MESSAGE FROM THE COUNTRY – THE MOVE: Beating The Contractual Obligation Album Odds

Rock and roll developed within a cage provided by the music business, which attempted to apply a sense of traditional order to an art form designed to overthrow the natural order.  For example, the lifespan of a group often didn’t conform to the lifecycle preferred by the record company.  The label would either try to cut off a group before they were ready or, even worse, threaten them with legal hassles to squeeze out a little extra product when they were ready to throw in the towel.

Thus, the history of rock and roll is littered with a variety of “contractual obligation” albums, either thrown together from studio scraps after a band flew the coop or extorted out of performers yearning for freedom from their contract.  Such albums are often desultory affairs but occasionally they can be magical, particularly if the band involved is so proud of their work that they rally their forces to storm the bars of that music biz-imposed cage.

The latter is exactly what The Move did on their final album, Message From The Country.  Founder Roy Wood and cohort Jeff Lynne were fulfilling a final album obligation as they simultaneously laid down tracks for the first Electric Light Orchestra album.  The results shared a good amount of creative DNA with the E.L.O. debut but had enough differences to stand on their own and provide a fitting coda to the Move’s short but potent career as album artists.

By the time of Message From The Country, The Move had traveled through a variety of sonic styles: mod-flavored R&B, psychedelic pop, progressive rock and even a healthy dose of proto-metal.  They were comfortable leaping from one genre to the next and that’s exactly what they do here: songs like “Until Your Mama’s Gone” and “Ella James” rock hard while tracks like “No Time” have a fragile, eerie sense of the psychedelic.  There’s even a tongue-in-cheek doo wop song (“Don’t Mess Me Up”), a Johnny Cash-styled country track (“The Ben Crawley Steel Company”) and a fun album closer that goes all the way back to pre-rock dance band sounds (“My Marge”).

However, Message From The Country never sounds like a group trying to throw a bunch of styles at the wall to find out what sticks.  In fact, it actually coheres quite well because Wood and Lynne did most of the instrumental and vocal tracking themselves, bringing a nice consistency to the performances of each genre exploration.  Drummer Bev Bevan’s hard-hitting stickwork aids and abets the instrumental consistency – and he also wrote “Don’t Mess Me Up” as well as supplying the basso profundo lead vocal on “The Ben Crawley Steel Company.”

The end result has the genre-hopping complexity of a late-period Beatles album or a mid-’70s Queen classic but, like those albums, the skill of the performances give the finished product a sense of focus that keeps it all together. Wood and Lynne show off their melodic chops, their sense of humor and monolithic stacks of Beatle-esque vocal harmonies throughout the track list, making Message From The Country a fitting coda for an ambitious band whose efforts still shine decades after the fact.

CD Notes: The contents of Message From The Country have been reissued countless times since their original release, often in compilations that mix and match the album’s tracks with a handful of single-only tracks from the same era.  Schlockmania recommends the 2005 CD version, which has the full album plus all the single-only tracks from the era and a fistful of alternate versions.

Having those singles thrown in is key, as they represent some of best pop Wood And Lynne ever wrote: “Do Ya,” “Down On The Bay,” “Chinatown,” “Tonight,” and “California Man” were all a huge influence on the power pop that would come later in the ’70s.  If you’ve never heard them, you’re in for a bonanza of riffs and hooks.

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