Sunday, April 24, 2011

Amen Corner - If Paradise Was Half As Nice The Immediate Anthology 1969

Amen Corner was a Welsh R&B-tinged pop band of the '60s featuring singer Andy Fairweather Low, organist Blue Weaver, guitarist Neil Jones, bassist Clive Taylor, saxophonists Allen Jones and Mike Smith, and drummer Dennis Bryon. They scored the first of their six British chart hits with "Gin House" in the summer of 1967. "(If Paradise Is) Half as Nice" went to number one in early 1969. By then, Fairweather Low had become a teenage heartthrob and the band had switched management and record companies, but they split up by the end of the year.

The 35 songs on this double-CD set represent the output of Amen Corner on Immediate Records from 1968 through 1970. Listening to the 23 tracks on the first disc, one gets a good idea of the group's sound, and also why certain kinds of English pop/rock never transferred well to American shores. Amen Corner was spirited (even frenzied) enough in their playing and singing, but they also came off as a very lightweight group, without a lot of depth -- mostly that was true of their singles, but the singles were what defined them. The septet's primary audience was a peculiarly youthful English public, and appealing to them meant generating music that was upbeat but very superficial, along the lines of the Tremeloes, but without the in-house writing talent or the same ear for a good song. "(If Paradise Is) Half as Nice" is a pleasant, catchy track, as are "Hello Susie" (though their version of the Roy Wood tune is bubblegum pop next to the Move's recording on Shazam) and most of the rest, but they all seem more like songs that are pleasant to hear rather than to play -- that is, they're fine on the radio, but to ears belonging to anyone over the age of, say, 16, they're not the kind of music that one runs out to buy. Still, there was a fair amount of talent in evidence -- beyond Neil Jones' spirited guitar playing, keyboard man Blue Weaver added interesting organ fills, and on numbers like "Mr. Nonchalant" (an Andy Fairweather Low composition, and one of their better originals), they do achieve a more expansive sound. Fairweather Low was strongly influenced by American soul music in his singing, but finding the balance between that and the pop/rock sound that sold for the group was a near-impossible task, at least in the studio; "Recess," one of the outtakes unearthed after the band's demise, illustrates their usual output, a bouncy, catchy teen-beat number with a honking sax that is pure bubblegum. And then there is the second disc in this set, comprised of their concert album, The National Welsh Coast Live Explosion Company -- and that's the highlight of this set. Turned loose on-stage, Amen Corner could put on a rousing show broken down evenly between American soul ("Baby Do the Philly Dog," "Shake a Tail Feather," etc.) and their established hits, including their pre-Immediate successes on Decca Records. They pound and stomp their way through the music that they love like nobody's business, Clive Taylor's bass and Dennis Byron's drums holding everything together while Fairweather Low, Weaver, and Jones soar. This was (and is) the way to hear Amen Corner, and if one can ignore a useless cover of "Penny Lane," it's a nearly perfect concert album -- Fairweather Low's singing even sounds better here than it does on many of the group's studio recordings; and if the overall recording quality isn't perfect, it is distinctly superior here to any prior CD and LP editions of this performance. The annotation is also very thorough, and nicely illustrated as well. ~ Bruce Eder

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