Friday, July 27, 2012

Frankie Miller "Frankie Miller… That’s Who!" (4*)

At $25.99 for 87 tracks that’d be spread over four CDs if you bought a hard copy Frankie Miller… That’s Who! comes across as pretty reasonable value if you’re familiar with the gravel voiced Scot’s work and need to acquire a fair chunk of his back catalogue for a reasonable price.

For the majority of the population, however, it’ll probably be a case of Frankie Who? unless you’ve got something more than vague memories of Darlin’ or one of the other singles that garnered a little airplay for the bowler-hatted one back in the late seventies.

If you’re unfamiliar with the man and his work something in the way of a back story might be appropriate, particularly because the four disks under review represent a fair chunk of his recorded output.

Born in Glasgow in 1949, Miller’s musical tastes were shaped by his mother, a Ray Charles fan, and two older sisters who were into Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Mum and Dad chipped in for a guitar, and by the time he was nine Miller was writing songs (I Can't Change It, written when he was twelve, was recorded by Ray Charles).

By the time he’d hit his teens he was singing professionally, and relocated to London in 1971 to work with ex-Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower, Glasgow bandmate, bass player and vocalist James Dewar and ex-Jethro Tull drummer Clive Bunker in an outfit called Jude that attracted a fair degree of attention without producing anything in the way of a recording before breaking up in the first quarter of 1972.

That attention they’d attracted, however, was enough to secure a record deal with Chrysalis Records, and Miller cut his first album Once in a Blue Moon under the supervision of producer Dave Robinson (later head honcho of Stiff Records)  with backing from pub rock outfit Brinsley Schwarz (who, of course, included Nick Lowe as well as Brinsley Schwarz and Bob Andrews, who ended up backing Graham Parker in The Rumour, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Once in a Blue Moon didn’t do so well, but did enough to have Miller jetting to New Orleans to cut his second album with Allen Toussaint, who allegedly tagged Miller as the most soulful singer he's ever heard, in 1974. High Life was allegedly remixed and released by the record label without Miller or Toussaint’s consent, which accounts for the apparent duplication of some tracks on this set, which includes original mix, available on official release for the first time.

The Toussaint collaboration was, however, a one-off and for his third album Miller was off to San Francisco to work with Elliot Mazer, whose production credits include Neil Young’s Harvest. Miller mightn’t have been chalking up big sales but influential people were sitting up and taking notice. The Rock took its name from Alcatraz, visible from the studio window, and marked the debut of The Frankie Miller Band, which included guitarist Henry McCullough (ex-Eire Apparent, Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, Spooky Tooth and Paul McCartney's Wings), bassist Chrissie Stewart, drummer Stu Perry and Mick “Wynder K. Frog” Weaver on keyboards.

From there it was back to London to work with Chris Thomas on 1977‘s Full House, which produced a minor chart single in Be Good To Yourself and a cover of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy. A lengthy US tour followed, and April 1978 saw Miller recording with a new band and Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas at the Record Plant in New York. The result was Double Trouble, cut with drummer BJ Wilson (Procol Harum), Chrissie Stewart on bass, Ray Russell on guitar, Chris Mercer and Martin Drover on horns and Paul Carrack on keys.

Carrack stayed on board for album #6, Falling in Love, which delivered a UK Top Ten single in the form of Darlin', but as far as chart action was concerned that was, more or less, it, at least as far as material labelled as Frankie Miller was concerned. When I'm Away From You (the follow-up to Darlin’) might have failed to repeat the success but scored in the US Country charts for The Bellamy Brothers a few years down the track.

By this stage Miller was based in Nashville, where the final Chrysalis album Easy Money was recorded with a team of crack Music City session players and signalled a move into writing that yielded successful covers by, among others, The Bellamy Brothers, Johnny Cash, Kim Carnes, Joe Cocker, Etta James, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, The Osmonds, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart,   Bonnie Tyler,  Joe Walsh and The Eagles.

