(HIGH MOON RECORDS/RSO RECORDS; reissue 2015, original release 1974)
Love’s seventh official album, REEL-TO-REAL, was seven years removed from the classic psychedelia of the brilliant FOREVER CHANGES and, seemingly, light years away musically. Arthur Lee had steered the Love boat (sorry… couldn’t resist the bad pun) solo since the original group disintegrated due to in-fighting and drug abuse after FOREVER CHANGES and, while each subsequent album featured a song or two that evoked the first three records, Lee had a tendency to ramble without Love’s other songwriter and vocalist, Bryan MacLean, taking at least some of the creative load off. After four years (and four albums) with Elektra and two records for Blue Thumb in 1969 and 1970, Arthur put the Love name to bed and recorded the hard-rocking solo record, VINDICATOR. In 1973, Lee put together a new Love and recorded an album called BLACK BEAUTY; unfortunately, the label, Buffalo Records, went belly-up before the record could be released (a remastered version of BLACK BEAUTY finally saw release through Half Moon Records in 2013). Invigorated by the sound of the new Love, Arthur Lee began work on what would become REEL-TO-REAL, released on RSO Records in 1974. Now, following the success of BLACK BEAUTY, High Moon has released a deluxe reissue of that 1974 record, complete with 12 bonus tracks of outtakes, demos and alternate versions. “But,” you ask, “was it worth it?” The short answer is, “Yes. Yes, it was.”
The album kicks off with “Time Is Like a River,” a signal call that this Love is gonna be a funkier proposition than the band’s late ’60s heyday. The song is highlighted by a soulful Arthur Lee vocal with Motown-style female backing vocals. The number also features a galloping drum track from Joey Blocker and great, funky horns; for those jonesing for a touch of the old guard, the psychedelic dual leads and solos – provided by the tandem of Melvan Whittington and John Sterling – more than fit the bill. “Stop the Music” is kind of an old Rhythm and Blues stroll, with some cool slide work from Sterling, a nice, hard rocking solo and a honkin’ bit of harp from Lee. The surprising use of tuba adds a slight New Orleans Jazz flavor, while Arthur does his best Otis Redding. Love channels Stevie and Earth Wind and Fire on “Who Are You?,” with Philip Bailey-like falsetto vocals and a lot of Wonder-ous clavinet effects from Bobby Lyle. “Good Old Fashion Dream” is a great Southern Soul rocker. Almost as a contrast, Lee’s vocals are raspy and urgent, with Sherwood Akuna’s spongy bass line holding the groove together throughout. The acoustic Blues of “Which Witch Is Which” features a few elements of electric rock and roll, most noticeably an awesome backward guitar by guest Harvey Mandel. “With a Little Energy” is a total James Brown funk workout, with the rhythm section of Blocker and Robert Rozelle propelling the tune forward. Arthur’s vocals have a distinct Sly Stone vibe here.
What was originally the first cut on Side Two of the 1974 record, “Singing Cowboy” is probably the closest in feel to the original Love’s sound. Sterling’s slide and Blocker’s heavy drums once again shine. The next track had more of an organic beginning, with Akuna, Blocker and Whittington messing with the rhythm in the studio and Lee joining in with some lyrics; “Man, let’s record that,” said Lee. Producer Skip Taylor rolled tape and “Be Thankful For What You Got” was born. Though it isn’t my favorite song on the record, it does feature a funky, rather Caribbean groove; unfortunately, the bass and some faux orchestra parts push it into a proto-Disco sound. “You Said You Would” was one of the more controversial songs as it was being recorded. The chorus of “You said you would/You said you would/Now you’re gone” features gunshot before the last line; everybody but Arthur thought that using the sound effect throughout the tune was… well, overkill, but he wouldn’t budge and that’s how the number was released. The song itself is a return to the poppy psychedelic sound of early Love, with snarky lyrics from Lee, giving it a John Lennon or Harry Nilsson vibe. Hendrixian in scope, if not in execution, “Busted Feet” is a throbbing, pulsating hard rocker. Arthur’s vocals sound urgent and strained to his limits. It’s a cool, welcome departure from the general feel of the album. A ragged acoustic Blues, “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” closes the album proper, reminding me somehow of early, folky Dylan. A nice song and a great way to end a record.
This nicely packaged reissue clocks in at a hefty 72 minutes plus. The original album was an economical 33 minutes, which means there are nearly forty minutes of extras here… it ain’t all essential but… well, there ya go. The outtakes are pretty cool to hear and the rehearsal stuff is fun… I just kinda think that including a live show from that era woulda been a better choice. Having said that, the first outtake, “Do It Yourself,” is interesting on a couple of different fronts: The shuffling rhythm, funky horns and country-fried psychedelic guitar gives the song the feel of a hard rock version of Earth Wind and Fire; the aforementioned guitar parts are quite reminiscent of the band’s then-label mate, Eric Clapton, a sound and tone and style that, apparently, Arthur Lee loathed. “I Gotta Remember” is a straight on rocker, with Lee’s lyrics and vocals putting one in mind of Jimi. It has a sort of circular arrangement and could have been the hit that RSO label president Bill Oakes was looking for from Love; instead, the song remained unreleased at the time. More Hendrix-like lyrics inform “Someday,” a nifty little Sly and the Family Stone work out with minimal, rather simple instrumentation that focuses more on the basic groove than anything else. “You Gotta Feel It” is a Fats Domino New Orleans stroll with nice guitar and a solid Lee vocal over a rolling, popping bass line. I like the basic premise of the number but, at 3:38, it goes on about two minutes too long.
The alternate versions of “With a Little Energy” and an electric “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” as well as the single mix of “You Said You Would,” are just okay. The alternate “Busted Feet” is nearly two minutes longer than the version released in 1974, with extended breaks, more vocal histrionics and a wicked, heavy guitar solo. “Stop the Music” uses Arthur’s slightly off-key guitar line as the lead and removes the horns, tuba and harmonica. Lee does a bit of vocal scatting in place of the harmonica. The extended length comes from some pretty funny studio banter. Perhaps the alternate take that differs most from the original album version is “Singing Cowboy.” This version features a faster tempo, as well as a more urgent and upfront slide guitar; there’s also an unhinged wah-infused solo toward the end. The studio rehearsals (more of a warm-up or, in some cases, just goofing around while Lee decided what he wanted to do during a particular session) are nice additions. “Graveyard Hop” is a weird snippet of “Jailhouse Rock,” with reworked lyrics. The piece sounds really ragged and cool. Maybe the most intriguing bonus cut is the band rehearsing the FOREVER CHANGES outtake, “Wonder People (I Do Wonder).” Even though it kind of sounds like an unfinished San Francisco hippie ballad, it does show that Arthur was a bit more receptive to returning to those songs… at least, in the confines of a recording studio. The song actually features a solid guitar solo, even if Lee’s vocals weren’t much more than incoherent scatting. Overall, the re-release of this woefully ignored album is well worth the price of admission and, spotty though it is, holds up really well.