Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Fleetwood Mac 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

Fleetwood Mac (1968, Epic)

B –

The group’s self-titled debut – bearing only drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie from the more famous, latter-day lineup of the band, the rest of the outfit being rounded out by vocalists/guitarists Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer – is also its most purely blues-oriented effort, so be aware before you purchase this disc that this sounds absolutely nothing like the pop band Fleetwood Mac became in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Because the band is working so purely here within the blues genre, it’s never quite as musically unpredictable or as melodically intriguing as the band’s later pop material, but it’s still impassioned playing (and isn’t that, after all, what good blues music really comes down to?), and Peter Green certainly puts himself in the running for the title of best blues-rock guitarist. Of the four covers here, the best is Spencer’s fiery take on the Elmore James classic “Shake Your Moneymaker,” while the best originals are penned by Green, namely “Looking for Somebody,” “The World Keep on Turning” and “I Loved Another Woman.”

English Rose (1969, Epic)

B +  

The band’s discography gets a little confusing at this point: in the U.K., the band’s second and third albums were the spotty studio outing Mr. Wonderful and the compilation The Pious Bird of Good Omen, respectively. In the U.S., Epic instead released this package coupling the better cuts from Mr. Wonderful with a few stray non-LP singles and two cuts from the British version of the band’s next album (Then Play On). Despite its odds-and-ends nature (and the rather off-putting album cover of Mick Fleetwood in drag), this is nonetheless a much stronger album on a song-by-song basis than the band’s debut, boasting two of the most famous songs from this incarnation of the band – the instrumental but wildly influential British Number One hit “Albatross” and the bluesy “Black Magic Woman,” later a massive pop hit for Santana – and some fine album cuts like Green’s “Stop Messin’ Round,” Spencer’s “Evenin’ Boogie” and newcomer Danny Kirwan’s “One Sunny Day.”

Then Play On (1969, Reprise)

B  

The American version of this album (which left out two cuts from the British version, but those songs had already appeared on English Rose) went through several tweaks, a second pressing quickly rushed out that eliminated “When You Say” and “My Dream” but added the full-length version of Peter Green’s “Oh Well,” the band’s first song to crack the American Hot 100 singles chart. The disc’s first American release on CD eliminated much of the confusion, adding back “When You Say” and “My Dream” while thankfully leaving “Oh Well” intact. The band is starting to shed some of its more purist blues tendencies here, allowing themselves the freedom to delve into other territory, like the psychedelia-tinged pop of Kirwan’s material here, and this is consequently their most fascinating album yet, even if it’s much, much too serious and self-consciously arty and too heavy on ballads to be a particularly fun listen. Spencer is suspiciously absent on all but one track here, but Kirwan compensates for it, splitting songwriting duties with Green. “Oh Well” is easily the strongest cut here (it would also become a minor rock standard of sorts, being covered by everyone from Joe Jackson to Tom Petty, and even cracking the Top 40 in 1979 in the form of a cover by The Rockets), but there are other fine cuts as well, though, namely Green’s “Rattlesnake Shake,” Kirwan’s “Coming Your Way,” and the fun instrumental “Searching for Madge.” English Rose is the more vital purchase of the Peter Green-era albums, if only for the inclusion of “Albatross” and “Black Magic Woman,” but this is arguably the most fully-realized piece of album art the Green lineup ever cut together, even if it could have used a couple more light moments.  

Kiln House (1970, Reprise)

A –        

The band’s first album after the departure of Peter Green, this album is something of an oddity in the band’s catalog. Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer split the songwriting duties here, and the album, while still rooted in blues, noticeably departs from Green’s more purist vision and is particularly heavy on retro-flavored, ‘50s-inspired rock’n’roll. (The opening cut, “This Is the Rock,” for instance, borrows much of its vibe – right down to the echo-laden vocal – from Elvis Presley’s earliest singles, while the writing credit for “Buddy’s Song,” is given to Buddy Holly’s mother!) It’s a good and charming disc, but it never fully feels like either the Fleetwood Mac of old or the pop outfit it would soon become, and the band sounds a little unsure of what direction to move in  – the epic “Station Man,” easily one of the best cuts here, for instance, sounds more like the Grateful Dead, while the equally excellent and muscular “Jewel Eyed Judy” (one of the most criminally overlooked singles of the band’s pre-Buckingham Nicks years) is distinctly reminiscent of the power-pop of Big Star or Badfinger. Still, the album’s unusual and slightly schizophrenic nature aside, this may not be as famous an album as any of the band’s outings with Peter Green, but it might actually be the most fun and easygoing album they’ve made up to this point, as well as their most adventurous and diverse.

