Thursday, 27 April 2017

"Trip In The Country" by AREA CODE 615 (December 2014 Prog Temple CD Reissue and Remaster) - A Review by Mark Barry...

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"...Stone Fox Chase..."

In their short but lively 2-album career - the Nashville sessionmen supergroup AREA CODE 615 briefly dented the US LP charts with their debut album "Area Code 615" in October 1969 – a four week stay that peaked at a lowly No. 191. But their second record "Trip In The Country" from August 1970 tanked entirely. And on re-hearing its rather odd mishmash of styles in 2017 - its lack of success then is not entirely unsurprising now especially from a cold-as-day reappraisal distance of 47 years. 

Most of us in the U of the K only really know this obscure American band through one song - their stunning "Stone Fox Chase" Swamp Rock instrumental that became the very cool theme music to BBC 2's "The Old Grey Whistle Test". First aired in September 1971 and running right through to 1988 with various presenters (Bob Harris, Anne Nightingale, Mark Ellen, Andy Kershaw, David Hepworth) – every kid out there of my ancient stature (over 50) will know that that British music program (primarily formed around Rock and its diverse genre buddies) probably informed more of our album buying choices than cool DJs like John Peel, Alan Freeman, Kid Jensen and even Thursday’s 'Top of the Pops' chart-program combined. The "Whistle Test" was huge – and every week – there was Area Code 615 – luring us impressionable young types into the soul-sucking depravity of Rock 'n' Roll with some animated guy kicking stars in the galactic nadge (graphics for the opening credits) to the sound of "Stone Fox Chase".

The British release of their second LP "Trip To The Country" didn't arrive in Blighty until April 1971 - so like "Top Of The Pops" using the equally cool cover version of Led Zeppelin’s "Whole Lotta Love" by Alex Korner's C.C.S. for their theme in 1970 - Whispering Bob Harris and his crew (the first presenter) spotted a goody and promptly hooked a nation. In fact I can remember around 1973 or 1974 when Bob was inundated with requests as to know who did the theme music - and before beginning the program had to explain what it was and who had recorded it.

Which brings us to this curious little CD reissue and remaster that has good and bad points. Here are the foxy details...

European released 1 December 2014 (reissued 6 January 2015 and 29 February 2016) - "Trip In The Country" by AREA CODE 615 on Prog Temple PTCD8036 (Barcode 4753314803619) is a straightforward CD transfer and remaster of the original 11-track 1970 LP and plays out as follows (33:20 minutes):  

1. Scotland [Side 1]
2. Always The Same
3. Stone Fox Chase
4. Russian Red
5. Judy
6. Gray Suit Men
7. Katy Hill [Side 2]
8. Sligo
9. Sausalito
10. Welephant Walk
11. Devil Weed And Me
Tracks 1 to 11 are their second and last studio album "Trip To The Country" - released August 1970 in the USA on Polydor 24-4025 and April 1971 in the UK on Polydor 2425 023. Produced by AREA CODE 615 - it didn't chart in either country. Note: the back inlay lists only 10 songs when there are in fact 11 - "Gray Suit Men" (the last track on Side 1) is the song mistakenly not listed.

AREA CODE 615 was:
CHARLIE McCOY - Guitar, Harmonica and Recorder
MAC GAYDEN - Guitar (Lead Vocals on "Gray Suit Men", slight vocals on "Katy Hill")
WELDON MYRICK - Steel Guitar
BUDDY SPICHER - Fiddle, Cello and Viola
DAVID BRIGGS - Keyboards
NORBERT PUTNAM - Bass and Cello
KENNETH BUTTREY - Drums and Percussion

It doesn’t say who did the liner notes in the gatefold slip of paper that acts as an insert – that’s not to say they aren’t informative – they are. There’s a picture CD (front cover art) and the rear sleeve of the album is reproduced beneath the see-through CD tray. Although it says 'digitally remastered' on the rear inlay packaging – it doesn’t say from where or what or by whom. Having said that the audio is amazing. This is the second Prog Temple CD reissue I’ve bought. They’ve also done Scullion's “Balance And Control” - an album released October 1980 on WEA Ireland and Produced by the mighty and sadly-missed John Martyn. Scullion featured Sonny Condell of the Irish Folk duo TIR na n'OG who'd had three well-revered albums on Britain's Chrysalis Records in the early Seventies. The sound on that 2016 Prog Temple CD is also superlative (will review soon) - so I've absolutely no complaints here despite PT's slightly haphazard annotation.

