November 13, 2010

Come Taste, Uh . . . Taste – Ireland’s hard rocking power-trio

The band: Taste
The album: Taste (self-titled) (1969) - Buy On

Key Tracks:
Sugar Mama, Born On The Wrong Side Of Time, Catfish

Score: 4.3 / 5

Sounds like:
A mix of progressive blues, british invasion and mod rock, doused with some hard rockin' crunch and grit. It's even got some acoustic, pedal steel country songs and some delta-style traditional blues numbers with a progressive/jazzy touch.


Born On The Wrong Side Of Time (Sample)
Catfish (Sample)

    Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf might’ve electrified the Delta, but Taste were one of the bands that cranked the Mississippi up to 11. These three guys from Cork, Ireland, rock harder than anyone that came before them and harder than a lot of the bands that came after. It makes me wonder if hard rock really came to be with the Union Jack waving above the UK’s rockers, because it looks like it's got  greener roots judging by these guys.

    After listening to this album, I wonder what would’ve happened if Cream opened for Taste back in 1970 instead of the other way around. Yep, Taste opened for Cream. They also played Isle of Wight with a hell of a lot of great bands, including Hendrix and The Who. Unfortunately, Taste is one of the least recognized bands from the Isle of Wight line-up.

    Taste’s first album is a real testament to their musical genius. It’s got some incredible rearrangements of classic blues tracks. The guitar work is so human and alive that it moves you in every way possible. The bass lines got me swaying back and forth with their incredible grooves, and count on the drums for full-bodied detail and dynamism.

    Some songs were stronger than others, but everything on the album was worth listening to. And while John Wilson and Charlie McCracken are an incredible rhythm section, the album’s really a showcase of Rory Gallagher’s talent as a guitar player and singer. His acoustic noodling on tracks like  “Leaving Blues” and “Hail” make you wonder just how many hours this guy spent with his guitar everyday. When I listen to those tracks I imagine Gallagher sitting on a rocking chair out on some front porch by a farm, crooning with his acoustic guitar deep in the American south.

    Of course, with a bass player and drummer as talented as McCracken and Wilson, Taste become a lot more than just another guitar-band. McCracken takes the cake on tracks like “Dual Carriageway Pain,” where a standard 12-bar blues rhythm transforms into a full on hootenanny thanks to his bass' powerful presence. I can imagine a barn dance with a bunch of people clapping along to this one. Then there’s “Same Old Story;” that’s got one hell of a groovy, swinging bass line that’s complimented by McCracken’s slightly overdriven and compressed tone. I get that big city vibe from this song, like I’m cruising along with the boys, barhopping the night away.

    The thing about McCracken is that he’s a highly intuitive bass player. Sure, the equipment contributes to it a lot, - he used a lot of old tube amps and passive bass electronics - but what sets him apart from other bass players is his ability to create a thick layer of emotion that’s easily distinguished from Gallagher’s guitar work, which often steals the spotlight.

    Now if you want to talk about the drums, you’ve got to dig into the album's more serious stuff. On tracks like “Catfish” and “Sugar Mama,” I’d probably bet on Wilson in a drum-off against Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. The guy used every drum and cymbal in his set to get the listener’s emotions floating at the whim of his drum sticks, skyrocketing them high up and bringing them crashing back down with an incredible amount of force and precision. The guy’s got rhythm, that’s a given, but to be able to come up with some pretty complex drum patterns and fills, while keeping up with McCracken’s bass lines and Gallagher’s mad guitar work, you’d need to be more than just a well versed drummer.

    Wilson obviously comes from a background of Jazz drumming. We hear this most evidently in songs like “Catfish,” where Wilson uses everything from rim-shot snare work in a standard 12-bar shuffle to full on rock ‘n’ roll drum filling and engaging cymbal work. He’s a breath of fresh air in the late 60’s - early 70’s rock 'n' roll scene, which is full of power rock drumming; where guys like Keith Moon of The Who rely more on speedy, full-force drum fills rather than dynamics. On the other hand, you've got guys like Charlie Watts from The Rolling Stones holding simple beats and not really pushing the boundaries of what his instrument can accomplish. Wilson has neither of these problems. 

