Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Eagles - On the Border (1974)

When the Eagles began recording their third album, On the Border, they entered the recording studio as a quartet with Glyn Johns producing.  They left the studio as a quintet with guitarist Don Felder as their fifth member and Bill Szymczyk as their producer.  The Eagles were aiming for more of a rock and roll sound, but Johns, according to band leader Glenn Frey, felt they weren't up to the task; Szymczyk, by contrast, found in the Eagles a band that was able and willing to rock out.
Both producers turned out to be right. At this stage in their career, the Eagles had some ability to rock out but they remained stronger as a lighter country-based group in the style of Poco.  On the Border did provide some freewheeling rock with wonderfully wailing guitars, most notably on "Already Gone," about a pre-emptive breakup with a girlfriend, and "James Dean," a cynical take on Hollywood stardom that lyrically illustrated Dean's death to the meter of "Little Miss Muffet;" these songs respectively opened sides one and two.  But it was still in their country leanings where they made their tightest, most cohesive music, particularly on "Midnight Flyer," driven by a textured banjo line, and the sweetly poignant automotive ode "Ol' '55," which features a guest appearance by pedal steel ace Al Perkins.  It's also worth noting that "Already Gone" was provided by outside songwriters Robb Standlund and Jack Tempchin, while Frey and drummer Don Henley required the help of Jackson Browne and John David Souther to write "James Dean."  The former two tracks are respectively covers of songs by singers-songwriters Paul Craft and Tom Waits.  Many of the original compositions on this record are somewhat mediocre, although there's a nice gem here in bassist Randy Meisner's "Is It True?" that's worth seeking out.  
The vocals are On the Border's strongest elements, with Henley finding a nice, blues-based groove that counters Frey's brightness.  Guitarist Bernie Leadon's featured number, "My Man," is a better track than it is a song; a tribute to Gram Parsons, who had co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers (a band that had once included Leadon in its ranks), "My Man" features Leadon singing with deeply felt respect for the recently deceased Parsons and getting sympathetic backup both in harmonies (another Eagles trademark) and the relaxed country-style playing (with Leadon offering up a respectable pedal steel guitar).  It's all just enough to make you overlook the banalities of Leadon's words ("I once knew a man, a very talented guy / He'd sing for the people, and people would cry").  But the two Johns-produced tracks found the Eagles treading water with even the light, laid-back sound that was supposed to be their forte; "You Never Cry Like a Lover," a meandering critique of a partner's lovemaking, is an embarrassment, while the stronger "Best Of My Love," though a number one hit, is an acoustically anchored but musically uninteresting ballad that pales in comparison to the strongly arranged, well-executed "Desperado" from the LP of that name.
On the Border is thus a transitional album, with the Eagles striving for the right balance between the smoky, rural Americana of Gram Parsons and the more cosmopolitan rock of modern LA and achieving only mixed results.  Employing Felder full-time after hearing his blistering solos on "Good Day In Hell" (perhaps the first Eagles song to show a modicum of self-deprecation) was an inspired and bold move that set the group on the right course toward being a more serious rock and roll band.  But the middling musicianship of the rest of the band on many of the other tracks suggests that they had yet to fully take their own advice and try a little harder.   

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