Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Artwoods: 100 Oxford Street (1964-66)


(Edsel)

There are a lot of bands like this in the '60s -- garage kids with nothing better to do than start a band, or forgotten castaways from the British Invasion, the stuff of Nuggets and Pebbles -- who made that such an exciting, electric time in the true democratic playing field of rock & roll. Surprisingly, a lot of them had more consistent bodies of work than you'd expect; the Creation or the Count Five, for example, were solid rock bands with skills that went beyond their obvious classics. Judging from this compilation that gathers, so far as anyone cares to check, the bulk of their output, the Artwoods aren't such a jewel. They're quite competent, and if you have a taste for this Spencer Davis Group-like blues-rock aesthetic (with a touch of Booker T.) from the time, you're likely to at least bob your head and receive no urge to turn the thing off. But the Artwoods, while very successful in their heyday as a live act, never took off in the studio and it's easy to hear why. Their music in and of itself just isn't all that interesting or distinctive.

The band's primary claim to fame is the presence of singer Art Wood, brother of future Rolling Stone Ron; the unit was among several signed to Decca in a scrambling of sorts to get into the Brit guitar band business after their embarrassing dismissal of the Beatles. Wood's delivery as a vocalist is somewhat similar to Eric Burdon, which is largely why the Artwoods are frequently mentioned in the same breath as the Animals by those who remember them. Wood is less a blues singer, which makes his work here frequently less labored than Burdon's, but he has a more limited emotional range; the same goes for the band, who come off as a frat-rock variant on the Yardbirds. Again, this stuff isn't bad, especially if you love the period, but there isn't much to be said about it.

This compilation offers a lot of the Artwoods' R&B-leaning singles. We get standard rockers, standard ballads, the standard repertoire of blues and American rock cover material -- if a bit less obvious than that of some of their peers. The highlights are scattered around here and there, usually redeeming moments in less than memorable performances: the arrangement on "Sweet Mary" is basic but made to sound enormous with the aid of good, slick production and an excellent solo from guitarist Derek Griffiths (who wrote the liner notes for this early '80s release). The oddball chamber pop of "Oh My Love" is the sole suggestion of real eclecticism, with great piano sound and the instantly classic couplet "When I kiss your eyes / You know that my heart dies." The band reveals a good way with Gene Vincent melodrama on "I Keep Forgettin'" and prove their mettle as backing singers with their interesting, haunting work on "One More Heartache." There's even a weird Kinks thing called "Keep Lookin'" but the disc is largely rounded out by odd instrumentals that undoubtedly made more sense on stage; why bother with this when we can all go listen to the Mar-Keys?

It's hard to turn you away from this. If you are a fan of off-the-beaten-path '60s bands like the Action and the Blues Magoos, you should at least give this a listen, but I can't really encourage you to do so without reservation unless you're a real cultist for the dregs of British Invasion rock. It sure beats Gerry and the Pacemakers, anyway.

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