...Drugs? Count these Human Pharmacies In!
The Lineup Card (1968-1973)
Paul Rodgers (vocals, guitar) also of Bad Company
Simon Kirke (drums) also of Bad Company
Paul Kossoff (guitars)
Andy Fraser (bass) until 1971
John "Rabbit" Bundrick (keyboards) 1972 also of the Who
It's hard to believe that there was a time when hard, guitar-dominated blues-rock was considered revolutionary, but there you have it....like screw-off beer bottle caps and pre-lubricated condoms, it was an idea whose time had come and we wondered how we'd got along without it for so long. It seems obvious in retrospect that the blues-obsessed kids of the '65 Brit-Invasion era would sooner or later outgrow their '67-'68 era detour into sloppy psychedelia and want to return back to music made of wood and blood, but back then, groups like Free (and Jethro Tull, and Ten Years After, and Savoy Brown, and and and...) who played natural-like rock music loud and smooth were the rage, man. You couldn't turn around in London in 1969 without knocking over some heavy dude in blue jeans playing 12 bar blues on a strat through a Marshall Stack, and folks ate it up. People who hadn't been able to connect with the endless soloing, random howling, and nursery school melodies of the psychedelic movement were more than primed to hear the endless soloing, controlled howling, and retread melodies of the burgeoning hard rock scene. It was a burst of purity and power that took full advantage of the heavy, bracing new sounds a band was capable of making with their distortion and cocaine and all that and was viscerally stunning. The awesome power of a band of tweedle-thin longhairs ripping through a simple, crunchy riff over a discreetly funky bassline at Marshall 100W stack-overdrive volumes is one of the more viscerally overpowering ideas in all of rock music, and hadn't really been explored to its boundaries yet in 1968.
The main problem here that critics will forever be happy to point out to you is that beyond a select few (Hendrix, Tull, Cream, maybe, and of course the proto-metal bands like Zep, Purple, and Sabbath, who all were off doing something completely different that the critics all hated anyhow), these groups had more credibility than they had originality, and as such beg to be viewed as second-tier bands. There's a laundry list of bands more than willing to run the boogie down on a Saturday night down in London town, from the trad-Chicago blues of the John Mayall associates of Fleetwood Mac to the sludgy burnout of Humble Pie. It was a lot like the grunge scene in Seattle in the late 1980's...lots of bands that pretty much shared the same influences, look, equipment, and approach, who had maybe one or two discerning features to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. The main defining notion of Free was that their lead singer, Paul Rodgers, was widely believed to be one of the better singers on the scene, and their bass player and co-songwriter Andy Fraser was a heckuva fella. They had quite a following amongst their peers (the number of old rock musicians who mention liking or following Free in their autobiographies is impressive) and were fairly successful in England, but failed to really make it in the United States until their unforgettable single 'All Right Now' went to ten-bazillionth in 1970. They bumped around for a few more years with rapidly diminishing returns (and rapidly diminishing veins) until Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke jumped ship to go form Bad Company with a dude from Mott the Hoople and a dude from King Crimson and go on to make stacks of money that if placed one on top of another, would still fall over into a big pile because they're all rolled up into coke straws.
Free, from a musical point of view, aren't really gonna shake anyone's melon off their tree these days the way that some of their betters still can...they were a band that put their stock in soulful quality more than big, brash metallic noises (which makes the Big Bad Motherfucking Riff of 'All Right Now' a bit of an aberration in their catalog, especially compared to their later, low-key roots stuff), though they certainly are capable of burning the drugstore down if left to their own devices. Guitarist and resident junkie-loser Paul Kossoff is a rough and ready guitar player who nonetheless never was able to crack into the next level where everything didn't sound like it was copped from a 1968 Clapton show somewhere, and drummer Kirke is certainly able to lock down a heavy beat but never really does anything beyond playing damn professionally. Paul Rodgers is really the star of the show. He's a guy with very smooth, muscular tenor pipes who doesn't need to rely on godawful squealing acrobatics (Robert Plant), silly screeching (Ian Gillan), heebling and jeebling like a cracked homeless guy who smells of dried piss (Ian Anderson), sounding like he's sold his soul for a dimebag and some sleeping pills (Ozzy Osbourne), sucking so hard he's got the Empire State Building lodged in his throat (that asshole from Uriah Heep), or suffering from a throat so gruff and parched it must be because he's fellated an entire football squad in one fell swoop (Rod Stewart). I dunno how interesting the man's voice is, really (he's got none of Mick Jagger's irresistible devil-doll personality, f'r instance), but like his band it's always there at the ready in case someone's mojo starts rising or a little schoolgirl needs following home. Their songwriting, like that of Led Zeppelin, is forever derivative of old dead blues guys, but unlike Led Zeppelin, Free just doesn't seem to have the balls to step right up and rob with impunity and present shit as their own and for damn sure doesn't have access to a riff-generation machine like Jimmy Page. Still, if you're one of those hard cases who likes a good bit of crispy creme hard rock without all that Gollum-stroking Eastern mysticism business, Free may just be for you.
