i-94 Bar has reviewed The Pretty Things – The Sweet Pretty Things (Are In Bed Now, Of Course…)
Let’s be provocative right up-front and say that The Pretty Things are not entitled to still be making records this good. Not after 50 years and not even allowing time off along the way for bad behaviour.
It’s not a disc full of instantly catchy “hits” by any stretch – and if it was nobody would listen anyway. The Pretties’ name is a total misnomer. Putting aside the baby-faced engine room, this is a band of three grizzled old men.
So let’s talk about what it is.
It’s an old-style rock and roll record. It’s their first album in seven years. It’s five men with two guitars, bass and drums with some mellotron (a mellow what?) thrown in for colour, playing the songs mostly live through analogue amplifiers to two-inch tape.
It’s 10 songs of rock and roll in the vein of rhythm and blues (before the term was devalued by over-produced pap) with flourishes of psychedelica, with the firm application of a glowingly warm production hand and not much else. It’s a step out from the band’s primitive beginnings and a step back from the meticulous approach of their classic psych period and the brusqueness of when they were a stadium band.
In other words, it’s what those who love The Pretty Things hoped for but probably didn’t expect.
Singer Phil May was in a bad way a year ago, battling emphysema and a host of accompanying health-related hellhounds. Odds were short that he wouldn’t sing again and the band would call it a day. Fate thankfully determined otherwise. Listening to May’s vocals on this record you’d have no clue about his struggles. He sounds like the supreme Jack the Lad, the blues-shouting master that he always has been.
May is as good a lyricist as anyone playing music of this ilk and puportedly made up most of these on the spot. Lead guitarist Dick Taylor’s playing is killer and he his rhythm collaborator Frank Holland meld seamlessly to lay the textured groundwork for these 10 songs.
Melodically-inclined bassist George Woosey (also on occasional rhythm guitar) and drummer Jack Greenwood provide the requisite drive and dynamics without being obtrusive, more often than not residing in “the pocket” as the best engine rooms do. These boys can play it rough-house, too.
The songs are keepers and very much a band effort. May and Holland’s “Dark Days” is one of the picks, a swaggering track in the mould of some of the stuff the band was putting out when it was on Zepp’s Swansong label and aiming for stadium supremacy. This one spares us any flab and fills the spaces magnificently.
Taylor’s “In The Soukh” takes an Arabic bent and May summons us to some dark place before Greenwood’s thwack ups the ante. “Dirty Song” threw me for a moment, building sparse guitar on a bass-line like a Died Pretty song. There’s no mistaking where this one is headed i.e. it’s a song about fucking. Greenwood’s drums put the thump into humping while Taylor throws out licks in the background. Hopefully, Phil May did not light up while he basked in the afterglow.
“Renaissance Fair” is a heady slice of psych that could have fallen out of the “SF Sorrow” sessions, “You Took Me By Surprise” a driving rocker laced with a lewd vocal and some stinging guitar. “Hell, Here And Nowhere” slips into a slinky groove, recalling the Yardbirds’ “Still I’m Sad” with its subdued chorus/chant before diving lemming-like off a cliff. “Greenwood Tree” showcases the drummer’s chops (drum solos are thankfully rare these days but let’s cut him some slack – he is fucking good) before escalating into a swirl of guitars.
If you’ve been paying attention you’d know that the other two Pretty Things post-reformation albums since 1999 (“Rage Before Beauty” and “Balboa Island”) have been idiosyncratic, sometimes under-stated, but ultimately consistently excellent gems. Only the Stones and the Who come near the Pretties for longevity, only these guys play live more and don’t travel on their own plane.
Not to be rude, but the Who is basically a nostalgia act and if Townsend was serious about the songs he supposedly writes daily then they’d record them, regardless of what level of prestige was in the record deal on offer. If the Stones ever record an album’s worth of songs again, chances are that it’d be a hybrid that was torn between Mick’s penchant for polish and Keef’s desire to slam out whatever sticks best after interminable jams. Not saying that it wouldn’t be good and maybe great, even, but until I hear the evidence, I’ll stand by all of the above and put this record forward as better than anything either of those acts could produce.
The Pretty Things simply wouldn’t be experiencing their second – no, third or fourth – wind without manager and sometime drummer Mark St John, who drove the band through legal action to reclaim royalties and has steered them ever since. He’s endured highs and lows, falling-outs and tantrums, sickness and health. He’s also an ace production hand and his aural stamp on this album is obvious.
And the album title was pinched from Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues”.
Most bands only get one shot if they’re lucky. This album won’t be a blip on the world’s sales charts and comparing it to past glories is a bit pointless when it stands in its own right. Just be thankful The Pretty Things have given it to us.