Saturday, 20 February 2010

Nils Lofgren and Grin "All Out" (1971) (News, Views and Music 54)




Write you a sad sad letter, hoping that you’ll feel better, hoping you’ll see everything will be better if you just come true” “My soft heart ain’t looking for traitors, since I can’t even find a part of me to hate her”  “You make life when winter falls for me, and I’m cold in winter, can’t you see, baby, I need love or else?” “Wish I had been here to keep the order, but I was chasing outlaws across the border, as sheriff of the town I can’t let it bring me down, he was my son but now he’s just a rusty gun...”

Nils Lofgren and Grin “All Out” (1972)

Before this website came along there were certain albums I was crying out to read about and couldn’t find any mention of anywhere. I’ve addressed quite a few of them on this site now but I’ve delayed adding any more Nils Lofgren albums to this list not because I don’t like them (by and large I adore them) but because I know so frustratingly little about them all. Add in the fact that even the best sellers among them are near-impossible to get hold of (your best bet is ‘Cry Tough’ and even I haven’t tracked that down on CD yet) and I suppose it’s not so much of a surprise that it’s taken me two years to get round to the follow-up I promised you during the ‘Damaged Goods’ review (see no 97 in our ‘review’ section). But not to review somebody’s excellent music because it’s not readily available and little is known about it seems unfair - especially given the amount of heinous Spice Girls that are out there plugging their awful music still – so bear with me if there’s not much to say in this review that you8 hadn’t gleaned from the record already. Anyway, small label Arcadia saved my bacon somewhat a couple of years ago with their fine re-issues of the first three Grin albums (although the first of these is already among the rarest of Nils’ albums currently out) so really there’s no excuse for not buying this album.  

Grin should have been big but, like ‘smile’ (what is it with these mouth-related releases?!) the public response seemed to be one big yawn. So let’s re-iterate again for the millionth time on this website: in a parallel universe somewhere the biggest and most respected star of the 1970s and beyond is Nils Lofgren. A hit with critics, a hit with the public and the author of some of the most covered songs of all time, somewhere on this parallel earth I wouldn’t have to tell you anything about Nils Lofgren because everyone would know his name (and the Spice Girls certainly never had a hit in this parallel universe, I can tell you!)  Anyway this is Nils in his early days, a promising singer-songwriter barely turned 20 at the end of the road with his first band - also featuring Bob Berberich, a drummer with a soulful voice, and Bob Gordon, an inventive bass player. Nils won his big chance for his band after ambushing Neil Young at a Crazy Horse gig and – being put on the spot to sing his songs with just a guitar – came up trumps. Thanks to Neil’s early backing record label SpinDizzy (part of the CBS company) was up for giving Grin a chance even though the band were all still in their teens at this time.

By the time of this third album ‘All Out’, Grin were already setting out the pattern for much of Nils’ career to come: adored by most critics and ignored by most fans, with this album the last roll of the dice for the band until the label shrugged its shoulders and ceremoniously booted them off the label (Grin did record a fourth album – the under-rated ‘Gone Crazy’ for A and M Records, but its generally agreed amongst fans that most of the hope, drive and energy of the band disappeared when they lost their contract with SpinDizzy). There’s always been a soft spot among collectors for Nils’ four albums with Grin – The best Of The Grin Years, a fair retrospective heavily based around the band’s first two albums is the most common Nils Lofgren CD of all and – shock horror – is still available in most mainstream shops a full four years after its release (something unheard of for every other Nils Lofgren record ever made).  They may not be the best albums Nils ever made but even in these early years he’d already mastered the art of composition, specialising in the two extremes of heavy rock songs and slow mournful ballads, and his guitar playing is already up there with the best. A word too for the two Bobs in the band – Gordon’s bass work really adds a great deal to Nils’ compositions, adding a boogie woogie touch to Nils’ more eccentric and out-there compositions and a complex, unexpected feel to his more generic songs whilst Berberich’s soulful bass is a fine counterpoint to Nils’ aggressive tenor and his drumming is equally adept at all the many styles Nils throws at him. 

