CATALOG CRAWL: RARE EARTH, Part 3 (1973-1976)

As the mid-’70s approached, Rare Earth hit a rough patch on more than one level. They deferred to Motown’s heavy-handed A&R approach after an attempt at artistic indepdence with Willie Remembers, only for the label to find no greater commercial success for them. They could still knock ’em dead on the concert stage but interpersonal conflicts were burning out a band that had been working too hard for too long. What resulted was a split where Pete Rivera and Mike Urso left the band. Gil Bridges picked up the mantle to continue the Rare Earth name, only to end up in a lengthy, costly lawsuit with the ex-members.

Despite all the professional chaos, the Rare Earth name soldiered on via three more studio releases during these troubled years. This Catalog Crawl is devoted to these underappreciated recordings, which include two productions by the legendary Norman Whitfield. Give this trio of albums a spin and you might be surprised what kind of funked-up rock goodies you might discover…

Members: Peter “Pete Rivera” Hoorelbeke (lead vocals/drums – album 1), Jerry LaCroix (lead vocals – albums 2 & 3), Gil Bridges (sax/flute/backing vocals), Mark Olson (keyboards – album 1), Gabriel Katona (keyboards – album 2), Frank Westbrook (keyboards – album 3), Mike Urso (bass/backing vocals – album 1), Reggie McBride (bass – album 2 & 3), Ray Monette (lead guitars/backing vocals), Paul Warren (guitar – album 2), Eddie Guzman (percussion), Barry “Frosty” Smith (drums – album 2)

MA (1973): after allowing Willie Remembers to die on the vine, Motown reasserted its authority by hustling the band back into the studio under the full control of Norman Whitfield. They also didn’t get to write anything this go-round as Whitfield provided all material. The result wasn’t the restorative hit Motown sought but is well-regarded by the band’s fans nonetheless. The side-length title track is surprisingly subtle in its ensemble work, establishing a groove that has multiple textures without letting up, and Rivera provides the most theatrical and thrilling lead vocal of his career. The second side’s no slouch either: there’s an eerie, acoustic redux in downtempo style of “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” a thrilling high-octane funk take on “Hum Along And Dance” built on chicken-scratch guitar plus percussive horn bursts and the swagger of “Big John Is My Name” fits the band so well it practically feels like their anthem. The band plays the hand they were dealt with style, digging into each track with gusto, and Whitfield’s production is both hard-hitting and audiophile in its clarity.

BACK TO EARTH (1975): the first album without Rivera takes a mellow approach, downplaying the tough funk/rock hybrid of the past for a smoother, pop-friendly version of their sound that incorporates a lighter touch with soul and jazz. Vocalist LaCroix’s blend of blue-eyed soul and southern grit makes him a comfortable fit for the slick yet earthy sounds here, best exemplified by funky shuffle “Keepin’ Me Out Of The Storm,” where his exuberant, gospel-tinged work on the verses gives way to a gently soaring group-harmonized chorus, and “It Makes You Happy (But It Ain’t Gonna Last Too Long),” a philosophical life lament built on a gently pumping groove reminiscent of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”  Some of the other material is underwritten (“Boogie With Me Children” and “Let Me Be Your Sunshine” feel more like vamps than fully realized songs) but the playing is strong throughout, as are LaCroix’s soulful vocals. Unexpected surprises: the pop-jazz instrumental “Walking Schtick” and the double-time drums and prominent synths of “City Life.” Mid-tier stuff but rich with that mid-’70s vibe.

MIDNIGHT LADY (1976): the second and final album with LaCroix reunites the band with Whitfield for another of his sonic auteur ventures, dressing up the band with female backing vocals and some of his fixations (orchestrations, “rhythm box” drum machines). Thus, it’s not as a pure of a showcase for the band’s playing as Ma but it still has a rocked-up, funky edge that suits them: the relentless “Do It Right” is an effective synthesis of the band’s ability to groove with Whitfield’s ‘big sound’ production tactics and a killer cover of “He Who Picks A Rose” feels like the Rare Earth version of Stax soul, topped with an exuberant LaCroix lead vocal. There’s also an element of streetwise sleaze adding flavor here: the disco-tinged title track is about a guy in love with a streetwalker and heavy blues shuffle “Finger Lickin’ Good” is told from the perspective of a horndog who likens a desirable woman to a plate of KFC. It’s a solid groover throughout, particularly on the epic funk-rock jam finale “Wine Women And Song.”

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