[…continued from last post]
“We Can Win” could have been a track from “Flatlands” from the sound of it. An acoustic folk number with brushed drums and acoustic guitars. But that was a deceptive simplification. Where it more closely reflected the current was in the caliber of the songwriting. As well as the framing of the song with a Memphis horn hook being the deciding Blow Monkey factor, though Dr. Robert’s reverberant tremolo guitar also made it more than something that would have been recorded on a Dr. Robert solo album.
Far more radical was the lurching Art Rock rondo of “Only Joking.” The obstinate drum pattern owned this song. It was front and center with the bass right in our faces with it. The nagging, dissonant saxes really positioned this one like a throwback to the sound of their “Punk Jazz” roots given an update with all they had learned in the intervening quarter century. The berserk touch of Dub only made it stand out more in sharp relief. And the cold ending where Dr. Robert simply said “stop!” to have the song end on the next measure reminded me of “Under Heavy Manners” and Robert Fripp’s similar command.
After that left field outlier [to nowhere], it was time for something more melodic. “I Dream Of You” began with a more conventionally beautiful beginning with strummed whistles and Neville Henry’s ocarina. Then with the first chorus, it revealed its bifurcated structure with a tempo shift and a tonal shift to major chords and vibrant handclap rhythms.
The single released from the album was the sprightly acoustic folk of “Travelin’ Soul.” The Fred Neil influence in this song was palpable, but Dr. Robert certainly rose to the occasion. The gentle shaker rhythms and acoustic guitars were great counterpoint to the vocal harmonies here. The cheerful sax of Mr. Henry served, as ever, to put the Blow Monkeys stamp on the song, as did the string arrangement. The later, always a Blow Monkeys defining trait. The CD single here remained the last commercial physical Blow Monkeys single release, with a new B-side version of “The Man From Russia!”
It’s a mark of how exciting that the track “Save Me” was that I had been listening to the album for many years before I noticed that the song was a massive eight minutes long! The widescreen Soul-Funk opus was ripped from the Barry White Love Unlimited Orchestra playbook, with sweeping, cinematic strings and funky handclaps giving its engine room a massive power. The percussion hook was redolent of Andrea True’s “More, More, More.” So the late 70s vibe was extremely strong. Nigel Hopkin’s vintage Moog solo simply added more fuel to that fire.
Dr. Robert’s vocal floated elegantly over the music bed and near the six minute mark, he stopped singing to let his guitar do the talking with an elegant, jazzy solo that really made its mark on the song. then the string re-asserted primacy in the climax of the song dropped out dramatically for seven bars of the piano looping.
After that tour de force, the album ended on a plaintive note with the intimate folksiness of “When Love’s In Bloom.” The ocarina and acoustic guitars were touched with a little accordion to support Dr. Robert’s most intimate vocal on the album. Ending the eclectic and sprawling album on a gentle note.
In many ways, “Devil’s Tavern” was business as usual for The Blow Monkeys. It was another album [their fourth in a row] where the songs were all stylistically unrelated to each other. In that way, it was not dissimilar [in theory] to the one that had preceded it by 18 years. But that album was the furthest from the band’s modus operandi in its construction. It forswore a string section which had always been a Blow Monkeys staple to venture into world music territory.
“Devil’s Tavern” found the strings back with the band. Three of these songs had acoustic folk roots that would have been at home on a Dr. Robert solo album, but the band had been integrated with them in ways that would not have happened under those circumstances. The album touched on Jazz, Funk, Soul, elegant Disco, and Folk music. The point was that it was all done masterfully.
This was an album that satisfied with no filler, even through the varied stylistic and tonal shifts. The pacing and sequencing was such that the album unfolded in a supremely satisfying arc. With all contributors getting their chance to make it really shine. After an 18 year layoff, the band reconvened and were clearly fighting strong and ready to pick up, not where they left off, but streets ahead. The band returned to the studio even stronger than when they had stepped down. I was immediately impressed with “Devils’ Tavern” on receipt and the intervening 14 years have done nothing but burnish its manifold accomplishments in my mind. My greatest hope was that the band could stay together but how would they manage to better the standard that they set here?
Next: …A Temporary Stopgap Measure