Oh, and as a note, I'd like to say right now that with the exception of Bad Company's strong debut record, any Free record pretty much beats the patooties out of any Bad Co. album you care to pull out of your trouser fly. Free was genial and authentic. Bad Company is glammy and depressing. Sure, I'll review those over-puffed bastions of late-70's hard rock sometime within the next galaxial rotation, but for now it serves you well to seek out at least a couple of Free albums.
Tons Of Sobs
- A&M 1968
Good album title...this album is heavy and heartbroken, taking blues to subterranean depths not imagined before 1968, when this was released. Remember...this was before most any of the Zeppelin-ilk metallic blues guys had formed, and no one had necessarily done trad blues this hard on an album yet. The magic word of the afternoon here in the Free section of our store is consistency, and the early Free albums are almost amazingly so. Unlike Cream albums, usually held up as the gold standard but which divide almost evenly between classics and colossal failures (not to mention too many extended live jams of mediocre material, but that's for another popsicle and shouldn't be delved into here, not without more drugs that I have on hand, anyway) Tons of Sobs is all meat and potatoes of a heavy, rockin' bloozey good time, or rather bad time...there's a stench of hoodoo on this record that seems to pervade every note in dread and heartache. Then again, it could just be spilled bongwater, but I'm not one to take any chances. They keep their pace up for 9/10ths of the record, slowing down from their heady chug of fire-breath only for the leaden ballad 'Moonshine' before cranking it right back up again to finish. The rest churns along through a selection of mighty good blues-derived material that's innovative in its heaviness for 1968 but doesn't change the pitches up much over the course of forty minutes. The opening 'Worry' has some of Kossoff's more violent lead lines, but once you get past the rhythm section's venom on 'Walk In My Shadow', you'll be doomed to find it is about as formulaic as a mid-tempo blues shuffle can possibly be, as are 'Wild Indian Woman' ('you don't need your horses baby, you've got me to ride...' and might I add 'you don't need your tomahawk baby, you've got my big ol' thunderstick now!!!) and 'Goin Down Slow', which has gotta be taken as a big influence on all those endless low-tempo moonlit Led Zeppelin blooze bruisers that spotted their first several records and remained a bugbear for them until the end ('I Can't Quit You Baby', 'Since I've Been Loving You', 'Tea For One', 'The Crunge', 'Robert Plant Is A Big Lispy Fruitcake'), is just Chicago electrified blues taken out behind the woodshed and given a right bashing with a table leg until the neighbors complain. And Led Zeppelin has more 'splainin' to do about covering Free's version of Albert King's 'The Hunter' back on that hilariously overclocked middle section of 'How Many More Times' ('AAAWWWRRRR PEEEEE DA HUN-TAWARRRR!!!! THAT'S MAH NAAAAAMMEEE!') without even giving credit where it's due. But pointing at Zeppelin and screaming out 'Stop! Thief!' is like standing up in a crowded Friday date-night movie theatre and shouting out that Meg Ryan has absolutely no acting talent. Everyone knows it, but no one's got the balls to say it out loud and everyone is happy just grinning along with their unrocked boat ride. I guess I just want to point up one more major difference between Free and Zep...Free has the self-confidence to call a cover a cover, and perform it with something approaching reverence, even if Rodgers' restrained delivery has more style than an army of Robert Plants (now that's a sight I'd like to never see, though I guess I know what my personal hell is going to look like).
Is it too much? I guess that depends on your blues tolerance, but I'll say that anyone who likes the first few Zep albums or even the Peter Green Fleetwood Mac will probably find themselves diving right down into this sludge. It is consistent, and sometimes even great (the soloing in 'The Hunter' is unforgettably gleeful), it's probably Kossoff's finest hour, and we don't even have measurable songwriting contributions from bassist Andy Fraser beyond some unobtrusive thumping. You probably don't feel you need another blues-rock album, but for someone interested in viewing the forgotten roots of some of the Seventies' biggest bands, check out Tons of Sobs for a little homework...if you can track it down.
Capn's Final Word: Far from being sonsabitches, these guys are actually pretty agreeable, if you can dig their scronchy deep-blues heavy style, that is.
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Your Rating: A-
Any Short Comments?: For a blues-rock lover like me, this is good stuff. It's a lot more brash than the rest of their work would be, on the whole. What is worth noting is that, when this album was recorded, in 1968 (not released, which was 1969), Kossoff was just 18, or not quite 18. Either way, very young. Andy Fraser, the bass maestro was 16. 16!!!!! Wow!! Rodgers and Kirke, the elder statesmen, were a mature 19. So you've got a young band here, and possibly one of the youngest ever to put out a half decent record. They get my respect for that. The music's good too!
