Thursday, July 2, 2015

Manfred Mann's Earth Band - The Good Earth

I remember this one was one of those records that I loved, but never seemed to own until I was an adult.  I think the first time I bought it was on CD, and that was at least twenty some years removed from days of sitting in my best friend's older sister's room and listening to The Good Earth on her floor, pretty much surrounded by pink.  I can't remember if this was a thing that was okay or not.  I seem to think it was okay because her friends seemed to like us, and she was actually pretty nice to us (usually - she was an older sister and she could apply amazing amounts of bitch when she felt it necessary).  I can remember very distinctly when we were out doing something stupid and it was night, probably pretty late because his parents were cool with us going on "Midnight Bike Rides."  These rides often meant rolling houses and creating general mischief like Double Scares and Flaming Fudge Bags.  We came back one night and the girls had just got dropped off and they seemed pretty hammered.  One of her friends, whom I thought was just beautiful, and not only way out of my league, but like three years older than me (which made a big difference then), sees me and says, "There he is!  The cute one!."  I probably had the dumbest look on my face because I thought that was so cool, but then she walked up to me while I was still just straddling my bicycle, grabbed my head and pretty much shoved her tongue down my throat!  Luckily, I actually had kissed a girl already and I knew what to do for the most part.  I kissed her back, and I tried to make it last as long as I could.  She tasted like sweet liquor and I thought this was the greatest thing to ever happen to me.  When she was done she kind of slapped my face and told my friend's sister, "Yeah, he's cute, but he's gonna be trouble."  Then they went off to that pink bedroom and played music and laughed until the sun came up.  Much as I'd have liked it, we didn't even ask to come in and hang out.  I think we went to the school playground and smoked cigarettes and talked about how unbelievably lucky I was until the sun started coming up.

I suppose that has pretty much nothing to do with Manfred Mann's Earth Band's The Good Earth, but I always think about that when I play this record.  At least for a minute or two.  I still remember her name and I'll keep that to myself, but I like that when I pull this record out that's usually about the first thing I think of.  The record itself is completely different.  It's a nerdy affair, if you ask me.  We were really into Yes and Manfred Mann, but none of our friends listened to this overblown stuff that we eventually found out was called Progressive Rock.  My favorite Earth Band album was (and still is) Solar Fire but there are some great things about The Good Earth.  It doesn't quite hold up like Solar Fire for me because it has a couple of tracks that are kind of weenie anthems.  Not many, but just enough that where I thought the softer, prettier parts of Solar Fire would set up some screaming guitar solo, synth blast or bashing drums would kind of just keep being soft and pretty instead of leading the way to the big payoff.

The record kicks off with a rooster crowing and then they kick into the title track, which is a Gary Wright song.  That should give you a good idea that this album tends to sound very 70's.  It's a long song, over eight minutes, with great interplay between Manfred Mann's keyboards and Mick Rogers' guitar.   Some of the nature effects are unnecessary, but there's plenty of big moments and Chris Slade's drumming is top notch and I love the way he's recorded.  His drums sound real, like they're right there in the room with you.  I suppose people would say they're dry, but that's what real drums really sound like.

Launching Place is total Prog Rock, but it's really good.  There's about forty keyboards going on here, but Mann's got good taste and knows that you can actually go too far, so he walks the fine line between engaging and interesting on one side to overblown and stupid on the other.  He reins it in and goes back to just one before too long and it makes the song better instead of making it just more.  Side one ends with a song I've heard a million times, and pretty much instantly forget.  It's called I'll Be Gone.  It's not bad, but it's just not memorable at all.  It mostly plods along.  It's about having money someday and then going away.  Never really says where or why, but I never felt it was anything I needed to worry about.

Side two definitely gets a little of the Solar Fire mojo back.  Both albums were recorded at the same place so they have a similar sound, but the way side one peters out always kind of left me looking through my record box for something else.  The side kicks off and ends with Earth Hymn and Earth Hymn Part 2.  These are the kinds of things I always liked about these guys.  Big riffs, great guitar and keyboard interplay and really cool drums   I should probably mention Colin Pattenden on bass because people say a good bass player doesn't so much need to be heard, and he's never the focus of the music, but there's always plenty of bottom end on Earth Band albums, so the dude deserves some credit for being where he's supposed to be.

Sky High is the centerpiece of the whole record.  It's a medium length instrumental with a cool wobbly guitar, weird time changes, Pattenden channeling Chris Squire and it's just the kind of song that seems like the band is having a good time playing with and for each other.  It's definitely Prog Rock of the highest order and isn't for everyone, but I love it.  Kind of reminds me of South Side of the Sky for some reason, and I think that's a good thing.

Then the record bogs down.  Solar Fire never bogs down, but Be Not Too Hard is more memorable than I'll Be Gone, but this is damning with very faint praise.  This is weenie rock of the highest order, just like Todd Rundgren's Just One Victory.  The only way it could be worse is if it were a Styx song.

It closes out with Earth Hymn Part 2 so we get redemption.  This is kind of riffing on the original idea, with cool, swirling keyboards and a lot of focus on Manfred Mann's playing.  There's no prog rock dudes in capes that can pull this stuff off any better and I always liked the fact that Manfred could keep the bombast down a little, but wasn't afraid to go ahead and show why the band bears his name once in awhile.  If they just had two different songs, one for each side, they'd have had another Solar Fire, maybe even something more than Solar Fire.

Mine's in okay shape.  I've got the CD so if I think I need to hear a more quiet version, I can listen to that.  I think the CD is missing the rooster at the beginning, but I haven't played it in awhile.  The cover has sticker spots from other people or stores, but the record is actually pretty decent.  I'd buy a really nice one if I ever found one, but I never see any.  Maybe everyone only wanted it for the chance to own 1 square foot of the good earth with the coupon included with the record.  If you sent it in, they put your name on a registry of some land somewhere in England.  It was probably a swamp, but it was supposedly real.  I wonder if it's still there or if someone sold it and put condo's on it?