Thursday, July 18, 2013

STEVE FORBERT: The Sony Years continued...



Steve Forbert is one of the most honest songwriters out there.  Ever since he released his debut album, Alive On Arrival, in 1978, he has managed to release a series of albums that sound like no one else.  While he was briefly referred to as 'the new Dylan' some 35 years ago, with each album release, he is simply Steve Forbert, albeit dressed up in a different outfit every time.  His songs come from the heart, although he manages to write with a unique perspective on each recording.  Whether he is speaking from experience or writing from another person's point of view, he continues to hit the nail on the head each time. While his voice is a little more gruff these days, he still injects his songs with heart and soul.  He still travels the Folk road that he began his journey on so many years ago, but he has no problem injecting Rock, Soul, Pop, Latin, Bluegrass and Zydeco into his songs.

I was a New Wave/Punk/Power Pop/Synthpop loving kid when I first heard Steve Forbert and I immediately knew there was something special about him.  Sure, I was loving all the quirky, high-energy and day-glo bands of the day, but Forbert was just as unique. The thing that attracted me to his music was the songs.  And he sure had plenty of songs that still give me goosebumps today.

While he continues to record and tour, his most commercially successful period was when he was signed to Nemperor/Sony in the late '70s and early '80s.  Earlier this year, his first two albums -Alive On Arrival and Jackrabbit Slim- were reissued in a two CD set complete with some amazing bonus tracks.  When I reviewed the release on this blog, I mentioned just how much I would love to see his third and fourth albums released on CD. (You can read that review HERE). The kind folks over at informed me that those albums were, indeed, available on CD through their webstore.  Not only that, they also issued his previously unreleased fifth album for the Columbia label in a deluxe 3CD package!  Once I laid my money down on the table, I became the proud owner of the three releases I am now going to tell you about!


No matter who produced his records, Steve Forbert ended up sounding like Steve Forbert. Very early on, he managed to become a unique songwriter that stood out, no matter what type of production he was surrounded in. Since "Romeo's Tune" had been a decent sized hit on Pop radio, it seemed like Nemperor wanted to explore the poppier -even rockier - side of Forbert with his third release so they threw him in the studio with the great Pete Solley. Solley was just coming off the success of The Romantics' first album (also on Nemperor) and their hit "What I Like About You".  While Solley's production may not have been as earthy as Forbert's music was accustomed to, Forbert stepped up to the plate with a fine selection of songs that still sound great today.  OK, so the production is a bit condensed, but the songs are as meaningful as ever and the melodies are more direct and immediate.

"Get Well Soon", "Song For Katrina", "Cellophane City". "Laughter Lou (Who Needs You?)", "If You've Got To Ask You'll Never Know", and "Lonely Girl" are definite highlights but Little Stevie Orbit is a strong album from start to finish.  There's certainly a lot of joy and energy coming from these songs and that is what makes Forbert who he is - he has a tendency to add charm and vitality to his performances. The bonus tracks here are from the same era and are top notch, with special kudos for "Planet Earth Song". Another winner of an album, although it didn't seem to do much in raising his commercial profile.  Little Stevie Orbit meant that he had made three great albums in a row.  Could he hit another home run with album #4?  Read on...

The bonus CD is a live show taped on Thanksgiving of 1980 and features live versions of tracks from his first three albums plus a few cuts that don't appear on his studio releases. 

For his self-titled fourth album, Forbert was paired with producer Steve Burgh, who had worked with Billy Joel, Phoebe Snow, John Prine, Willie Nelson and Steve Goodman.  Little Stevie Orbit was a fine album, but it seemed that Forbert's music needed a producer who 'understood' Forbert's roots.  Again, with "Romeo's Tune" in mind, the album Steve Forbert was a return to a folkier feel but this time with a more robust sound.  While it sounds slick and well-produced, album #4 is yet another collection of well-written songs that should have returned Forbert to commercial waters. In my opinion, this is the album that should have followed Jackrabbit Slim - commercial yet entirely unique.

"Ya Ya (Next To Me)" should have been a massive hit with the catchy horn riff that carries the chorus into the stratosphere. "Listen To Me" is one of his finest, most heartfelt love songs... and that guitar hook is heavenly. The beauty of "Oh So Close (Yet So Far Away" is mesmerizing. "On The Beach" is a great mid-tempo rocker with a catchy little guitar hook. Other highlights include "Prisoner Of Stardom", "Beautiful Diana" and "You're Darn Right". When it comes down to it, this is my favorite album from his Nemperor/Sony period, but that's probably because I adore great Pop albums and that is what Steve Forbert (the album) is.

Of the bonus tracks, "Suspicion" is a much more successful cover than "When You Walk In The Room" and fits more comfortably with the rest of the album. Then again, I love his version of "When You Walk In The Room", so that is not a complaint whatsoever! There's even two alternate versions of "Listen To Me"... and you can never have too many versions of that song on an album!

Now, here is a real treat for Forbert fans!  Back in the day, I read in one of the music magazines (Rolling Stone? Creem?  Trouser Press?) that Steve had gone into the studio with producer Neil Giraldo (Pat Benatar) to start recording his fifth album.  This was probably around '83 or so.  After that, I read nothing else about the sessions and it wasn't until 1988 that Forbert resurfaced with Streets Of This Town on Geffen Records. With no sign of Giraldo on the album, I pretty much figured that the album never came to be (remember, this is way before the internet so there was no way I could keep tabs on music biz happenings).  Oddly enough, since 1988, I had completely forgotten about Forbert recording with Giraldo...

Well, lo and behold, Forbert did actually record the album but it was never released!  After many years, Steve got the rights to release the album.  With some rejigging, Down In Flames is that very album and it shows yet another side to Forbert.  Some of the tracks rock harder than his previous work, while others are Forbert at his most sincere.  Listening to this set of songs makes you wonder why this album never saw the light of day. There's even a few Rockabilly tracks that Forbert seems to have a lot of fun with.  To be honest, it's unfair to compare this to his other work because I've been listening to the first four albums for 30+ years and then reviewing this release after only a dozen listens doesn't seem right.  What I will tell you is that this is a must-have for any Forbert fan! "Underwatertown", "What's So Hard About Being Alone" and "Lay Down Your Weary Tune Again" (later recorded for the album Mission Of The Crossroad Palms) are definite standouts. 

Down In Flames is a 3CD set, which makes it a must-have for your collection.  Disc One is the 13 track album, Disc Two is demos recorded for the album and Disc Three features live recordings spanning the years 1983-85.  Saying this album is a sweet deal is an understatement!

So, there you have it!  Steve Forbert's first five albums are some of the finest Folk/Pop releases of the '70s, '80s and beyond.  He's still out there, recording and touring so maybe it's time you start paying attention!  

God bless Steve Forbert!

Peace, love and pancakes,
Stephen SPAZ Schnee

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