Friday, February 26, 2010

At Your Birthday Party - Steppenwolf

The band’s 3rd studio album (the massive self-titled debut and The Second preceding it) was, surprisingly, their last Top Ten album with their last Top Ten hit song (“Rock Me”). Considering the strength of some of their following records, I would have thought that they had sold more than this one, which is not one of their strongest.

Opening with “Don’t Cry”, a fast-paced, rhythmic rocker, they show that they are still on the attack and ready for fun. The oddly named “Chicken Wolf” is a nice blues-rock number that they later revamped (actually just changed the words) for their song “Power Play”. Producer Gabriel Mekler wrote the fairly sappy acoustic ballad “Lovely Meter”, which I don’t think John Kay sung, but there are no other vocal credits on the CD. Definitely not a highlight of the album, though Mekler did also write “Don’t Cry” and the closer “Happy Birthday”.

“Round and Down”, while written by guitarist Michael Monarch, shows off Kay’s early C&W leanings, though updated in a hard rock fashion. Not an entirely successful fusion, but I do like the Bo Diddley-esque rhythm ending of the song. One of the great tunes on this outing is “It’s Never Too Late”. A slower number with swirling keyboards, it has a very psychedelic guitar winding through it and a great melody, showing the band’s versatility and strength of song-writing (co written by Kay and new bassist Nick St. Nicholas).

Nicholas is also responsible for an almost jug-band-ish interlude “Sleeping Dreaming”, a one minute long segue between “…Too Late” and the excellent rocker “Jupiter’s Child”, with its superb “Magic Carpet Ride” styled guitar rhythms and very druggy lyrics. Unfortunately, they lose their momentum with “She’ll Be Better”, another forgettable ballad. There is another short interlude, this time a honky-tonk instrumental (“Cat Killer” – written by their keyboard Goldy McJohn under his real name), before moving into their hit from this album, “Rock Me”. While I don’t think this is the best of their best, it is another up-tempo rocker working around a 3 chord guitar pattern before dropping into a percussion-driven instrumental break, again somewhat reminiscent of the break in “Magic Carpet Ride”, and then popping back into a repeated chorus. Good stuff, just a little more pedestrian than their greatest numbers.

“God Fearing Man” is truly forgettable and is followed by yet another semi-rambling instrumental, “Mango Juice”, which also doesn’t have much to it. “Happy Birthday” works a little better as a soul-rock number, but still isn’t top-notch.

The unevenness of this album keeps it from being one of their best, and, in fact, it is comparatively weak, but it still has some fine moments. Definitely not for casual fans though – more for completists than anything else.