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Emitt Rhodes- Emitt Rhodes (1970)

March 1, 2011

If anyone comes to this blog looking to learn more about my personal life, this paragraph is going to be a rich treasure trove, otherwise, feel free to skip on down to the next one.  I know that I promised on the show last night that I would not only be reviewing The Ozark Mountain Daredevils (1973) today, but that I would have it up for your viewing pleasure this morning.  Unfortunately, I was again thwarted in my attempts to do cool stuff by school, and I instead got to write a couple papers and take a quiz on the Internet.

My day wasn’t a total bust, luckily, as I received a very special package in the post that I have been looking forward to for many moons.  Within the two discs nestled in this package was the entire recorded output of the solo career of a man named Emitt Rhodes.

I have come to two conclusions about this man. First, he is the 1970s version of Ariel Pink, but without all of the blatant craziness.  He recorded three of his albums in his parents’ garage and plays almost everything on them himself through the use of multi-tracking (which he also produced).

Second, his music is a pitch perfect blending of two of my favorite genres, the introspection of a singer-songwriter, a la Judee Sill or James Taylor, mixed with the ear for melody and catchy instrumentation of power pop in the Big Star and Todd Rundgren mold.

Hence, in my excitement over this recent find, today’s review will be of 1970’s Emitt Rhodes.

He recorded 3 albums in a garage before his 25th birthday. What have you done today?

One of the coolest things about this record is that Rhodes recorded it all by his lonesome, but the only thing that is cooler than that is that if you weren’t informed, you would never know.  At the end of the day, whether you like his music or not (and I’d be surprised if you didn’t), you have to respect the talent it takes to simultaneously write, perform, sing, engineer, and produce a half hour of music by yourself.  And these aren’t minimal arrangements either.  Rhodes often draws comparisons to Paul McCartney with good reason.

While many albums produced entirely by a single individual are considered misguided vanity projects (McCartney immediately leaps to mind), Rhodes never goes into an extended solo or spoken word interlude about corporate greed.  The one solo that leaps to mind, a crackling guitar part in “Long Time No See”, is short, sweet and follows the well-written melody throughout its run.  Everything is in its right place on Emitt Rhodes.  This is one of the best “put together” records that I have ever heard.

The album opens with a bouncing piano line and even sprightlier drumming introducing us to “With My Face on the Floor.”  He uses this music hall piano style to great effect throughout the record, the prime examples being the aforementioned track, “Fresh As A Daisy” (a single that reached #54 on the pop charts in ‘70), and “Promises I’ve Made.”  Yet, far from sounding antiquated or like a winking acknowledgement of his influences, this style is woven gracefully into the fabric of the album.  Even sonic flourishes that sound out of date on other records from the era still sound great on this album.  I don’t think I can name another song besides “You Ever Find Yourself Running” that features calliope-styled organ and doesn’t sound like a refugee from a carnival or love-in.

Rhodes has an ear for not just great piano parts, but also bases several of the songs on absolutely earworm guitar riffs.  The chunky lead fills on “Somebody Made For Me”, “Lullabye” with its delicate acoustic picking backing an unaffected vocal, the almost psychedelic tones transplanted into “You Take the Dark Out of the Night”, and the haunting interplay of “You Must Have” all come to mind as prime examples.  This may sound like a laundry list of clichés, and the man admittedly works almost entirely within the limitations of the pop field, but similar to Steve Martin coming out with an arrow on his head, instead of coming across as boring, these tropes are at times turned on their head, or at least subtly shifted into a new perspective within each song.

The final piece of the puzzle is Rhode’s voice.  Without a strong voice to carry these tunes, the entire record would fall flat.  His pipes prove to be more than up to the challenge.  Every vocal contains a potent mixture of innocence and a certain sense of pathos that you don’t often hear in pop music.  To draw another Beatles comparison, it’s reminiscent of the early works of the Fab Four, such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” where you know that they are singing about young love, but you can’t quite put your finger on what’s running beneath the surface.  It’s these vocals that bring a deeper poignancy to a lyrics as simple as “Live Till You Die”, with its repeated phrase, “I have to say the things I feel/ I have to feel the things I say”.  In another song this line might just slip past or sound like filler giving the kids something to sing along to, but Rhodes absolutely sells it.

He often bolsters this sound by supplying his own sweeping backing vocals on tracks such as “She’s Such A Beauty” and “You Should Be Ashamed”.

A chorus of angels

In summation, I find it easier to imagine these songs pouring out of summer car radios than being toiled over in a garage, and that seems fitting.  Unfortunately, it was the inability to find this success, combined with label troubles, which would lead Rhodes to leave the business in 1973.

Fortunately, Rhodes still works as a producer and allegedly has been stockpiling demos since his retirement.  If we’re lucky and promise to all do right, maybe someday they will be released.  Yet, even if we never hear from him again, he deserves a place in the pop pantheon for Emitt Rhodes alone.

His other records are great, but if he had retired after this one, he would still be one of my heroes based on this LP.  I hope that now you can enjoy hearing it too.  Maybe if we get enough people into it, we can get Mr. Rhodes to show us what he’s been up to since ’73.  You know where a great place to start the movement would be? In the comments below. Do your part; join the movement. Godspeed, my friends.

-ZAK

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