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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Rod Stewart, "Gasoline Alley"

Rod Stewart
"Gasoline Alley"
Vertigo (1970)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Rod Stewart, like any other classic rock product of the '60s (note: slight exaggeration), started out as a cover artist. Stewart, the raspy vocalist who had made a name for himself as the frontman for the Jeff Beck Group and The Faces, had to deal with the fact that he didn't have much songwriting experience. So, like The Rolling Stones and countless others before him, Stewart got some help. "Gasoline Alley" isn't a good indicator of his strong skills of song craft (for that matter, nothing is), but it does set the mold for what would turn him into a superstar on his next album, "Every Picture Tells A Story."

It's easy for folks my age to forget that Stewart was at one point a bona fide rock 'n' roller. Hits like "Maggie May" eventually transformed him into an adult alternative crooner, but when he was with Jeff Beck, he rocked just as hard as fellow mod icons The Who. "Gasoline Alley" is a strong indication that Stewart was looking to turn down the volume. Borrowing songs from folkies like Bob Dylan ("Just A Hobo") is one thing for a rocker, but Stewart pushed electric guitars behind the acoustic ones, and the inclusion of mandolins and fiddles made the album arguably folk-rock. It isn't, as too many rock 'n' roll aspects stick around, but the influence is there.

Stewart's inclusion of rock elements has its ups and downs. On the downside, Stewart seems to force electric guitars into the mix for the title track and "Lady Day" (one of the two songs actually written by Stewart). Eventual Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood provides most of the guitars on the album, and he tries to match the acoustic melody on "Lady Day" with a bluesy lick, but the pairing is awkward and uncomfortable. When the electric is not featured however, the presence of the bass is evident against the acoustic guitar, making for an interesting twist on folk. The bass lines aren't incredible, but they are framed nicely.

Stewart has an amazing voice. Not in the way of vocal talent, but a timbre and style that makes him nearly impossible to imitate. That sandpaper tone makes his takes on covers like Eddie Cochran's "Cut Across Shorty" and Dylan's "Hobo" worth a listen. Stewart's second original track, "Jo's Lament," is also much improved from "Lady Day."

Tracks like "My Way of Giving" and "You're My Girl" (written by Faces member Ronnie Lane and Dick Cooper, respectively) are rockers in line with Stewart's previous work, but the rest are more historically relevant here. If you want to listen to Stewart's popular stuff, my recommendation would be "Every Picture" (which we will see from Moon, eventually). That album wouldn't have happened without "Gasoline Alley," however.

INTERESTING FACT: The comic strip "Gasoline Alley" (which has no relation to the album title) is the second-longest running comic strip in America, having premiered in 1918. It has changed writers four times, but hasn't updated its style of humor, as you can see in this January 28 clip.

Cut Across Shorty by Rod Stewart on Grooveshark

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