Free- A&M 1969
Free jive on with their badddasssss blues-rock selves on Free, an album that shows our heroes stepping back slightly from the full-blast (well, for Free, it's full blast. For, say, the Stooges, it's somewhere between tepid and lukewarm) crackin' of their debut to explore the subtleties in their sound. Strangely enough, there are a few. Free's rhythm section, especially bassist Andy Fraser, is a source of constantly intriguing little plays on the average rock thud, making this album seem more intelligent than the squeeze-my-rubber-ducky lyrics might have you believe otherwise. Take a listen to the nifty rhythmic shifts in 'Songs Of Yesterday', and then take a gander at how smoothly they are able to transition between the two grooves. Then go sit on the commode and comprende about how Free isn't quite the dumbass English hard rock band people want to make them out to be. Just because none of them possessed genius, and only Rodgers really has it all up top with the whole unnatural talent thing, and they only had one hit song doesn't make them into Blodwyn Pig alluvasudden. Free were good enough (at least they were in 1969) to make an album of mid-tempo blues-rock hoodoo sound essential. Free is less derivative and yet somehow more easily accessible than the debut...they're definitely leaning more towards soul-rock moreso than blues-rock, as they've never sounded more like a bonafide Muscle Shoals soul outfit than on 'Trouble On Double Time', which also has that marvelous knack of sounding deceptively loose limbed when the time is actually dead-on throughout. If your head longs to bang, don't give up and try some Beat Happening records in desperation...there's still some wicked-pisser high levels of rockin' goodness on tracks like 'I'll Be Creepin', where the *crack!* from the bridge back into the main groove is almost enough to readjust your spine.
Free also revisit their own personal Achilles Heel (no, not smack) to attempt not sucking like a fusion-powered Dustbuster when they drop the tempos below groove-minimum, and they have mixed results at the end of it all. The second half is loaded with these 3 A.M. smoking cigarettes-on-your-balcony brooders, and youd think it'd get bogged down worse than a fat-farm delivery bus in a flash flood on a dirt road, but it just gets...y'know, moody. There's something very powerful not being said in 'Free Me', but it's still there, plain as day. Rodgers moans, Kirke rides his cymbal, Fraser plays a loping line, and Kossoff goes to score a half-gram and pick up his dry cleaning, but man...the indescribable is in there, knocking around like Marlon Brando looking for a midnight snack. Outside of a few moments in the intro of Tons of Sobs, we get our first taste of the folkier side of Free on 'Mouthful Of Grass' and 'Mourning Sad Morning', both gorgeous bits of Brit-psychedelic folk which knock Led Zeppelin III's self-conscious immaturity right off the block. 'Grass' does it by combining Velvet Underground with Donovan and calling it hasty pudding, and 'Mourning' just rips the heart from the chest. This is what subtlety, and most of all having more up your sleeve than you initially let on, is all about. Brilliant. They're slow, but they're compelling as hell. 'Lyin' in the Sunshine' relies almost exclusively on Rodger's voice for propulsion, and is scored as a balk when compared to the rest of the slow ones, but I still like the laid-back low-tempo groove this band can muster with what feels like no effort whatsoever.
Free is like watching a Hell's Angel carve intricate Bible scenes out of some square's skull with his pocketknife...you never thought these louts would ever have it in them to perform with such skill and restraint and still keep it interesting, and that's a pretty great accomplishment. They shouldn't be praised for what they didn't do, though...they do a mean folk rock, but I know for sure that Free copped all of their best dark English folk stuff from bands like the Incredible String Band and others that were big in their parts in the late 60's, and there's nothing amongst the rocking stuff here that Atlantic Records didn't put out in similar form at least four or five years earlier. But to combine the two with the confidence and consistency that Free does here is impressive indeed. I'm not set ablaze by the Kossoff Tossoff (you know I had to use it sometime, I'm just shocked I had to succumb so early. That's just because I have the willpower of a 3 year old. And the imagination of a two year old) 'Woman', which sounds a heckuva lot like the Patented Bad Company Sound that would bring Kirke and Rodgers more dollars than sense, and the failed single 'Broad Daylight' hustles up quite a bustle over nothing...Kossoff channels some Hendrixian clean leads, and Rogders says 'Broad Daylight' enough times I began to confuse the song with 'New Day Rising', but then I realized there wasn't any guttural screaming. Or passion. Or juice. Or power. Not all these Free songs work, friends and money-lenders...no matter how strong their particular formula might be.
Anyway, Free is another album to track down, this time less for how much influence it may have had over your hard rock favorites, but because the Free identity is defined here. It's fish-and-finger pie tasty, and even the lesser songs only lack spark...I can't even call them filler. It's very refreshing to see a band open a new leaf just when you thought they'd blown their entire wad for you.
