The reissue of James Gang’s first three albums by MCA is somewhat appropriate given the consistent historical relevance this band has had over the last 30 years. When Joe Walsh joined this band in 1968 he proceeded to make a name for himself as one of the most important rock voices in the genre. These three albums serve as milestones in the winding history of middle American music into the seventies and eighties.
Like a beacon of things to come “Take a Look Around” opens Yer’ Album with producer Bill Szymczyk playing a trademark organ complimented by a pulsing fender bass accompaniment that became the calling card for whole decade of progressive rock. Joe’s vocal, with their affected vibrato and throaty nasal whine would speak to a generation of boogie rockers. But it’s the third track, “Funk #48”, that would define what I like best about James Gang. In one piercingly electric swoop, namely the Funk, James Gang became a singularly defining Midwest guitar rock band.
Drummer Jim Fox was the core of The James Gang. He recruited Joe Walsh and, even after Walsh left the group to eventually join the Eagles and become an artist in his own right, Fox managed to release a couple more albums under the James Gang moniker. These reissues feature liners notes by Fox, Walsh and bassist Dale Peters who played on recordings two and three.
The rest of Yer Album tends to meander and wallow in the whole experience of their first time in a recording studio. Producer Szymczyk seems to in charge and this proves to be detrimental to any kind of cohesion to the recording. However, there are gems and nuggets here for the persistent fan.
Considered by many to be the best and most representative of James Gang with Walsh, The James Gang Rides Again, recorded in 1970, is among my favorite recordings of all time. With equal amounts of stridency and overblown self indulgence this album introduces the world to Joe Walsh’s song writing and the sound of a band with two solid years of road work. Though Bill Szymczyk continues to elaborate on a flowery Beatlesque (read George Martin) approach to orchestral augmentation, the album opens with a stripped down series of songs that harken back to Steppenwolf and look forward to Grand Funk Railroad, ZZTop and (uh-hm) even Steve Albini’s Rapeman and Shellac projects.
The first track, “Funk #49”, is arguably the greatest guitar boogie tune of all time. Chugging through a riff to end all riffs Joe Walsh belts out the most incoherent and, more importantly, stupid lyrics ever uttered on tape. The comedic second track, “Asshtonpark”, seems an ode to Country Joe and the Fish, while track three’s “Woman” simply provides a template for the next 10 years of AOR Top 40. So with nearly no over-dubs or post production gimmickry Jim Fox, Joe Walsh and Dan Peters defined a genre.
Rides Again continues with trademark Joe Walsh songwriting. Walsh makes an undeniable contribution with a spectacular sense of tonal textured guitar playing and stellar technical prowess. Rides Again shows a mature collection of songs with an nice balance of recklessness and concentrated a compositional exploration. This album captures Walsh innocently displaying his instinctual pop sense in a care-free setting.
Thirds opens with undeniable foreshadowing of Walsh joining the Eagles. Like a basement tape from Hotel California, the opening track, “Walk Away”, features an arrangement style that would become a trademark for the Eagles. As the song fades out we hear Walsh settling into a jam that can only hint at how great this band might have been live. “Yadig?” revisits a common theme throughout all three of these releases. Namely, Fox, Walsh and Peters seem to have an ethno-musicological fascination, and each of these albums has an off-the-wall interlude that either doesn’t fit the rest of the mood on the album or quite deliberately goes somewhere unexpected. This particular piece is a jazzy vibraphone interlude. These kinds of pieces hint at a deeper, almost collegial side to the trio; after all, they were students at Kent State when Fox asked Walsh to join the band in 1968.
Thirds finds The James Gang at their most accomplished and their most divided. Walsh couldn’t even be bothered to include it on the discography that appears on his personal website. Since three records appears to be an industry standard nowadays, Walsh probably agreed to fulfill his end of the bargain and quickly shuffled off to become a living legend and, in a strange twist, to even become a marginal candidate for the Presidency of the United States.
Iconoclasts who are critical of the ornate production style that so often defines seventies rock will be glad to know that the best parts of these recordings tend to belong to Jim Fox while the studio-centric orchestral compositions tend to belong to Walsh. These three recordings are uncommon gems from a time when rock music was still innocent and untarnished. Like much of the music from the sixties and early seventies these albums serve as important signposts to an as yet unwritten history of how the Midwest often defined the central aspects of American popular music. Though certain members of The James Gang tend to be identified with a cocaine addled period of rock history they also represent a carefree period of exploration that is too often overlooked. A final note; Pete Townshend’s favorite American band was The James Gang.
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