CHARLIE – FANTASY GIRLS: Hard Rock Beginnings For An AOR Cult Fave

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)

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