Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Allman Brothers Band Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

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

Enlightened Rogues (1979, Capricorn)

B

It certainly never reaches the heights of their late ‘60s and early ‘70s work, but the newly-reunited band’s first album in four years (only Lamar Williams and Chuck Leavell, who were busy with their own band, Sea Level, declined to return; the two were replaced by Dan Toler and David Goldflies, both members of Betts’ solo band Great Southern) thankfully finds the band sounding at least more enthusiastic than they did on their last album together (Win, Lose or Draw), even if the band has still yet to fully recapture their groove as songwriters. [Gregg surprisingly contributes just one original here, the excellent “Just Ain’t Easy,” while the rest of the material consists of two blues covers (including a great reading of “Need Your Love So Bad”) and five Betts originals, two of which – the heavily blues-tinged “Blind Love” and “Can’t Take It with You” – were written with, surprisingly enough, future Miami Vice star Don Johnson (yes, really!).] Fans of lengthy instrumentals like “Jessica” should delight in the similar “Pegasus,” while the band has rarely sounded quite as downright funky as they do on “Try It One More Time.” The band even scored its first Top 40 hit since “Ramblin’ Man” with the album’s rollicking opening cut, “Crazy Love,” prominently featuring Bonnie Bramlett (of Delaney & Bonnie) on backup vocals. Nothing here quite qualifies as a classic and it’s hard not to wish that there were more Gregg-written tunes here, but overall, this is certainly the band’s best album since Brothers and Sisters.

Reach for the Sky (1980, Arista)

C

The polished production of the band’s first album for their new label – not to mention the sporadic use of a synthesizer – will likely be completely jarring to longtime fans and blues purists, and this album is consequently regularly trashed by many critics for “not sounding like the Allman Brothers Band,” and while, yes, this is a distinctly more adult-contemporary-leaning affair than anything the band has previously made, it’s also debatable whether or not the band could have continued to sound like their late-‘60s selves and still maintained any kind of commercial relevance in the early ‘80s, so you really can’t fault them for feeling like they needed to update their sound a bit. (Besides, fellow country-rockers Pure Prairie League took a much, much sharper turn towards soft-rock around the exact same time – it’s hard to believe, actually, that the band that reached the Top Ten with the smooth, Vince Gill-sung adult-contemporary pop “Let Me Love You Tonight” has any connection at all to the band that scored with “Amie” just five years earlier – and didn’t get nearly the same amount of flak for doing so as the Allmans got, so give the guys a break.) The songwriting’s still just as hit-and-miss as it was on the last disc (“Keep on Keepin’ On” is particularly cringe-inducing), but the fast-paced rocker “Angeline” and the R&B-flavored “Mystery Woman” are easily the band’s catchiest songs since “Ramblin’ Man,” while Gregg’s easygoing evening-sail of a ballad, “So Long,” is a lovely closing number. Lest you think the band has completely sold out here, there’s also an extended, near-seven-minute instrumental jam called “From the Madness of the West” that is sure to delight fans of the band’s more improvisational side. Though it’s not nearly as terrible an album as it’s usually accused of being, it is still undeniably the least essential album the band has ever made.

Brothers of the Road (1981, Arista)

B – 

The first album the band ever cut without original drummer Jai Johanny Johanson, this album tends to be even more reviled by critics and hardcore fans than Reach for the Sky, if only because it’s more obviously pop-radio-oriented than any of the band’s early-‘70s albums (unusually for this band, nothing here stretches past the five-minute mark), but more casual or open-minded fans of the band should find some things here to like, not in the least since the songs here are noticeably catchier than the material from any of the last two or three albums, even if it never quite feels as much of an album piece as Enlightened Rogues does. Legendary fiddler Charlie Daniels lends his talents to the title track, while Wet Willie’s Jimmy Hall provides the saxophone work on the vaguely-“Melissa”-recalling lovely ballad “Never Knew How Much (I Needed You).” The fiery Gregg-penned “Leavin’” is one of the funkiest sides the band has ever cut, while Dickey’s “Two Rights,” though firmly in adult-contemporary territory and likely to make the band’s rock fans cringe, might be the most wildly catchy song Betts has ever penned and should be sheer ear candy to anyone with an appreciation for adult-contemporary pop and is just as rock-solid as anything country-pop singer Paul Davis (“I Go Crazy,” “Cool Night,” “’65 Love Affair”) was making around this time. The band also boasts a fine – if unfairly-much-maligned – Top 40 hit in the adult-contemporary-pop of “Straight from the Heart,” which, true, may not sound anything like the Allman Brothers of old – it sounds much more distinctly like the Michael McDonald-led version of the Doobie Brothers – but is still a perfectly appealing 45 for pop buffs and is a much catchier song than the higher-charting “Crazy Love.” If you hate pop music, you will likely detest this album with a passion since this is as close to pure pop as the Allmans ever got – it’s certainly the antithesis of an album like At Fillmore East, that’s for sure – but if you can appreciate, say, late-‘70s-era Doobie Brothers just as much as a band like the Allmans, then you should be pleasantly surprised at just how much better this album is than its reputation suggests.

