May 12, 2013
Born 2B Blue was a unique stop for Steve Miller in that it remains the only album attributed just to him alone and not to the Steve Miller Band. Did this fact make a difference? The answer to that question may not be answerable but it was one of the weaker efforts of his career. It may have been a solo album but he used some familiar faces as supporting musicians including bassist Billy Peterson, keyboardist Ben Sidran, saxophonist Bob Malach, keyboardist Ricky Peterson, and drummer Gordy Knutson.
Miller had produced some of the finest psychedelic rock and pop/rock albums of his era, selling tens of millions of copies along the way. Born 2B Blue was neither as it crossed over into the easy listening/jazz medium with some homogenized pop thrown in for good measure.
The choice of songs was far removed from what one would expect from Miller and the results were varied but none came close to equaling his best work. He did seem to have had a vision when choosing the material as the songs sort of fit together. Unfortunately they did not fit him very well.
The best of the lot is a subtle interpretation of the Billie Holiday blues standard, “God Bless the Child” and a jazz laden vocal on “Willow Weep for Me.” He also provides an acceptable vocal of Ray Charles’ “Mary Ann” and Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya” but neither have the energy and passion of the originals.
On the other hand his covers of “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” “Born to Be Blue,” and “When Sunny Gets Blue” are at best bland and at worst find an artist just going through the motions.
In the final analysis there is a sameness to the music and when this unites with the overly mellow nature of the music, you have one of the more forgettable albums of Miller’s career. Miller has a huge fan base and no doubt there are some who appreciate this album but it is only for the hardcore Miller aficionado.
Article first published as Music Review: Steve Miller – Born 2B Blue on Blogcritics.
March 29, 2013
After his 1984 debacle, Italian X-Rays, Steve Miller made a fine comeback two years later with Living in the 20th Century. Dedicated to Jimmy Reed, it was his first blues album in over 15 years.
Miller took complete control of the recording process again. Unlike his last effort where his band members wrote the majority of the material, now he wrote five of the tracks himself. Three Jimmy Reed covers plus several other blues songs made it one of the better efforts of the second half of his career.
The album has a cohesive flow to it. It begins with four original Miller compositions before transitioning to his interpretations of six blues songs, finally finishing with another original.
There is a lot of good music on the album. The best of his originals is “Behind the Barn” as both James Cotton and Norton Buffalo contributed with some harp play, and Les Dudek added a country sound with his dobro. “Slinky” is an often overlooked gem in his vast catalogue of music. It is an instrumental that contains one of the better guitar performances of his career. It finds Miller laid back and relaxed and makes one wish he would record more guitar-oriented songs. “I Want the World to Turn Around” settles into a nice groove with saxophone player Kenny G.
The Jimmy Reed covers were a labor of love. “I Wanna be Loved (But Only by You)” and “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby” are given modernized interpretations. “Caress Me Baby” served as a jumping off point for some more of Miller’s guitar improvisation that would have made Reed proud. Add in such tunes as “My Babe” and “Big Boss Man” and you have a nice grouping of classic blues interpretations.
Living in the 20th Century is an album that often floats under the Steve Miller radar. It is a fine album that deserves more attention as it found Miller in a place he had not visited in quite a while. If you ever want to explore the Steve Miller Band outside of his better known releases, then this is the place to start.
March 14, 2013
During the late 1960s, The Steve Miller Band produced an excellent series of psychedelic rock and blues fusion albums. They switched directions during the mid-1970s through the early 1980s by issuing some of the finest pop rock albums of the era, whose commercial success elevated Miller to superstar status. That success came to a sudden halt in 1984 with Italian X Rays.
I have no doubt that somewhere in the Steve Miller universe there are fans who appreciate this release. It is an album I have really tried to like but it always comes up short and remains one of the weakest of his studio releases.
Basically the songwriting just did not measure up to his best work. Miller depended heavily on his band mates, Byron Allred, Kenny Lee Lewis, and Gary Mallaber, with and without whom he wrote a number of forgettable tracks. He also co-wrote two tracks with Tim Davis, the original drummer of The Steve Miller Band, who was ill with severe diabetes which would shortly claim his life. Unfortunately “Who Do You Love” and “Out of the Night” were more poignant than good. His only solo composition, “One in a Million,” was a nice acoustic love song, which suggested he should have taken more control of the material.
The other major problem was he tried to fit in with the music scene of the mid-1980s. He used a synthesizer sound, which eliminated many of his guitar solos. When combined with drum machines in places and a thumping bass, he was far removed from his best and most successful styles of music.
