This is where the fans, for some strange reason, really gush all over the band, but I don't get it. As has been established, the debut album caught the band trying to experiment and establish an independent sound. This album doesn't see any experimentation at all! In fact, I bet you anything that even those few potential adepts who took a liking to Gravy Train in 1970 were quickly put off the record - once you put it on, the first thing that hits you in the face is a totally stereotypical soul ballad with Southern rock inclinations, 'Alone In Georgia'. None of that squeaky gloomy guitar tone: gentle flute and strummed acoustic guitar's the word of the day, and if you hated Barrett's vocals on the debut album, well, you're hardly in for a pleasant ride, as this time they're all over the place.
I kinda like 'Alone In Georgia', though, sappy orchestration and all. I just wish it had a different singer - Barrett does try to inject a healthy dose of emotion and passion into his singing, but there's simply something on the most basic of all acoustic levels that spooks people like me off. Otherwise, the song ain't bad at all, with a very strong vocal melody. Hmm, maybe it would be reasonable not to scream it all over the place. Maybe Tim Hardin or someone like that would have made a real gem out of it. Maybe not. Well, at least Barrett manages to hit all the right notes, and the complexity of the vocal melody makes that no mean feat.
Too bad the rest of the ballads simply don't cut it nohow. The album's stupidly divided into a 'softer' and 'harder' side (on the other hand, it's hardly any more stupid than the near-rigid 'ballad'-'rocker'-'ballad'-'rocker' order of Staircase To The Day), and there's just so much unmemorable softness for one person to take. Who permitted the title track to drag on for seven bleeding minutes? Where are the fabulous riffs of yesterday? Why the generic chorus with female singers? I swear, it's songs like these that make me understand all the infamous Uriah Heep connotations, because my first exposure to the band was with their debut album and when I read all the 'if you like Uriah Heep you'll like this band' annotations I thought the world had gone crazy or something. NOW I pretty much understand that, even if '(A Ballad Of) A Peaceful Man' is still WAY too tastefully crafted for Uriah Heep to match it. It just lacks memorability.
Slightly better is 'Jule's Delight', with elements of medieval harmonies this time around and another complex vocal melody which Barrett tackles with grace but I'm still trembling in my knees every time he raises his voice. But seven minutes, once more? The instrumental passages just don't amount to anything more than weak Moody Blues ideas' rehashments, for God's sake. Likewise, I'd rather listen to Gryphon than to Gravy Train if I want something like 'Messenger'. Look, the ballads aren't BAD. They all have potential, but somehow blow it in the wrong place, kinda like Bill Clinton blew HIS in the wrong place, if you know what I mean. There's so much effort on the vocals, and the vocals are the weakest link. When that blistering guitar solo comes on at the end of 'Messenger', it's a small moment of saving grace, but it's only one minute out of twenty minutes of balladeering.
Good thing there's also the 'arder, moodier stuff. This is where the good old riffs make their reappearance and save the day. 'Can Anybody Hear Me' returns the Iommi meets Ian Anderson vibe, with a killer joint guitar-flute riff that welcomes back the Mean Old Hard Rock Vibe. 'Old Tin Box' is almost instrumental and tries to be funky - it fails, I think, but the hilarious sax riff sticks in your head anyway. And 'Won't Talk About It' is FAST! Well, not lightning-speed, but faster than everything else, with a really mean distorted riff and a really mean flute that sings in unison and all that, excellent hookline for sure. The best part of the song is the drumless introduction to the verses - what's that mean moody sneezy isolated 'POM' chord they use to mark the time while the riff is going on? Sometimes one note is enough to elevate a generic heavy rocker to something mystically engaging, and that's that.
Simply the best song on the album, though, is the closer, 'Home Again'. Quiet and atmospheric, dark yet not overbearing, with a half-whispered vocal performance that doesn't irritate in the least, and a Tullish flute solo. The kind of song that I can't really point out as 'innovative', yet it's not like I could pin it as a rip-off of some particular artist. There's just something uniquely frightening about the delivery of the song, something unquietly disturbing - I guess it might be its positioning, a strong well-written number that doesn't get OVERBEARING for a second - not drastically 'soulful' like the first side, nor drastically 'angry' like the second side. Just a perfect moody conclusion to get you intrigued.
So count this as weak 10/strong 9, anyway. And I hope the innumerable legions of Gravy Train fans who have been busy for the last thirty years decorating the walls of the subways with 'NORMAN BARRETT RULEZ' messages that have been pissing the shit out of common well-meaning passengers to the point of boiling over will forgive me for the few words of critique in the direction of the generic ballads and the ugly vocals. It just makes me a little bit angry that the band had so obviously sacrificed the interesting sound of their debut just to make themselves some more followers. And hence, all the dirty subways. Gravy Train fans should all be beaten up by PMRC members, to make way for perfectly decent parent-loving music. Napalm Death, for instance.
All Music Guide