CATALOG CRAWL: RARE EARTH, Part 1 (1968-1970)

It’s easy to forget how groundbreaking an act Rare Earth actually was. They were at the vanguard of Motown’s short-lived push into the rock and roll market and came up with a successful way to combine rock and soul in a way that pleased audiences of both styles. Their “people’s band” approach to music often put them at odds with Motown, who were reluctant to give up on the assembly line approach to hit-making they pioneered, but Rare Earth still managed to produce a lengthy string of albums in the ’70s.

Those oft-ignored albums are the basis for this Catalog Crawl, which begins with a look at Rare Earth’s first three long players. They actually recorded their first album for Verve in a pop-friendly, psych-oriented style that was different in key aspects from what would followed. The other two albums represent the bedrock of their commercial success, producing a couple of hits while also boasting the long-form jams that would endear them to underground FM programmers and arena rock audiences alike.

Members: Peter “Pete Rivera” Hoorelbeke (lead vocals/drums), Gil Bridges (sax/flute/backing vocals), Kenny James (keyboards), John Persh (bass/trombone/backing vocals), Rod Richards (lead guitars/backing vocals), Eddie Guzman (percussion)

DREAMS/ANSWERS (1968): this oft-overlooked debut plays like an alternate reality version of Rare Earth. Producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore exert tight control here, keeping songs in a radio-friendly three minute range and adding a lot of orchestration and psychedelic sound effects. The end result sounds like a blue-eyed soul band version of the Association: “Mother’s Oats” wraps a few quick moments of acid-rock freakout in a tightly-crafted slice of vocal harmony pop, “New Rochelle” is a dead ringer for the kind of romantic confessional ballads you’d hear on a Fifth Dimension album and a clever medley of “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Stop In The Name Of Love” is tarted up with a spoken poetry intro and plenty of harpsichord. However, you can hear the band’s funk-rock potential sneaking out on the taut rhythms of the Snow White-referencing “Red Apple” and a shorter, pop-structured early version of their famous “Get Ready” cover that nonetheless grooves like mad. Different from the rest of the catalog but an enjoyable, slickly-crafted late ’60s period piece in its own right.

GET READY (1969): the group’s self-produced Motown debut was recorded in one week’s worth of after-hours sessions.  The result was a career-defining success that went platinum and produced a top-five single. Part of that was being the right album at the right time with its distinctive rock/soul hybrid but it remains a great portrait of the band’s abilities. The side-length title track became a favorite for FM radio deejays who needed a ’20 minutes and change’ break but it’s worth noting how melodic it is for a jam-driven track: everyone gets a solo that plays like a little composition unto itself, one rolling out after another in a way that keeps the ever-rolling groove engaging. The first side is no slouch, either: a Lou Rawls-inspired cover of “Tobacco Road” has a jazz-tinged slinkiness but also incorporates rock tension-and-release dynamics in a skillful way while “In Bed” is an excellent blue-eyed soul piece written by future producer Tom Baird that should’ve been a single. It has a vintage vibe but has aged skillfully thanks to its lack of artifice.

ECOLOGY (1970): the group stretches out from the psych-spiked funk rock style established on the last album, with producer Tom Baird bringing in several of his original tunes for them to tackle: seeker’s anthem “Born To Wander” finds a meeting point between Woodstock rock and soul music grooving while “Satisfaction Guaranteed” amps up its funky lover man’s pitch with fuzz guitar stings. However, Motown wanted to keep that “Get Ready” mojo so they brought in Norman Whitfield to produce a cover of “(I Know) I’m Losing You”: the result is a grand 11-minute peaks-and-valleys epic fueled by Funkadelic-style heavy jamming that maintains a coiled tension even in its quieter moments. A cover of “Eleanor Rigby” falters in comparison but overall the album shows a band equally conversant in rock and soul, able to mix both with confidence. It’s worth noting there’s also a dash of jazz in the mix here: listen out for “Long Time Leavin’,” a mellow bit of rocked-up soul that has a coda where sax player Bridges takes the listener into some Santana-esque fusion territory.

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