Monday, March 26, 2007

Arthur Lee - Vindicator

I want to continue with a re-assessment of each of Arthur Lee/Love's post-Forever Changes albums. Conventional wisdom dictates that after the original Love's breakup Lee's career was characterized by progressively diminishing artistic returns. Sales figures and what remains in print would tend to bear that assessment out. But my re-examination of 1974's Reel To Real suggested to me that such opinions are based at least in part upon misplaced critical expectations. I suspect Lee's fans and critics were wishing so hard for another Forever Changes each time out that they never listened to the new albums on their own terms.

Today I want to take a second look at Arthur Lee's first solo album, Vindicator. This album, released by A&M in 1972, came on the heels of a failed CBS/Columbia deal. It was also the first of Lee's albums not to chart. As Wayne Robins noted in his largely positive November 1972 review of Vindicator for Creem magazine:

"There's an overwhelming obsession with death on Vindicator, with explicit lyrical references in at least half the songs."

Indeed, the specter of death hangs over the album, and not solely because of the sometimes-morbid lyrical content. Early in his career Lee was often accused of mimicking Mick Jagger ("A black man trying to sound like a white man, trying to sound like a black man.") Here he sounds like a black man trying to sound like a dead black man: Jimi Hendrix. So strong is the Hendrix influence on Vindicator that it sounds like the sonic equivalent of necrophilia, and whatever the album's strengths, I have a hard time listening past that.

The cover art is very much worth examining in light of the Hendrix influence. As Robins notes:

"Arthur Lee is very much involved in the Sly-Hendrix equation, which states that black rock 'n' rollers working for the white masses tend to self-destruct. The proof of the pudding here is the cover. Lee, head shaved, carrying broom and janitor's suit, slapping palms with himself, in blonde wig, carrying an electric guitar, looking over his shoulder."

It's clear that Lee is making some kind of statement here about his position as a black man operating in a white man's music world. I suspect he's describing the options he felt were open to him, and the stereotypes society allowed him to occupy. Either present himself as an outrageous "super spade" in the mold of Sly Stone or Hendrix, or fall into the anonymity of menial labor. There is no small irony in the fact that Lee would be earning his living as a house painter within four years of this album's release.

I don't consider this among Lee's stronger post-Forever Changes releases, but it has its moments, especially if you can listen past the huge the Hendrix influence. This is probably Lee's hardest rocking release, and it lacks the subtlety of his better albums. "Love Jumped Through My Window" and "Busted Feet" are two of the better songs, although the Hendrix influence is perhaps strongest on "Busted Feet." It's not a bad album by any means, but it didn't grab me the way Reel To Real did.

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