul Rodgers), Foreigner, and Montrose (that’s not a compliment by the way. All three of those bands are similarly supremely dull, of the type where in concert, the singer pauses between songs to remind people to “rock”).
This first album of the set unfortunately sets a pretty depressing precedent for the rest of the set; some of the performances, especially the guitar playing of Trower himself, are better-than-average to very good. Even the aforementioned “Bluebird” has some sweet, lilting instrumental passages, and James Dewar possesses a lovely voice, while his bass playing and whichever drummer appears on the album manage to be appropriately funky, swinging and in-the-pocket. However, the songs themselves are largely generic, interchangeably built around all-too simple and indistinctive riffs and for the most part, ultimately forgettable. It’s a shame that musicians with talent like this are forcing themselves to play such lackluster music. Fast-forwarding to the guitar solos is assuredly insulting, but on the second listen I found myself doing that more often than not.
The second album, Caravan to Midnight, is a repeat of the previous album with only a few differences. Here, there are a few passages where things genuinely get interesting, such as the instrumental title track and the nifty little intro to “I’m Out to Get You”. Unfortunately, the rest of the album is an exercise in banality. At least on In City Dreams the band sounded like a Foghat cover band, on this album they sound like they’ve been collaborating with George Benson, churning out the heaviest and most impressive elevator music anyone has ever heard.
Taking all of this into account, “Jack and Jill”, which opens the third album, Victims of the Fury, is a complete breath of fresh air. So much about it is different, but most noticeably, the production is dark, gritty and actually rock-esque. The two previous albums had the kind of production where the guitars were loaded with distortion but all of the edges had been completely smoothed to the point where you could spread it like mayonnaise. In other words, it was “polite hard rock”, an oxymoron if ever I’ve heard one. Here, though, the tone of the guitar is fierce and biting, and it actually gives the impression that these songs are better than those of the previous albums despite the fact that they are still just generic hard rock. Still, the production makes the band sound reinvigorated, like they actually have some conviction, and the performances are likewise superior. Check out Bill Lordan’s off-kilter drumming on “Only Time”, or Trower’s multiple solos on “Roads to Freedom”. Too bad a lot of the momentum built up on this album is effectively quashed by the closing one-two punch of “Fly Low” and included B-side “One in a Million”, both of which demonstrate that they had not completely exorcised cheese-rock from their systems.
The next album is BLT, named for the three men who made this album; Robin Tower, Bill Landon, and bassist Jack Bruce. For those of you who don’t know who Jack Bruce is, he’s the guy from Cream. For those of you who don’t know who Cream is, shame on you. Do yourself a favor and look them up. Bruce’s presence on this album is a nice change in several ways; his bass playing is swinging and deft, far superior to that of James Dewar. Likewise, his singing is more powerful and convincing than Dewar. So there’s that. The bad news is that Bruce isn’t being used to his fullest potential here and being given free rein to just cut loose and do what he does best. Instead, he is just subbing in for James Dewar, acting as a sideman for Trower (Bruce writes only one of the songs here while the rest are Trower’s). Even when he does take the spotlight, on his own"Life on Earth”, it sounds clumsy and awkward, like a song that was written and recorded in 15 minutes, saved from complete failure and subsequently elevated to decency only by virtue of the fact that it is being performed by highly competent musicians.
Bruce is back for the next album, Truce, the title being a portmanteau of Trower and Bruce (Landon having been replaced by Reg Isidore). This is most definitely the best album of the bunch, where these two incredible, legendary instrumentalists are finally on the same page and making each other look really good in the process. They maneuver hard rock, blues, funk and soul with ease. Bruce is writing again with his partner from the Cream days, Pete Brown, an together they turn in the best songs on the album, from the creepy “Thin Ice” to the positive affirmation of “Last Train to the Stars” and the fusion-funk of “Fat Gut” and the unnerving “Shadows Touching”. Trower’s own songs aren’t half bad either, like the slow blues of “Take Good Care of Yourself” or the heavier “Gone Too Far” and “Little Boy Lost”. This is a great album, especially in light of the others on this set.
But Back It Up, marking the return of James Dewar, backslides into more hard rock monotony. Although there are moments of genuine surprise (the verses of the title track contain an interesting chord progression, the tremendous extended guitar solo that makes up “Benny Dancer”, the lovely, sanguine instrumental “Islands”), so much of the rest of the album retreads not only the work of other groups but of the music that Trower himself created on his last album, and the one before that, etc. These songs are literally indistinguishable from those cut from the same cloth on the other five albums here. And again, the playing (mostly Trower’s guitar heroics) are often astounding, but not enough to hold one’s interest, especially after listening to five nearly identical albums right beforehand.
For any Robin Trower superfans, you probably already plan on buying this set (then again, you probably already have all these albums on vinyl). For everyone else, just track down Truce, as it is the best album of the bunch and owning it effectively nullifies most of the need to pick up the others. For all the moments of sublime power on them, it is just not worth having to slog through all the mediocrity. Trower has plenty of other work that will better handle your fix for his brand of hard blues.