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.