Well, that’s it on the general artist appraisal. Normally on these newsletters we’d be delving into something deeper and a bit more specific to this album about now but to be honest there’s so little known about Nils – especially in this period – that there’s not an awful lot I can add, which is particularly frustrating given that each of these four Grin albums are as different from each other as, say, Neil Young’s first four records (no wonder Nils and Neil got on so well – they chop and change styles almost as much as each other!) There are however several little oddities about this album that I’d love to see explained one day, so here goes; Weird thing about this album no 1: the title ‘All Out’ never actually appears on the cover, which is a weird move given how badly the band wanted people to recognise them in this early success-free period. Weird thing no 2: Even though they were so obscure at this point that nobody outside the band’s inner circle really knew them Grin tackle an otherwise unreleased album track by Roger McGuinn of The Byrds – although ‘Please Don’t Be Long’ sounds much more like Lofgren’s work than theirs and seems to have been written for them, though neither Roger nor Nils have ever spoken much about it. Put yourself back in the mindset of 1972 – when the Byrds were still going, just about, and still carried a certain kudos with collectors and this is very weird indeed. And I think I’m right in saying that apart from a rather weird two-note two-word co-write with Brian Wilson (‘Ding Dang’ on ‘Beach Boys Love You’) this is the only time one of Roger’s songs appears on an album he doesn’t appear on. Weird thing about this album no 3: For the only time in the band’s four album history, bassist Bob Gordon gets a co-credit with Lofgren on the track ‘She Ain’t Right’ and he should have written more – this song is as close to a Grin template as this esoteric band ever got. Weird thing about this album no 4: Towering achievement as it is, previous Grin album ‘1+1’ falls just short of perfection thanks to the lack of either a) huge production values b) backing singers and c) guest musicians. ‘All Out’ has all three of these in spades – and yet ironically it’s an album that should have stuck to its guns and simply kept to the core of the group as its a much rockier, punchier, slightly less ambitious record. Especially PP Arnold’s soul sister Kathy McDonald’s vocals which would have been spot on for soulful ballads like ‘Soft Fun’ on ‘1+1’ but sound woefully out of place on the ‘All Out’ songs. And if it really was a case of Nils getting so hooked on her vocals on one song that he used her more and more (as it says in the excellent Acadia sleeve-notes) then why didn’t David Briggs get out of his producer’s chair and say ‘enough!’ (he was never afraid of saying so on Neil’s albums after all).Weird thing about this album no 5: it took until the band’s third album for Nils’ brother Tom to make an appearance – from here on in he’ll be an ever present face in practically every single one of Nils’ bands and straightaway Grin sound like a ‘band’ here instead of a trio of hardworking musicians covering for the missing hole in the sound. So where was he on albums 1 and 2? Weird thing about this album no 6: Despite its many strengths, it still wasn’t a hit. How hard did this band have to try to make it big, even with the push of Graham Nash (who guested on ‘1+1’), Neil Young (who got the band their contract in the first place) and Neil’s producer David Briggs (who also produced this record), not to mention the kudos Nils had picked up the year before after playing all the best bits on Neil’s ‘After The Goldrush’ album?    

