The rock and roll drought of 1970 shows no signs of letting up as summer comes to a close. A few good records have been released here and there but on the whole things have been pretty bad. These two albums show the problems even the best established bands are having. Quicksilver and the Steve Miller Band have been two of the most consistent groups in the country over the past couple of years but these two new releases don’t come near the excellence of either group’s past work.
On first listen, Number 5 just sounds like a mediocre Steve Miller album but after hearing it a few times, you discover mistake after mistake in arranging, mixing, you name it. Instruments clash on “Going To The Country” and “Hot Chili,” the vocal is almost inaudible on “Jackson-Kent Blues” and “Never Kill Another Man” stumbles a couple of times before it gets going. These things might not matter so much if the music had other things going for it but the material is strictly second-rate and the group’s playing is generally uninspired. Probably the best cut on the record is “Going To Mexico,” a derivative blues that sounds like it belonged on Sailor. Incidentally, this is the only cut which Glyn Johns, who co-produced all of the Miller Band’s other albums, has anything to do with and his absence might be the reason for many of the technical problems here.
A reason for the weakness in material might be related to the political nature of the album. Half of the songs deal with social and political themes and these types of songs do not show Steve Miller at his strongest. He’s earnest enough — “I’m a troubadour looking for a chance,” he sings — but like most of us, he can only make outraged statements, ask basic questions — “Will you be the one who killed another man?” — and offer no real solutions. Like most artists from Dylan on down, Miller is best when he writes about things close to him and avoids the rhetoric and sloganeering that seem to come with political discussion.
Although Quicksilver’s new release, Just For Love, seems untouched by political considerations, it has more weak spots than Miller’s album. Unlike the other two Quicksilver studio albums, which were carefully recorded and mixed, this one sounds like it was thrown together with little or no preparation beforehand. Most of the vocals are terribly recorded; they sound similar to Doug Sahm’s distorted vocals on a couple of cuts on the Mendocino album which turned out to be demo tapes. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Freeway Flyer” or “The Hat” are just that. The two unfocused instrumentals, “Wolf Run (Parts 1 & 2)” and “Cobra” sound like they were thought up at the last minute to make the album a respectable length. Even “Just For Love” which makes it the first time around has a second part to it that unsuccessfully attempts to give the album a unity it does not possess.
The only two songs that are really up to par come back-to-back on side two. “Gone Again” is the loveliest thing Quicksilver has ever recorded. The guitars of Cipollina and Duncan blend softly with Hopkins’ piano to create a beautiful mood that fits perfectly with newcomer Dino Valenti’s voice. “Fresh Air” has a lot of singing in it but almost no lyrical content, but no matter. It moves, has good solos by Duncan and Hopkins and is the only song on the album that sounds at all like the old Quicksilver.
Both of these records suffer from uneven material and inconsistent production, problems which should be correctable in the future considering the amount of talent in the groups involved. Quicksilver has three proven songwriters in Duncan, Frieberg and Valenti (Hopkins has recently left the group) and if they take enough time and care in the studio, they should be able to produce some more fine music. The same thing goes for the Steve Miller Band; Miller is usually an excellent writer while drummer Tim Davis has, with the exception of “Hot Chili,” turned out nothing but good songs. But if Miller is going to engineer and produce himself from now on, I hope he pays a little more attention to technical matters on the next album than he did on this one.