Capn's Final Word: Deepest purple blues rock album that shows shades of Free.
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Water - A&M 1970
Consistently rated among complete idiots as the best-ever Free album for the sole reasons that A) It's pretty much the only one that's been uninterruptedly available for purchase in the Overheated States Of America, and B) it's got the only song most people know by this band on it, which of course is 'Rainbow Connection' by Kermit the Frog and the Pigfucks. No really, it's 'All Right Now', and it is, indeed, all right now. Now, idiots might have blinders on when it comes to the equally excellent Free or the very, very enjoyable Tons Of Sobs and the relative superiority of one over another, but at least they recognize this as a good one, for it very much is that, friends and tax collectors. I'm certainly not going to stand up and claim which Free album is their best when so far they're all winners (Sobs is rated slightly lower because it sounds more derivative of basic blues rock than Nos. 2 or 3 do), and anyone with a hankerin' for decent hard rockin' really ought to get all of them. Still, while their last one may have been more consistent, varied, and atmospheric, Free are at their most focused on Fire and Water, taking it a tad bit lighter than on their last two by injecting some blank, airy spaces in their grooves that used to be all choked up with notes, but becoming tighter and more efficient in their old age (what, 20? I heard bassist Andy Fraser was 16 at the time the debut was recorded...and the other guys weren't that much older. That still doesn't beat Tommy Stinson's 14 years when the Replacements first released an album, but it's still close, and Free play with a helluva lot more skill and intensity than the 'Placemats ever did). Unfortunately there are, for the first time, some tracks I really just don't like mixed in with some of the best material this band ever released, leading to an album that sounds much less like a solid whole than its predecessors, but still contains moments that will melt your face into a little bubbling pool that will ruin your Adidas and make it very difficult to go on your hot date scheduled for tonight.
One of those moments, probably the most jaw-dropping of them all, is the instrumental break section that closes 'Mr. Big', otherwise a nasty low tempo creep that ignites with hair-raising force when the big man himself comes to sweep all the shit off the streets about 3 minutes through. This, I think, is a masterpiece of understatement from the band as a whole and Paul Kossoff in particular. Koss just plays these murderous chord arpeggios as Kirke pounds steady as a pediatric brain surgeon and Fraser, oh Christ...just goes off in a bout of undercover soloing that makes 8 minutes of Chris Squier's 'Fish' seem like a bunch of mindless fucking about. The band builds the tension to a painful level....only to release it with a breathless return to the main riff, sounding like a return to the real world after a bout with fear so terrible that no one can understand it. My gosh, it's all so simple though...no one plays anything that difficult, and Kossoff just picks his way through two or three chords, and Rodgers is nearly silent through the whole sequence, but it works, and it's flattening.
As a song, though, I'll pick the opening 'Fire and Water' as the champion crunch king of the day, just funky enough to be fleet-footed, just loud enough to be bracing, and all kinds of rocking. I guess it's possible to hear Rodger's vocals and think of Otis Redding, but I just think...perfect. For this kind of stripped-down, bullshit-free (or bullshitless Free) rock 'n' roll, I can't imagine a better voice than Rodgers. Please refrain from making the mistake of drawing too many similarities between Free and Bad Company without hearing enough of both of them...on paper they seem like carbon copies of each other - bluesy soul vocals about girls both good and bad, lots of Keith Richards-y lead guitar stabs, and rock-steady grooves, but there's a presence, a slyness to the best Free music that just isn't anywhere near Bad Company. Perhaps it was the style of drugs they took, or just the times in which they operated, but this band can go places the Company never could, imagining what might be outside the boundaries of a 'rock song' that Bad Company was so restricted by. Oh well...Free ruled.
Other than the big ol' heavy hitters, Fire and Water begins to falter somewhat, which is why it's not considered one of the best two or three best hard rock albums of all time. If it were able to keep up the genius moves of the title track, 'Mr. Big', and the three-chord son-of-'Wild Thing' party classic 'All Right Now', I'd be constructing a new Temple for people to come and worship the God Free, but I gotta say I'm not. They revisit the slow ruminations of Free on 'Oh I Wept' with agreeable results, but 'Remember' feels like 'Mr. Big' minus the menace and cool break, leaving, well, a pretty boring song that barely holds together, and 'Heavy Load' sounds like Rodgers' 'Bad Company' stripped of all the mustard and lead guitar. The tempos remain slow on all these songs (outside of the uncharacteristically upbeat 'All Right Now'), which was fine on Free when they kept adding in new flavors with some acoustic folk stuff here or some cool guitar solo there, but on these tracks they just demand less out of themselves. Hell, 'Don't Say You Love Me' is just an outright off-the-track, into-the-side-of-the-mountain, cloud-of-noxious-chlorine-gas-choking-the-unfortunate-villagers train wreck of low melodic action that leaves everything on Rodgers to save with his vocals. He tries, but he just can't do it, for this patient is beyond help, Doctor.