Seven Turns (1990, Epic)

B +  

After a nine-year break, the band returns (with Enlightened Rogues producer Tom Dowd back at the helm) with Jaimoe back behind the second drumkit and with new members Warren Haynes, Allen Woody, and Johnny Neal joining on guitar, bass, and piano, respectively, alongside returning founding numbers Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, and Butch Trucks. The songs aren’t quite as catchy as the best numbers from the two Arista albums, but that should actually come as good news to hardcore fans of the band who detested the more pop-oriented direction of those albums and preferred that the band stick to longer, more blues-rock-oriented numbers. [Those fans should be quite delighted by this disc – only one cut here clocks in at under four minutes, while five clock in at five and one – “True Gravity” – stops just shy of reaching the eight-minute mark.] Sadly, Allman’s contribution to the writing consists of just one co-write [Betts, in contrast, has a hand in writing seven of the nine tracks] and the band has veered just a little too far back in the other direction, the return to their blues-rock roots occasionally seemingly every bit as calculated as their pop sides of the early ‘80s, but the material is generally strong (especially “Let Me Ride,” “Good Clean Fun,” the title cut, “It Ain’t Over Yet,” and “Low Down Dirty Mean”) and, best of all, the new lineup of the band sounds great and proves to be the most solid lineup the band has boasted since Win, Lose or Draw. There may not have been an obvious crossover hit here (hey, .38 Special and Bad Company still managed to churn out a few Top 40 hits in the early ‘90s, so it was within the realm of possibility for the Allmans to pull it off, too, with just the right song), but overall, this is a very respectable comeback album and the best album piece the band has turned out since Brothers and Sisters.

Shades of Two Worlds (1991, Epic)

A –   

Even better than Seven Turns, this album – which had the ill fortune of being released almost simultaneously with the explosion of grunge and got completely ignored as a result – features the band at their most adventurous and explosive since the days of Eat a Peach and Brothers and Sisters. It various features the band in the most purist of blues settings (a great cover of Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen”), delving into deeper jazz territory than they have since Win, Lose or Draw’s “High Falls” (“Kind of Bird”), at their most autobiographical (Gregg’s “End of the Line,” which refers to his problems with substance abuse), and at their most epic (Dickey’s “Nobody Knows,” an eleven-minute tour de force that not only features Betts’ usual guitar heroics but also gives Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson a chance to stretch and show off their interplay to a greater degree than they’ve done on any studio album since the early ‘70s.) Seven Turns may be the slightly more commercial album – and consequently more preferable to more pop-oriented fans – but Shades of Two Worlds arguably sits aside the band’s early classics more comfortably than any of the post-Win, Lose or Draw reunion discs and does a nice job of recapturing the spirit of the band’s glory years without sounding too tired or helplessly retro.

Where It All Begins (1994, Epic)

C +

Much like Win, Lose or Draw, this third outing on Epic finds the band once more sounding a bit tired and unfocused again, and, like that album, it makes a fairly coherent album piece while only containing a small handful of highlights, namely Gregg’s “All Night Train” (like “End of the Line” from the album before it, an exorcism of his past demons), the Bo-Diddley-like groove of “No One to Run with,” and Dickey Betts’ nine-minute epic “Back Where It All Begins,” and the Warren Haynes showcase “Soulshine.” Unfortunately, most of the highlights come in the first half, so the back half of the disc really suffers in comparison, and the album closes with a cut (“Temptation Is a Gun”) that was inevitably bound to attract some negative reactions from fans, if only because it’s a co-write with, unusually enough, Jonathan Cain and Neal Schon of the band Journey, whose own brand of rock bears little in common with that of the Allman Brothers Band. This is easily the weakest of the band’s post-Arista albums

