Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Willy And The Poor Boys: Classic Rock Done Well!

The Good: Lyrics, Vocals, Lack of production elements
The Bad: Instrumentally limited, SHORT
The Basics: Despite its short duration and instrumental limitations, Willy And The Poor Boys makes for a decent album.

For those who follow my reviews, it might seem strange that all of a sudden I would be reviewing an album by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I'm not saying that because I am an unabashed liberal and Creedence seems to have a lot of Southern Rock flavor to it (they are remarkably progressive, so that's pretty cool!). Rather the bulk of artists I listen to and review are female, especially for folk-rock music. Truth be told, I'm listening to Creedence for a woman.

It's not like that. One of the sites I belong to on-line is a wonderful little artist's community called Elftown and while I was on there skulking around, I met a young woman whose profile had some wonderfully baffling contradictions. So, I messaged her and we got to talking about language, the origins of rap music - I was plugging Fear Of A Black Planet by Public Enemy -, the concept of Take Back The Word, and our lists of favorite musical artists. When she saw the range of music I enjoyed, she insisted I pick up some Creedence Clearwater Revival, especially because they were so strongly antiwar with the song "Fortunate Son." So, tool that I am, I said "sure" and then I actually followed through and found two Creedence Clearwater Revival albums at my local library. My recent trip down to Florida and back (and since) has given me ample time to listen to them and so today, I begin with Willy And The Poor Boys.

With ten tracks, clocking in at a paltry 35:03, Willy And The Poor Boys is the fourth album by Creedence Clearwater Revival and the album that has two of the band's most recognizable songs, "Down On The Corner" and "Fortunate Son." The quartet is largely responsible for this work and they make sure that is well known; nine of the ten tracks were written by lead singer John Fogerty and he provides the lead guitar and vocal. All ten of the tracks are arranged and produced by Fogerty as well and the other three members of the band pick up the other instrumentals. In other words, this is largely - if not wholly - the musical vision of John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival and not some record company.

It is a decent musical vision, too, despite the short duration of the album. There is a whole Classic Rock/Southern Rock feel to the album, meaning that it is dominated by guitars, slightly twangy vocals and has an unproduced, standing out on the porch sound and feel to the sound. Willy And The Poor Boys might have been mainstream rock and roll when it was released back in 1969, but now it is definitely an album that occupies the weird niche along the border of rock and roll, folk rock and classic country. And for an album that is dominated by the musical vision of John Fogerty, perhaps the greatest irony is that my favorite track is the one cover song the group performs, "Cotton Fields." Yes, as someone who generally loathes Country ("Cotton Fields" charted on the Country charts back in the day) it surprises even me, but it's a fun little ditty and it is pretty rockin' for Country.

What gets me is the simplicity and charm of the lyrics and the musical storytelling of "Cotton Fields." Fogerty uses an almost ethnic Southern drawl when he sings "When I was a little bitty baby / My mama would rock me in the cradle, / In them old cotton fields back home / It was down in Louisiana, / Just about a mile from Texarkana, / In them old cotton fields back home / Oh, when them cotton bolls get rotten / You can't pick very much cotton, / In them old cotton fields back home" ("Cotton Fields"). And the song just sounds good and there is a strange, wholesome quality to it.

And this is not the exception to the rule on this album. Creedence Clearwater Revival presents songs that are strongly anti-war, about the joys of the simplicity of life and performing ("Down On The Corner"), and social commentary about rebellion ("Effigy"). Perhaps the most intriguing track lyrically, though is the most original, the one that made me sit up and say "That's different." Yes, Creedence Clearwater Revival sings about UFOs. It's clever and different and it pops up as a song that one has to listen to a couple times just to be sure we're not making it up ourselves. But it is quite clear when the band sings, "Oh, it came out of the sky, landed just a little south of moline. / Jody fell out of his tractor, couldn't believe what he seen. . . /Well, a crowd gathered 'round and a scientist said it was marsh gas. / Spiro came and made a speech about raising the Mars tax. / The vatican said, woe, the lord has come. / Hollywood rushed out an epic film. / And ronnie the popular said it was a communist plot" ("It Came Out Of The Sky"). And no, there's nothing deeper going on here - other than what each group takes the object to mean - it's a song about a UFO that has fallen to Earth. It's quirky, it's clever and most of all, it is different, which earns pretty big points in my book.

The thing that my new friend got me into Creedence Clearwater Revival with was a discussion of the song "Fortunate Son." She was talking about how it is often used as a jingoistic tune, a kind of "rally the troops" song and I found that surprising. After all, Fogerty's lyrics like "Some folks are born made to wave the flag, / Ooh, they're red, white and blue. / And when the band plays hail to the chief, / Ooh, they point the cannon at you, lord . . . / Some folks inherit star spangled eyes, / Ooh, they send you down to war, lord, / And when you ask them, how much should we give? / Ooh, they only answer more" ("Fortunate Son") make it seem pretty obvious to me that the group - or at least Fogerty - is strongly anti-war. There is no honor or glory to be had here; this is a song about the potential of getting slaughtered because one does not have the connections to get out of it. It's a brilliant anthem fighting the draft and war in general and it is shocking that it could be hijacked by anyone for a pro-war cause. Then again . . . Born In The U.S.A. was hijacked, too, wasn't it?

Outside the surprisingly well written lyrics, Willy And The Poor Boys is a little more limited than I would like. Vocally, the album is very much a showcase of a niche of Fogerty's range and the group's ability to harmonize. John Fogerty has a slightly scratchy, fairly low (but not bass) voice that is not quite clearly enunciating all of his lines. Instead, his voice frequently sounds like there is a little feedback to it, despite the lack of production to it.

This is not to say the vocals are bad. They are not; they are just a bit limited. They fall in a very small, very masculine range and there is little vocal differentiation track to track. On more emotive songs like "Fortunate Son," Fogerty sounds more like he is shouting out the lines as opposed to singing. Conversely, his smoother vocals on "It Came Out Of The Sky" and "The Midnight Special" prove he has the ability to sing and articulate his own lines well while doing it.

Perhaps the most limited aspect of Willy And The Poor Boys are the instrumentals. This is a guitar-driven band with three types of guitars and drums. As a result, there is little differentiation between the tracks musically. To be fair, there is the harmonica on the (mostly) instrumental track "Poorboy Shuffle."

Largely, the album is defined by easy strumming of guitars and there is a porch band quality to the sound of the various songs that is not expanded upon. The group sounds like the Classic Rock equivalent of a garage band. That is not bad, but combined with how short the songs are (they average under three minutes each), the album does not hold up well over multiple listens.

Ultimately, I think there is value to Willy And The Poor Boys, but it is hugely disappointing that when the album was released on c.d. it was not combined with another (equally short) album to make better use out of the c.d. medium. This is worth the listens to anyone who likes Classic rock, classic Country or folk music.

The best track is "Cotton Fields," the low point is the unmemorable "Don't Look Now."

For other classic rock albums, check out:
Chronicle - Creedence Clearwater Revival
Covers - James Taylor
Best Of The Bee Gees - The Bee Gees


For other music reviews, be sure to visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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