Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review: 'Steve Miller Band Ultimate Hits'


The Steve Miller Band made some of the most simplistically pleasurable hits of the seventies.  Yet Steve Millers career is a complicated wad of contradictions. Before becoming a superstar for making zillions with conservative pop like “The Joker”, “Jet Airliner”, and “Take the Money and Run”, he was a cosmic bluesman in the West Coast underground scene. He became a major superstar despite being almost completely faceless. Although his songs have shamelessly ripped off Cream, Joe Walsh, The Mamas and the Papas, Free, and even himself (“Fly Like an Eagle” recycles the riff of 1969’s “My Dark Hour”, and “Take the Money and Run” recycles everything but the lyrics of 1969’s “Kow Kow Calculator), the songs somehow transcend that issue. In other words, listening to “Rocky Mountain Way” doesn’t really scratch the same itch that “The Stake” does. Despite the fact that his music doesn’t even have the emotional core of hits by similar seventies megastars such as Fleetwood Mac and Elton John, those songs have connected with millions of people. Seemingly everyone born before 1975 has had the original Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-78 in her or his record collection at some time.

The interesting thing about the new compilation Ultimate Hits is how it attempts to sort through those contradictions. The set attempts to put a face on Miller by beginning not with his hits, but his personal history and voice. It begins with a short audio clip recorded during his childhood in which an older relative tells him he has a great voice and will find great success with it (the tuneless “la la las” that follow drop a hilarious punch line on the clip). Next up is a live version of “Gangster of Love” that begins with three minutes of Miller’s personal monologue on a background that is actually quite extraordinary: his godfather was Les Paul, who taught Miller his first few chords, and T Bone Walker continued that education.

After those four minutes of speech that effectively humanizes the hit machine, we get into a semi-chronological trip through the early psychedelic blues (though much of it is presented in live versions from later in his career), hey-day hits, slightly new wavey eighties period, and more recent recordings that forces listeners to hear beyond the 1974-78 radio-focused compartmentalization of the old Greatest Hits. Miller does not emerge from this set on the same level as the most individual artists of his generation, nor even as potent as Fleetwood Mac or Elton John—he’s too dependent on the musical ideas of others and too emotionless for that—but it does draw a more complete portrait of the real human behind the hits than any previous compilation. And more importantly, “The Joker”, “Jet Airliner”, “Take the Money and Run”, and the rest are still pleasing to hear forty years on.
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