Living In The 20th Century by The Steve Miller Band

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.


Abracadabra by The Steve Miller Band

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.


Circle of Love by The Steve Miller Band

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.


Book Of Dreams by The Steve Miller Band

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.


Recall The Beginning….A Journey From Eden by The Steve Miller Band

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.


Rock Love by The Steve Miller Band

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.


Number 5 by The Steve Miller Band

December 14, 2012

Number 5 was the fifth Steve Miller Band studio album within a three year period and effectively closed out what is considered the first phase of their career. It was probably not as good as their first three albums, but a little better than their fourth release. This meant that it was somewhere between a very good and excellent album.

It was more scattered and not as cohesive as their previous albums, which may have been due to the haphazard recording schedule. They managed to schedule recording sessions during an extended tour. Also Steve Miller had not taken total control of the band. Since he produced the superior material this time, it probably would have been a stronger release had he just created everything.

Keyboardist Ben Sidran, drummer Tim Davis, and bassist Lonnie Turner returned as the main supporting characters for guitarist/vocalist Miller. Sidemen Charlie McCoy (harmonica), Lee Michaels (organ), Nicky Hopkins (piano), and Bobby Spicher (fiddle), all made significant contributions to various tracks.

The strongest group of songs closed the album. “Industrial Military Complex Hex,” “Jackson-Kent Blues,” and “Never Kill Another Man” may seem somewhat dated lyrically today, but in 1970 they were first rate social commentary. Miller took on the subjects of student killings, the Vietnam War, and man’s inhumanity. The music was some of the most powerful of his career as it was passionate and made listeners think Miller was involved and truly cared. The 14 minutes of music that closed the album were one of the best stretches of Miller’s career and remain a good history lesson of the place of rock music in the era’s protest movement.

Tracks such as “Good Morning” and Tim Davis’ “Tokin’” are pleasant and smooth. Davis would also write “Hot Chili.” These two songs would be his last as a member of the band. His departure would turn the band’s direction over to Miller and his absence would be missed as it deprived the group of a second strong songwriter and vocalist.

A lost gem in the Miller catalogue was the Miller/Sidran tune, “Going to the Country,” which harmonica player McCoy and fiddler Spicher helped take in a country direction. The McCoy and Miller interplay was one of the better and more interesting combinations of the early 1970s.

When Number 5 was good, it was very good. While it may be a somewhat forgotten album today, it is still worth a listen every now and then.

Article first published as Music Review: The Steve Miller Band – Number 5 on Blogcritics.