Dollar Records: What About Bob?

In light of Monday’s free Fleetwood Mac-themed 8 off 8th at the Mercy Lounge, I thought it appropriate to delve into a few dollar bin regulars from onetime Mac-anchor and present-day Nashvillian Bob Welch. From 1971-74, Bob brought his brand of progressive pop to the wayward British blues unit, bridging the gap between Peter Green‘s blues virtuosity and Lindsey Buckingham‘s pop perfection. Welch’s work veers closer to the latter on French Kiss, one of those classic dollar bin mainstays we’d recognize from the album cover, but which few of us have actually listened to in the past thirty years.

The big hit off French Kiss is a re-recording of “Sentimental Lady,” initially released and ignored five years earlier on Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees. Backing vocals from Christine McVie and varispeed-soaked production from Buckingham deliver it from obscurity as an intelligent soft rock masterpiece, in league with Jefferson Starship‘s “Believe” and Paul Davis‘s “Cool Night.”

Buckingham’s tasteful grandeur is absent from the remainder of the record, producer John Carter opting instead for the sort of decadent, glitzy disco-rock the cover would suggest. Welch is such a weirdo, though, that it doesn’t really come off that way. He’s a 70’s pop guy, sort of like Dwight Twilley without all that annoying pop-messiah pretense. His singing is uniformly flat, his lyrics as bizarrely vulnerable as that of Rivers Cuomo. In fact, I find elements of Weezer in the chug-chug-chug department, and the mechanical delivery of “Easy to Fall” and (the other hit) “Ebony Eyes.”

There’s plenty to love here: “Carolene” and “Outskirts” are exhilarating, unpredictable pop songs. Variations on “Lose My Heart” appear and reappear throughout the album, creating a sense of disc unity. Best of all, the layers of gritty, jagged, farty guitars prevent this stab at Studio-54-rock from sounding like, well, Studio-54-rock. French Kiss is the disco party for weirdos.

The follow-up, Three Hearts, was less commercially successful, but more adventurous and more lyrically credible, if lacking a grand moment like “Sentimental Lady.” I can’t think of another song with a rhythm like “Don’t Wait Too Long.” The overseas hit, “Church,” forges a unique romantic metaphor with a smooth R&B treatment. Again, the guitars fart, Bob sings flat, Carter pours on those disco strings, and Mac employees make cameo appearances. A searing vocal from Stevie Nicks turns the anti-LA pop of “Devil Wind” into a revelation. Mick Fleetwood goes all Mick Fleetwood on “The Ghost of Flight 401,” a song which underscores Welch’s preoccupation with the supernatural. Christine McVie returns to add a layered back-up to a pure-pop “Come Softly to Me,” one of two bizarre, kitchy covers on Three Hearts, the first being a (perhaps accidentally) Devoesque “I Saw Her Standing Here.”

Wanna go deeper? I spotted a few Bob Welch solo efforts at the Charlotte Great Escape Outlet a month ago, and I doubt anybody’s snatched ’em up. Fleetwood Mac’s Penguin is, for the most part, the band at its most clueless and floundering, but Bob’s three sprawling cuts foreshadow the prog-pop direction the Mac would take under Buckingham’s direction on Tusk. Future Games and Bare Trees are the ones to get, I’m told, but (ashamed as I am to admit it) I haven’t quite made it there yet. Welch’s post-FM seventies band, Paris, is reportedly also worth investigating.

BobWelch dot com is a site to see. I know I’m observing a deeply touched man when the first item on his home page is a petition urging President Obama to be more forthcoming about the government’s knowledge of extraterrestrials. There’s also a lot of free, interesting music at least worthy of your curiosity.

So, considering Bob’s a local, 8 off 8th organizers might consider dropping Bob a line and inviting him out? He’s a rock legend, a local, and a Mac alumnus. Just a suggestion.
–Brett Rosenberg