What makes Tommy run?
What makes Tommy sing?
James had his moment in the sun in one of the premier US pop rock acts of the mid to late 1960s, Tommy James and The Shondells.
A singles band they were and they churned out many classic 45s. Tommy, though, was no slouch. He was the driving force behind the band (in it's various incarnations) as well as being a good songwriter, and a great vocalist.
Check my other comment on this blog for biographical detail but you could say he was the poor kid from the mid-west with stars in his eyes chasing the dream.
He chased and he caught it but by the early 1970s his career was effectively over .
Sure, there would be a handful of solo albums, oldies concerts and a career presence but, despite some minor solo hits (including a Top 20), he wasn't really a tastemaker or leader anymore
James never took it lying down. He tackled a number of styles and tried everything to keep his career afloat. He didn't but his work in this period is still fascinating.
Like all great vocalists he could tackle any number of musical styles, and, rathe than submerge himself to the sound he would incorporate it into his musical voice. He may have had more hits if he had submerged his style totally but such music fakery doesn't stand the test of time.
The trouble was it was the 70s and there was more than a bit o of crap that dominated the charts.
And James bought into this.
Listening to his 70s solo work now you sometimes wince at the dated sounds and sometimes smile at the wrong-headedness of James tackling the same but ultimately James' taste and fine vocals rise over the sounds.
"Midnight Rider" is James' soft rock album … soft rock with country overtones.
It's not the first time he tackled country sounds. I said this about his "My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar" album from 1971 : "I would like to hear Tommy singing country but that’s not the case here. Tommy takes the country sounds, "urbanises" them and attached them to his trademark pop. He isn’t flip flopping between genres but rather taking what he likes from the sound for himself. Country fans, and country rock fans may be disappointed but people who like their pop a little "out there" will be impressed".
The "In Touch" album from 1976 followed but this album is the natural successor to "My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar".
James had spent some time in California in the 70s (and signed with the Californian Fantasy label in 1975) so perhaps it makes sense that the "country rock" overtones on his 1971 album are replaced with the "country soft rock" overtones, so popular in California (and nationally), on "Midnight Rambler"
It's as if he was listening to The Flying Burrito Brothers or The Dillards before recording the first album and The Eagles and Seals and Croft before recording this one.
And there is a lot of miles between the two groups.
But, as I said it matters not because James never lets any influences or stylistic trends dominate his pop sensibility
Rejoining James, as producer, was the legendary songwriter Jeff Barry, who wrote Tommy James and the Shondells, first hit "Hanky Panky" and went on to pen and or produce songs for The Monkees, The Archies, Jay and the Americans and all things pop.
Barry, also, had dabbled in soft rock and country in the 70s with some success so the match was a good one.
The sound on this album is crisp and pure, so much so that it makes soft rock sound better than it is.
Lyrically, James backs off from some of the introspective music he had released and concentrates here on love songs.
Well, it is soft rock.
With friends like Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers), session legend Alan Estes, Timothy Schmitt (Poco and a future Eagle) and latter day Spirit member Al Stahaely contribute to the album.
Tracks (best in italics)
- Love Is Gonna Find A Way – (James – Cordell) – really, really smooth soft rock with country overtones. Sexy sax-a-ma-phones I hate but it is quite catchy.
- I Don’t Love You Anymore – (James) – Pure 70s soft rock,
- Bobby, Don’t Leave Me Alone – (Jeff Barry) – 70s schlock with screeching guitars and overly emotional lyrics but James' voice soars and makes this a joy…all eight minutes of it. (which, apparently, Jeff Barry had written in memory of his slain friend and protégé Bobby Bloom).
- Midnight Rider – (Jeff Barry) – This has a similar melody from Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" for the title track and is an excellent, catchy track.
- Double Or Nothin’ – (James – Lucia) – Co-written with former Shondell Peter Lucia this is in Dr Hook (in their mellow mould) territory but better.
- Still Got A Thing For You – (Jeff Barry) – a touch of the John Sebastian here.
- What Happened To The Girl – (Jeff Barry) – good mid tempo urban AM pop.
- Keep It In The Groove – (Jeff Barry) – a little funk creeps into this one.
The album is of its time but at least it's not disco or bad LA hard rock and fark James can make even soft rock sound really good making this a great unheralded soft rock album. I'm keeping it.
Nothing no where
Love Is Gonna Find A Way
Bobby, Don’t Leave Me Alone
Double Or Nothin’
Still Got A Thing For You
Keep It In The Groove