Thursday, June 18, 2009
So I think I screwed the pooch with last week's Big Star writeup, guys. I had a lot of things I wanted to say - a whole cache of killer lines pent up in my head - that just did not come out in the heat of the moment. I choked, I did! I had this whole bit about how Big Star opened up an alternate pop music universe to me as a teenager, how they introduced me to all this other great underground rock music. Because Big Star seriously meant a lot to me, you know? They deserved some extensive words.
But no, no. I rushed the entry and ran off to a cabin in New Hampshire. And I barely even described what their music sounded like! Yeesh!!
My sweet Alex Chilton, I am sorry. I will make this up to you by writing an entry about a band that is in no way related to you whatsoever.
Let's talk about the Raspberries. In the early 70's, the Raspberries succeeded where Big Star did not: they wrote 3-minute guitar-driven pop singles and were very very popular for it. This was not due to a lack of accessibility or talent on Big Star's part; as I mentioned in the last entry, #1 Record probably would have been a big hit if Ardent/Stax had actually bothered to market the thing (and indeed, several songs off that record sound remarkably Raspberries-ish in retrospect - "Don't Lie To Me" and "Feel," most notably). But that does not change the fact that the Raspberries were much more marketable and mainstream than Big Star ever could have been; where Big Star was mostly introverted and contemplative, the Raspberries were blustery and melodramatic, a fusion of classic 50's/60's pop romanticism and ear-splitting hard rock that was perfectly tailored to the early 70's listening public. With Wally Bryson's simple, epic riffs and Eric Carmen's heartthrob of a voice, Raspberries singles like "Go All The Way" and "I Wanna Be With You" were simply overwhelming celebrations of teenage lust and hard-rockin' good times, the kind of songs Big Star just were not able to write.
And I mean, for God's sakes, they wrote matching tuxedo shirts and bouffant hairdos. How could any hot-blooded 70's record-buyer resist? (They could not.)
I have considered myself a Raspberries fan for a long time now. This is despite the fact that, before I picked up Fresh Raspberries on vinyl only a few months ago, I had never heard an entire Raspberries album. I only knew four of their singles, and hot-damn they were so good I almost felt like I didn't need to hear a whole LP's worth. Because, you know, what if it somehow was awful and ruined that picture-perfect Raspberries mystique I was basking in? But of course, having heard Fresh, I now know that my fears were totally unwarranted. This is a fun, consistent, and - to my pleasant surprise - diverse 70's pop/rock album, probably among the best of its genre. I honestly expected the record to be completely dominated by lead singer/songwriter Eric Carmen - I mean, the guy is a force of nature, how could it NOT be? - but this was not the case. While he does have a lion's share of the songs here, there are not one but two - two - other vocalists/songwriters featured, bassist Dave Smalley and guitarist Wally Bryson. Dave, with three songs, has a pleasant Roger McGuinn-like croon, which suits him nicely on the well-crafted Byrds tribute "It Seemed So Easy" and the country-rockish "Goin' Nowhere Tonight." Wally only has one song, the cute acoustic-driven "Might As Well" that brings to mind the Beatles' folksier efforts (there's a little "I've Just Seen A Face" in there). Both are solid songwriters and sound like perfectly nice guys, and having their songs placed in-between Carmen's King-sized rockers was a wise move on the Raspberries' part.
That's not taking anything away from Eric Carmen, of course. The man was a God on Earth, after all. As a vocalist, he perfectly encapsulated everything that worked about the Raspberries; on a moment's notice - often in the span of a single song - he could effortlessly switch between a sweet romantic croon and a mammoth hard-rock roar that could match any other rock frontman of his era. He also had a perfect flair for dramatics, filling Fresh songs like "I Reach For The Light" and "If You Change Your Mind" with iron-throated yelps and screams that flat-out force the listener to feel every iota of his pain. Unlike the quavery-voiced Alex Chilton, Carmen comes off as something of a power-pop superhero, turning simple odes to teenage love into the most epic of anthems - basically, he's Paul McCartney on steroids. He himself is one of the main reasons the Raspberries were so popular, so it makes perfect sense that he would move on to a successful solo career only a few years later.
Did I mention that Eric Carmen is a Golden God? Yes I think I did. But it deserves several mentions.
The best songs on Fresh are probably the singles - the nigh-perfect (I have used that word a lot here, haven't I) pop song "I Wanna Be With You" and the ballad "Let's Pretend." But the rest is practically as good. My only real problem with the Raspberries was their slight penchant for pandering nostalgia; they were popular in the nostalgia-hungry early 70's, after all, so why not write a blatant Beach Boys homage with "Drivin' Around"? I like the song fine, but it feels a little calculated. Unlike Big Star, the Raspberries don't quite ascend their weighty influences - they don't have the sheer soul and individuality, I guess - but they at least do good by them. There is no denying that they were a great rock 'n roll band, and probably the most epic "pop" band of their time.
Perhaps I have been comparing the Raspberries to Big Star a few too many times in this review. This is probably because there is so much I forgot to say about Big Star before - a lot of stray thoughts, if you will. They are two very different bands, but they are both great at what they did - straight-up pop-rock that makes you feel good. What makes the Raspberries so special, of course, is the sheer confidence they exhibit, the way they demand your attention. They simply cannot be denied. Do not resist them.
Do not resist the sweet taste of the Raspberries.
(P.S: Be sure to check out Adam Spektor's complementary review of the Raspberries' first record that I know you will enjoy. As we are both experiencing a simultaneous rush of Rasperrymania right now, we decided to put out our Raspberries reviews at the same time. Wow what fun!!)