To continue this theme, every other Nils Lofgren album bar this one starts in a typically gutsy, ear-catching and generally rocky way, not so much pulling the listener in as whacking him over the head with the greatest riff not written by Pete Townshend, Keith Richards or Ray Davies and a guitar part that defies both belief and gravity. This album starts with ‘Sad Letter’, the most mournful track on the album and a song that builds up slowly from a shy, quiet start into a towering epic. That’s not to say this is a bad move by any means: it’s a brave band who try to seduce their audience with something unexpected as early as the first track on the album and this song is one of Grin’s finest. A regretful, mournful acoustic ballad, with added vibes – in both senses of the word – from the other two musicians, this is Nils at his quiet best, willing his partner-to-be to read between the lines of his love letter. This song also features one of the few instances when Berberich and Lofgren combine their vocals instead of singing against each other and that’s a shame because their vocals here blend together really well. Listen out too for that opening sad guitar lick that lasts a good 30 seconds before the vocals come in – Nils didn’t need to write any words for this song and you’d still know the theme from the atmosphere. As ever with these early Nils songs the lyrics are Grin’s Achilles heel, rarely straying out of the top 40 pop limitations of the day, but musically this song is a big break through for Nils’ sound. He’d written songs this well before – Moon Tears, Beggar’s Day, etc – but never before had one of Nils’ best songs sounded so effortless, with so much work left for the listener to solve and designed to grow rather than grate with every successive listen. Could it be too that Nils had been checking up on his friend Graham Nash’s back catalogue? This song runs very close to The Hollies’ ‘Dear Eloise’ (see ‘Butterfly’, review no 14), a criss-crossing rock/ballad song very much after Nils’ own heart and even ‘borrows’ the rhyme of ‘letter’ and ‘better’.

‘Heavy Chevy’ is back to Nils the rocker, although even this song stretches Nils’ normal formula as its more of a blues-rock hybrid, strutting rather than smoking and achieving its ‘heavy’ sound from suspense rather than flashiness. Again, its the lyrics that fail this song – which sounds like the sort of thing that used to grace the early Beach Boys albums without the twist at the end or the joyfulness – but the band performance is again top notch, with the now four musicians (that’s Tom playing rhythm for the first time) sparking off each other well. Nils’ sawdust-in-the-throat vocal is impressive too for a musician whose still so young and overall this is a song that works far better on record than it must have sounded on the home demo.  Like the car, though, this recording is perhaps a little too flat-footed and too self consciously posing to work as well as the other songs on the album.

‘Don’t Be Long’ is the afore-mentioned McGuinn song, although it sounds more like an early Gene Clark song than one of Roger’s more usual songs. A sophisticated acoustic pop song, it has the same folk-rock hybrid feel that The Byrds made their own in 1965, which makes you wonder whether this was an old song McGuinn was sitting on when he passed it onto Nils and co – but if so you wonder why The Byrds never used it (McGuinn in particular was always short of his own material in the 1960s, hence the amount of outside songs the band used to cover as late as the 1970s). The Grin version of this song is handed over to Bob Berberich who does well with the song’s intricate Hillbilly structure, although it’s the first appearance of Kathy McDonald on the background vocals that comes close to scuppering the intimacy of this recording. Until that chorus kicks in, though, it’s a pretty fine recording this one, with Nils showing off his country leanings for, I think, the first time on record.

‘Love Again’ is one of the least successful tracks on the album, but this time it’s more the failure of the recording than the song. Nils’ chunky piano playing (like his performance on ‘Goldrush’ it’s easy to see he leant the keyboard via playing the accordion although he’ll have this sorted by his solo career) does it’s best to suggest a bar-room feel and the opening melody line is lovely, sweeping from the bottom to the top of his register in complete contrast to the rock-steady backing. But part of the problem is that rock-steady backing which doesn’t alter one iota from beginning to end (apart from a slight speed-up towards the end of the song). Confident and expressive as Nils’ vocal is, his swoops up the octaves can’t quite compensate for the sheer repetitiveness of the song which is desperately crying out for a middle eight – or even a proper sitting-in-contrast chorus – to break up the sound. And the first true appearance on this album of Kathy McDonald’s vocals don’t help; she starts off as shrill and loud and then keeps going further verse by verse until you can hear she’s actively ducked in the mix of the last verse so she doesn’t drown everything out. A shame, because the opening two verses are really promising and Nils’ voice has rarely been bettered.

