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Main Category: Roots Rock
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Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
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Year Of Release: 1970
Overall rating = 11

Solid roots-rock entertainment for those who want their Band records with more fiddle and less falsetto.


Track listing: 1) I'm Willin'; 2) Song Of Job; 3) Broken Morning; 4) Home To You; 5) Out Where The Hills; 6) Waiting For Elijah; 7) 13 Questions; 8) Oh My Love; 9) Sally Goodin'; 10) Creepin' Midnight; 11) Orange Blossom Special.

Note: not to be confused with the band's 1969 debut album, which, for some perverse reasons, was also named Seatrain. Somebody please go and tell Peter Gabriel that if he thought he was being original with his first three records, well, he can just go sulk in the corner.

The most bizarre thing about this record and the follow-up, though, is probably that they were both produced by George Martin - assigned to work with these guys by Capitol. Now I would be the last person to associate George Martin with a definitely American, definitely roots-rock band like Seatrain, but then again, it's hardly more surprising than Frank Zappa producing Grand Funk Railroad. And Martin does a great producing job anyway, giving the band a clean, sharp, very distinctive sound, perhaps even too clean for their own good.

For roots rock aficionados, Seatrain will be a terrific acquisition - I may be a little bit cold about it because music like this ain't generally my cup of tea, and frankly, I don't see a whole big bowl of songwriting talent about these guys. But even without a huge amount of hooks, the album still has a lot going for it. A: it all sounds nice and perfectly inoffensive, not at all rednecky (and where it does sound rednecky, it's appropriately tongue-in-cheek). B: the band is highly professional and skilled, although the only player I'd perceive as a total virtuoso is violinist Richard Greene. C: most important of all, the band tries to get something going, with many of the tracks being unpredictable and unformulaic. Plus, guitarist Peter Rowan at least knows how to pen a good ballad.

Actually, just so as not to let you wonder why the hell did I bother with the record in the first place, I'll state that there are only two songs out of eleven that I don't really give a damn about: 'Broken Morning' is a totally bland mid-tempo folk-rocker whose nice instrumentation (chimes, bits of flutes, angelic vocal harmonies, etc.) doesn't help it register in my memory nohow, and the choice of Goffin/King's 'Creepin' Midnight' as one of the covers is surprisingly lame - surely Carole King has a lot of better songs behind her belt, or is it just that these guys massacre some brilliant idea I'm not aware of? (I haven't heard the original, whoever it was recorded by in the first place).

Especially since the other cover is great: there couldn't have been a better album-opener candidate than Lowell George's "I'm Willin'", and they give the song a great arrangement with interlocking violin/wah-wah lines, too. The song's only flaw is that as an opener, it gives you a slightly warped impression of the band - they're not, by any means, generic (even if good generic) Southern rock, it's just one part of their interests. Because the very second song already takes the entire Book of Job and shoves it into a six-minute musical narrative - a cool musical narrative, too. Great idea, because what is there more "soulful" in nature than the story of Job, and how can you bypass this opportunity when it liberates you of the necessity of writing a bunch of hooks of your own? Instead, you pick one menacing midtempo groove, retell the story your own way, add punctuating touches like, say, a furious violin scream when 'Satan' comes in, chant the name of 'Jehovah' in an authentic Jewish way (isn't the catch here that you're not allowed to pronounce the name in any way, though?), and hoopla, you got a cool thing on the way.

I am, however, a bigger sucker for two pretty Rowan ballads: 'Home To You' is more stately slow-tempo roots-rock culminating in a really attractive and well-sung chorus, and the fun, boppy 'Oh My Love' is the closest thing to pure pop they offer us on here. Then there's, uh, an attempt at major rock pomposity, complexity, and "roots-progginess" in the lengthy multi-part suite 'Out Where The Hills' (it even ends on a seriously operatic note!), which has its moments but is perhaps a little bit overlong. As well as a short rocking single, '13 Questions', which even briefly charted in the States, apparently due to the inspired melodic hook and the extra funkiness provided by the violin - this might just be the only case I've ever heard of a violin playing a syncopated funky rhythm (and then Greene adds a wah-wah violin solo, but some of these I did hear already).

However, Greene's performing genius (which actually kicks off the record - with a highly unusual, almost "astral" violin solo on "I'm Willin'") can't be fully appreciated until the closing 'Orange Blossom Special', which you might have heard in a Johnny Cash version. If you thought all country fiddle players sounded the same in the first place, take a listen to the mindblowing soloing of this guy on this track, chugging along at a monster pace, never taking a break, picking up more and more steam just as you think it was finally going to slow down. Take Greene out of the band and you'd be left with a solid, but thoroughly unspectacular roots rock band along the lines of a hundred others; put him back in and you have a strong basis for selecting Seatrain out of this hundred.

