Given a cursory glance, The Move's debut may appear to be little more than a stereotypical sixties album, filled with dated psychedelic imagery and hippie-esque clichés. Even given a modicum of closer inspection, however, the album reveals itself to be something else entirely, if not a send-up of the quixotic excesses of counterculture music then at the very least a knowing wink at it.
Roy Wood does indeed incorporate many of the lyrical and musical staples of sixties rock into his work, but in a decidedly subversive manner. His material eschews the elements that define archetypal flower-power themes, forsaking peace, love and happiness in favor of black comedy, offbeat charm and witty digressions.
Thus as opposed to quotidian love songs and naïve protest anthems, Wood writes his own unique breed of psychedelic pop songs, confounding expectations and defying conventions at every turn. The result is everything from the post-apocalyptic whimsy of Yellow Rainbow to the quirky courtship of (Here We Go Round) The Lemon Tree to the most humorous depiction of drowning ever in Walk Upon The Water. Wood may treat basic flower-power psychedelia as a foundation for his work, but he's never content to rely on the methods or messages associated with the genre, far too original and far too clever to conform to the ethos of his generation.
While Roy Wood would move on to form a plethora of other groups, not to mention embarking on an extensive solo career, even on his first commercial release he proves himself to be one of the most unjustly neglected greats of his era. While the other members are hardly slouches in the musical department, The Move is very much Wood's band, as he handles all of the songwriting, not to mention much of the guitarwork and vocals.
In fact, Wood's songwriting is so strong that the only real weak-points of the original release were the covers. Weekend is generic, uninspired boogie, while Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart is colossally grating whether or not it's meant to be ironic in nature. Hey Grandma is a terrific song, but The Move's rendition adds absolutely nothing of worth to the already brilliant Moby Grape original.
The songs that Wood does write, however, rank amongst the finest pop music of the epoch. Sophisticated on both a lyrical and musical level, all of Wood's creations boast exceptional melodies and an array of creative hooks. Wood truly was one of the best songwriters of his times, and this is evident in the care and craftsmanship he invests in all of his work.
Wood's specialty on the album is taking all of the best traits of sixties music, from the acid drenched instrumentation to the soaring vocal harmonies to the irresistible pop hooks, and putting his own unique spin on them. Thus tracks like the bouncy Flowers In The Rain can be appreciated on many levels, be it as a literal-minded interpretation that casts the song as quintessential hippie fare or as a clever deconstruction of sixties musical fundamentals.
While each Wood-penned song is of a high caliber, highlights include the supremely catchy Kilroy Was Here, complete with one of the album's many sing-along refrains and a set of inspired funny lyrics. Another classic arrives in the form of Walk Upon The Water, a gorgeous song with stellar melodies in both the chorus and the verses, made all the better by its darkly comedic lyrics. Cherry Blossom Clinic is a rightful fan favorite, sporting lo-fi verses interposed with an ecstatic (and hook-filled) refrain, a celebration of madness that manages to be cheery and gleeful throughout.
The album is quite simply a brilliant debut, and a great showcase for the prodigious musical gifts of Roy Wood. Thanks to its irreverent approach to sixties staples the album evades any risk of truly sounding dated. Truthfully, even if one ignores the parodic undertones he'll find some of the best melodies recorded in the sixties, timeless treasures that would endure even if the album's hippie elements were wholly earnest and sincere.
Sadly, the latest CD release somewhat dilutes the overall effectiveness of the album, introducing a procession of gratuitous bonus tracks that are seldom worth the bother to listen to. There is some worthwhile material, like I Can Hear The Grass Grow (a song that has the distinction of being the only Roy Wood-penned song ever covered by The Fall), and I really have no objections to any of the non-redundant bonuses, but the repeats of nearly every song on the album are completely extraneous, unnecessary padding that offers little incentive not to stop the CD at the album's intended termination point. As one has this option, however, the bonus tracks don't mar the overall experience, and thus don't ultimately affect the album's rating.
The Move's debut was an excellent showcase for Roy Wood's nearly unparalleled pop instincts, and indeed the only times the album truly faltered was when the group tried their hand at a cover. Given this equation, it's truly mystifying why the band felt compelled to devote half the songs on Shazam, their sophomore effort, to covers, and when the bonus tracks are factored in only three out of the CD's fifteen tracks are Roy Wood originals.
While The Move had decent musical chops their primary asset had always been Wood's songwriting, and the absence of his creative voice on the bulk of the material leaves the band with a final product that's dramatically inferior to their first outing. It's not that all of the covers are poor, but they remain a poor substitute for the artistic genius that Wood had exhibited on Move, and the album suffers accordingly.