So what does that leave other than the aforementioned “One in a Million?” The answer is not much. The title track may be a tad repetitive but it has a nice funky feel with a deep bass sound in places. I could do without the excessive keyboards of “Bongo Bongo” but it is somewhat catchy.
Italian X Rays was a difficult listen in 1985 and remains so today. What made it worse at the time were the comparisons to what had preceded it. It is one of those releases only for Steve Miller fans who must have everything.
Article first published as Music Review: The Steve Miller Band – Italian X Rays on Blogcritics.
March 13, 2013
Steve Miller had become a superstar during the last half of the 1970s when his Book Of Dreams and Fly Like An Eagle albums each sold millions of copies and then topped it off when his Greatest Hits 1974-1978 began its journey toward becoming one of the 50 biggest selling albums in United States history. That success came to a halt with his 1981 release, Circle Of Love. In order to regain his commercial momentum, he hurried back into the studio to record some new music.
Abracadabra was an attempt to return to the smooth pop/rock of his 1970s hit albums. It may not have had the consistent high quality of his more popular releases but there were some memorable songs. As stand-alone tracks, many of the songs were enjoyable but they did not fit together well, giving the album a disjointed feel. In the final analysis, it was a release where the individual parts were better than the whole.
I don’t know if Miller had a writer’s block but the well was a little dry as he only wrote two of the 10 tracks. Band members Gary Mallaber, John Massare, and Kenny Lewis co-wrote the other eight in various combinations.
One of the songs Miller did contribute was the title track, which became one of his career-defining performances. It was catchy and remained in your mind. It became the last number one pop hit of his career. His other song was “Give It Up,” which had a slower tempo and was not as memorable.
There really was not anything terrible but on the other hand, there was nothing of lasting substance either. “Keep Me Wondering Why” was a nice, if light rocker. “Things I Told You” was the band’s attempt to move in a new wave direction that was in vogue at the time. “Goodbye Love” had a little country flavor stirred into the mix. “While I’m Waiting” was a slower acoustic piece that probably should not have closed the album. The strongest track was “Cool Magic,” which returned Miller to his strengths with a strong melody and smooth vocal.
Abracadabra was enjoyable but not The Steve Miller Band at their best. It did achieve the goal of producing a commercially successful album as it reached platinum status. If you want the pop-oriented Steve Miller at his most creative, then any of his late 1970s releases are preferable. Abracadabra is an album that filled in the gaps.
Article first published as Music Review: Steve Miller Band – Abracadabra on Blogcritics.
February 19, 2013
During the 1970s Steve Miller had become a star. Fly Like An Eagle and Book of Dreams were smooth pop/rock albums that produced a number of memorable hit singles and each sold several million copies. They were followed in 1978 by his Greatest Hits 1974-78 album, which has sold close to 13 million copies in the United States. On the heels of these three albums came Circle of Love.
Miller had not issued a new studio album in almost five years so there was a great deal of anticipation prior to the release of Circle of Love. What his fans got was two very different half albums. The first side of the original vinyl release was comprised of four catchy if dissimilar tracks. The second side of the vinyl release was one 16-minute song that was very different from just about anything else Steve Miller has ever released.
It was a simpler album in many ways as it was just vocalist/guitarist Miller and his three member backing band consisting of keyboardist Byron Allred, bassist Gerald Johnson, and drummer Gary Mallaber.
The first track, “Heart Like a Wheel,” was a catchy pop piece in which Miller layered his vocals. It may have veered in a rockabilly direction but was close to his classic 1970s material. It was released as a single with moderate success. The six-minute title song was the weakest song on the first side as it dragged a bit and was a miss as a single. The short two-minute “Baby Wanna Dance” was the hit single that never was and would have fit in well with either of his two big selling studio albums.
“Macho City” started off well as a searing political statement about the issues in El Salvador and Afghanistan at the time but then drifted off into an extended funk/pop instrumental. It was a song that people tended to like or hate with little middle ground. Today the first part seems dated and the last 10 minutes sort of fades into the background music category.
Circle of Love was listenable but paled next to the albums that surrounded it. It is a Steve Miller album for fans who want everything Miller-related.
Article first published as Music Review: Steve Miller Band – Circle of Love on Blogcritics.
February 4, 2013
Steve Miller built his reputation during the late 1960s and early ’70s as a psychedelic rock and blues artist. While his sales were moderate, his albums ranked as some of the best of the era. That all changed in 1976 with the release of Fly Like An Eagle. It was an album of smooth and accessible rock, which was his commercial break through that sold several million copies. The question was what he could do for an encore.
