Lowell George made this album, a melting pot of so many musical influences, because apparently, he was not happy with the way that Little Feat was heading, as he saw it, into jazz-rock territory. I can’t say that I noticed but certainly, the sparse gritty sounds of the eponymous début were being lost as the band continued to record in the late ’70s.
‘Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here’, was released in March 1979 and George died in June of the same year of a heart attack. It was his one and only solo effort, though there seems to be a lot of speculation as to what other unreleased material there may be (George had a reputation of loving the studio process). The CD version has a bonus track, ‘Heartache,’ (co-written with Ivan Ulz) an acoustic guitar duet with Valerie Carter and I could certainly bear a little more of that sound. There are nine tracks on the original album; only four are self-penned and three of those are collaborations. That said if he only wrote, ‘20 Million Things’, that is an achievement in itself.
The opener, ‘What Do You Want the Girl to Do’, is an Allen Toussaint track which very much sets the relaxed groove for the whole album and has a superb little keyboard intro. The use of horns, as on this track, is one marked difference from the group albums and there are at least 8 different players with credits.
This is followed by George’s collaboration with guitarist Fred Tackett on, ‘Honest Man’, which introduces a little taste of funk to proceedings. ‘Two Trains’, is a George penned highlight, originally spotted on the,’ Dixie Chicken‘, album but seemingly with quite different lyrics in this iteration. Either way, it needs no boosting from me and is one of his finest compositions. ‘Can’t Stand the Rain’, is an Anne Peebles / Bryant / Miller original and her version has to be acknowledged as particularly memorable – but George’s is none too shabby and further proof of his fine singing throughout.
‘Cheek to Cheek’, opens side two of the vinyl issue- and was written in collaboration with Van Dyke Parks and Martin Kibbee (aka Fred Martin). It changes the mood considerably as it heads way south with what sound like steel drums – though none are credited. This is a complete departure from the bands typical sound.
‘Easy Money’, is a Ricky Lee Jones tune and again the horns feature on a performance that illustrates the easy-going nature of the entire proceedings. This leads to, ‘20 Million Things’, and, ‘Find a River’, perhaps the creative heart of the album both exemplifying the kind of heartfelt ballads which George excelled in writing and/or singing (‘Willin’’, and ‘Long Distance Love’, being prime examples). The former is written with Ged Levy and the second however is a Fred Tackett original – showing him to be a fine writer and guitarist – even if the hand of George is in there somewhere?
The final track, ‘Himmler’s Ring’, is a ‘Marmite’ track. It does feel a little like something thrown in at the end of proceedings- striking a discordant jokey note; like something from the weaker end of Randy Newman’s oeuvre, particularly the arrangement. It’s actually a Jimmy Webb song and two forum comments perhaps sum it up as one asks if anyone else likes it (there are a few) and another claims rightly that it seems the least characteristic song that Jimmy Webb ever wrote. A much better ending would have been, ‘Heartache’, which fits right in with, ‘20 Million Things’, and, ‘Find a River’.
There is no doubt that George was ill when he made this album and there are some interesting conversations on the fora about what sort of state he was in – was he actually too messed up / ill to write some new material and/or unable to get it together to sort out a release date? There does seem to be a consensus that it is definitely not a Little Feat album and that the band were heading in a new direction – with some agreement that George was right not to be too impressed.
The album does contain a minimum amount of new material but there may be two sides to that. No one ever dismissed Sinatra or Presley for being interpretive rather than creative but then to be fair neither were top-notch songwriters. A great number of Dylan songs (I admit never a particular favourite) are much improved by the coverage of others – as we all know Hendrix absolutely nails, ‘Watchtower’. I find the covers very agreeable, putting the Lowell George sound to someone else’s music seems just fine. It does come in at about 34 minutes – short even by vinyl standards and it does exhibit the cast of thousands syndrome (with possibly between 40 and 50 musicians involved, including all-time favourite underrated musician Nicky Hopkins). Further debate online asks whether or not Mick Taylor was involved; who knows? Nonetheless, the whole project has a charm that is quite disarming.
Robert Christgau (the self-titled, ‘Dean of American Rock Critics’, which I think says something) claims that singing was never George’s strong point which seems to these ears to be complete nonsense and I’d go with Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s, ‘Charming / Distinctive / Soulful’ comments every time. I’d always considered George’s vocals one of the highlights of the Little Feat sound and that includes seeing him live sometime in the mid-70s.
‘The album can seem a little slight at first, but it winds up being a real charmer. Yes, a few songs drift by and, yes, Jimmy Webbs, vaudevillian “Himmler’s Ring” feels terribly out of place, but Lowell’s style is so distinctive and his performances so soulful, it’s hard not to like this record if you’ve ever had a fondness for Little Feat. After all, it’s earthier and more satisfying than any Feat album since Feats Don’t Fail Me Now and it has the absolutely gorgeous “20 Million Things,” the last great song George ever wrote’.
Christgau, wholly and snidely missing the point while making an outrageous racial slur, comments:
‘You are of course familiar with the recording industry phenomenon in which a vocalist enters the studio (or many studios) with a few (or many) well-regarded musicians and they all “cut” between eight and eleven songs written by the vocalist, the vocalist’s friends, and some lucky black people. Here the smartest member of Little Feat does this. Unfortunately, singing has never been his strong point, and the compositions are as flaccid as any he’s ever made public. Or maybe it only sounds that way because we’re used to hearing him atop Little Feat’s contradictory funk, not the obliging groove well-regarded musicians usually achieve under such circumstances’.
‘Charming,’ or, ‘Flacid’? I’d go with Erlewine every day of the week for all the album’s faults, minor as they are.