Fortunately the three originals are everything that one would hope for from the mastermind of the psychedelic brilliance that unfolded throughout Move. Hello Susie is a terrific rocker, opening with a glorious soaring riff before segueing into the catchy vocal melodies that Wood is known for. The song's a good deal heavier than anything encountered on the debut, eschewing mock-flower-power motifs in favor of a raw garage-rock sound.
Beautiful Daughter features superb vocal hooks, an unforgettable refrain and an elegant arrangement that's a vast departure from anything The Move had dabbled in to this point. While it's the shortest track on the album, its compact size works to its advantage, as it boasts a concise clarity that would only have been impeded by prolonged jamming or excessive repetition.
While some might sneer at the presence of Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited, asserting that it's merely indicative of a paucity of ideas on Wood's part, I'm of a decidedly more tolerant mindset. While at first the track seems like a retread of the classic from which it borrows its title, the subsequent jamming that ensues fully justifies the song's place on the album. In a fit of experimental mania the band bring the frantic, frenzied approach of the original and apply it to myriad themes culled from the annals of classical music, resulting in an instrumental coda that was nearly without precedent at the time of its release. Where contemporaneous art-rock groups and prog-outfits would merge classical passages with hyper-professional jamming and intricate, complex arrangements, The Move adapt these melodies to the context of a bouncy, eccentric pop song, and the final product is well worth waiting through several minutes of redundant material for.
As far as the three covers from the original release, I have absolutely no reservations over recommending the first and longest, Fields Of People. The song was the work of an obscure and short-lived art-rock ensemble called Ars Nova, and the track is sufficiently strong that I applaud The Move for giving it this additional exposure. While quite long, the track, a quirky pseudo-hippie anthem, remains captivating throughout, and affords The Move ample opportunities to flex their instrumental muscles.
The final two covers, however, are considerably weaker. Don't Make My Baby Blue is an inoffensive but needlessly protracted blues workout, sporting a decent riff but lacking anything to truly make it a memorable experience. The Last Thing On My Mind, however, features virtually no hook, musical or otherwise, to sustain one's interest for much of its overlong duration, and the result is a track that simply drags for the bulk of its runtime.
Additionally, as a kind of postmodern gimmick there are interstitial segments with the band asking random passersby for their opinions on pop music. Little is done with this idea, however, and it ultimately adds virtually nothing of worth to the overall listening experience.
With close to twenty minutes of a relatively short album devoted to the final two tepid numbers, it seems as if the band sabotaged the album with their inexplicable cover-fetish. Fortunately, there are a plethora of bonus tracks to help salvage the flawed but promising album.
At first glance, one would assume that the bonus tracks would exacerbate the situation, given that every one of them is a cover as well. These covers, however, are considerably more engaging, and far less self-indulgent, than the ones featured on the album proper, and truly add value to the overall package.
Five of the covers are culled from a concert EP entitled Something Else By The Move, a transparent homage to their venerable contemporaries The Kinks. Each track has something to offer, from a spirited if unimaginative cover of The Byrds' classic So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star to the highlight, a stellar run-through of Sunshine Help Me.
It's also worth noting that on this particular performance the band heavily favored wah-wah enhanced guitars, and I freely confess that I'm extremely partial toward that particular brand of jamming, further inclining me toward a positive assessment of the overall EP.
On the latest reissue there are an additional four live covers, which may seem a tad excessive but ultimately works in Shazam's favor. While Peace Of My Heart is a fundamentally generic song that was once made worthwhile through Janis Joplin's incomparable vocal performance, The Move acquit themselves decently enough in their (rather faithful) interpretation. Furthermore, while a second rendition of Sunshine Help Me conjures bad memories of the ever-redundant bonus track-listing of The Move's debut, a single offense in this department can easily be overlooked, and those ill-disposed to wah-wah pedals will find solace in the latter version.
Thus Shazam, while quite a strong album in its own right, still feels like a missed opportunity. When a songwriter of the caliber of Roy Wood is in his prime his talents shouldn't be squandered on an endless parade of covers. Had the album included more new Wood material it doubtless would have been a classic on par with the band's debut, and the quality of the three originals constitutes a rather convincing argument for that assertion.
Nevertheless Shazam is still a superb album, and had it been the work of nearly any other group few would consider it a disappointment. While Don't Make My Baby Blue and The Last Thing On My Mind threaten to consign the album to the abyss of mediocrity, the bonus content fully redeems that filler. An artist is only in his prime once, and thus there are precious few opportunities to take advantage of this artistic peak, but with a product of the quality of Shazam the band can be forgiven for their ill-advised creative decisions.
