Friday, 30 May 2014

Little Feat - the first album - review

It is common to assert that Little Feat's best work centred around the period 1972-74, but their 1971 debut album was a substantial record, featuring, albeit in embryonic or prototype form, some of the hallmarks which would dominate their future endeavours.
On the surface, Little Feat seems a conventional effort, not as experimental, esoteric or eclectic as the group's subsequent recordings, but closer scrutiny reveals a distinct character, if enclosed within a relatively uniform veneer. The background of the musicians (some of whom had inhabited the Zappa/Beefheart arena) blends with the blues rock/country rock backbone to create something endearingly idiosyncratic, refreshing and entertaining.
The sound on this record is more streamlined and ascetic than the later Little Feat releases, and this is partly determined by the line-up of the band at the time, which was a comparatively straightforward four-piece (guitar,piano,bass,drums). The exotica of the later more "funky" style is largely absent here, and this less ambitious foundation is anchored by the proficient piano work of Bill Payne and a solid rhythm section. Lowell George's slide guitar is to the fore on several tracks. The group's acknowledged virtuosity is thereby more concentrated and less diffuse.
It is fair to say that some of the compositions on this album edge more towards the "conservative", in musical terms, but this should not mislead us as to its level of melodic invention, and the quality of the lyrics. Several of the more "mellow" numbers, such as "Brides of Jesus", "Takin' My Time" and "I've Been The One", can almost seem to drift by unnoticed, and real attention is required to appreciate their charms and depths. In that sense, this is a record to really listen to, rather than simply permit its vibes to seep into one's sub-conscious.

The lyrical content and general atmosphere are very varied, from the light-hearted ("Crack In Your Door", "Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie") to the vaguely surreal ("Strawberry Flats", "Hamburger Midnight") , to the poignant ("Truck Stop Girl") to the ethereal.

I'm not sure whether it was intentional, but the running order places two very meaty and energetic rockers up front. This may have been a way of emphasising that for all the diversity of styles and genres, Little Feat remained in essence a bluesy, rootsy rock n roll band. "Snakes With Everything", with its marvellous intro, is an ideal opener, and I can imagine that the members of the Black Crowes may have come across it at some point in their youth!

If there is any one feature of Little Feat which lingers in the psyche it is Bill Payne's superb piano playing, a foretaste of the artistry which would form a large part of the bedrock of the band's appeal and unique pull. His contributions here are almost exclusively on acoustic piano, in contrast to the more varied diet of keyboards (organ, electric piano, synths etc) which featured on the later albums. There is an agility and sprightliness about these parts, and it is a tribute to Payne's abilities that they almost overshadow the presence and guitar/vocal prowess of Lowell George.

If not as infectious, libidinous and irresistibly rhythmic as Little Feat's later releases, their debut LP betrays many of the characteristics which made them so special, and which continue to make them so cherished and fondly remembered. If people do nothing else, they should try at some point in their lives to check out "Crack In Your Door" - hilarious lyrics, beautiful guitar and piano work, and an overall effect which will make one both smile and marvel. An overlooked gem on an album which can justifiably fit the same description....

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