Hittin’ the Note (2003, Sanctuary)

A

Both the band's twelfth and its final studio album together, a lot has changed since the band’s last record – Dickey Betts has been let go and replaced with Butch Trucks’ nephew Derek Trucks, while the late Allen Woody has been replaced on bass with Oteil Burbridge. Naturally, you would think the exit of founding member Betts would be a fatal blow to the group, but Derek Trucks makes a phenomenal first impression as the band’s new lead guitarist and Warren Haynes steps up in a very big way in the songwriting department, co-writing all but two of the eleven tracks, while Gregg contributes more to the songwriting than he has in years, co-writing five songs, including the fine “Firing Line,” “Old Before My Time,” and the epic “Desdemona.” Not only does the new lineup have some great chemistry (it’s especially fun to listen to the interplay between Haynes and Derek Trucks on “Instrumental Illness”), but it’s impressive how the band has crafted new material that still sounds fresh while also paying nods to the band’s history, and it’s fun to spot the passing allusions to some of the band’s classics as you’re listening to such cuts as the tour de force “High Cost of Living.” The band also unexpectedly covers the Rolling Stones’ “Heart of Stone” and reworks it in their own style to surprisingly successful results. The disc also ends in chilling fashion with “Old Friend,” which features only Haynes and Derek Trucks (neither of them an original member of the group, mind you, which makes the song all the more an intriguing and forward-looking a final note to have selected to end not just this disc, but the band's entire studio catalog.)

Compilations:

For the more budget-minded listener looking for a concise introduction to the group, you can’t do much better than the 1991 package A Decade of Hits 1969-1979, which nicely rounds up nearly every crucial highlight from the band’s tenure with the Atco and Capricorn labels, from “Whipping Post” all the way through “Crazy Love.” (The only flaw of any real note, in fact, is that Win, Lose or Draw is skipped over entirely; it may not be their best album, but it would have been nice for them to have at least included the album’s gorgeous title cut.) If you don’t mind spending a little more for a more comprehensive package, hunt down a copy of the excellent 2001 reissue of the 1975 compilation The Road Goes On Forever (later reissued in 2005 with considerably more generic packaging under the title Gold), which adds thirteen more tracks to the seventeen featured on the album’s original vinyl release. Not only does it add such vital pre-1975 sides as “Revival (Love Is Everywhere),” the full-length version of the live recording of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” from At Fillmore East, “Little Martha” and “Wasted Words,” but it also tacks on such highlights from Win, Lose or Draw and Enlightened Rogues as the former album’s title cut and “Can’t Lose What You Never Had” and the latter album’s “Crazy Love” and “Pegasus.”  

Miscellaneous:

The late, great Gregg Allman made several fine solo albums away from the band, but the one that is likely to be of the most interest to Allman Brothers Band fans is 1973’s fantastic Laid Back, which, aside from being the best solo album he ever made, is notable for containing both what is arguably the definitive version of the Jackson Browne composition “These Days” (Browne would even model his own version after Gregg’s arrangement) and a cover of Gregg’s full-time band’s song “Midnight Rider” that would out-perform the original and give Gregg a Top Twenty solo hit to call his own. Betts’ most highly-recommended solo album is his very first, 1974’s Highway Call. Duane Allman never cut a proper solo album while he was alive, but he’s been posthumously anthologized on many a disc, the most highly-recommended of which is the excellent Capricorn 1972 double-disc set An Anthology, which not only includes highlights of his work with the Allman Brothers Band but also includes three sides’ worth of his best session work for the likes of Derek & the Dominos, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Boz Scaggs, King Curtis, and Clarence Carter, to name a few.  Chuck Leavell, Jai Johanny Johanson and Lamar Williams would spend much of the late '70s leading their own band, Sea Level, that put a jazz-fusion spin on the sound of their former band, downplaying their blues-rock roots but playing up their R&B and funk chops; they'd make five studio albums in all, the most highly recommended of which is 1978's excellent Cats on the Coast, which also has the added bonus of containing their biggest hit, the #50-peaking heated jazz-funk of "That's Your Secret," which is an infectious blend of sounds that plays like a cross between the Allmans, Santana, and the Climax Blues Band.