The Emitt Rhodes Recordings 1969-73
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
When you look up the terms unfulfilled potential, musical genius, and compelling composer in the dictionary, Rhodes' picture should appear right alongside the text. His 1970 debut, "Emitt Rhodes" put him on the road to stardom, but within four years it was "Farewell to Paradise."
Hip-O-Select has set right the many wrongs visited upon Rhodes by releasing the four albums he recorded between 1969 and 1973 in a 2 disc remastered set.
The closet artist I can compare Rhodes to would be Paul McCartney -- back when Macca mattered. Emitt looked like Paul's twin and recorded all the instruments himself on three of his four albums, just like Paul did for his first solo record.
Rhodes first came to public's attention at the age of 14 when he occupied the drummer's stool for The Emerals, a cover band that played in his adopted hometown of Hawthorne, California. The Emerals changed their name to The Palace Guard, recorded three singles that went straight to the discount bins and had the distinction backing actor Don Grady (of "My Three Sons" fame) during a recording session. By 16, Rhodes was the de facto leader of The Merry-Go-Round, a baroque/folk/rock quartet that placed a couple of minor hits ("Live" and "You're a Very Lovely Woman") on West Coast radio stations. Rhodes stayed on the merry-go-round for three years before striking out on his own, recording a solo album in 1969, "The American Dream," in order to fulfill the band's contract with A&M. The album featured noted session players Jim Gordon, Hal Blaine and Larry Knechtel, among others, and was the only one of Rhodes quartet of albums in which he used outside musicians. It was telling, however, that A&M chose not to release it until 1971.
Rhodes' self-produced, self-titled 1970 release was heralded as the arrival of a new McCartney or Harry Nilsson. When "Fresh as a Daisy" and "Somebody Made for Me" from "Emitt Rhodes" made waves on the airwaves, Dunhill Records pushed Rhodes to finish his next album, "Mirror." Naturally, Rhodes couldn't keep up with the hectic production pace, so Dunhill wound up suing him for $250,000 for the delay and withheld his royalties from "Emitt Rhodes." Rhodes completed "Mirror" in 1971. The situation worsened when in an attempt to catch a ride on Rhodes' rising star, A&M finally released his first solo album "American Dream" that same year, which likely confused fans and cut into "Mirror's" sales. With two albums on two separate labels out and his first album only a year old, Rhodes was faced with the dilemma of becoming over exposed. The public took care of that potential problem, pushing "Emitt Rhodes" to number 29 on the Billboard charts, while the "Mirror" cracked at a disappointing #182 and "The American Dream" didn't register a pulse.
Disenchanted, Rhodes recorded one final album, sending a message by naming it "Farewell to Paradise." The album took two years to produce and featured harder edged power pop sound mixed with wistful, world-weary ballads. Rhodes' bearded, bedraggled appearance on the album's cover further signaled that the dream was indeed over. When "Farewell to Paradise" failed to chart, Rhodes unofficially retired from music at the still tender age of 24. He turned to producing other artists and working as an A&R man for Elektra/Asylum Records.
The "Emitt Rhodes Recordings" unspools Rhodes' albums in chronological order, with "The American Dream" up first. Unlike his other one man band albums, "The American Dream" is marked by its diversity.
"Pardon Me" is one of Rhodes' most McCartneyesque tunes, a quiet love letter that hints at what "Teddy Boy" might have sounded like if Paul had envisioned it as a waltz. Rhodes' voice is fluid, and there's an unexpected solo on recorder mixed with ringing bells that will immediately relax your mind: "Pardon me is your love taken, hope I haven't been mistaken, hoping you might love me, you might love me. Now here's my invitation I have made my reservation for an evening or two, an evening or two."
"Textile Factory" mixes a down on the farm good timey feel with fiddles, mandolin and knee-slapping percussion, as the narrator makes light of growing up blue collar poor: "There were six of us in the family, not one of us ever learned to read."
"Someone Died" is a frank, borderline macabre account of a death in the family and how that person's sudden passing affected everyone else. The acoustic "Mother Nature's Son" backing mixes well with a harmonium that gives "Somebody Has Died," a folky feel that'll remind you of The Band's expressive musical fables.