After Easy Money, a switch from Chrysalis to Capitol Records saw an eighth album (Standing on the Edge) recorded at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, with legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm section and Dancing in the Rain recorded in New York with several collaborations with Jeff Barry, after a plan to re-record the Crystals’ Da Doo Ron Ron fell through.

Miller continued writing and recording through the eighties, with soundtrack credits on a number of movies and television series and was in the process of putting a new touring band together in New York with Joe Walsh (The Eagles), pianist Nicky Hopkins and drummer Ian Wallace when he suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and spent five months in a coma, followed by a lengthy spell of rehabilitation which explains the relative silence from a formerly prolific writer and performer.

So that’s the Frankie Who? question answered. What about the seven albums (eight counting the original mix of High Life)?

Forty years on, Once In A Blue Moon rocks along nicely, Brinsley Schwarz bubbling away in the background and Miller in fine voice from the opening You Don't Need To Laugh through to the wry, slinky reading of I'm Ready that concludes proceedings, with plenty of interest in between. A particularly tasty rendition of Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues is probably the pick of ‘em, but there’s not a dud in sight.

The two versions of High Life have different running orders, and Chrysalis appears to have played around with some of the titles but both takes on Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues), Trouble, With You In Mind, Just A Song and With You in Mind demonstrate an impressive match of soulful Scot and New Orleans funk and, again, there’s not a dud in sight. Actually, running through the two versions gives you a chance to hear some impressive material twice.

The recording venue changed to San Francisco for the Elliot Mazer-produced The Rock, with a title track musing on Miller’s likelihood of ending up somewhere like Alcatraz if he didn’t have something like his music to channel his energies into. Other highlights include A Fool In Love, Ain’t Got No Money and my personal favourite Drunken Nights in the City (not that I know anything about such matters).

The content up to this point fills two CDs in the hard copy version and the third kicks off with the 1976 single Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever b/w (that’s backed with for you young ‘uns who weren’t around for two-sided vinyl 45s) I'm Old Enough.

1977’s Full House kicks off in fine style with the magnificent Be Good To Yourself, follows it with a romp through The Doodle Song, which isn’t about what you might think, and then delivers a great reading of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy. The themes from those three tracks continue through Love Letters, Take Good Care of Yourself and (I'll Never) Live in Vain with a sidetrack Down the Honky Tonk when medication is required to ease the heartache.

Things start to fall away slightly as Double Trouble veers off towards the rock end of the spectrum, with heavier riffs. No decline in the vocals, but the material isn’t (IMHO, mileages may vary) as strong as the earlier efforts. Flashier presentation but less substance, though the album finishes on a strong note with a rousing Goodnight Sweetheart.

Falling In Love starts more strongly with When I'm Away From You, contains Darlin' (probably his best known track) but there’s a fairly ordinary reading of Bob Marley’s  Is This Love before Falling In Love With You rolls along to square up the ledger. Much of the intervening material, and the run through from Falling to the end of the album is solid, mainstream-friendly rock that doesn’t have a whole lot to distinguish it from its late seventies peers apart from the Miller tonsils.

That’s largely true of 1980s Easy Money, though the final album in the set does have its share of highlights including Why Don't You Spend The Night, Heartbreak Radio and No Chance, alongside a vigorous reading of the old Jo Jo Zep classic So Young, So Young. A slightly over the top take on Randy Newman’s Sail Away (from a 1977 EP) winds things up.

As far as the consumer goes, while the collection isn’t consistent there’s a definite economic argument in favour of $25.99 rather than a couple of $16.90’s (High Life and Once in a Blue Moon are highly recommended, and you really should take a look at Full House). The audio has been remixed for the collection, which is another argument for bulk buying and you’ll end up with close to the whole box and dice from the pub rock that kicked his career off through the harder-edged rock in the middle to the AOR friendly relatively slick stuff at the end.

And we are, after all, talking about the bloke Rod Stewart described as The only white guy that’s ever brought a tear to my eye.

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