Sunday, March 1, 2015

CD Review: Vanilla Fudge's Spirit of '67

Vanilla Fudge's Spirit of '67
Vanilla Fudge made their bones by covering pop, rock, and R&B songs long before the hair metal ‘80s made it an artistic requirement. The band’s psychedelic, acid-washed arrangements kept enough of a song’s original flavor to entertain while still adding something new and original to the mix. Formed by singer and keyboardist Mark Stein, guitarist Vinny Martell, bassist Tim Bogert, and drummer Carmine Appice, the Fudge came to the attention of legendary product George “Shadow” Morton, who was smitten by the band’s slowed-down, sludge-drenched live performance of the Supremes’ hit “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” The band recorded the song with Morton producing, scoring them a deal with Atco Records (an Atlantic label subsidiary), and their subsequent self-titled 1967 debut.

That album rose to number six on the Billboard albums chart on the strength of the band’s unique readings of popular songs by the Beatles, Sonny Bono, Curtis Mayfield, and Rod Argent. Slowing down a song’s tempo, layering in a rich brew of Stein’s Hammond keyboards and Martell’s stinging guitar, and backed by the sludge-like stew of Bogert and Appice’s mesmerizing rhythms, the album struck a chord with young rock fans. Morton would go on to produce the band’s following two albums, both of which went Top 20, but the further the Fudge strayed from that initial plodding approach to cover tunes, the more their commercial returns diminished, and Vanilla Fudge broke up in 1970, after the release of their fourth album, Rock & Roll.

Vanilla Fudge’s Spirit of ’67

The Fudge reformed in 2000, sans Bogart, who had retired from touring after a lengthy career, and they’ve been performing occasional shows ever since. Spirit of ’67, a collection of cover tunes of songs made popular in, yes, 1967, is the Fudge’s first album in ten years. Unfortunately, there’s little to like about Vanilla Fudge’s Spirit of ’67. The arrangements proffered these classic songs aren’t so much imaginative as they are dated and boring, the band trying to add a contemporary sheen to vintage tunes that, by their very familiarity, are part of the hardcore music fan’s DNA and thus require no feats of imagination. Even sadder, the “contemporary” edge the band attempts to bring to the material is from the 1980s or ‘90s…wielding overused, abused musical tropes that barely outlasted their initial use two or three decades ago. I’m not against a band bringing its own vision to classic material, but it has to improve upon the original, not deconstruct it in favor of something less.

Take, for instance, the Fudge cover of the Doors’ gem “Break On Through (To The Other Side),” which is “spiffed” up with backing harmony vocals and a vague flamenco rhythm that completely overwhelms an otherwise engaging Vince Martell guitar solo. The song is stripped of its original malevolence and turned into a Vegas stage show with a truly outrageous and unnecessary exit. Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” is…well, I’m not sure what they were trying to achieve here. There are Gothic tinges to the song’s instrumentation, which is overly lush and claustrophobic rather than cautious and celebratory. The Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” is completely shorn of its pop-psych charm in favor of tinkling pianos and a thick, Tran-Siberian Orchestra-styled soundtrack.

I Heard It Through The Grapevine

The band has always had luck with the Motown songbook, but their stab at Marvin Gaye’s classic “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is just downright embarrassing. The vocals are straining to achieve soulfulness, the instrumentation is overblown and over-the-top all around. True, the bar for covering this song was set pretty high by Gaye and, later, John Fogerty’s CCR, but the Fudge’s arrangement robs the song of its heartbreak, making it sound more like a house party than a tearjerker. The rapping in the middle of the song does nothing to redeem it, either…and speaking of embarrassing, the band’s cover of the Boxtops’ “The Letter” is equally blustery and OTT, with crescendos of out-of-place orchestration and an overall vibe that is at odds with the original’s frantic, romantic “in-a-hurry” intentions. Alex Chilton is likely spinning in his grave at the song’s lounge-singer vocals and (too) busy instrumentation.

Not all of Spirit of ‘67 is thus, however…the band manage to hit the right tone throughout much of their cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears,” creating just the right balance of pathos and emotion to make it work, even if the instrumentation is a wee bit more grandiose than necessary. Their take on the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” is more imaginative than most of these covers, sounding like a cross between Argent and Iron Butterfly, with flailing keyboard riffs and heavy percussion bringing a share of that old Fudge black magic to the song. The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” is given more of a throwback sound (think 1970s), and while Vince Martell is no Steve Winwood, his vocals here are OK (although I could do without the gratuitous backing vox), his guitar solos crisp and creative. Procol Harum’s “White Shade of Pale” benefits from Mark Stein’s eerie Hammond B3 licks, and although the song’s instrumental arrangement attempts to fly a little too close to the sun, the performance comes back to earth with its wings only singed.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

OK, so it’s brass tacks time…Vanilla Fudge’s Spirit of ’67 is an overall mess. By my count, only four or five of the album’s cover songs (i.e. half) add anything to the original performance, while the rest are mostly just mundane and gimmicky. The album’s one new song – Stein’s “Let’s Pray For Peace” – is of a similar overblown nature as much of Spirit of ’67, but that’s OK. It’s an original song with a solid melody, an earnest message, and heartfelt, if a bit overwrought vocals. It works, even if it’s completely out of context of the rest of the album’s conceptual conceit.

If you’re a diehard, longtime patron of Vanilla Fudge, my words won’t dissuade you from buying Spirit of ’67, nor should they. Enjoy, I say, it’s all rock ‘n’ roll to me! But for the Fudge newcomer, your money would be better spent on the band’s self-titled 1967 debut album or even Psychedelic Sundae, a “best of” collection which offers up some tasty covers of the Beatles, Motown, Donovan, and others. As for Vanilla Fudge, I’d just as soon they applied their long-suffering shtick to current songs by the likes of Taylor Swift or Sam Smith. That, my friends, is something I’d like to hear! Grade: C (Cleopatra Records, released March 3, 2015)

Buy the CD on Vanilla Fudge's Spirit Of 67

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Worst version of AWSOP ever!