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Monday, March 1, 2010

Leonard Skinerd and Co.

In the words of Dick Van Dyke in Night at the Museum, "Moving on." Indeed we move on from the work of Leo CohenStar to the deep south of the United States of America. Today is the analysis of the Alabama-loving, Stars and Bars toting band Lynyrd Skynrd. Although they will always be associated with some tunes that have dominated the radio waves for over 40 years ("Free Bird and "Sweet Home Alabama"), there is more to those long haired Confederates than meets the eye. And to get this out of the way right now, I will not be discussing "Free Bird" as it is talked about far too much.

I just listened to the first album with one of the most obvious and potentially horrendous or genius album titles ever. I don't know all the shortcuts for it, but it says "pronounced" and then the phonetic spelling of the band name. I'm still torn on what to think of that. It's basically a self titled first album, which is very common and they alleviate any confusion to how to pronounce their name...I'm going to have to go with "pretty damn smart." It's not genius, but it gets the job done. That being said, the album features a six man band (though seven are pictured on the cover-one guy quit then came back, so they had to keep both the replacement and the rehired dude.) Ronnie Van Zant is still alive and singing, but I'd say he is more of an afterthought on this record. The guitar work is what stands out here, as it should when you have THREE guitar players, all of whom take Lead guitar duties at some point. It is definitely an interesting dynamic with three guitar players in a band. Iron Maiden is probably only one of the other famous ones, and they do the power stance whilst pointing their guitars at the crowd in a row, so that's pretty badass. A friend once told me that all three of them once threw their guitars up in the 8-10 feet in the air at the same time and caught them together only to continue rocking upon reception of said axes. I can't be sure if Lynyrd Skynyrd ever did this...
ANYWAYS, each lead guitar part has a signature to it that could not be done by one lead player, and it definitely fills out the sound. Part of this album is straight up riff rock, and kind of heavy at that. The other part is straight up Southern music, mandolins and all. It was not what I was expecting at all. I assumed it'd be mostly jam band South rock, but I was barely accurate. This album was made in 1973 and heavy riff rock had been around for at a couple of years, but they're definitely following suit and adding their own mark to it. In addition, 1973 was the same year that Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon, Elton John with Goodbye Yellow brick Road, and Led Zepplin's Houses of the Holy, arguably some of the most popular records of all time, let alone that year. All things considered, it's pretty admirable that this record was able to break through in a time with such talented artists releasing some of their greatest work. Ipso facto, this is a quality album. I wasn't even sure at the end if I needed to keep listening to more, but for reasons of good form I continue.

Another obvious title for Skynyrd's sophomore album with Second Helping, released only a year later. This band had success with that first bought and ran with it. And this second album is exactly as the title implies, more of the same. Listening to these two albums back to back, it's hard to see where one ends and the other begins. But hey, that's clearly what their fans wanted because this album reached 7 spots higher(12) than their first (19) on the Billboard charts. "Sweet Home Alabama" is the big hit from this record, but it's the first song on it, which kind of taints the rest. (Ronnie Van Zant was born and raised in sweet home Florida, but I guess that didn't sound as good.) The same comments from above work here, guitar work is the most impressive, although the ivory tickler sure tickles some nice ivory at points. There is also some backing brass at some points, which was kind of interesting.

Wikipedia claims that the third and fourth albums were huge let-downs which caused the band to fire the producer of the first two records, Al Kooper. Naturally, I had to take a listen, keep going in chronological order and see why the fans suddenly lost their interest. The third album is 1975's Nuthin' Fancy. Once again, Lynyrd Skynyrd is quite adept at album names, as this album is nothing fancy at all. In fact, it's more of the same thing. Not to say this it sounds bad, at all. In fact, it seems a little bit cleaner and polished, but then again, maybe that's not what their fans wanted. A lot more riff based, almost stoner rock tracks- if Ozzy was born in Florida, I have no doubt he would have fronted this band. Gimme Back My Bullets is the fourth effort by the band, and they finally move away from the album titles that describe their music. But again, Lynyrd Skynyrd does little to move away from their typical sound. Again, not bad at all, but not amazing.

Street Survivors is the last album I acknowledge as true Lynyrd Skynyrd, as three of the core members (and a road crew member) died three days after it's release. After all, the other members post-crash are not inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the band. It starts off with their third most popular song "What's Your Name," and it does sound different than the previous 4 albums. The brass return in a big way here and it sounds quite good. In general, the band moves in some new directions, not hugely different but enough to be more interesting and have your ears perk up at a few points. This one is right up their with their first album.

If you don't know the story, the band's plane ran out of fuel and crashed. It is really quite tragic when planes and helicopters take the lives of great rock musicians. Not to put others down, but after hearing the fourth album, it seems like Lynyrd Skyryrd was bound to keep moving up in the world and away from those two big defining songs. So it seems that FM radio has done another number on me. Lynyrd Skynryd is quite good and a clear pioneer in the heavy rock world. They exude great guitar work that a lot of current guitarists could learn a hellofalot from. Ronnie Van Zant seems to have known his place in the band perfectly. He was not the big spectacle, the guitars were, and he knew it. His vocals are in good balance with the dynamic of the group, and that is a quality that is extremely under appreciated. When one looks past those 3 radio hits, Lynyrd Skynyrd is a really good rock band. It's the kind of music that should be played while drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette on the hood of a Chevy in a field.

Again, I have been shown the light and feel kind of sheepish for putting them down, but how was I to know? If this project is illuminating anything past the obvious, (that a band is good or bad) it's showing how much pop/rock radio can create and/or ruin an opinion of a band. This is something I shall try to comment on more in the coming evaluations.

NEXT UP: Jefferson Airplane/Starship (I'm not sure what the difference is...if there is one....YET)


  1. You should pop some lala links to a few ditties in there. That would be some compelling shit, bet your bottom dollar.

  2. Also - "White Rabbit" is a perfect song. Don't forget that.

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