Future Games (1971, Reprise)

B

Now this is where the band truly starts sounding like the Fleetwood Mac you know and love. Spencer has left the band at this point, while Christine McVie finally joins the lineup, as does the band’s first American member, Bob Welch, the two new band members helping complete the band’s transition from a blues outfit to a pop group. The album is unfortunately a little on the underdeveloped side – there are only seven fully-realized songs here, with a hastily-recorded instrumental jam (“What a Shame”) added at the last minute to accommodate a request from the label for an eighth track – and there’s nothing here that’s quite as much of a knockout as “Jewel Eyed Judy” from the album before it, but the new lineup’s potential is obvious. Kirwan’s “Woman of 1000 Years” is lovely and his “Sands of Time” rather infectious, but the two true highlights of the disc are Welch’s title cut (which might have been a hit had they been able to shave a few minutes off its eight-minute running time) and McVie’s “Show Me a Smile.”

Bare Trees (1972, Reprise)

A

Arguably the band’s most alluring and cohesive outing yet, this would be Kirwan’s final outing with the band, but it’s a fine way for him to go out. The songs are shorter and more radio-friendly here than they were on Future Games, and the band turns out its strongest single to date in Bob Welch’s insanely catchy “Sentimental Lady.” (The single would sadly miss the Hot 100, but Welch would re-record it years later on one of his solo albums with Christine McVie, Mick Fleetwood, and Lindsey Buckingham backing him up, and the new version would crack the Top Ten in the U.S.) Welch also contributes the fun, uptempo atmospheric pop of “The Ghost,” featuring some of John McVie’s most impressive bass playing captured on record up to this point, while Christine McVie turns in a real gem of her own with the fine ballad “Spare Me a Little of Your Love” and Kirwan contributes the haunting, wistful “Dust” and the soulful title track. This disc also includes what is arguably second only to “Albatross” as the finest and catchiest instrumental the group has ever recorded, Kirwan’s breathtakingly pretty guitar showcase “Sunny Side of Heaven.” (Both the cassette and 8-track pressings of this album are sequenced quite differently from the LP and CD versions and open the disc with “Sunny Side of Heaven” and “Sentimental Lady” to wonderful effect and close the disc to equally strong effect with the title track, so the cassette edition comes highly recommended if you own a stereo with a tape deck.)

Penguin (1973, Reprise)

B   

Yet another transitional album for the band, the band fills the void left by Kirwan’s departure by bringing in two new members, guitarist Bob Weston and vocalist Dave Walker, the latter of whom does not fit in with the band at all and would last in the lineup for only this one album. Both of Walker’s vocal showcases (the banjo-laden country stylings of “The Derelict” and a raucous cover of Jr. Walker & the All-Stars’ “(I’m a) Road Runner”) unfortunately sound like they hail from another album entirely and prevent the album from feeling all that cohesive. Christine McVie, however, continues to show improvement as a songwriter and shines on the album-opening “Remember Me” and the deliriously catchy, island-flavored “Did You Ever Love Me,” co-written with Welch and which, unusually for a Fleetwood Mac song, features several steel-drum players. Though none of Welch’s own vocal showcases here are quite as immediately catchy as “Sentimental Lady” from the prior album, they’re all quite alluring, particularly the R&B-infused “Revelation” and the hypnotic “Night Watch,” which features an uncredited Peter Green sitting in on guitar.

Mystery to Me (1973, Reprise)

A

One of the band’s most criminally underrated albums, the songwriting here is divided almost evenly between Christine McVie and Bob Welch, the latter of whom turns in the best set of songs he’d ever write for the band, including the stunning, atmospheric FM radio favorite “Hypnotized,” the pulsating slow rock of “Emerald Eyes,” the swamp-rock of “Miles Away,” and the playful rhythm of “Forever,” co-written with John McVie, who plays a pretty mean bass riff on the cut. Christine McVie is also in fine form as well, “Believe Me” and “Just Crazy Love” being particularly winning offerings. The band also throws in a creative and surprisingly good re-working of the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” that dispenses with the harpsichord-driven beatnik-pop shadings of the original in favor of a more soulful, guitar-oriented approach. It’s not nearly as artistically grandiose of a statement as a full-length as, say, Then Play On or Bare Trees, but taken on a song-for-song basis, this is easily the catchiest set of songs the band has crafted up to this point, and it’s fairly shocking that nothing here managed to reach the Hot 100.

Heroes Are Hard to Find (1974, Reprise)

A

The band’s final outing with Welch in the lineup is one of his best albums with the group, and he has a lot of fun here dabbling with different styles, be it the sunny acoustic pop of “She’s Changing Me,” the driving rocker “Angel,” or the mysterious and atmospheric “Bermuda Triangle.” The best of his cuts here, though, is the wickedly fun and incessantly catchy “Silver Heels,” which also boasts the great line “If I could sing like Paul McCartney / And get funky like Etta James / I’d never change her silver-heeled ways.” McVie turns in her best set of songs yet as well, offering up such winners as “Come a Little Bit Closer,” “Prove Your Love,” and, best of all, the funky, horn-laden title cut, which is easily one of the band’s most criminally overlooked singles and really should have been a big hit.