On Looking On, The Move continue their tradition of grossly misusing Roy Wood's prodigious songwriting gifts. While Wood is given the chance to compose more than half of the tracks this time around, his creative voice is filtered through a rather inapt and inappropriate medium, namely the genre of heavy metal.
As one would anticipate, heavy metal is not Wood's forte, and his clumsy and borderline amateurish songwriting is a testament to this inadequacy. As a result it's not Wood who contributes the best cuts on the album, but rather Jeff Lynne, who makes his debut as a member of the group.
This marks the first time that Wood and Lynne have collaborated, with the arrangement being that the latter would join The Move providing Wood become a member of Lynne's new classical/pop fusion outfit Electric Light Orchestra. This partnership did not enjoy much in the way of longevity, however, as The Move disbanded after a mere four albums and Wood didn't last beyond Electric Light Orchestra's first release.
Lynne not only penned two songs on Looking On, but also penned the two best songs on the album. Eschewing the metallic approach that Wood was embracing, Lynne sagaciously opted to stick to his own strengths, and the result is two brilliant pop rockers that compare favorably with peak Electric Light Orchestra material. What? is a menacing track boasting terrific (often electronically encoded) vocal melodies and a decidedly tenebrous atmosphere, while Open Up Said The World At The Door marries superb hooks to an infectious Wurm-like coda.
While Wood's metallic opuses suffer from primitive, generic riffs and gratuitous, forced heaviness, I personally find them to be a guilty pleasure that I'm not averse to indulging in from time to time. The tracks may be come across as somewhat stupid in nature, but they can also be rather fun on a basic level, from the charm of the (appropriately) lumbering Brontosaurus to the irresistible boogie of When Alice Comes Back To The Farm.
Furthermore, there is ultimately more to the hard rock songs than is initially apparent. The Move, and Roy Wood in particular, were far too intelligent to simply perform straightforward, rudimentary metal, and thus one needn't search that hard to discover traces of the artistry that's an innate part of the band's character.
Thus while many of the tracks appear to be strictly workmanlike in nature, there are generally clever flourishes in the songs' arrangements that defy the basic heavy metal formula of the album. Beyond that, there are indeed manifestations of the band's art-rock past throughout, from the creative coda of the title track to the multipart structure of the epic Feel Too Good.
Ergo one needn't feel too ashamed of enjoying songs like Turkish Tram Conductor Blues; there is evidence of the band's higher leanings, and more importantly it's apparent that the group aren't taking these tracks too seriously either, which contributes to the casual, tongue-in-cheek fun of the album.
Nevertheless, an album primarily filled with metallic whimsy doesn't exactly constitute a classic, and it's in this department that, once again, the bonus tracks become crucial. Whereas Wood's songwriting on the album proper is mired in awkward riffage and artificial heaviness, throughout the bonus tracks his skills as a composer are in full force, and his creativity thrives.
The bonus tracks mostly consist of contemporaneous A-sides and B-sides, and they're nearly uniformly excellent. Wild Tiger Woman is a catchy rocker with retro overtones, while Omnibus is a delightful pop tune with plentiful hooks. Curly is more endearing, unforgettable pop, This Time Tomorrow is a sweet, stripped-down ballad and Lightning Never Strikes Twice boasts a superb refrain.
The best of these tracks, however, is Blackberry Way, The Move's only single that was destined to reach the very top of the charts. The song is quite frankly pop perfection, managing to be incredibly catchy, unspeakably beautiful and emotionally resonant at the same time.
These Wood-penned bonus tracks are precisely the sort of songs that should have filled albums like Shazam and Looking On, and it's a mystery why the band opted instead to rely on covers and incongruous heavy metal. When the tracks are added to Looking On, however, they transfigure a solid album into a timeless classic, making Looking On not only a brilliant showcase for Wood's songwriting acumen but also a forum for Lynne to demonstrate his own considerable gifts as a composer.
Thus Looking On is indeed reliant upon the caliber of its bonus tracks to attain classic status, but had the album itself been truly poor or mediocre to begin with this feat would not have been possible. The truth is that Looking On is a fundamentally enjoyable album even on its own strengths, with endearingly clumsy attempts at heavy metal and a lighthearted tone that contributes to the record's charm. While it's the two Lynne-penned numbers and the bonus tracks that elevate the final package to the next level, Looking On was never in danger of being a 'bad' album, and despite the superiority of the added numbers I would never skip through the band's flawed but fun take on the genre of heavy metal.