Fire and Water is a very, very good album with some big flaws, but I still have to recommend the hell out of it. I think songs like Fire and Water and Mr. Big are lost classics, and All Right Now deserves the hell played out of it on the radios of the world. And after this, Free would fall and never quite get back up again, so to taste the last bit of greatness from this obscure bit of brilliance, I implore you to ch-ch-ch-ch-check it out.
Capn's Final Word: The filler creeps in and sets up camp, but the big moments flash like pulsars.
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Your Rating: A
Any Short Comments?: I like your favourable comments! I would disagree with you on the whole over 'Heavy Load'. I reckon there's an atmosphere to that songs, and an intensity. Koss' guitar lines are so emotional. One major difference between Free and Bad Co. is that Kossoff is a better guitarist than Ralphs. Most people acknowledge this. Ralphs is reminiscent of Richards in his sloppy playing, but Koss is much tighter and has his own unique style. Man, 'Mr. Big'? Wow!! Fraser was 17 when that track was recorded. 17??? Just like he was 16 on the debut. 17? I'm 18 and i fill my days in the most mundane and aimless ways. he was 17 and creating that piece of brilliance? Hats off to him. The croydon version
of the song on 'Free Live!' is the best. You suggested that 'Fire and Water' was the last great album of Free. I'd say 'Heartbreaker' matches it, but i'll have to wait and see what you say about that one.....
Highway - A&M 1971.
Rush, rush, rush....from the dawn of time when the first record executive crawled from the primordial ooze and signed a crooked contract to record and distribute the mating calls of the salamanders, the rushed follow-up has been a fact of life for many artists. Think pretty much every pre-65 Beach Boys album ever recorded, or A Quick One, by the Who, or even To The 5 Boroughs, by the Beasties Boys, an album that took no more than a piddling six years to record. Well, you can add another notch to your bedpost, because Highway, buzzed through the usual channels at warp speed to capitalize on the universally surprising success of Fire and Water, more than obviously deserves a few more turns on the ol' microwave carousel before being declared fit to eat. Free (who, though it probably doesn't need mentioning, completed a whole career, including crawl from the pubs of London to the peak of a hit song, a massive appearance at a major rock festival, a live album, a short-lived breakup, and the sad decline into drug-induced animosity in less time than it took the Beastie Boys to write and record 70 minutes of half-assed rap music. Probably stole half their beats, too.) built their entire career on the massiveness and gravity of their sound, a beautiful thing sufficient to gleam the eye of any rock fan. Well, fuck me backwards and call me Kato Kaelin, but they completely lose the thread here...this is stripped down rock only because they don't really put their heart into matters, not because they've consciously tried to scale back from their crunchy peak of Fire and Water. They essentially sleepwalk through this snore of a disc, each song being a sort of country-folk-blues-rock that manages to kill off the spirit of each and leave behind a sugar-free skim vanilla milkshake with extra froth. The saving grace is that, despite the somewhat lame material, all of the usual features of a Free performance are here, albeit in muted tones. Everyone still sounds great, if you manage to listen closely enough to hear them...this band sounds so tentative, it's almost as if they would get their heads chopped off if they were so bold as to stick out in the mix even an inch.
And hell, they had to intend to do it this way for some reason or it wouldn't have come out so consistently blah. They begin with a couple of relatively uptempo numbers, 'Highway Song' and 'Stealer', both of which were failed singles most likely because they sound like contemporary Byrd outtakes - all sloppy, tired country rock with laid-back lyrics about the same ol' dirty road and dirtier women, but without the drive that makes one able to forget they're singing about the same things that toothless old black characters were singing about over a hundred and fifty years ago. 'Stealer' has a bit more drive and a bit more of a riff than the other tracks here, and I have to give my respects to Fraser once again for showing everyone what the bass is capable of doing in a power-trio-plus format. From here on out, though, things get real bland in a hurry. The mushy ballads and rootsy slow rockers begin to blur together into a pudding that, by the time you're a couple of songs into the innumerable bonus tracks, have begun churning your brains into pudding, too. All the 'Be My Friend's and 'Bodie's sound better fit for Carly Simon's equestrian voice than Mr. Rodger's pipes, and more often than not the band is given nothing whatsoever to do. No wonder they split not long afterwards...who would prefer to play empty, slow crap like this when you know you're in your prime (these guys were 20 years old, fer Chrissakes! Why they want to sound like a balding softheaded beekeeper like Jackson Browne is beyond me) and can play kick-butt rock 'n' roll with the best of 'em.
Capn's Final Word: The world's first middle-aged 20 year olds.
