Fleetwood Mac's last two records, Kiln House and Future Games, have between them provided me with perhaps a hundred hours of enjoyment. And that's the ultimate test of a record's worth. Personally, I was never interested in early Fleetwood Mac, the British blues band; but this Fleetwood Mac has little in common with that group except for the name and the rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. The closest thing I can think of to the kind of music the new Mac plays is the moody rock of the middle-period Beatles. Kiln House is similar to Beatles '65 in its dual concerns with vintage rock 'n' roll and muted, romantic pieces. Jeremy Spencer took care of the former area, while Danny Kirwan extended the style best represented by McCartney's "I'll Follow the Sun."
Since Spencer left, the band has been forced to re-orient itself somewhat: Kirwan has become the sole focal figure, and this central role has forced him to deal in the visceral as well as the moody areas. But Kirwan had already shown on Kiln House that he was well equipped to handle both. His "Jewel Eyed Judy," "Tell Me All the Things You Do," and "Station Man" are among the best examples of the soft-hard rock song, with their lovely, silky vocals and smoking guitars. If Kiln House holds up somewhat better than the gentler Future Games, Kirwan's dynamic songs are at least as responsible as Spencer's presence on the former album.
Bare Trees falls somewhere between the last two Fleetwood Macs; that is, it hits harder than Future Games, but its concerns are much more introspective than those of Kiln House. Kirwan has written two melancholic, really elegiac songs based on the bittersweet poem of an elderly woman, "Thoughts on a Grey Day," that closes the album. The first song, "Bare Trees," its title suggested by a line from old Mrs. Scarrot's poem, moves along exhilaratingly, even though its lyric is a metaphor of age and approaching death; perhaps it's the acceptance of the cycle that gives the music a hopeful, almost happy feeling. The second, "Dust," is a great deal more somber, but it retains Kirwan's deft melodic touch, manifesting itself in both the sighing vocal and in the guitar lines that sweep softly alongside it. "Dust" sets the stage for the poem, which is similar in effect to the "Voices of Old People" track on Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends. The group has thoughtfully preceded the poem with about 15 seconds of silence, sufficient time to pick up the tone arm if you're not in the mood.
The rest of Bare Trees isn't nearly so melancholy, nor is it structured to conform to the theme Kirwan has developed. Christine McVie's two songs, "Homeward Bound" and "Spare Me a Little of Your Love" (which sounds like a hit single to me), make it clear that she's become a fine songwriter and a persuasive vocalist–she's somewhere between Sandy Denny and Dusty Springfield, and there's no doubt that she could make it on her own. Bob Welch's two contributions, however, don't approach the power of "Future Games." His "The Ghost" and "Sentimental Lady," while not unattractive in themselves, are the weakest tracks on the album. Both are trite.
As before, it's Danny Kirwan who makes the difference. There's nothing on Bare Trees to equal "Station Man" and "Jewel Eyed Judy," but, aside from "Dust," Kirwan's songs here rock much more than his Future Games material did. He really lets loose on "Danny's Chant," which features tough-guy electric guitar sounds purely for their own sake. His "Child of Mine" is a lyrically disjointed but musically forthright rock 'n' roll song. And Kirwan's instrumental, "Sunny Side of Heaven," shows off his unique electric guitar style to good advantage. Like most outstanding guitarists, Kirwan gets a sound that is more plainly human than mechanical. His guitar tone is piercing but tremulous–powerful but at the same time plaintive, especially in the upper ranges.
With his multiple skills, Kirwan can't help being the focal point. It is his presence that makes Fleet-wood Mac something more than another competent rock group. He gives them a distinctiveness, a sting. He makes you want to hear these songs again.