|Elf – ‘Carolina County Ball’/’Trying To Burn The Sun’ (Cherry Red Records)|
|Written by Jonathan Kardasz|
|Monday, 19 December 2016 05:30|
Hot on the heels of the first three releases on the reactivated Purple label (Silverhead’s oeuvre) Cherry Red have let loose ‘Carolina County Ball’ and ‘Trying To Burn The Sun’, respectively the second and third releases by Elf. Now, if you know the story jump ahead a couple of paragraphs, if not – read on.
Elf originally started out as the Electric Elves with Ronnie James Dio on bass and vox along with his cousin David “Rock” Feinstein (guitar); Mickey Lee Soule (keys) and Gary Driscoll (drums). Their first LP was produced by Roger Glover and Ian Paice out of Deep Purple. That connection led to Elf supporting Purple on numerous occasions; but, prior to further recording there was a line-up change as Feinstein left, to be replaced by Steve Edwards. Meanwhile, Craig Gruber came in on bass freeing Dio to focus on vox and fronting the band. The Purple connection remained as Paice alone produced albums two and three.
The rest is history as Richie Blackmore, disillusioned with the funkified direction of Purple Mk.III, poached the band wholesale (with the obvious exception of Edwards) to record his first Rainbow album, and then split that line-up apart for ‘Rising’. Oh, and if you wondered what happened to Rock, then seek out his later work with the Rods, a snotty aggressive metal act that should have gone supernova in the early eighties but never quite reached the heights their talents deserved.
On to the releases, which, much like the delightfully packaged Silverhead CDs, are a nicely presented pair of releases with comprehensive sleeve notes, a nice cleaned up mix but no additional material. As for the music, well I guess if you’re a Dio completist and you’re somehow not familiar with the band you’ll be wondering whether to buy in order to scratch that compulsive fanboy itch. Purchasing depends on what you expect really and whether or not you’re willing to delve in to the great man’s roots but if you expect the epic classic rock of Rainbow; the dark majesty of his sojourn in Sabbaff or something approaching the rifftastic fantastical metal of his solo work then you’ll be disappointed. The sound on both LPs is very much of its time; sure there are riffs, and yes, his voice remains distinctive in its embryonic state (but not consistently magnificent), however, on the whole it’s good time funky rock that rolls with a massive wallop of jazz.
‘Carolina County Ball’ is probably the lesser of the two works, simply because the sound isn’t quite fully formed. The material is good but just slightly lacking in pizzazz and sounds like a band finding itself. ‘Happy’ has a lazy jazzy and, well, happy intro; it’s bass led with tinkling piano and synth washes garnished with a very classy guitar solo culminating with a big crescendo with more solos and massive drums. Dio’s vocals are solid on this one, by contrast ‘Blanch’e has the least Dio-like vocal, particularly on the intro; the song possessing a disconcerting oompah beat and harpsichord keys. It’s a bit of a throwaway to be frank, simplistic lyrics that aren’t elevated by the choral backing.
The title track, however, is much more fun. The piano dominant, an up tempo horn led dance tune with totally incurious lyrics for the mighty RJD, you really don’t expect him to be singing the praises of a “boogie woogie Friday night” but a great stinging solo redeems the tune. If you think that’s a weird line for Dio then you ain’t heard nothing yet as ‘Annie New Orleans’, a guitar led chugging rocker, features the totally incongruous line “aggravating Annie you’re getting on my fanny”. Fate takes a hand with ‘Rainbow’ (the title accidentally predicting the future) another keyboard led cut (Dio shared writing duties with Lee Soule, hence the preponderance of keyboard moments throughout both records) and the Devil makes an appearance presaging a change of pace and also predicting one of Dio’s future lyrical concerns. Not sure the Devil warrants a rag time piano motif tho’… but then maybe he’s fonder of jazz than black metal? ‘Ain’t it All Amusing’ is a bit of a rocker with a great drum breakout finale – coincidentally and spookily reminiscent of Cozy Powell’s ‘Dance with the Devil’ (Powell of course replacing Drsicoll in Rainbow).
‘Trying To Burn The Sun’ is the pick of the two, more consistent and more familiar. Streetwalker another keyboard intro, up-tempo piano this time,cwith groove bubbling bass and funky guitar there’s another wicked solo over the walking bass culminating in a lengthy bluesy coda. Good Time Music (yeah, RJD really does extoll the pleasures of music for a good time) has a funky groove with big-ass backing vocals and honky-tonk jazz piano as he belts out more incongruous lyrics, well, it’s of its time. Menawhile Black Swampy Water has a piano lead competing with pounding drums and uplifting gospel backing vox. This is a rollicking rambunctious tune with a great strong lead vocal performance and I imagine this would have been great live.
‘When She Smiles’ by contrast is more laid back, synth piano and is arguably overly dramatic although almost redeemed by a stinging guitar solo – there really is some great fretwork across the two albums. ‘Prentice Wood’ a fast paced rocker (as is ‘Liberty Road’), a solid tune that stops dead for a quiet interlude before crashing back in to life, and ends in a very (unexpected yet contemporary) Allmans style and is stronger than ‘Wonderworld’. This is a piano led wannabe ballad epic, with synth washes that are lifted by the guitar before a mighty orchestral climax. ‘Shotgun Boogie’ is a boogie, with atypical scat vox and frantic tempo, making it ‘kin good fun – barrelhouse piano, bass vs percussion mini solo, breathless in execution and a great effort.
So in summary: if you manage your expectations you can pick up a couple of above average lost seventies rock LPs that formed a big part in creating the mighty Ronnie James Dio and discover some musicians that deserve your attention. If you’re not willing to give ‘em a chance then leave ‘em on the shelf rather than disappointing yerself.