WISHBONE ASH – WISHBONE FOUR: Drifting Into The Arena-Rock Weeds

After waxing the classic Argus, Wishbone Ash found themselves a short distance from becoming one of the world’s top rock bands.  Wishbone Four was the follow-up and showed they weren’t afraid to defy expectations: the songs became simpler, trademark elements like dual guitar leads and vocal harmonies were stripped back to a large degree and the band cut loose producer Derek Lawrence and engineer Martin Birch to self-produce for the first time. The resulting album got a mixed response and is second only to Locked In as the most controversial album of their classic MCA Records era.

The changes announce themselves on the opening cut: “So Many Things To Say” throws out the dual guitar approach in favor of a focus on slide guitar by Ted Turner and boasts a strained attempt at a heavy rock lead vocal by Martin Turner.  “Ballad Of The Beacon” hews closer to their strengths with its English-folk-gets-amplified approach but further experimentation is heard on “No Easy Road,” a remixed prior single that boasts a new horn section, and “Everybody Needs A Friend,” an epic ballad with plush mellotron lacing its arrangement. The latter has become a favorite with some fans but has a rather maudlin lyric and another curiously overdone vocal from Turner.

The second side is a bit more consistent. “Doctor” is a drug-themed rocker that would go on to become a big stage favorite and “Sorrel” is another folk-styled cut that has the best use of classic Wishbone Ash dual-guitar parts on the album. “Sing Out The Song” is a bit controversial with fans for replacing the band’s folk leanings with country rock (lots of slide guitar here) but it’s one of the more successful experiments with the band’s sound. “Rock & Roll Widow” closes things out with a sobering account of a shooting outside a concert and makes the best use of Ted Turner’s slide guitar.

The result feels like a band at war with itself.  The songs are pretty solid if simpler than what came before and several would become concert favorites. The problem lies in the delivery. The band plays against their strengths in the arrangements all too often (“No Easy Road” feels like a generic Stones knockoff) and the self-production is shockingly muddled. Turner would blame a bad mastering job for the album’s eccentric sound but there are also bizarre mixing choices and the band’s energy just feels muted. As an exercise, compare the way Wishbone Four‘s songs sound on any official live album versus this one. The live versions offer a dramatic improvement in energy and power, a sad testament to the way Wishbone Four stumbles when it should soar.  

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