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Free Live - A&M 1971
Live rock albums that I can easily call 'great' just don't come along every day of the week, you know. Even what are considered to be the better live albums of all times are often, well, kinda uninspiring. Bands too often either suck live most of the time anyway (the endlessly jamming on E-minor Led Zeppelin), or try too hard when they know the tape recorders are running (Rolling Stones). Good ol' Free ain't got nothin' to lose, though, when they step on that stage. This band either was too young or too dumb to do anything other that kick mighty towers of butt when they climbed in front of an audience, and they also didn't give a shit about altering the riffs of changing some arrangement around if it fit their desires at the time. And when they need to get it right, they nail it with a confidence that once again makes it feel like they've got a lot more in reserve than they're letting on. This is a band that was entirely unpretentious when compared to some of their frillier fellow-travellers, and the spareness of their grooves is testament to the fact that restraint sometimes hits twice as hard as letting your tonsils hang out each and every song. At least that's the impression I get from Free Live, which if you ignore the redundant bonus tracks (something I've done on all these Free albums so far), is hands down the best taste of Free you can pick up legally. They perform spot-on versions of the raunchy 'Fire and Water' and a blazing 'Mr. Big', both razor sharp and devastating (though the instrumental break of 'Big' takes a little while to get to the ultra-cool bass-solo part for someone as impatient and childish as myself) and even lay down nice versions of the otherwise disappointing 'Get Where I Belong' and the Highway tracks 'Ride On A Pony' and 'Be My Friend', all of which are testament to the professionalism of their bassist and drummer. Rodgers, of course, is at his note-perfect best, also keeping the cock rock within the grooves where it belongs and simply pumping out his intoxicating Otis Redding impersonation without hamming it up ala Jagger or Plant. The only time the band gets a little wacky is on the opening 'All Right Now', where on the opening section they tickle the riff into something entirely different, yet equally rock-candy yummy as the original before slowly exploding into a muscular sweat a couple of minutes through (and yet before the cum-shot inevitability of the funk bridge). For me, 'All Right Now' is so much more outlandish than anything else in this band's catalogue that it almost sounds like a joke....a great, classic, rocking joke, but a joke anyway, as if Rodgers and Kossoff said 'you think we're cock rock? We'll show you cock rock! Here, hold my codpiece!'
If there's ever an award for hard rock purity, it should probably end up in the hands of Free, a band that really doesn't play anything too difficult (and certainly not too fast), but nevertheless sounds like they're doing the near-impossible...making three instruments and a voice fill the hall with chunky rock 'n' roll. And this is all supposedly recorded post-Highway, when the band was on the verge of busting up for several months. Well, they certainly don't sound like a band willing to let all this go to waste, they sound like they're completely committed to the Gods of Groove and Grind, and that's the way we all like it, don't we?
Capn's Final Word: When you can kick it like this, why do you need studio albums for?
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Your Rating: A
Any Short Comments?: This live album works so well because Free don't attempt to jam out, as you suggest, and because they stick to 5 minutes of awesome intensity and power per song. I've gotta ask though, why didn't you review the bonus tracks on this one. Because this time they definitely aren't redundant. 'Walk In My Shadow' is filled with glorious Koss guitarwork and Rodgers' growling. 'Trouble On Double Time' is a surprising one, because it steps out of mid-tempo and rocks so well. You should review the bonus tracks. Great album though. The version of 'Mr Big' is epic. Fraser just creates such a create sound from his bass. Not hard like basses normally sound, but softer and more melodic. Probably
because he is using a lot of vibrato, if you listen carefully. Great album.
- Island 1971
Just goes to show that Free without Fraser or Rodgers is no Free at all....this breakup formulation of the former Free guitarist and drummer, a random Japanese bass player named Tetsu Yamauchi who later showed up as a Face, and a random keyboard player named John 'Rabbit' Bundrick, who later showed up touring with the Who has the desire to sound like Free but not the chops. Well, sound like Free doing the sequel to Highway, anyway, and half the problem lies right 'thar. And they can't even get that part right... Tetsu may conceivably be a pretty decent bass player, laying down lines that were probably Fraser's first, but the vocal duties, split halfway between Kirke and Rabbit, are simply horrendously done. This is not mere sour grapes hissy-fitting by Herr Reviewer who happens to miss one of the great vocalists in hard rock, no Sirs and Gentle Friends. This is poisonous SUCK in its purest form...the vocal timbres are plain-Jane vanilla white, but that doesn't prevent whomever it is from attempting some twists and turns far beyond their capable range, making it sound like the equivalent of someone taking their stock '84 Dodge Aries station wagon to the drag strip and flogging it up to 4000 rpm. Believe me, this isn't Regular Joe vocalizing like, say, Lou Reed's talky-thing...these guys are trying to be soulful and just sound like an army of great big poofy idiot in the process.