Roy Wood had always been the cornerstone of The Move, acting as the creative mastermind behind all of the band's endeavors. Accordingly the band was centered around Wood's songwriting, and his artistic voice took precedence over the creative inclinations of his fellow band-mates.
This firmly established hierarchy made what transpired on Message From The Country, The Move's swansong, all the more remarkable: Roy Wood's creative presence on the album was overshadowed by the songwriting of another man, namely Electric Light Orchestra's frontman Jeff Lynne.
This can partially be attributed to the fact that Wood, as he's apt to be, was more focused on his own eclecticism than he was concerned with playing to his strengths. He remains such a gifted songwriter, however, that he invariably excels at any genre he tackles, a fact that's consistently corroborated over the course of the album. From the infectious fifties-style rocker Ella James to the spot-on country send-up Ben Crawley Steel Company, Wood indulges his appetite for diversity with grace and skill, but this doesn't change the fact that these genre exercises and experimental mimicries don't represent him at the zenith of his considerable abilities.
Nevertheless, Wood is responsible for a song that may not only be the highlight of the album but perhaps of his entire tenure with The Move, the medieval-flavored It Wasn't My Idea To Dance. The song cultivates a subtle sense of menace that heavy metal outfits like Metallica couldn't hope to achieve with their ham-fisted direct threats of violence, and the track's sinister nature perfectly complements its irresistible pop hooks and masterfully elegant arrangement.
As stated before, however, it's Lynne that dominates the creative end of the album. Thus the CD begins with a passage that can't help but conjure memories of Electric Light Orchestra's debut, No Reply. Message From The Country's title track opens with a gradual build that bears a striking resemblance to the intro to 10538 Overture, and while it's adroitly implemented on The Move's opus it's used to even greater effect on the latter.
Aside from similar openings, though, the tracks have little in common, save that they're both brilliant pop songs that betray the skill and craftsmanship that characterize Jeff Lynne's songwriting. No Time reinforces this impression of Lynne's considerable pop acumen, as it's gorgeous gem that manages to sound sweet without degenerating into sappy sentimentalism, a far cry from the treacle that typified mainstream pop music of the era.
The Minister, while owing a rather transparent debt to Paperback Writer, is still a first-rate pop song, a compact, catchy and energetic number that does more than enough to differentiate itself from the Lennon/McCartney classic.
Perhaps the best of the lot is The Words Of Aaron, a song that alternates between moody, subdued passages in the verses and ecstatic, soaring vocals in the refrain. The song is an unmitigated classic, and can easily stand beside any Jeff Lynne song from any period of his career.
Thus there's a certain unique and unusual dichotomy at work on Message From The Country, as the album abruptly shifts between classic Jeff Lynne pop and an idiosyncratic assortment of retro-styled Roy Wood numbers (along with the Bev Bevan track Don't Mess Me Up).
Roy Wood's predilection for retro (particularly fifties) rock, while present on past Move releases, is at an all-time high on Message From The Country, as his forays into the bygone days of rock and roll music constitute a sizable chunk of the album. Wood would remain fascinated with fifties music on subsequent releases, but until Message From The Country he'd remained restrained when it came to his retro-fetish, and it comes at an unexpected time in The Move's (rather limited) history.
This nostalgia kick may make the album a borderline anachronism, but it still affords ample entertainment value for anyone who's not averse to the occasional offering of 'obsolete' music forms. Therefore it's telling that the album proper ends with My Marge, a charming, old-fashioned tune that revels in its defiant datedness. The song is the sole collaboration between Wood and Lynne on the album, a clear indication that the latter, to some extent, shares the former's affinity for the forgotten genres of days long since passed.
The bonus tracks tend to conform to the exact same retro mold that Wood adhered to for the duration of the album, though they also include a version of Do Ya, a song destined to become one of Electric Light Orchestra's defining pop anthems.
Thus Message From The Country is a fitting send-off for one of the greatest pop groups of the era. While Wood's retro obsession may not be quite as captivating as his usual pop brilliance, it remains entertaining, and far too meticulous and intelligent to be written off as 'guilty pleasures' a la the heavy metal posturing on Looking On. Furthermore, his masterwork It Wasn't My Idea To Dance proves that he was still at the top of his game, producing a truly unique song with little in the way of analogues in his or any epoch. Lynne may steal the show with his flurry of pop classics, but Wood's retro shenanigans imbue the album with a certain offbeat, eccentric charm, lending Message From The Country an intriguing balance that manages to make both sides of the album come off all the better in the long run. The album may very well be The Move's crowning achievement, and a brilliant precursor to the future triumphs of Wood and Lynne alike.