"Come Ride, Come Ride" gets the full Hollywood soundtrack treatment with glamorous, swirling strings, a fluttering flute, and a very proper Rhodes vocal. With it's wall to wall sound, "Come Ride, Come Ride" would have made a great track for one of those classy 70s British spy thrillers starring Michael Caine.
With an active fuzz guitar and Rhodes double tracked back ups, "Let's All Sing" is a peppy piece of Badfinger pop that screams single: "Now don't you worry now she's gone, you're better off that way. Now don't you worry now she's gone, been worse if she had stayed." You gotta love the way Rhodes works in a line from John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" at the end.
With a steel drum accompaniment, "Mary Take My Hand" has a calypso presence. Day-o! Decorated with bouncy piano and jolly horns, "Holly Park" gets high marks as a tribute to The Beatles' "Penny Lane." If you're familiar with The Monkees, then "Mary Take My Hand" will bring back memories of the Tin Pan Alley tunage connected with some of Davy Jones' vocals, such as "Cuddly Toy" (written by Harry Nilsson), "Daddy's Song" and "Someday Man," (penned by Paul Williams).
The piano possessed "With My Face on the Floor" opens Rhodes' second platter, "Emitt Rhodes" with nicely Beatle-esque regulated vocals and an avalanche of slapping tambourines. Eleven cuts later, it's evident that every song on "Emitt Rhodes" is a glossy gem.
"Somebody Made For Me" was the first Emitt Rhodes song I heard, a two and a half minute heavenly slice of layered vocals, fuzz bass, maracas and tight snare. It was a dose of reality done up pretty for those of us who were still searching for "the one": "I've been searching all my life, guess I've looked most everywhere. Many girls have caught my eye, but that special one's not there."
"She's Such a Beauty" is one of the album's many upbeat Tin Pan Alley feel good tunes, matched by "Fresh as a Daisy." "Beauty" has bumping bass, syncopated drums, cheese grater guitar, and a precise four bar and out solo by Emitt. In "Fresh as a Daisy," Emitt's sunny vocal is upfront alongside his plinking piano riffs and steady Ringo rhythm.
"Long Time No See" has lancing guitar sound bites that wrap around Rhodes' harmonic, bitter vocal and thick bass playing that would make Macca proud.
At 1:06, "Lullabye" hits a melancholy mark. It'll make you sit back in your chair and be thankful if you've got your health and a reasonably happy family. It's just Emitt on guitar with an airy, ethereal vocal: "Tears that angels cry... In the darkening of the sky when the one you love says goodbye, tears that angels cry." If it was any longer than 1:06 you'd never stop crying.
Emitt outlines his musical philosophy in "Live Till You Die": "I have to say the things I feel. I have to feel the things I say. You must live till you die, you must fight to survive. You must live till you die; you must feel to be alive."
Rhodes fulfills his production potential in "Promises I've Made" putting in a chorus of angelic back ups, ringing guitars and a looming song-ending moog solo. "You Take the Dark Out of the Night" features more rich Rhodes call and response vocals mixed with sneaky drum fills, and is followed by the emotionally wrung out "You Should be Ashamed" with it's pessimistic harmonies, in which Emitt makes the cymbals ring.
If "Lullabye" was deliciously depressing, the low key acoustic agony of "You Must Have" is a suicide watch theme song in the spirit of Nick Drake. It's one of those tunes you hear that makes you realize there's always someone who's worse off than you are. "You must have for ever grey sky, a sky that's blue. You must have for every love lost a love that's new. To get by, to live your life, you must have for ever grey sky a sky of blue. I've been alone too long, to feel right. I've been alone too long to say goodnight. Somebody help me to see the light." Speak to me, Emitt.
