Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mo' Rationals vinyl

Released back in 2009, Ace Records' Think Rational! was that rare thing: a 2CD compilation with nary a bad cut, in the manner of The Story of Them, Sun Ra's The Singles, or Westbound's Funkadelic comps Music for Your Mother and Motor City Madness. Of course, this wouldn't have been possible if the Rationals -- Ann Arbor, Michigan, natives who were voted the most popular band in Detroit while still in high school -- hadn't been a remarkably consistent recording unit, even though they only released a handful of singles and one album during their existence. But the plethora of previously-unreleased tracks on Think Rational! were equally worthy, as I was reminded recently when I got my hands on a couple of vinyl artifacts that Ace released in 2010.

The Fan Club Album was a brainstorm of Rationals manager Jeep Holland which actually got to the test pressing stage before the band left his tutelage in 1968 and the idea was shelved. (Three copies still exist; I have a cassette dub that I got from Rationals frontman Scott Morgan in 1999.) Since the master tapes no longer exist, this is Bay Area scribe/garage historian Alec Palao's best effort to reconstruct the album -- hence the instrumental alternate take of second single "Feelin' Lost." No matter; it's still one of the sturdiest slabs of sound to emerge from the teen clubs and VFW halls of '60s America, on the same exalted level as A Session with the Remains. It's also the sound of four kids growing up together through music: one of my favorite stories of all.

The opening triptych of instrumentals show them finding their musical feet. "Irrational" is a rather hamfisted take on the blues, but still shows imagination in the tempo change it employs. "Wayfaring Stranger" is also clever, a hootenanny staple that the Rationals probably heard a lot around their sleepy college town during the folk boom, recast in a surf style. "Strawberry Jam" is a step forward, with guitarist Steve Correll using a sharper, more trebly tone as he cranks out the Chuck Berry-via-Keef-Richards double-stops.

As 1965 progressed, Scott Morgan got up the nerve to sing, and they started writing vocal numbers in the same mold as the Beatles, Kinks, and Zombies of the time. "Look What You're Doing To Me Baby," the B-side of their first single, incorporates some hallmarks of early Kinkdom -- the VII-I chord change, the racka-racka rhythm guitar. "Someday" and "Be My Girl" feature jangling 12-string and showcase Morgan, Correll, and bassist Terry Trabandt's developing facility for harmonized vocals. On the latter tune, you can hear them moving toward the kind of R&B testifyin' that would soon become their stock in trade. Curiously, the least distinguished original here is "Gave My Love," their first single's A-side.

Turn the record over and you get to hear second single "Feelin' Lost" sans vocals, which only throws the song's interesting Beatlesque chord progression into more dramatic relief. "I Want To Walk With You" is another early vocal original which was demoed at college ratio station WBCN, and one of my favorite tracks on the album.

Things start to toughen up with a cover of "Gloria" that holds its own against Them's original and the Shadows of Knights hit cover. I originally encountered the next two tracks on the late-'90s Michigan Mayhem garage compilation (thanks, Larry Harrison!). "I Need You" isn't the Chuck Jackson cover the Rationals released on Capitol in 1968. Rather, it's an explosive Kinks cover, complete with raging guitar solo. "Little Girls Cry," the flipside of "Feelin' Lost," was penned by the Rationals' fellow Pioneer High alum Deon Jackson, who went on to soul-singing success with "Love Makes the World Go 'Round." The medley of "Smokestack Lightning" and "Inside Looking Out" that closes the album applies some psychedelic spice to Brit Invasion-inspired material, showing the clear influence of the Butterfield Blues Band's East-West.

By '67, the Rationals had abandoned Brit Invasion copyism for a garage soul sound, with Morgan and Correll trading lead vocals a la the Righteous Brothers, Sam & Dave, or the Temptations' tonsil-tearing tandem of Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin. Out On the Floor -- Ace/Palao's attempt at assembling a simulacrum of A-Soulin' We Go with the Rationals, another Holland concept that never made it even as far as the Fan Club Album -- documents this phase neatly, kicking off with "Leaving Here," one of two version the Rationals recorded of the Eddie Holland hit that was also covered by Brit Mod R&B plunderers like the Who and the Birds.

The remainder of Side One is given over to bawlin' and screamin' Stax-style Southern fried soul, including "Turn On," recorded as a promotion for a local clothing store; a rather lugubrious and literal cover of "Knock On Wood;" and a hot version of Little Richard's "Poor Dog (Can't Wag His Own Tail)," sung by Correll, that encapsulates all the best elements of the Rationals' approach to this style.

Side Two finds the Rationals in more of a vocal harmony-rich Northern soul bag -- their great strength, to these feedback-scorched ears -- opening with the aforementioned Chuck Jackson hit "I Need You." The dance-jam "Listen To Me" is next, and my favorite track on the album. "Temptation 'Bout To Get Me," an earlier version of the Knight Bros. hit that was a highlight of the Crewe LP, is just as fine here, while the versions of "Sunset" and "Ha Ha," also re-cut for that album, don't hold up to the Crewe versions, their arrangements not quite fully developed at this point.

While I find Out On the Floor a tad less magical than the Fan Club Album, there's still a lot to like in its grooves. And the joy of finally possessing the Fan Club Album in vinyl form is indescribable.


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