CATALOG CRAWL: RARE EARTH, Part 4 (1977-1978)

The reunion of Rare Earth at the end of the ’70s was something no one expected, the band members least of all. The mid-’70s was eaten up for everyone involved with a long, expensive legal fight over the rights to the band’s name.  It wound down with a whimper instead of a bang, with the various ex-band members in debt despite constant work in concert and on record. Thus, it must have felt like a light at the end of the tunnel when veteran Motown record man Barney Ales started up a new sublabel called Prodigal and turned to the former Rare Earth-ers to suggest a reunion.

What resulted was a trio of albums, all of which are covered in this installment of Catalog Crawl. It was a different time for Rare Earth, one that is controversial amongst the group’s fans because the band had little-to-no control over their commercial direction and seldom were allowed to write any material for their own albums. They also continued to be treated like workhorses: most notably, the final two albums here were drawn from one epic three-week session of back-to-back recordings.  Despite such caveats, some interesting and underappreciated music emerged from this era of Rare Earth so read on for an exploration of this oft-underappreciated era…

Members: Peter “Pete Rivera” Hoorelbeke (lead vocals/drums), Gil Bridges (sax/flute/backing vocals), Mark Olson (keyboards – albums 2 & 3), Mike Urso (bass), Ray Monette (lead guitars/backing vocals – albums 2 & 3), Eddie Guzman (percussion)

RARE EARTH (1977): the reunion album tamps down the band’s rock side and pushes them towards slick, pop-friendly funk in a late ’70s vein like Con Funk Shun or the Bar-Kays, utilizing a slate of material mostly written by Motown staffers. It’s a far cry from the crunching jams of old but a mostly solid listen if you like this style: “Is Your Teacher Cool?” is a percolating bit of social commentary that capitalizes on the band’s ability to groove and “Share My Love” is a silky ballad that gets a funk pulse from the band. There are a few duff tracks on the second side – “I Really Love You” is a generic, forgettable ballad anyone could have done and “Ah Dunno” is a throwaway jam with novelty vocals – but everything is performed with skill by this reliable outfit and given high fidelity production by the team of Calvin Harris and James Carmichael. Lone concession to the band’s funk-rock past: “Tin Can People,” a Gloria Jones cover with fire in its vocals and arrangement.

BAND TOGETHER (1978): album #1 of 1978 shifts from pop-funk to high energy, sometimes blue-eyed soul with disco undertones and orchestral embellishments. The purists who prefer the band’s early sound aren’t likely to be swayed but the chosen formula works well. The band applies consistently impressive chops to the of-the-moment stylistic choices: the Bee Gees-penned “Warm Ride” is a killer pop disco single that benefits from the complex, organic groove that band creates for it  and a lushly orchestrated dance cover of Marvin Gaye’s “You” is fueled by an irresistable Latin-accented groove and a thrilling lead vocal.  Even the more formulaic numbers have inspired touches, like a surprisingly heavy guitar solo in the pop-soul “Love Do Me Right” and an ethereal, string-laden pre-chorus bridge that catches the ear in “Maybe The Magic.” John Ryan’s production is appropriately slick but fully capitalizes on the many textures the band can deliver.  Unexpected but welcome changes of pace: the pensive, elegant balladry of “Dreamer,” which features a grandly emotive vocal from Rivera, and the vintage funk rock of “Mota Molata.”

GRAND SLAM (1978): album #2 of 1978 follows the previous one’s template, right down to the presence of another Gibb-penned tune (the bouncy if lightweight “Save Me, Save Me”), only this time there are no band-penned tunes. The result lacks the track-to-track consistency of Band Together but has some worthwhile moments for devotees. The best originals are “You Got My Love,” a sugary-sweet duet between Rivera and guest Tata Vega that is lifted by their spirited vocals, and “I Can Feel My Love Rising,” a midtempo groover with another powerhouse Rivera vocal. The band also returns to its roots with no less than four covers: the yacht rock ballad take on “When A Man Loves A Woman” is a miss but there is a surprisingly heavy take on “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” an ambitious version of “I Wish It Would Rain” that spices up its funky ballad style with a rocked-up coda and a good-timey “Stop Her On Sight” that should have been a hit. Formula stuff overall but the band’s always-lively chops lend some substance.

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