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Four the Love of Arthur Lee
on August 27, 2007
Love guitarist Johnny Echols is quoted in the CD liner notes of their debut album as saying that Love was at times a less hard-rocking band than they might have envisioned themselves, and that this was due to the influence of co-guitarist Bryan MacLean. This is certainly not a put-down, as MacLean's four contributions to the band - "Softly To Me", "Orange Skies", "Alone Again Or", and "Old Man" - were unique enough to earn him a healthy amount of credit for Love's enduring influence. MacLean must have rubbed off onto frontman Arthur Lee, who - while never a full-on rocker himself - clearly benefited from smoother-around-the-edges style of his bandmate. Unfortunately, MacLean decided to go solo and Lee decided to break up the original line-up of Love following 1967's Forever Changes. This band had produced a classic and strongly individual body of work, and could have broken nationally if only they would have toured more extensively outside of California.
It is interesting to consider how Four Sail would have turned out had it been recorded by the erstwhile group of musicians. Since it was not, one might expect it to be decidedly weaker than its predecessors. This is far from the case. It is different in that is rocks much harder from beginning to end. However, as their early singles made perfectly clear, Love was always a band that had the ability to rock hard. On Four Sail, Lee explores the electric side of psychedelic folk rather than the acoustic. Guitarist Jay Donellan is a superb conduit for this approach. There are moments during which he threatens to overdo the style of Lee's once and future collaborator Jimi Hendrix. Thankfully, these moments are very few.
"August" might be one such case of slight overindulgence, as there are about 45 seconds of too much jamming. I can't really say which 45 seconds are the unnecessary ones, but it does feel a bit too long. Still, the guitar work is splendid, arguably more powerful than anything on Forever Changes. Lee's voice, meanwhile, is ghostly as ever and firmly intact. "Your Friend and Mine - Neil's Song" is a much more relaxed affair, and sounds like a campfire singalong. This contrasts effectively with the song's subject: the death by heroin overdose of Love roadie Neil Rappaport. "I'm With You" and "Good Times" sport warm and jazzy musical backdrops. "Dream" is one of the moodiest pieces on the record, and includes Lee's second reference to New York City on the album. This is interesting because, as mentioned before, Lee generally refused to tour outside of California. "Nothing" is also quite moody, with gentle guitar riffs and soft, unforced vocals. Unfortunately, Lee affects a strange and sloppy voice to poor effect on "Talking In My Sleep". Good thing that the musical passages are so strong, or this would be the one truly superfluous track on the album.
Now, I stop just short of the final track so that I can include it with two of the other stronger tracks on Four Sail. While the album begins with the formidable "August", it ends with the tender "Always See Your Face". As sincere as this song sounds, one has to wonder why he is so sure that he will always her - and she always see his - face (assuming that he is referring to a woman). I can see how he would imagine seeing her everywhere he goes, because he will always be thinking of her. Unless he expects her to be thinking about him just as often, then it seems like he will be making sure she sees his actual face. But I hate to put a creepy twist on such a beautiful song. "Singing Cowboy" and "Robert Montgomery" serve as sturdy pillars for the album's middle section. Both are powerful, carefully-constructed rockers which use the situations of their title characters to offer a bit of philosophical commentary. The shouting at the end of "Singing Cowboy" will surely remind the listener of a singer who was long a vocal admirer of Arthur Lee, and whose band (Led Zeppelin) released their debut album the same year that Four Sail was released.
While not a Love album in the proper sense, Four Sail is worthy of the attention of the band's fans. Even without the musicians and co-writers who helped make the band great, Lee shows that he was the heart and soul of the group, and that he could just as easily write an album of Love songs entirely by himself. It might be tough for fans of the original Love to admit it, but new members Jay Donnellan, Frank Fayad, and George Suranovich (and Drachen Theaker, who filled in on drums on three songs) give Lee's songs all of the muscle and restraint that they need. Four Sail is proof that there was greatness left in Arthur Lee after his magnum opus, and it should be included in any estimation of his legacy. (Fans who are willing to invest heavily in Love with their first purchase would be wise to seek out the 2-CD collection Love Story, which contains the four essential tracks from Four Sail and two others.)