All of this makes me thirst for the instrumental sections, and there are some nice moments when some of that patented Free heat begins to build on the basis of Kossoff's rhythm guitar, but just as often the pure goodness of a rock tune is simply buried under too much keyboard, funk bass, and random other overdub production scum. The instrumental funk tune 'Just For The Box' is a great example of a decent riff and some good rhythm playing choked under too many overdubs and some laughably uninspired keyboard playing. And lo for anyone who wanders into a KKTR ballad unawares...'Anna' and 'Colours' not only feature some of the worst singing on the entire record, but also have got to be two of the most stereotypically macho Eagles-ripoff ballads I've heard recently. It's as if they've tried to rewrite Desperado in their own image, and anyone can tell you that's like saying 'I bet I can make this fresh, juicy ground meat taste just like a McDonald's hamburger!', Why the fuckwhore whould you want to? Or trying to out Steely Dan the masters on 'Fool's Life'? Let's send the message now...Koss and crew are straight-ahead, slightly soul influenced players that keep it best when they keep it deceptively simple. They can't play this jazzy, smooth-guy Jason Becker rock, and shouldn't even try...it's dated, slimy, and ineffective, and Koss sounds awful trying to play these extended solo lines through the end. Who's the fool NOW?
Anyway, I'd just like to mention here that all the great Free material we love so much was written by people whose names are not mentioned in the masthead above. So don't act all surprised when this stuff sounds derivative, derivative, derivative...you'd do the same if you broke up one of the best-loved bands in Britain because you bitched about not having enough songwriting credits and then found yourself with an album to fill up. It's harder than it looks, ain't it?
Again, this record is not easily available anywhere, not to mention probably impossible to buy new in the US without sending your hard earned taco-money to some shifty-eyed Russian bootlegger with an Ebay store and a nagging smack habit who may or may not ever send you your out-of-print-except-in-Russia Mott the Hoople record because, hey...if he doesn't, what are you going to do? Get on a plane and go beat his ass over $11.99? And I'm a Chinese fighter pilot. And sheeit, this ol' record ain't worth half that anyway, so either grab it free off the World Wide Ripoff or just count yourself lucky you never heard 'Anna'.
Capn's Final Word: If it's already a good idea to be suspicious of supergroups, you should run ass-on-fire the other direction from supergroups in which you don't know from what rock half of the members crawled from under.
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email@example.com Your Rating: A
Any Short Comments?: This is at a used CD store a couple blocks from my house. Shocked? I know I was.
Your Rating: B
Any Short Comments?: I happen to like this album a bit. sure it's no Free, and the vocals suffer a lot without Paul Rodgers. However i think that Kossoff's soloing is good throughout the record. A great fluid tone he displays. His solo in 'Dying Fire' is just so emotional and really takes the intensity up several notches. A good album to have for a Free fanatic like me.
Free At Last - A&M 1972
Aaahhhh....Paul Rodgers is back, and the man sounds like beer to my bratwursts, like finding half a dozen neutron warbombs hidden in the back of a Baghdad Dairy Queen storage closet with Osama Bin Laden and half a million jobs would sound like to George 'If I say it enough times, it becomes true' Bush. And forgive me is I gush like an Entertainment Weekly interviewer, but this man's voice has only more and more enjoyable as I listen to these Free albums...again, he's about as expressive as a K-mart mannequin, but his tonality and smoooooooth timbre are just listenable as all heck. I could probably even stand to listen to George Thorogood albums all day if the man sounded like this instead of a pit bull terrier caught in a bear trap, but that's possibly pushing it a bit far. That said, when compared with Fire and Water or Free, Paul sounds a mite bit burnt out on Free At Last, which sounds like old Free minus the urge to kill and eat their prey. Perhaps it was Koss's advanced addiction to Afghan Hair Tonic that was killing the spirit around this band, but whatever it is, the mojo's gone. This isn't as languid and repetitive as Highway was, but it's just as numbing over the course of 37 minutes. If you listen to just a few seconds in a row, things sound like they're all on the up-n-up...the instruments all sound great, the songs are much more stereotypically 'Free' than they were last time around, but listening for any length of time washes the truth out like lipstick from a shirt collar - this album just ain't all that hot. Each and every one of these songs goes absolutely nowhere, the tempos continue to lag at the worst possible times, and I'm not even getting the kick from the instrumental sections that I used to. Hell, 'Magic Ship' is probably the worst thing available from this band, as it generates not a single spark except the one between my ears telling me - 'they're getting older and probably feel like becoming more 'serious''. Oh crap, that's it...they're trying to get all grave on us, when they'd already done the best they could to keep a straight face on Free. They're simply pushing themselves further and further into the grey beyond of hairy rock stars who write overlong hard rock songs with way too much busy playing and way too few melodic tonics. Ugh...the more times I listen to this album, the worse I think it is, which simply ain't a good sign. I guess 'Little Bit O' Love' is cool in a Bad Company pop-song kinda way (to me, it also somehow smacks of Kenny Loggins, but who the fuck knows why that might be), and 'Catch the Train' rocks reasonably well (and the blast of unintended feedback a half minute or so in is pretty frigging awesome), but 'Soldier Boy (Me So Horny. No Soul Brother Too Beaucoup!)' makes it sound like everyone's in the throes of withdrawal, and the run-of-the-mill gotta-run-baby-thanks-for-the-fuck 'Travellin' Man' sure sounds like it's not going anywhere in too much of a hurry. Yai. This stuff is not a lot of fun for too long, none of it, though again if you listen to a couple of bars at a time it still sounds mighty good. I suppose I should let my gratitude that one of the best hard rock lineups in rock is back together one last time, but this is pretty lean on the stuff that built their reputations in the first place. They should be able to let their riffs sink in over time, here they force the issue by overplaying. They used to be able to let their guitar/bass/drums do all the necessary speaking...here there's some crusty-butt piano playing that just depresses me into sleepiness. They used to rule with an iron fist and t-square songwriting...now they're fucking with the formula and coming across as wishy-washy. It's all enough to make me forget this album ever happened.
