Saturday, January 23, 2010

Family - A Song For Me (1970)

Normally I don't repost anything from another page or blog of mine, but this case I'm willing to make an exception. Forty years ago today Family released their landmark album A Song For Me, and to recognize that anniversary, I offer here my review of the album from my Family page. I originally wrote this in October 2002. :-)
When Family went into the recording studio in late 1969 to make their third album, with new members John Weider and Poli Palmer, the stakes couldn't have been higher; they had suffered various blows throughout the year, and it seemed as if the group was irrevocably damaged. Furthermore, this was to be their first self-produced LP. All Family had to do to prove that they had rebounded from their setbacks was to concoct a decent album. Instead, they went far better and surprised everyone by making one of the most astonishing rock albums of the early seventies.

Issued in January 1970, A Song For Me is an act of defiance from a band that refuses to surrender to the kind of adversity that would have devastated other groups and comes back stronger and sharper than ever. Family had formed a new production company to replace John Gilbert's management, and they gained a sense of freedom along with confidence in both their music and in taking full control of the recording process. The ten cuts on A Song For Me are an eclectic mix of country, folk, twelve-bar blues, and brutally hard rock in which conventional rock and roll boundaries are outlined and subsequently smashed. Weider's rough bass certainly helped, and Palmer contributed an awesome array of skills as a pianist, flutist, and vibraphone player, but the remaining original members were no less potent. Charlie Whitney's guitar slashed through chord changes with raw intensity, and Rob Townsend's drumming was nothing short of a major assault. But it was Roger Chapman, as usual, who outdid everyone; his voice had now mutated in a hideously wonderful screech that, to paraphrase Robert Christgau, could kill small animals at a hundred yards.

Independence is the main theme on A Song For Me, as the songs mainly deal with refusing to bow to conformity and accepting the risks of freedom as well as its rewards. (This had obviously been a recurring theme in Family's music, as a few of the songs here had actually been part of the band's legendarily powerful live set long before this album was recorded.) "Drowned In Wine," the opening cut, is an incredible band performance alternating between subdued, intense folk rock and slashing power riffs, accentuated by Chapman's scorching bleats and Palmer's overamplified flute. There are elements of danger throughout. "Some Poor Soul," in which Chapman displays his gentler side, depicts a nighttime rural landscape where the wildlife scurries nervously beneath the seemingly placid surface (nice acoustic guitar from Whitney); "Wheels," a song about trying and failing to achieve personal fulfillment, is highlighted by choppy guitar chords. The song is full of self-doubt, but without the self-pity. "Stop For the Traffic," by contrast, finds the song's narrator liberated by the sense of possibility as onlookers who "are smiling desperately" crave his carefree attitude, to the backdrop of echoey guitars.

As Family frees itself from the past, it offers stunning insight into the idea of doing so. "Song For Sinking Lovers," a tale of regret and separation from a woman, bristles with a strong country-rock arrangement that climaxes with a heavy raveup between Whitney's banjo and Weider's violin. But Family mostly looks ahead here musically, changing tempos and styles within songs more radically than on previous albums. They also change moods by directly cutting from one song to another, as in following a short nightclub jazz song, "Hey - Let It Rock," with the hard rockabilly song "The Cat and the Rat," as well as adding instruments in a seemingly implausible manner (vibes in the steaming blues rocker "Love Is a Sleeper").

The absolute masterpiece on the A Song For Me LP is the title song, which is one of the nastiest hard rock performances ever committed to disc. Throughout the song's nine minutes, against the backdrop of a blistering electric riff, Whitney sprays notes from his guitar like bullets from a machine gun while Weider's violin passages rush out like ghosts from a haunted house. As Palmer bangs on his piano with full force, Townsend's drums explode all over the stereo spectrum. Topping it all off is Roger Chapman's incendiary vocal, shredding whole verses while drowning out everyone else. As "A Song For Me" progresses, the initially medium tempo picks up for a rousing finish comparable to the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" of a year later.

If there's one flaw in A Song For Me, it's the somewhat muddy production, owing to Family's difficulties with studio technology as first-time producers. The decision to record the guitar, bass, and drums together as a three-piece set complicated the mixing stage as well. This, however, is a mere quibble; A Song For Me (which peaked at number four on the U.K. album chart, the best showing there for the group) remains an explosive document of a group determined to overcome adversity. It is more than a great album; it is an indisputable classic.

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