Monday, March 05, 2007

Love - Reel To Real: Lost Classic or Bummer In The Summer?

Reel To Real might be easier to understand if thought of as Arthur Lee's third solo album (after Vindicator and the never-released Black Beauty) rather than as a Love album. Certainly it has little in common with Love's best-known work, Forever Changes, or their final Elektra album, Four Sail. It does share some common ground with the Hendrix-like hard-rock of Vindicator, but rather than psychedelia or hard-rock, Reel To Real is predominantly soul music, harkening back to Arthur Lee's earliest work with The American Four and LAG.

Reel to Real is easily the rarest album released under the Love moniker, selling few copies upon its initial release on RSO in 1974, and never having been released on CD. I first heard this album back when I was in high school and my friend Peter picked it up in the "bargain bin" at the Annapolis Record Exchange. It seemed like a major score . . . until we actually heard it. This wasn't Love! This was more like disco! I think we both concluded that by 1974 Arthur Lee was a sad drug casualty who had completely lost his way musically.

Peter later sold his copy, but after reading about Guy's initial bum reaction to Forever Changes, I found myself getting curious about Reel To Real again. Was it really as bad as I remembered all those years ago, or had I simply approached the album with the wrong set of preconceptions? So when a still-sealed copy popped up on eBay, I bid on it. Then I was outbid, so I bid again. And again. And again.

So the 46 dollar and 33 cent (including shipping) question is: was it worth it? Well, I paid more for it than I should have, but listening to Reel To Real with fresh ears in 2007, I think it is mostly terrific. The easiest way to describe the album is as a cross between the Hendrix-inspired hard-rock Lee aspired to post-Forever Changes and the greasy soul music of Lee's Memphis birthplace.

No matter what you think of the music, it's undeniable that Lee assembled a crack band--in terms of technique, perhaps the best of his career--the band is tight. "Time Is Like A River," "Good Old Fashion Dream," and "Who Are You?" are genuinely funky with soulful vocals by Lee. "Which Witch Is Which" and a cover of William DeVaughn's "Be Thankful For What You Got" sound a bit like Cadet-era Terry Callier, and "Busted Feet" is a compelling amalgam of Hendrix and Memphis Soul.

And while the fact that Lee recycled three songs from previous releases may suggest creative exhaustion, "Everybody's Gotta Live" and "Busted Feet" sound better the second time around. Sure, the album is not perfect; I could have lived without the remake of "Singing Cowboy," and the "We got the power, we're gonna make it right on" sloganeering of "With A Little Energy" sounds overly facile even without considering that it comes from the man who brought the world "A House Is Not A Motel" and "Bummer In The Summer." But the band locks into a solid groove and Lee sells the positive message with a genuinely enthusiastic performance.

So my revised verdict is that Reel To Real is one of Arthur Lee's strongest post-Forever Changes releases. It is a far better album than I remembered. In 2007 Reel To Real sounds more like an artistic re-birth for Arthur Lee than the last gasp of a spent creative force. Had the album met a better fate commercially it might have provided a blueprint for bringing Lee's music to a broader audience during the 1970s. (Now if someone could just explain the cover art to me.)

If you approach this music without the baggage of this being a Love album, I think you might dig it.

Funky Denim Wonderland: In 1974 Arthur Lee had one of the best bands of his career, but the music never found an audience.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad I had an opportunity to hear this one again(thanks B Bird) and for the most part I think Pete is right on with his review.

I'd probably not rate it so highly, and I think it's mostly hit or miss with the 11 tracks, but Lee is certainly passionate about this project and does sound ‘with it’ and not like some lost acid casualty.

"Time is Like a River" and "Be Thankful for What You've Got" are excellent slices of smooth 70’s R&B and are IMO the stand-out tracks.

"Who are You?" is also very good. "Which Witch is Which" is the only track that could be classified as psychedelic and reminds me of some of the "Out Here/Four Sail" era Love, but it's the odd track out.

"Busted Feet" is groovin' on late Hendrix vibe and "Everybody's Gotta Live" makes a nice closing track to a much better than I remember album.

As for the remaining tracks – well, the Memphis Stax sound just doesn't work for Lee here IMO and after hearing more realized and fresh sounding fusions of 60's and 70's R&B as on "Time","Be Thankful" and “Who are You?” they ultimately sound too backward looking and just not all that memorable.

Now if Lee had managed to work the sound achieved on those three tracks across two sides, that would have been something great happening.

Anonymous said...

In writing this post I had to consider the possibility that my judgement might be clouded by the fact that I paid a lot of money to obtain the album. It is good to have my opinion at least partly seconded by ears I trust. I agree that Reel To Real is not a consistently great album, but it is pretty good with some excellent tracks, and far, far better than its reputation suggests. It sounds like what could have been an exciting direction for Lee. Unfortunately within 2 years of its release he was earning his living painting houses with his father-in-law.

BTW, Colin Larkin, editor of The Encyclopedia of Popular Music lists Reel To Real as one of the worst albums of all time, in the company of "The Country Side of Pat Boone," "Merry Christmas With The Smurfs," Telly Sevalis' "Telly," a Milli Vanilli remix album, and La Toya Jackson's "My Country Collection."

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this review. Writer and songstress Marva Holiday sent your link. I am so grateful.

My husband, Sherwood Akuna, bass, is on that album. He's spoken of Love: Reel to Real as an attempt to take the music in a new direction over the years, but does not have a copy, let alone a royalty check. Arthur Lee (and others) said Sherwood's bass would put 'da trip on it.'

I can't wait for Sherwood to read your review. He and Big Bird have been talking but I'm not hearing about them playing together. They've even spoke a few times since Arthur went forward, RIP.

I'd love to hear the musical edge that the surviving members of ARTHUR LEE AND LOVE, plus other ignored artists from the era like Marva Holiday, Toby Kasavan and others would create.

Even if the music is tracks exchanged on line and mixed on a computer, hearing Sherwood play, I'm sure the music will be extraordinary and healing too.

Thanks again for your review. I suspect this is another classic in danger of being lost. Please keep up your powerful work.

Anonymous said...

"Now if somebody could explain the cover art"

Sherwood Akuna said: "The LOVE: Reel to Real cover is the "real" Baby Arthur Lee in a glass bubble womb, with an umbilical tube connected to a tape "reel" worked through LOVE."

Anonymous said...

I just came across this site while looking for reviews of Reel To Real which I just found over the weekend in a Dutch record shop.
I think the album is great, and feel no need to compare it with previous Love albums like Forever Changes (how many albums, regardless of the artist, can measure up to a work like that, anyway?) I wouldn't even say that this album is inconsistent, rather that it simply goes in different directions but doesn't feel disjointed. I really like the funky, soulful, electric dynamism of the album. Funny how some albums just disappear like this one...

Anonymous said...

Dear FT.

i just bought this in 2008, mid September and it is a classic. The slower numbers sound like Otis Reading (side 2 track 2) )and the funkier tunes sound just like a special I watched last night, it is pure Lenny Kravitz!!!!

play side two, track 3 and tell me this isn't off a Lenny Kravitz live show with horns and guitar chords??

I have 3000 records in my collection and this is top 50!! for sure.

steve, Santa Cruz

Anonymous said...

I got this album when it came out, I was still at school and my friends were a bit iffy about it I had no idea why as it is fantastic. I hope it comes out on cd.
I saw Love play one of their last gigs in Newport Wales, Arthur must have been ill but no one would have known as they played a very long set and it was astonishing, Johnny Echols was there too and playing the most amazing guitar, the rest of the band were amazing too, what a treat I wish that gig would be released.