‘She Ain’t Right’ starts out with a chugging bass riff which sounds like the theme tune of a silent comedy (it’s so close to the Laurel and Hardy cuckoo theme you half expect Nils to drawl ‘this is another fine mess you got me in y’awl’). There’s always a joker in the pack on Grin albums, from the laughing hyena on ‘End Unkind’ to the forth-coming ‘Ain’t Love Nice’. But it’s as if the band changed thoughts partway through and decided to turn this song into a demented rocker. The opening section of this song, with Nils and Berberich trading lines to clever effect, is another sign of Grin’s developing confidence and inventiveness and the two Lofgren’s sterling guitar work in the middle of the song is the first real evidence of the brothers’ sixth sense on how to intermingle their chords, a sound that’s still one of the most incredible things you will ever hear once they get it right in the middle 70s. As a prototype of Nils’ songwriting to come it’s fascinating: the hard-done by singer who suddenly drops his gentlemanly ways when his girl seems to be stamping all over him (following on from last week’s top five it comes as no surprise to learn that Nils is a cancerian – hence his many lunar songs like ‘Moon Tears’) is the Nils Lofgren template come his solo albums and here he’s already got the writing device set perfectly. Again, though, Kathy McDonald has to come in to spoil things just as they were looking up, squawling and squeaking her way through the song without ever seemingly taking the trouble to learn the words. Full marks to Grin, though, who get everything else cast perfectly in this all-out rock and roll song that more than deserves a revival in Nils’ fine series of modern-day gigs.

‘Love Or Else’ is one of the album’s best tracks, with the band’s sound reduced to the core of rumbling bass, drums and occasional piano and guitar. Nils’ sawdust vocal and Berberich’s low key low register vocal are the perfect match for this song and the nagging chorus – where both men do their best to coerce the girl of the song – is classic Grin. ‘Love Or Else’ is also one of the simplest songs Nils ever wrote, being little more than a catchy chorus and a slightly more muted verse sung to more or less the same chord progression. Grin, though, were that rare thing in a band – one equally suited to pop and rock – and have obviously been doing their homework, adding their oen distinctive touches to a tried and tested formula that sounds positively Merseybeat-ish at times (especially those classy harmonies and the high –held last chorus note which is pure Lennon/McCartney). And no Kathy McDonald. Things are looking up!

‘Ain’t Love Nice’ is the real joker in the ‘All Out’ pack, another simple song held together by some pretty nifty lyric writing that matches clever rhymes with some simple lines. Even though lines like ‘ain’t war sad, makes you want to cry, ain’t love nice makes you want to dance’ are among the worst any AAA band wrote any time anywhere on any album, it’s still hard to dislike this song, which is quietly chirpy, genuinely catchy and perfectly set between the heavier songs on the album. Bob Berberich also turns in one of his greatest lead vocals for the band (he always seems more at home on these poppier songs than Nils’ rock and roll tunes interestingly) and Nils’ harmonies are excellent again, although it’s Nils’ soulful middle eight – when all hell seems to be breaking loose – that really makes the song. Again, there’s not much more to write about for this song which is just another simple pop song played well.

‘Heart On Fire’ is the album’s other classic, an epic that’s almost double the length of the other songs on the album and finds Nils’ vocal at his grittiest and raw in stark contrast to the largely pretty surroundings of the backing (especially that twinkling piano). Even Kathy McDonald sounds fairly suitable here (and she actually gets some decent lyrics to sing – was this the track she was hired for, per chance, before the group dug her sound so much they used her on everything?!) and shows just how well she can do when given something other than warbling to do (although her ‘sssssssssock it to me darlin’ wahhhh wahhh wahhhhhhhhhh’ on the fade-out is still pretty cringe-inducing). This is another of those early Lofgren songs about addiction and infatuation and how these unusual, deeply felt emotions run in stark contrast to it’s narrator’s usual attitude to life. Unlike the other more straightforward songs on this album this song is tension all the way, with Lofgren stringing out his lines as if his character is speaking them against his better judgement, with each sight of his beloved wringing yet more feelings out of him that he never wanted to admit (until the tag, at least, when it’s clear he’s finally caught his goal). Nils’ guitar playing on the fade-out is among his greatest up to that point and it’s remarkable how in control he manages to keep the sound despite it being on the edge of feedback throughout. A remarkable song from one so young and another song that shows the template for Nils’ songs to come was already forming as early as this third Grin album.   

