Max Webster - Universal Juveniles (1980) May 22, 2011 11:46:06 GMT -5
Post by Erik Rupp on May 22, 2011 11:46:06 GMT -5
There are bands that are obvious hitmakers. Their music is catchy and accessible and easy for the masses to digest.
Then there are bands that are not so obvious hitmakers. In fact, some of them are so bewildering that you may wonder how they got a record contract. Not that they're bad - often they are great bands - but they just don't have that mass appeal that you'd expect a band with a record contract to have.
Max Webster fell into that second category.
They were a very, very good band with some great songs, but they were so odd, so quirky that it isn't hard to understand how they missed out on having hit albums.
Not that they didn't try. "Paradise Skies," from their A Million Vacations album was a hit in their native Canada, and that album did fairly well there (as did most of their albums), but outside of Canada Max Webster usually elicited a big, "Who?" from music fans.
Their final studio album, Universal Juveniles, may have been some of their finest work, which is ironic since the band was falling apart at the time. Long time keyboard player Terry Watkinson had left the band prior to the recording of the album, and bass player Dave Myles would leave the band after the album was released, leaving guitar player/lead singer Kim Mitchell (of later , "Go For Soda," fame) as the sole original member left (although long time drummer Gary McCraken was still in the band, and he had been in the group since their second album).
And yet, despite the fragmentation of the band the album itself is a cohesive collection of entertaining, quirky hard rocking songs. It was their hardest rocking album since their self titled debut album in 1976, but it featured the almost Zappa-esque style that set them apart from their contemporaries. Set them apart too much, maybe.
Max Webster's style could almost be described as Frank Zappa and Ted Nugent getting together to write and record music, with each having equal input - along with the guys from Rush and Steely Dan (and maybe a Jazz guitarist) showing up from time to time and co-writing some of the songs.
In fact, Rush and Max Webster often toured together and got along very well. So well that Rush (Geddy, Alex, and Neil) all appear on the song, "Battle Scar," on this album.
Universal Juveniles opens up with the faced paced boogie/shuffle of, "In the World of Giants," which features some shredding guitar work from Mitchell. It's a great song, slightly quirky, but a great song all the same. One of the quirks that stands out so much over thirty years later? A keyboard sound that brings a late 80's Casio keyboard to mind. Oddly, though, despite the slightly cheesy keyboard sound the combination of Mitchell's guitar and the keyboards actually works fairly well.
"Check," is rousing, rocking song with spoken word vocals ("Check this out!") that is one of the album's highlights. It's very riffy and has a ton of energy. It's fun. It also features some shredding from Mitchell (a little low in the mix on the leads, unfortunately, but you can hear it).
Sounding very much like the late 70's is the funky-ish track, "April in Toledo," which has a Zappa-lite chorus (especially the guitar/keyboard part). It's fairly hard rocking, but also very melodic. It's one of those Max Webster songs that was accessible, but still fairly quirky and almost progressive musically. Calling this one brilliant might be an overstatement, but not by much.
Kim Mitchell had (and still has) an ability to write some very catchy material that is hard to pigeonhole. "Juveniles Don't Stop," is a good example. It's a fairly hard driving, upbeat song, but it also has a ton of melody and isn't overtly Metallic. Thrown in to the mix is a vocal melody and delivery in the verses that is almost Country in style. Almost, but not quite. It's different, but again the results are very, very good.
Then there's the collaboration with Rush, "Battle Scar." A true collaboration, recorded live in the studio with two guitar players, two bass players, and two drummers along with both Mitchell and Geddy Lee providing vocals. So with two bands who flirted with Progressive Rock collaborating it should be a complex, mind blowing song, right? Wrong. It's core is a simple track. It could have been written by KISS (and I don't mean that in a bad way). It's got the simplicity of a, "Heaven's On Fire," with the fourishes that both Rush and Max Webster were known for. It's a slower, almost plodding song (almost) that lumbers along with purpose. Neil Peart's fills are easy to make out, and Geddy Lee gives one of his strongest vocal performances to date. It may not be a great song, but it is good, and it's fun to hear these bands playing together on the same track.
"Chalkers," was the lone songwriting contribution from bass player Dave Myles. It's a moody, dynamic song with a ton of melody. While not a blistering rocker it is a very strong song.
Now, "Drive and Desire," is more of a blistering rocker than it's predecessor. It's not super heavy or ultra hard edged, but it is something of a mid tempo riff rocker. And a darned good one at that.
"Blue River Liquor Shine," stars out like another Zappa influenced song before quickly becoming something almost mainstream. Almost like the Little River Band joining forces with Zappa, Steely Dan and REO Speedwagon. This could have been a top 40 hit in 1980 with enough of a record company push. Despite the mainstream nature of the song it still has enough of a unique sound and is musically challenging enought to fit in on Universal Juveniles.
Drummer Gary McCracken's lone songwriting contribution comes in the form of, "What Do You Do WIth the Urge," another songs with some noodly riffs and a slightly quirky style while also showing some jazzy flourishes. It's another very good song.
The final song on the album is the ahead of it's time, "Cry Out Your Life," which is a slowish mid tempo song with some bouncy music. There are some clear influences from Rush showing up here, along with a serious Pat Travers, "Crash and Burn," vibe. Both songs are fairly similar, and they were recorded and released at the same time. Both are good songs, and it's hard to say if either influenced the other.
If Max Webster had to call it a day (and after the line-up fragmented as much as it did by this point they really did have to call it a day), then Universal Juveniles was a great way to go out.
Kim Mitchell found some solo success a few years later, but his best work still remains with Max Webster - and possibly with this album.