Charlie is an AOR act who found them­selves in the strange posi­tion of build­ing a large body of work with­out ever achiev­ing the kind of large-scale suc­cess that usu­al­ly makes that pos­si­ble.  Despite man­age­ment has­sles and a lot of record-label turnover, they issued a string of albums that made them a cult favorite with­in cer­tain cir­cles of AOR fans.  The rea­son why is sim­ple: they were good at what they did, man­ag­ing to fill their albums with well-writ­ten and skill­ful­ly record­ed tunes that would have brought them main­stream suc­cess if the busi­ness side of things had worked out bet­ter.

Fantasy Girls was their debut effort and inter­est­ing­ly, it’s the least AOR-sound­ing of the bunch.  It’s a sur­pris­ing­ly hard-rock­ing affair, with the gui­tars placed front and cen­ter in the mix and plen­ty of solos and rif­fery to please the air-gui­tarists in the audi­ence.  Indeed, tunes like “T.V. Dreams” and “Don’t Let Me Down” have a hard-charg­ing, over­driven qual­i­ty to their gui­tar attack.  There’s also a cer­tain fond­ness for boo­gie-rock stylings in the Foghat/Status Quo vein, albeit record­ed in less ham­mer­head­ed man­ner.  The title track is a per­fect exam­ple of the lat­ter ten­den­cy, which spruces up its famil­iar boo­gie rhythms with nim­ble, melod­ic gui­tar work.

Part of this heav­i­ness comes from the way it is pro­duced.  The pro­duc­tion chores were han­dled by Roy Thomas Baker pro­tégé Mike Stone, who would soon be engi­neer­ing ses­sions for Queen and would also even­tu­al­ly go on to pro­duce are­na-friend­ly fare for the likes of Journey and Asia.  He acquits him­self nice­ly here, pre­sent­ing the gui­tar-cen­tric tunes with plen­ty of Marshall-stack bom­bast but also show­ing a nice atten­tion to vocal har­monies and blend­ing acoustic gui­tars in with their elec­tric brethren.  Fantasy Girls has a rough edge that oth­er Charlie albums don’t have thanks to its gui­tar-cen­tric style but it works given the embry­on­ic, rocked-up mate­ri­al on dis­play here.

However, hints of the group’s soon-to-be-real­ized AOR lean­ings can be detect­ed in the high lev­el of crafts­man­ship that band lead­er Terry Thomas puts into the writ­ing and arrang­ing of the group’s songs.  None of the­se songs ride their riffs to the break­ing point: instead, they are often arranged like mini-suites, com­plete with mul­ti­ple riffs and elab­o­rate bridges that work in new melodies that change up the song’s pac­ing.  A great exam­ple of this approach is “It’s Your Life,” a hyp­notic num­ber that starts with fast-strummed acoustics, builds into elec­tric riffage and breaks out with a heavy, dou­ble-time mid­sec­tion before return­ing to its ini­tial melody.

It’s also worth not­ing that Charlie shows its pop-hook friend­ly future on a great lit­tle track called “First Class Traveller.”  The wit­ty lyrics present a char­ac­ter por­trait of a man addict­ed to the good life and the music that backs it up is a jaun­ty, acoustic pop affair in the vein of 10cc’s more Beatlesque mate­ri­al.  The use of stacked vocal har­monies is real­ly impres­sive here, with some fun call-and-respon­se bits that inter­act with the lead vocal, and some tasty slide gui­tar work in the Queen style amps up the pomp-pop fac­tor here.

In short, Fantasy Girls is some­thing of a lost minor gem for the AOR set.  While it lacks an obvi­ous break-out sin­gle, every­thing here ben­e­fits from a thor­ough sense of melod­ic crafts­man­ship that sets the stan­dard for future Charlie albums.

(Note: this was reviewed using the recent LP-sleeve CD reis­sue put out by Japanese label Air Mail Recordings.  It’s the first-ever remas­tered ver­sion of this album in the for­mat and the rec­om­mend­ed option for any­one curi­ous enough to buy)