Monday, June 3, 2013

Smooth as Raw Silk

Silk.  Smooth as Raw Silk.

Kismet Records, 2012.  Originally released in 1969 on ABC Records.

What were you doing in 1969, assuming you were around?  I was still in high school, listening to FM radio in New York, and discovering progressive rock, blues, and other stuff they didn’t play on Top 40 radio.  I had never heard of Silk, and still hadn’t until this year.  They never really broke through, but their effects are still with us.  Why review an obscure 40+ year old reissue?  Because one of the members was Michael Stanley, then known as Michael Gee.

Members of Silk were a few years ahead of me chronologically (they were college-age), having just changed their name from the Tree Stumps.  They were just about getting ready to break up when a producer named Bill Szymczyk (well-known for working with B.B. KIng, later with J. Geils, the Eagles, and others) was sent to Cleveland by ABC records to search for talent.  He came up with two bands, Silk, and the James Gang.  We’ll talk about the latter group some other time.  Szymczyk produced Silk’s first and only album, Smooth as Raw Silk.  Szymczyk saw some potential in the band, and helped them create a showcase of sorts.  He later went on to produce albums for the Michael Stanley Band.  

The young band was certainly a product of its time.  It was talented, but unsure of itself, derivative but capable of moments of brilliance as well as silliness, ultimately a flash in the pan, as most bands are.  One could look at the album as a chance for them to show off all their skills in multiple popular styles (even a country song!), or even as a concept album, a peculiar artifact of the period when the album was supplanting the single as a medium for musicians to express themselves.  This became particularly true for progressive and experimental rockers and others who took to long-form compositions.  Silk didn’t do all that, but Smooth as Raw Silk has that feel, part hippie, part blue-eyed soul, with a willingness to try anything because they could.  

The album opens with the sound of an airplane taking off, and the Captain (Szymczyk) speaking to the passengers.  It is mercifully short, and thank goodness they didn’t end with a similar piece of nonsense.  This is followed by a rocker, “Foreign Trip,” sung by Randy Sabo that works to the extent that Chris Johns plays great guitar.  It is a mish-mosh of blues rock with horns reminiscent of Blood, Sweat & Tears, but without the quality.  Two songs are covers, “Long-Haired Boy” and “Custody,” both sung in large part by Michael Gee.  The first is an old Tim Rose song (who also wrote “Hey Joe”), now dated in style and references, but Michael does a fine job of balladeering here.  The second is a country song about child custody from the perspective of the father, a maudlin weeper complete with speaking part, and dreadful in almost every way, unless they were intending a parody, in which case it’s not bad.

“Not a Whole Lot I Can Do” also features Michael on vocals, but here we have a pretty damned fine tune that rocks well, and the BS&T-style horn section isn’t bad.  “Scottish Thing” takes us into Moody Blues country, with Randy on lead vocals, alternating psychedelic whimpering with rocking keyboards, then Scottish bagpipes and handclaps.  The Moodies could pull off this kind of thing, but Silk simply couldn’t.  This is followed up by a dynamite piece of blue-eyed soul (a bit of Moody harmonies left over), with high energy vocals, psychedelic guitar solos and full-on power organ.  Great stuff, nearly the equal of any hit on the radio at the time.  They do something similar with “Come on Down Girl,” another moment where they have their act together, Young Rascals/Tommy James-style.  These two songs and “Not a Whole Lot” could have formed the core of a hit album, if they had more good tunes in the wings.  Smooth did, however, break into the very bottom of the Billboard charts.  

The other tunes vary, from the largely forgettable “Hours” to the I wish I could forget it “Walk in My Mind,” to the closer, “For All Time.”  The Moody Blues-like sound is back in all of them, with added strings and hippie lyrics, and none of them have the substance or technique needed to make them long-lasting, although the closer is very pretty in a “Nights in White Satin” style.  So what we have here is a mixed bag of music from 1969.  Some of it shows great potential and portents of things to come, while the rest is consigned to the bargain bin of Northeast Ohio musical history.  Still interesting as a historical document though, it’s worth listening to if you’re of a “certain age.”

Personnel:  Courtney Johns (drums), Michael Gee (bass, vocals), Chris Johns (guitars), Randy Sabo (keyboards, vocals), Bill Szymczyk (vocals, other things here and there).  No idea who played the horns.
Tracks:  Introduction, Foreign Trip, Long-Haired Boy, Not a Whole Lot I Can Do, Custody, Scottish Thing, Skitzo Blues, Hours, Walk in My Mind, Come on Down Girl, For All Time.


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