‘All Out’is the one song on this album’s that has endured in Nils’ set lists down the years which is odd both because of how many of the ‘1+1’ songs are still there (Moon Tears, Soft Fun, etc) and because this must surely count as one of the worst songs of Nils’ career. One of those awful spoof country its-been-hard-in-the-country-since-my-little-ole-guitar-died piano songs, it comes close to matching the sheer inanity of the Rolling Stones’ awful country songs (although it would have been good practice had Nils got Ronnie Wood’s job in that band as rumoured in 1974). Berberich sings the first verse with a slight hiccup in his voice although even that sounds better than Nils’ scratchy take on the song in the second verse. As for the song itself, the tune would be quite sweet without both the tack piano and Kathy McDonald’s latest attempts to sound like PP Arnold but the lyrics don’t make an awful lot of sense (‘all out, next time they’ll nickname me fool’ – what is all that about exactly?) and too often stray to the cliché so abhorrently common in country songs about empty bottles and empty hearts. To be fair I’ve heard a lot worse than this, but why ‘all out’ should be the song from this album that everyone knows when there’s nine other better songs on the album is beyond me.

‘Rusty Gun’ is a curious way to end the album. Content to work on his electric guitar prowess for most of the album, Nils turns to his first love – the accordion – and his under-rated acoustic guitar playing for the finale. But the whole thing is so muted, it even fades at the beginning for goodness sake – a long standing no no among musicians (although The Beatles’ ‘Eight Days A Week’ broke that mould unlike most things the Beatles changed it still continues pretty much to this day). We then get a very strange song indeed – one slow drawn out verse which is pretty impressive in its own sweet way, with Nils’ many overdubs sounding pretty good together here and a nicely subdued laid back atmosphere. The lyrics also pre-empt many a future Lofgren song with the latest narrator trying to keep the peace in a town filled with outlaws and keeping tabs on whose shooting who. The song turns when this self-proclaimed sheriff sees his brother lying in the street dead ‘like a rusty gun’, however, sparking off a ridiculous display of fast-paced guitar pinging which is extremely impressive but doesn’t quite fit. Perhaps if Nils’ narrator voice had come back in again with another take on how this one moment changed his life this song might have been another classic – but no, that’s it, with the record signing off very un-expectedly on a slow fade-out as the guitarist gradually runs out of steam. Most CD copies have added the fine if short period B-side ‘Just To Have You’ on the end of this album and you have to say it makes for a much more complete and rounded close to the album, even though it doesn’t strictly belong. A strange way for the band to end their career with SpinDizzy, especially given that all the ingredients of a memorable song are here – they just haven’t been organised in quite the right way.

So there we have it. ‘All Out’ is, like all the Grin albums, a mixed affair containing some absolutely mind blowing recordings, a handful of templates that will lead to greatness later on but haven’t quite been sorted into shape just yet and a small pile of recordings that should have been left on the cutting room floor. But if Grin occasionally sound like a band that’s trying too hard and are just that little bit too inexperienced to make the most of their many plus points, that’s because they were all terribly young and despite the help of Nash, Young and Briggs never had a single character sitting in the control room believing in them and helping them every step of the way. Given the speed at which these songs were written (8 by Nils on his own, one co-write and a cover) and the fact that this album came hard on the heels of Grin’s previous two and its clear just how drop dead amazing these recordings could have been with a little more time and a little more money. But even as they are these early Grin records are pretty special (yep, eve the much hated ‘Gone Crazy’ has its moments) and if you’re a collector whose gotten bored of buying all the Neil Young LPs (though those alone should keep you busy for years to come now there’s over 50 of them!) you could do worse than to give this group a try. They might just put a grin on your face. Overall rating:  ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ (7/10).


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