It turned out that he had recorded two albums of material. The unreleased music was released in the spring of 1977 as Book Of Dreams. It was another commercial success and elevated the Steve Miller Band to one of the more successful artists in the country.
There was not a great difference between the two albums. Both were catchy pop rock that produced a number of hit singles. Book Of Dreams may have been a little weaker due to the instrumentals and a couple of filler tracks but the highs were as good, if not better, than its predecessor.
The hit singles formed the foundation of the album and are the most memorable tracks. “Jet Airliner” was a performance that defined his sound during this part of his career. It is a polished, mid-tempo song with a laid back vocal. “Swingtown” is a joyous party song. “Jungle Love” was a perfect track for AM radio play.
Several of the lesser known songs are almost as good. “Winter Time” is a gentle acoustic ballad. “Sacrifice” has a Les Dudek guitar solo that was among the best of his career. “True Fine Love” is a catchy rock song in which Miller achieved a unique sound by overdubbing his guitar solo into a three part harmony. “The Stake” may not have fit in with the rest of the music very well but it’s a nice, bluesy track that looked back to his past.
Book Of Dreams was one of the highlights of Steve Miller’s career and of the 1970s. While his Greatest Hits album would eventually overshadow his studio releases, this is one that should be visited every once in a while.
January 23, 2013
The May 1976, release of Fly Like An Eagle completed Steve Miller’s transition from bluesy, psychedelic rock musician to a pop rock icon. He came close with The Joker but it lacked the overall cohesiveness and smooth pop sheen of his latest release.
His basic backing band had been reduced to bassist Lonnie Turner and drummer Gary Mallaber while he provided the vocals, guitars, keyboards, and even some sitar work. He filled in the sound with an array of guest musicians including harp player James Cotton, guitarist Les Dudek, dobro player John McFee, and organist Joachim Young. It all added up to an album that has sold over four million copies in the United States, produced three hit singles, and is recognized as one of the better albums of the 1970s.
The singles were perfect for AM and rock radio airplay as they were both catchy and memorable. The title track is driven by Miller’s guitar riffs and Young’s B3 organ that joins together to support his vocal. The short album opening “Space Intro” is the perfect set up for the track. “Take the Money and Run” and “Rock’n Me” are the perfect combination of catchy pop and album-oriented rock.
Many of the lesser-known songs are the equal of the big hits. “Wild Mountain Honey” is a laid-back track that would have fit in with the hippie movement of the late 1960s. “Serenade” is a rocker on which Miller overdubbed his vocal. “Dance Dance Dance” may have been a little short, but his guitar work and John McFee’s dobro play united together and took the track in a country direction. He transformed the blues song “Mercury Blues” into a rock epic.
As good as everything is, the best song may be “Sweet Maree,” which is powered by James Cotton harp. It was a presentation of his new vision but acknowledged his past as well.
The only track that does not fit is his cover of the Sam Cooke classic “You Send Me,” which pales next to the material that surrounded it.
Fly Like An Eagle is an uplifting album of excellent pop rock. It may be a tad dated but is still an excellent listen. It will always be in the discussion for the best of the Steve Miller studio albums.
Article first published as Music Review: The Steve Miller Band – Fly Like An Eagle on Blogcritics.
January 15, 2013
Anyone who followed the first part of Steve Miller’s career was in for a big surprise when The Joker was released during October of 1973. His early albums had been firmly rooted in a psychedelic rock and blues sound. Now he began to change his sound as he moved in a pop/rock direction. While The Joker may not have had the pop sheen of Fly Like An Eagle or Book Of Dreams that would follow, it was nevertheless a radical departure from his previous sound.
Miller was the only member left from his original band except for bassist Lonnie Turner, who appeared on one track. He kept it fairly simple as he was backed by bassist Gerald Johnson, keyboardist Dick Thompson, and drummer John King. The only other musician on the album was Pete Kleinow who contributed the pedal steel guitar sound on “Something to Believe In.”
“The Joker” was Miller’s commercial break through as it became a million-selling single. The music was catchy and melodic, but it was the lyrics that made it memorable. Lines such as “gangster of love,” “the space cowboy,” and “pompitous of love” may not have changed the music world but they made it a lot more enjoyable.
“Sugar Babe” is a sometimes overlooked track, but it was catchy pop/rock and the equal to just about anything he would produce in the future. “Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash” was a rhythm & blues hit for the Clovers in 1954, but Miller smoothed it out and put the emphasis on the keyboards and guitar, which turned it into a pop creation. Add in the enjoyable jam, “Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma” and the catchy “Lovin’ Cup,” and you have the foundation of the album that launched the second half of his career.
