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Fleetwood Mac- Penguin (1973)

February 24, 2011

Fleetwood Mac is one of the most loved and most successful bands of the 20th century.  For many, the band is just known as the group behind such radio staples as “Rhiannon”, “Go Your Own Way”, and “Gypsy”.  For some, the love of the Mac goes farther, extending to their early, but now largely forgotten, career as one of the preeminent English blues-rock bands of the late ‘60s.  An even more elite group has discovered that between these two commercial peaks exists a valley brimming with great music just waiting to be explored.  Consider this your invitation to the club.

Maybe the perfect example of this is 1973’s Penguin.  This record is truly the runt of the litter.  Coming during one of the seismic personnel shifts that the band is (in) famous for, this record has been unfairly maligned by the critics for being an uneasy mélange of the heavily blues-influenced material they had released up until 1972’s Bare Trees and the pop-rock style they would explore from Mystery to Me (1973) onward.  Yet this is exactly what draws me to this record.  I have never heard an album quite like Penguin.

Dave Walker

The main spanner in the works here is vocalist Dave Walker.  Called in to replace the vocals of recently fired member, Danny Kirwan, this album would mark his only appearance on record as a member of the Mac, but he brings with him two very interesting songs.  The first is a cover of the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic “(I’m A) Road Runner.”  Walker’s vocals and blues harp on this track really grabbed me even on first listen.  Atop the dual guitar work of Bobs Weston and Welch and the ever-solid rhythms of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, he really shines.

The other song Walker brought into the fray is an original, entitled “The Derelict.”  A surprisingly folksy number, Walker’s voice and harp are again ear catching, but the accompaniment of what sounds like a banjo is the truly bewitching element.  It might be my love of roots influenced music shining through here, but this is a really cool sound.  We can only wonder what would have happened if Walker had stayed with the band and successfully incorporated this sound, but this was not to be.

The rest of the record is less surprising, though the quality remains throughout.  The opener, “Remember Me”, is what really sold me on this record.  Having picked up the LP for a dollar at the local record store, and the purchase being driven mainly by my completist nature and long-standing love of the album cover, I did not have high hopes as I put the record on.  The opening slide guitar lick changed all that and to hear that it led into a plea of yearning in the classic Christine McVie mode? Throw in the superb background vocal work, and I was hooked.  The other McVie-penned tune here, “Dissatisfied”, is top-notch, as well.

Standing shoulder to shoulder in the “say what?” department with “The Derelict” is “Did You Ever Love Me?” (co-written by McVie and Welch).  I’m actually uncertain which I would consider a less likely candidate to appear on a Fleetwood Mac album, banjo or steel drums.  Fortunately, the steel drums play as prominent a role in flavoring this song as the banjo does in the aforementioned Dave Walker number.  As interesting as the island percussion on this track is, what really won me over this song was the mixture of McVie and Weston’s voices on the chorus.  The introduction of an almost deadpan drawl below McVie’s far more impassioned croon creates a tension that I really dig.

Welch’s songs all serve as ear-tickling guitar workouts.  “Bright Fire” stands strong with its swirling rhythm and slinky lead lines.  “Revelation” is a perfect follow-up to “The Derelict”, contrasting the dirt road vibe with a song that, for some reason, evokes in me images of a South American rebellion.  Finally we have “Night Watch”, probably the most talked about song on the LP.  This would be due to an unaccredited cameo providing additional lead guitar by former member Peter Green.  Fleetwood’s drums are especially good on this track, but the most praise must go to the interplay between Green, Weston, and Welch.

Bob Weston

After all of the mad genre hopping, the record ends with Weston’s sole songwriting contribution to the LP, the introspective “Caught in the Rain.”  The choral backing vocals and sparse piano provide a lush bed for Weston’s acoustic fingerpicking.  At the risk of sounding too infatuated, this song is like waking up on a Sunday morning, after a particularly rough night, sunshine pouring into your room and your head miraculously clear.  It is the perfect comedown song.

In the end, Penguin stands as a rather diverse experiment and the sound of a band trying to re-find its footing.  It will probably never be as highly regarded as Then Play On or Rumours, but it is an interesting, and integral, chapter in the history of the band, and I continue to be surprised on every listen by how deeply I enjoy it.  That, and seriously, look at that cover.  Would that penguin lead you astray? I would think not.

-ZAK

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