Apart from "Gray Suit Men" which features a mad vocal from Mac Gayden and one line sung in "Katy Hill" - the album is entirely instrumental. And while most are Country-Funky Swamp Rock-ish like say the Harmonica driven "Stone Fox Chase" or the banjo-led "Russian Red" - you also get slightly unnerving Easy Listening pieces like "Judy" that sounds like it should be on a K-Tel LP for evening romance moods. And therein lies the problem with AREA CODE 615 - identity. If this is an acid-trip in the country as the title suggests - you'll be hard-pressed to find it amidst these swamp-meets-cinema set of songs.

"Trip In The Country" opens up with the decidedly funky "Scotland" where Harmonicas, Fiddles and Guitars engage in a mighty hoedown that feels both fun and cheesy at one and the same time. "Always The Same" then suddenly comes on like some smooth Soundtrack interlude where pedal steel guitar introduces Steve McQueen to another hacienda town that needs a hired gun. It's confusing to say the least and musically not that great. Things of course change with 'that' song - the wonderful "Stone Fox Chase" - sounding utterly brill here and I'm loving that strange middle-eight that slows down - the bit they edited out on the credits of TOGWT - the final passage in the song you never get to hear. A mad fiddle solo introduces "Gray Suit Men" followed by heavy-guitar and a 'count their money' set of lyrics from a clearly exasperated Mac Gayden.

Side 2 opens with pure Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Country - the banjo of "Katy Hill" where Gayden lets rip with one lyric. Far better is "Sligo" which doesn't at all sound like a county in the West of Ireland but a bayou swamp dance with Harmonica, fantastic fuzzed guitars and a deeply funky bass line. At 2:25 minutes - the unlikely sounding "Sligo" is one of the only other songs on the album to compare with "Stone Fox Chase" - wishing the whole record sounded like this. After the high of "Sligo" - we get the schlock of "Sausalito" - an instrumental once again laden with strings and Harmonica - like some interlude as Robert Redford wades through snow in Jeremiah Johnson admiring the pine trees. "Welephant Walk" picks up the pace and offers another moment of hoe-down fun while "Devil Weed And Me" is the only other song that comes close to the guitar-wig out of "Sligo" - another instrumental mixing nice moments with rocking ones.

In 1974 - Polydor UK lumped their two albums together "Area Code 615/Trip In The Country" as one twofer double-album on Polydor 2683 040. Wayne Moss, Mac Gayden and Kenny Buttrey would split in 1971 to form the Southern Rock outfit BAREFOOT JERRY - another fondly remembered band that issued a wad of albums that never charted. After one LP with them - Gayden would again jump ship and form SKYBOAT. The others would session on large amounts of albums for artists as diverse as Steve Miller, Johnny Cash, The Beau Brummels, Neil Young, Simon & Garfunkel, Nancy Sinatra and even Elvis Presley. Both Gayden and Buttrey are also remembered for having penned the massive hit "Everlasting Love" - a Soul dancer for Robert Knight in the States and a British No. 1 in 1968 for the pop act Love Affair. West Virginia's Charlie McCoy would of course have his own band and Country hits.

"Trip In The Country" is anything but a masterpiece - a three-star album given five-star sound. Yet there are moments of genius too that I just had to own and I suspect others will feel the same. 

Fans should dig in especially given the fab audio - but I’d suggest that the Country-Funk curious nab an iTunes listen first...

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