The two live tracks, Robert Johnson’s blues tune “Come on in My Kitchen” and his own composition “Evil” are fine but a little misplaced as they pulled the album away from the pop/rock style of the better tracks.
The Joker is sometimes overshadowed by the focus on the albums that would follow, but it remains a good listen as it catches Miller honing his new sound. I don’t know how his old fans reacted to the album, but his new ones made it a huge commercial success.
Article first published as Music Review: The Steve Miller Band – The Joker on Blogcritics.
December 25, 2012
Steve Miller has had two distinct periods in his career. His early career, 1968-1970, produced five albums of excellent blues and psychedelic rock that formed one of the better bodies of work of the era. Beginning in 1973 he went in a pop rock direction that elevated him to huge mainstream commercial success. He released two albums in between those two periods, Rock Love (1971) and Recall The Beginning…A Journey From Eden (1972) that found his music on hold. He was not quite ready to leave his past behind but unwilling to embrace his pop future.
Recall The Beginning…A Journey From Eden is many times a forgotten album in the Steve Miller catalogue. It was one of his least successful and paled next to The Joker album, which would be released the next year. Still, there was some good music to be found on the release. While the first side of the original vinyl release was not cohesive and only average at best, the last four tracks on the B-side was one of the better stretches of music of his career. “Love’s Riddle,” “Fandango,” “Nothing Lasts,” and “Journey from Eden” make the album still worth seeking out as the music just floats by.
“Love’s Riddles” is a love song of loss while “Fandango” is a light bluesy romp. “Nothing Lasts” contains poignant and sad melodies and lyrics. The album ends with the near seven-minute “Journey from Eden.” The use of strings helped to accentuate his guitar playing. In fact, all four tracks are driven by his superior guitar virtuosity that became less apparent as his career progressed and the focus centered more on his lyrics and melodies.
The other tracks were less successful. “Enter Maurice” is a goofy track, the type that would be done a lot better in the future. “High on You Mama” tries to go in a funky direction but gets bogged down. “Heal Your Heart,” with additional guitar work by Jesse Ed Davis, and “The Sun is Going Down” are mellow and mundane jam songs. None of the tracks are bad but none rise above the norm.
Recall The Beginning…A Journey From Eden is a laid-back affair that is worth a listen due to the last four songs. It may not have the instant gratification of his pop oriented releases, or the excitement and energy of his early albums, but was a fitting conclusion to the first part of his career.
Article first published as Music Review: The Steve Miller Band – Recall The Beginning…A Journey From Eden on Blogcritics.
December 21, 2012
The Steve Miller Band was in transition during 1971. Miller was the only original member left and now, for all intents and purposes, it was him and a backing band.
Rock Love was released during September of 1971, and it found him in a holding pattern. His first five releases had all been strong blues/rock/psychedelic albums. Rock Love was a more haphazard affair and in retrospect seems like a hastily thrown together album, consisting of three live tracks and four recorded in the studio. Still, there was some good music to be found, but it was not of the quantity or overall quality of his early career releases.
Much of the music was stripped down and basic. There were only three musicians listed in the album credits. Guitarist/vocalist Miller was accompanied by bassist Ross Valory and drummer Jack King. When a second guitar is heard, it was band member Bobby Winkleman who was not credited. Without the usual keyboards to consistently fill in the tracks, it was one of the most basic releases in his vast catalogue.
Side one of the original vinyl release consisted of three live tracks. The short “The Gangster is Back” and “Blues without Blame” are competent, if not spectacular, blues/rock fusion pieces.
Listening to the nearly 12-minute “Love Shock“ is a travel back in time. It remains very much connected to its era with the extended drum solo. On the other hand, I remember consistently playing the track during my college radio station days. Miller does a very good Hendrix interpretation. His improvisation on his 12-string guitar demonstrated just what an accomplished musician he was, especially live onstage. It was a glimpse of how he could carry a song, and despite its age is still worth a listen.
The studio material travelled in a number of directions. The title song could have been a hit single and looked ahead to the pop/rock commercial success that was in his immediate future. “Harbor Lights” was subtle and subdued. The nine minute “Deliverance” and the short “Let Me Serve You” never really takes off but was not terrible either.
Rock Love is one of those albums that are easy to pass by. It is not the place to start when exploring the music of Steve Miller as it serves as a connecter between the two most creative periods of his career.
Article first published as Music Review: The Steve Miller Band – Rock Love on Blogcritics.