"Mirror" and "Farewell to Paradise" make up the second CD. They may not have gotten as much airplay as "Emitt Rhodes," but don't lack for memorable moments. "Mirror's" energetic opener, "Birthday Lady" has a pounding "Lady Madonna" piano undercurrent. "Better Side of Life" hearkens back to the gentleness of "Emitt Rhodes" with the maestro overlaying his buttery vocals against an acoustic backing and pristine electric work: "There's a strong possibility that we might see the better side of life."
"My Love is Strong" has a bit of "Hey Bulldog's" junkyard dog attitude, matching Rhodes' typically smooth style against a gritty guitar. The shuffling, beautifully laze faire "Side We Seldom Show" makes use of a sloshing high hat, harmonium, and a pinpoint acoustic solo. Rhodes' sound takes on a sharper edge in the title track as he uses his bass as the lead instrument, giving "The Mirror" a sinister secret agent signature sound: "The mirror always knows, the mirror always shows."
Tweaking his own two-minute format, Rhodes put together a two song medley, "Bubble Gum the Blues/The Cruiser." "Bubble Gum" is Rhodes at his most syrupy, aping McCartney at his silliest: "Everything sweet as candy, when you bubble gum the blues." By contrast, "I'm a Cruiser," is Rhodes as a lowdown low rider. "Bubble Gum" is a chewy delight, "Cruiser" crashes; it's just too out of character. No matter how hard he tried, Paul McCartney could never sound tough enough. Frenzied yes, ("Helter Skelter"), but he was hardly as hard as John Lennon, who wouldn't hesitate to berate someone by pushing them to the verge of tears or by giving them all five fingers in the form of his fist. The same is true of Rhodes. You can tell when he's acting rather than living a song - and medleys never work anyway.
"Love Will Stone You" has the right measure of menace to it. It comes from the heavier pace, darker lyrics, and sharp, serious guitar asides rather than Rhodes' voice, which maintains its pop clarity. "There ain't no one who'll share your sorrow. There ain't no one who'll make you sane, 'cause your woman's left you again. Love will stone you, but you'll come down."
Rhodes' last album, "Farewell to Paradise" is his weakest, which is to say 3 of its 11 tracks -- the noisy "Bad Man," the rambling jazz-vibed "In Desperate Need" and the fatal Beethoven meets ARP synthesizer suicide mush of "Those That Die" -- are hard-edged stinkers compared to his near flawless previous output. (Coincidentally, the three below average cuts follow one another.)
Two of the more progressive tracks are "Warm Self-Sacrifice" and "See No Evil." "Warm Self-Sacrifice" borrows its pounding piano sound from Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" with a swinging sax solo thrown in to balance the scales. "See No Evil" marks another advancement in Rhodes' sound, mixing floating flirty flute with rippling guitar fills and spooky mellotron.
Disillusionment with the record business toughened Rhodes' sound, and "Drawn to Me's" bass and brass heavy arrangement makes the narrator sound like a stalker. In a brilliant move of sequencing, Rhodes dowses "Drawn to Me's" threatening pall with the Tex Mex optimism of "Blue Horizon." The listener is plunged back into Rhodes' new more intensely mature sound with "Shoot the Moon" which features muted stabbing horns and a Plains Indian tribal beat.
However downcast Rhodes' odes on "Emitt Rhodes" were they often had perky arrangements to pick them up. Not so on "Farewell to Paradise" - Rhodes caters to his misery. "Only Lovers Decide" is framed by weeping mellotron and sparse piano. In the past, Rhodes would have over dubbed multi level back ups. Here he lays his voice bare. His voice is less smooth and processed in "Trust One More," making his vocal sound more ravaged and pained. He follows up by reaching into his multi-layered production bag with "Nights Are Lonely," employing cutting guitar licks, nightmarish synthesizer that resembles a careening car and a lost, reverbed vocal. Emitt begins his exit as an artist on a typically positive Rhodes note with the harmonica embellished, tropical flavored "Farewell to Paradise."
The reclusive Rhodes has become a cult figure in spite of himself. The Bangles recorded "Live," and his exquisite "Lullabye" was used in the soundtrack for "The Royal Tannenbaums." But aside from a brief live appearance at Poptopia in 1998, it's been Emitt who? Now you know who.