Monday, September 26, 2011

Indistinct Fleetwood Mac: Then Play On Is Another Early, Unmemorable Album By The Band.

The Good: Some decent instrumentals
The Bad: Utterly unremarkable vocals and lyrics, Short.
The Bottom Line: Disappointing and musically bland, Then Play On is a blues-based Fleetwood Mac album that is indistinct and easy to pass by.

The other day, as she was eagerly listening to songs she liked from one of the Shania Twain albums I had in for review for my Artist Of The Month, my wife smiled at me and asked, "Given the way that you listen to these albums over and over again for review, does that mean you memorize them?" To which, my response was, "For the most part, yes, so long as they are memorable and distinct. And it works more like being able to quickly recognize them than, say, being able to sing them back or hum the tune." Still, she seemed somewhat impressed and I realized that by immersing myself in a different artist each month, I am gaining an extensive musical knowledge.

There is irony here, then, in the fact that Then Play On arrived on my doorstep after I had finished my exploration of the music of Fleetwood Mac and as I listened to it, I realized that most of the works on their early albums that I had reviewed left utterly no impression with me. Moreover, after two dozen listens, I could not tell anyone a single song on Then Play On. Looking at the track listing, I'm coming up blank each and every time. The reason for this is simple; Then Play On is not a wonderful album and the songs monotonously drone from one to another as the album goes on with little definition between the tracks and it is near-impossible for me to muster up the interest to even consider this album in a scholarly context. In the shortest possible terms; this is a real easy "not recommend."

With thirteen songs clocking out at 54:08, it seems like Then Play On would be a decent value, despite the fact that it does not fill the entire compact disc. This album is the creation of the 1969 incarnation of Fleetwood Mac, which was John McVie and Mick Fleetwood (of course!) with Peter Green, Danny Kirwan and John Spencer. Christine Perfect (later McVie) provides backing vocals on at least one song. The quintet wrote all thirteen songs, provides the primary vocals for all of the tracks that have lyrics and they play their own instruments. As well, Fleetwood Mac is credited as producing the album, so it is hard to say this is anything but the musical vision of the band at that time in their career.

Unfortunately, that musical vision is both stronger on the instrumentals as well as more monotonous in the same field. This incarnation of Fleetwood Mac is producing blues-based pop-rock and with the men harmonizing on songs like "Like Crying" and creating tunes that are mostly pluckings and strummings over and over again. Indeed, Then Play On is heavy with the bass of John McVie, much like later albums would prioritize the drumming of Mick Fleetwood. As a result of heavy bass on songs like "Before The Beginning," the album resonates with a darker, more murky sound than the later works. There is no hint of upbeat-sounding pop here, it is throbbing, dank and moody blues-rock that has a smoky sound to it. Indeed, this is music presented through a haze.

On Then Play On, Fleetwood Mac even does some songs that are solely instrumental. "Searching For Madge" and "Fighting For Madge" are two back-to-back instrumental tracks that are the band's rock-based Classical songs. The bass-dominated "Searching For Madge" is moody and weird, while the percussion-based "Fighting For Madge" is much more frenetic and there is the sense of danger and hazards in its presentation. "Underway" is also instrumental and the album opens with the guitars plucked out with Mick Fleetwood banging the bongos pretty fast ("Coming Your Way").

Vocally, Green and Kirwan dominate the album with their smooth vocals, but more often than highlighting either man alone, they are harmonizing through the songs. They articulate their moody lyrics adequately, but unfortunately are not singing the world's most interesting lyrics, not by any means. Then Play On is plagued by repetition made worse by predictable rhyme schemes. Take, for example, "Like Crying," which is only 2:21, and has the lines "She's got so much blues / Her best friend can't help her / Her best friend's a woman / How can a woman help her / Woman's got the blues / She just feels like crying / She just feels like dying / Woman's got the blues." The song is very simple lyrically and repeating those last three lines over and over again does nothing to accent the point of the song in any meaningful way.

But the murky instrumental accompaniment does fit the lyrics well-enough. On "Although The Sun Is Shining," the men sing "Although the sun is shining / High above / There's one thing on my mind / You my love / I see a weeping willow / In the park / Like this There's sadness growing / In my heart" and the moody lyrics mirror the heavy bass in the song. The track is well-harmonized and the deceptively upbeat chords that open the song make Kirwan's stark vocals seem almost ironic. This track has an almost "Simon and Garfunkel" quality to it.

But the entire album is not just depressing. Instead, Peter Green - who would leave after this album to join a fundamental group that is now widely regarded as a cult - infuses some of the songs with a sense of spirituality. It was Green who wrote and performed the lines "Now it's the same as before / And I'm alone again / With no sorrow for myself / And I'm blaming no one else / And closing my eyes / And seeing you standing there / Now it's the same as before / You've touched me with your love / And though you're in my heart / We're still a world apart / As now I'm back to the time / Where I would search for a dream / But no use to try anymore as before / Someday I'll die, and maybe then I'll be with you" ("Closing My Eyes") which have obvious spiritual undertones to them.

But even the few forceful tracks, like "Rattlesnake Shake" end up only mildly breaking up the monotony of Then Play On. I notice that song when it comes up on the album, but the vocals are drown out by guitar accents and poppy hand claps that make the song more blase than spectacular. It makes Then Play On a mix of songs that academically one thinks ought to be memorable, but aurally blend together into fifty-some minutes of musical mush.

The best track is the instrumental "Searching For Madge," the low point is . . . well, pretty much the rest of the album.

For other Fleetwood Mac albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Mr. Wonderful
Kiln House
Future Games
Bare Trees
Tango In The Night
Behind The Mask
The Dance
The Very Best Of Fleetwood Mac
Say You Will


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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