    On those same two tracks Gallagher rips it all up with some of the most soulful guitar playing I’ve ever heard. This guy probably made Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend’s knees shake at Isle of Wight during Taste’s set. But what really sets him apart from the rest is his use of his guitar’s full tonal potential. Here’s a guy that really knows his instrument inside and out. I can hear him playing with the guitar’s volume knob, lowering it a bit to get a nice sparkly clean sound to play his soothing chord work, then flicking it all the way up, pushing his amp into mad overdrive for some of the grittiest blues riffs to come out of the 60’s. Gallagher doesn’t just bend a note during a solo; he gives it so much depth and texture with his vibrato. You get the feeling that his guitar is alive and that it’s singing and talking and screaming at you all at once. It’s so alive that you can even hear it crackle and hum out of the speakers when he’s switching around through his guitar’s different tones in between fills and solos. Call it under-produced if you want, but I call it real and organic.

    It’s also important to mention Gallagher’s soloing on the heavier tracks, ‘cause this guy really rips it up. He’s got perfect timing with his razor-sharp, biting lead work and his trailing, pulsating bends. Sometimes, and this is probably ‘cause he sings and plays guitar simultaneously, you find Gallagher singing the notes he's playing on his guitar. I’ve heard a few guys do that as well, but man did he pull it off right! Whether it’s singing the lyrics in the same melody as his lead guitar work on the verse in “Catfish” or vocalizing the notes to the solo in “Same Old Story” without attaching any words, you get the sense that he’s using his voice to add another layer over the guitar in perfect sync, making the overall sound more polyphonic and adding depth and texture to his instrument.

    With an album that relies heavily on blues reinterpretations, you begin to wonder if the band can hold their own writing a song from scratch. “Born On The Wrong Side Of Time” proves that these guys have a lot of depth and vision in their songwriting. It takes you on a wild ride of emotion, ranging from the intro that comes at you like a freight train, to the chilling, even ominous, breakdown with intense lyrics about time and death that make you want to reevaluate your whole life. The song picks you back up with the guitar solo breaking all conventions of composition, borrowing from Jazz phrasings blowing out of Gallagher's speakers all fuzzed up and distorted. So yeah, these guys can definitely write a song. And they really know how to infuse a lot of Jazz elements into rock music, but outside of “Born On The Wrong Side Of Time,” it isn’t very obvious on this album.

    With the high points out of the way, a review’s got to mention a couple of shortcomings as well, right? Yeah, well, there are a few, but with a score like 4.3 out of 5, it’s kind of hard to justify bashing this album about anything. Sure, I wish the album was more consistent. Some of the tracks felt out of place thematically and even musically. I wasn’t happy with the choice of “I’m Moving On” as the album’s closing track, and thought it would’ve ended with a blast if it were switched around with “Catfish” instead, but that’s no big deal, really. I liked all the songs on this album, though I think the acoustics would’ve been better left for an album on their own. (Think about the difference between Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin III, for example). Besides, these problems could’ve easily been the fault of some lame suit at their record company, Polydor, looking for a hit. But whoever gave the final word on the arrangement of the tracks on the album should've thought about the album as a journey, and how interrupting the acoustic tracks were between the emotional 6-minute-plus epics. A better layout would've helped this album a lot more.

    Another thing I can't help but miss on this album is more of the band’s compositions, ‘cause they really pulled all the stops on “Born On The Wrong Side Of Time.” Instead, we’ve got an album that’s predominantly blues and country covers. Sometimes this is a good thing, like in the case of The Jeff Beck Group’s “Truth” and “Beck-Ola” albums. But in the case of Taste’s first album, - though I love the blues reinterpretations - I would’ve settled for only two - “Sugar Mama” and “Catfish” - instead of getting a bunch of songs that really sound like fillers at some points. Taste have the ability to write epics, which they displayed somewhat on their second album “On The Boards.” Sometimes this album felt more like a compilation rather than a sonic experience, the latter being what I think an album should deliver. This album would’ve been a perfect five with the right balance between trailing, progressive compositions and blues reinterpretations, and less "songs."

    All in all, this album should be in every hard rock junkie’s collection. The album’s inconsistency can be justified with the idea of it being broad, and laid out for a wider group of listeners ranging from country buffs to blues purists to mod rockers and proto punks – like the vibe you get from the album's opener, “Blister On The Moon.” Go ahead, put this album on, break out a cold pint of Guinness and get lost in Taste you won’t forget your whole life over.

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