Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Supertramp Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Supertramp  (1970, A&M)                                                    

C +

The cover may be ridiculous, but this self-titled debut from the band (not officially released in the U.S. until late 1977) is actually fairly good, even if it’s a far cry from the sound of their later years. It’s the only album by the band to not feature a saxophonist in the lineup, as well as their only outing where Roger Hodgson is featured on lead or co-lead vocals on every last track. (Rick Davies shares lead vocals on two cuts, but is otherwise silent here.) The album alternates between wistful, folky acoustic pieces and full blown prog-rock outings, the disc periodically recalling King Crimson in places, even if it’s never quite as musically complicated and unorthodox as that band’s material.(Fittingly enough, the band’s guitarist and lyricist at this time, Richard Palmer-James, would later be the lyricist for King Crimson’s albums from Lark’s Tongue in Aspic through Red.) It’s the strangest Supertramp album, but the songs more often than not are still pretty good. Hodgson’s acoustic ballads (“Surely,” “Aubade/And I Am Not Like Other Birds of Prey,” the brief “Home Again”) are all quite lovely, while the hard-rocking and extremely catchy “Nothing to Show” is one of the most overlooked gems in the band’s entire catalog, hinting at the pop potential of the band. The album comes very close to derailing entirely on the second side as a result of “Shadow Song” and the interminably long “Try Again,” but a full-length version of “Surely” closes the album on a more positive note. It’s certainly not an essential part of the band’s catalog, but it’s a fascinating one, and there’s enough memorable melodies here to bring you back.    

Indelibly Stamped(1971, A&M)                                          

C

The band’s sophomore outing is easily better known for its notorious cover art – truly one of the most tasteless and NSFW album covers of all-time; for the sake of keeping this article family-friendly, I've opted to exclude a picture of the cover for this one – than for any of the music within. Frank Farrell has replaced Richard Palmer-James, forcing Davies and Hodgson here to write their own lyrics for the first time, while Kevin Currie replaces former drummer Robert Millar. The band also takes on a fifth member in flutist/saxophonist Dave Winthrop. In stark contrast to the debut, where Hodgson sang lead or joint lead on every track, this album features Hodgson’s vocals on only three of the album’s ten tracks, while new member Dave Winthrop gets a vocal of his own (“Potter,”) and Rick Davies takes the lead on the other six tracks. Davies’ distinct brand of pop – quite often influenced by ‘50s/’60s R&B like Fats Domino – has clearly started to develop here, as can be seen on tracks like “Your Poppa Don’t Mind” and “Forever.” They’re both fine cuts (especially “Forever,” which is probably the highlight of the album), but it’s hard not to wish for more of Hodgson’s slightly more contemporary, introspective singer-songwriter pop here to balance it out. (Indeed, on all of Supertramp’s best albums, there’s more of an even division of the singing and songwriting between the two men.)  It’s by no means a bad album, but it’s also neither essential nor as fascinating and as different from the band’s later style as the debut.  It’s simply a decent transitional album, so of all the band’s Hodgson-era studio albums for A&M, Stamped is the least critical purchase in the lot.

Crime of the Century(1974, A&M)                                    

A +

A stunning and radical improvement on its predecessor, Crime of the Century is nearly the sound of an entirely different band. Farrell, Winthrop, and Currie are all gone, having been replaced, respectively, by Dougie Thomson, John A. Helliwell, and Bob C. Benberg.  Not only does the new lineup gel magnificently, but Hodgson and Davies have both shown remarkable improvement as songwriters since their last disc, and the group has finally perfected its blend of pop and prog-rock. The band has also brought aboard a winning co-producer in engineer Ken Scott, whose superb work at the console here has made this album a favorite of audiophiles everywhere. (Indeed, this would be the first pop/rock album ever reissued by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab.)  Highlights include the muscular, gritty blues-rock of Davies’ “Bloody Well Right” (the band’s first Top 40 hit in America), the chilling album opener “School,” the breezy pop of “Dreamer,” and the dramatic prog-rock of the album-closing title cut. Hodgson also contributes what very well may be the greatest song he’s ever penned, the overlooked seven-minute epic “Hide in Your Shell,” which begins as a soft, wistful introspective number but keeps building intensity gradually until it reaches a crescendo that is sure to give you goosebumps. It’s also infectiously catchy for a song of its length, and it was only the inability to edit the song down without affecting its dramatic impact that prevented it from release as a single. It wasn’t the most commercially successful album the band would ever make, but it was nonetheless its commercial breakthrough and remains the group’s artistic masterpiece.

Crisis? What Crisis? (1975, A&M)                                       

B +  

Unlike its predecessor, Crisis? What Crisis? is neither a concept album nor a prog-rock album.  Instead, it’s a retreat back to the more traditional-pop-oriented territory of Indelibly Stamped, albeit with dramatically improved songwriting and stronger musicianship. Davies once again shows off his old R&B influences in cuts like the piano-rocker “Ain’t Nobody But Me,” one of his best originals, while Hodgson delivers some of his finest pop songs to date in “Sister Moonshine,” “Easy Does It,” and the lovely “Two of Us” (reminiscent of, though superior to, the debut album’s “Surely”). Best of all, though, is the muscular rocker “Lady,” which is much harder-hitting than you might expect an electric-piano-based song to be and makes the best use out of a jawbone that I’ve ever heard on a rock record. It should’ve gone Top 40, but sadly, the song didn’t chart in America at all. (The single is also worth picking up, containing a non-LP studio version of their song “You Started Laughing” unavailable anywhere else.)  

Even in the Quietest Moments … (1977, A&M)                  

A –

A noticeably more prog-rock-influenced album than its predecessor (the seventh and final track is nearly eleven minutes), the ballad-heavy Quietest Moments admittedly skimps a little on the pop hooks, so it’s not their catchiest set of songs, but it’s a more fully-realized album piece and makes a stronger artistic statement.  The album gets off to a phenomenal start with the chugging acoustic groove of Hodgson’s “Give a Little Bit” (the band’s second Top 40 hit, and one that would become a Top 40 hit again in ’05 in the form of a cover by the Goo Goo Dolls). Davies’ “Loverboy,” which alternates between playful, almost-cabaret-like choruses and dramatically intense verses to nice effect, is nearly just as fun. The album’s most beautiful moment is the breathtaking acoustic balladry of Hodgson’s title track. Most impressive of all, though – even if it’s not a terribly commercial song – is the largely instrumental album-closing epic “Fool’s Overture,” a marvelously well-crafted prog-rock suite that never particularly feels self-indulgent. Its vocal section near the close of the piece provides a stirring and fitting climax to what is a very dramatically powerful album.