Sunday, May 13, 2012

Boz Scaggs - Silk Degrees (1976)

(This review originally appeared in December 2005.)

By the middle of the seventies, rock began to resemble Europe in 1914 - bloated, self-satisfied, and completely unaware of the conflagration (in the case of rock, punk) that was about to engulf it. The complaint was that rock had gotten too whitebread and too mainstream. Smart mainstream, old-wave rockers were able to stay artistically savvy in 1976 in either two ways; they could strip down to basics, as Bob Seger and Tom Petty did, or they could bring rock back to its rhythm-and-blues roots while keeping the overall sound contemporary. Boz Scaggs took the latter approach.
Scaggs was already a grizzled veteran by the time he recorded Silk Degrees; he had been in Steve Miller's namesake band, and he'd gone on to record a couple of worthy solo albums with a hard edge before honing his skills as a white-soul crooner. On the surface, Silk Degrees is a standard mid-seventies LA session-rock confection, and of course just about any music coming out of Los Angeles in the seventies was about the superficial. But Scaggs himself is a product of the more substantial San Francisco rock scene, and he had also recorded in Muscle Shoals with Duane Allman. The gloss is here - session pros like David Paich and Jeff Porcaro couldn't help but generate it instinctively - but the music is given plenty of depth by the man whose name is on the cover.
"Lowdown," with its undertow of a bass line, cutting guitar, steady percussion, and subtle Scaggs vocal, was the big hit from the album, and it encapsulates Scaggs's adeptness with rock fusion and its jazz and blues elements. For that alone, Silk Degrees would be essential. But Scaggs is not one to play it safe. A lecherous rocker like "Jump Street" and a fist-pumping brass-dominated number like "Georgia" seem to come out of nowhere and immediately grab you on the first listen. The lyrics on all of these songs deal with shady characters and questionable situations that we feel privileged to look in on; on "Lido Shuffle," Silk Degrees's masterpiece, we're brought along for the ride. A quick R&B tempo and a tight arrangement that happens to include an intelligently programmed synthesizer take Scaggs's music to heights he would probably never reach again.
Silk Degrees certainly feels like a once-in-a-lifetime album, if only because Scaggs puts every facet of his musical experience into it with so much energy and honesty. This is even true with love songs like the soulful, evocative "Harbor Lights," which is more than the mood piece it seems to be. Scaggs's crooning does occasionally threaten to undercut him, as on the nondescript "Love Me Tomorrow" (written entirely by David Paich). And despite a fine Scaggs performance on his own "We're All Alone," the closing cut, its piano-and-string arrangement lacks the conviction of Rita Coolidge's cover of a year later, which went out with a tough guitar solo. But Scaggs succeeds in agily walking the tightrope between pop and rock that had tripped so many California rockers of the seventies. Scaggs could handle it. 

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