Capn's Final Word: Already a midlife crisis? Or just jonesin'?
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- A&M 1973
I feel completely noncommittal about Free's last gasp, recorded after Andy Fraser's departure and featuring some of the last good graces of Mr. Paul Kossoff before heading out on the White China Freeway to the edge of nowhere, as I sincerely don't hate it like I do, say, Highway, yet I also don't feel attracted to it whatsoever. They pull out some good performances, their best in years, but the melodies are more forgettable than not and the production is just as anti-Free as you can squeeze between your ears. Like on Free My Ass, there's way too many tinkly, pinkly keyboards (Rabbit Bundrick, again), the guitar tones are all polluted by various and sundry forms of battery-acid distortion sounds that kill Koss's naturally brilliant sound, and Rodgers sounds like he's bumping the ceiling of his vocal quality at about 75% of capacity, like his tongue is too stuck to the roof of his mouth 'cos of coke snorting to sing any better. Still, and this is a testament to how high the quality of the first three albums is more than anything else, they sound pretty good. Again, Ol. Mr. Testes ('MCA') Yamauchi isn't on par with Any Fraser on bass, but he's still able to keep up with Kirke's thudding groove, which makes up for half of a listenable album right there...they funk it up more than on the last couple of albums (and really keep it more along the lines of Koss/Kirke/Teste/Bunny, which should only be a surprise if you're not paying attention). The rockin' is more in-your-face than it ever has been, with Kossoff spinning out these wild-ass leads ('Wishing Well') over his rhythm section's heated pounding, which I guess is fine, though for me I prefer the old-style 'soaring instead of flapping your wings' guitar style of the old days. It made ol' Koss exceptional...here he might as well be anyone. Except on 'Come Together In The Morning', where his vibratos may as well be trademarked under his name and address.
Heartbreaker still manages to bore me to tears despite songs that I should like, or at least it seems like everyone else likes. 'Travellin' In Style' is not at all convincing as a country-rocker, for example...it sounds like some British dudes trying to be the Band crossed with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and it all just seems kinda obscene and offensive to me. And talk about repetitive! These songs seem to just jackhammer themselves into my brain with their nagging melodies and icky riffs 'Heartbreaker'! Yai! Again, I should like this, but it's just, so...gross! Those organs sound like Grand Funk, fer Chrissakes! And aren't these lyrics just 'Fire and Water' pointed back at the singer? God, I guess if you're jonesin' bad for the Free-style rock like a thug-rock junkie, this stuff might sound decent, but all I ask is when the real ass-kicking is going to begin.
I suppose I might be overreacting to what boils down to three things: 1) The pollution of the classic stripped-down Free sound with organs and lots of lead guitar, which I find kills most of the icepick effectiveness that I loved in the first place, and which includes subpart 1b) sludgy production, 2) Rodgers simply doesn't sound as good as he used to, and 3), the rootsy rock that dominates the second half has been done tons better by so so many other folks that the fact that Free insists on flogging as a 'second dimension' behind their hard rock is a true bummer. Like Highway and Free At Last, the album lacks a true standout song (and has some unfortunate bummers on side B like 'Muddy Water' and 'Easy On My Soul'), and generally falls victim to the 'monolithic' curse that plagues their last two...It's a relief when it finishes and all this puffed-up bluster is finally dissipated. In sum, this band was simply not pop-friendly enough to keep me wanting to come back after they marginalized their sound around 1971 or so. And so I'll leave it like this...Free didn't crash and burn, thank God, but their best work still lies in those first three issues.
Capn's Final Word: They kick it up into second gear at the end, but I still remember road races past.