In short, an album well worth hunting for, although I repeat that unless you're a real sucker for this kind of music, it probably won't make you a convert. But even if you're not, be sure to track down at least 'Song Of Job', for its novelty value, and 'Orange Blossom Special' for some of the best fiddle ever captured on tape.



Year Of Release: 1971
Overall rating = 9

A disappointing sequel - as good as the "ordinary" folk-rock gets, but not any better than that.


Track listing: 1) Gramercy; 2) The State Of Georgia's Mind; 3) Protestant Preacher; 4) Lonely's Not The Only Way To Go; 5) How Sweet Thy Song; 6) Marblehead Messenger; 7) London Song; 8) Mississippi Moon; 9) Losing All The Years; 10) Despair Tire.

Try as I might, I still can't get into this one. It also did pretty bad on the charts - much worse than Seatrain - and not only because they didn't care to select one song with hit single potential, but simply because, in order for your effort to register on the roots-rock scale in 1971, it had to be goddang good, and Marblehead Messenger just isn't. Three things elevated the previous effort: an experimental quality to much of the material; Rowan's balladeering skills; and Greene's really swell violin playing. In dire contrast, Greene's violin is very much neglected on here, mostly relegated to support role throughout (when he does get a chance to shine, he shines - but looks like they were too afraid of being singled out as "that one band with a virtuoso violin player" or something, the bums); Rowan suddenly abandons "hooky" material and concentrates on more traditional and generic forms, just about totally trashing his aspirations as a serious songwriter; and the experimental quality is gone almost entirely.

Which is why, I guess, the ending "suite" 'Despair Tire' almost sticks out like a sore thumb - it's a lot of fun, but it hardly fits in with the rest of the material. It's a collective band effort, really just a violin-led mighty jig, but interspersed by half-spoken, half-drunken-rambled vocals carrying across a largely nonsensical message. It's notorious for pure novel value and pure comic entertainment, and it does have the best violin parts on the album, want it or not. But it's kinda uncomfortable that the best track on the entire record be a pure goof-off - and yet, what else can I do if nothing registers on the memory-o-meter?

And you know why is it like that? Because there ain't one truly creative melody throughout. All these guys do on here is rape and plunder the standard folk and country formulae, without even bothering to make 'em fun or anything like that. And the songs drag on and on, forcing you to tolerate sounds and textures you're probably already well-saturated with. The lyrics are good, I give you that: Jim Roberts (the band's official lyricist) is, at this time, arguably the most interesting person of all of them. I mean, 'Protestant Preacher'? That song's great - as far as the pessimistic religious message is concerned! 'In a land so rich, in a land so strong/ You'd think we'd have the time by now/To tell right from wrong'. Melodically, though, it's basically a generic drag, poorly sung and uninterestingly arranged, although Greene still shines through with one of his unbelievable solos.

Elsewhere, the band suddenly decides to be a clone of Fairport Convention, singing ye olde time sendups like the title track... okay, I like Fairport Convention, and I actually find 'Marblehead Messenger' to be among the more decent tracks on here. But we've already got one Fairport Convention, and if I wanna listen to this kind of music, I'll go straight to the better source. 'Gramercy' is more of the same, only slower and draggier. 'London Song', probably written by Kulberg and Roberts during their London sessions for Seatrain (maybe not), is a confessional ballad/rocker that sports a grand total of zero personality - geez, maybe if these guys at least had a unique singer to breathe life into these forgettable verses... In the meantime, Rowan now limits himself to thinking of "authentic" lyrics to straightforward country waltzes like 'Mississippi Moon' (actually, a "highlight" on here - and again, due to the work of Greene, whose fiddle is, of course, a tremendous asset for these waltzes). And keyboardist Lloyd Baskin emerges as an independent songwriter, penning the slightly less formulaic 'Lonely's Not The Only Way To Go', a bit of a "country meets R&B" hybrid that at least has some energy.

All in all, it looks like Seatrain just had one really good album in them, and having blown their wad on that one, retreated to mere professionalism. I'm not really knocking this stuff... well, I am, but then again, it's not quite clear what exactly they had in mind while recording Messenger. Seeing as how the band just fell apart very soon after its release (with two of the most important members, Rowan and Greene, deserting in particular), I wouldn't be surprised if I'd learn that the band just didn't gel too well in the studio during the recording. Well, they did gel as far as playing is concerned, but the songwriting... uh, don't remind me. Maybe they were going for a "soulful" vibe or something like that, believing they could substitute "passionate", "authentic" vocal deliveries for original songwriting and present their own unique spiritual take on folk and country. Personally, I don't feel any uniqueness here.

In the end, I only recommend this for serious aficionados of the genre, and only if you've already fallen in love with Seatrain. If anything, it's a sad reminder that some bands - even some good bands - weren't totally forgotten in the public conscience for nothing. After all, they did have a chance to capitalize on the minor success of the 1970 album, and they blew it so openly.


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