We're An American Band
Released: August 1973
Chart Peak: #2
Weeks Charted: 35
Certified Gold: 8/21/73
Say what you will about Terry Knight, he's one of the few American producers to come to grips with the notion that American rock bands are generally inferior to their British counterparts. He had Grand Funk Railroad imitating the Anglo-heavies right from the start during his bid for kingpin superstardom, and it just might have worked were it not for the extreme limitations imposed by the band's lack of talent.
As it was, GFR piddled around in unlistenable noise until the release of E Pluribus Funk, on which they somehow managed to recycle the English formula with commendable results. A bit weak on the old intellectual stimulation, but it was tight, heavy, exciting and a lot of fun. Then came the break with Knight, compounded by the breaking up of their power trio, with the addition of keyboardist Craig Frost. And then Phoenix, probably the worst album ever made. With GFR forsaking the English gods and still drowning in their considerable lack of talent, the future looked dark for the boys from Flint.
Rundgren's primary contribution has been to give the band a fuller, lusher recorded sound, which works especially well during "(Workin' on) the Railroad." The sonic emphasis has been shifted from guitarist Mark Farner to Frost and the result is a song with a lot more depth and pure feeling than anything the band had heretofore attempted. "Creepin'" and "The Lonliest Rider" also operate in this vein, succeeding almost as well despite being the latest entries in the Farner Social Commentary Sweepstakes. The next entry will definitely be one too many.
"Walk Like a Man" has a tough, ballsy riff that infects the entire song with a gruff, macho feel. Here, as elsewhere, it's obvious that the increased frequency of drummer Don Brewer's lead vocals isn't merely accidental. His voice is much harder and harsher than Farner's and makes for an easily-discernible rise in the levels of tension and authority in Grand Funk's songs. Brewer's vocal really makes "Stop Lookin' Back" into a creditable reaffirmation of the old "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" ethic, despite his jungle drum solo at song's end that doesn't make any kind of sense.
"Ain't Got Nobody" and "Black Licorice" are both solid all-purpose boogie numbers, the latter being about (horrors!) miscegenation. But the title tune is the album's real goodie -- the definitive AMerican single. Despite a few factual inaccuracies (groupies do not say "C'mon dudes, let's get it on"), it really moves out nicely, saying what it's got to say then getting its ass out of there. What more could you ask?
Well, even the Mets once won a World Series, so it really isn't all that incredible for me to say that this new Grand Funk album is definitely OK. It doesn't excite me like E Pluribus Funk, but, in defining their musical objective and then realizing it, this band has taken a huge step forward in its battle for critical respect. No doubt about it, on this disk Grand Funk Railroad aren't bad at all -- for an American band!
- Gordon Fletcher, Rolling Stone, 9/13/73.
Todd Rundgren's work with Grand Funk can be seen as nothing less than a failure, albeit an understandable one. Rightly or not, he apparently felt that Grand Funk's hard rock was vapid, and he has cast them instead as a soul band; the production features lots of echo on Mark Farner's vocals and a heavy accent on the Funk part of their name. The result is a bland and pretentious album sounding more like a Rare Earth retread (on almost expects Farner to break into "I Just Want to Celebrate" when the title song's chorus comes around) than the loud metallic combo teenage America is used to.
There are, of course, some positive aspects to this when one takes a close listen to the record's mix and overall "feel." For one thing, Rundgren has all but eliminated Farner's guitar from the picture as anything but a special-effects solo instrument; this is most helpful, for one of the most annoying things about Grand Funk in the past has been their constant, bludgeoning rhythm guitar. The solos themselves are much tastier than the leads Farner has dished out previously; clearly Todd has taught the boys something about dynamics and harmonic theory. With the guitars soft-pedaled, Craig Frost's keyboards dominate the nonvocal portions of the album, and although they're not exactly brilliant, at least you can't put a fuzz-tone on an organ. (Either that, or Todd simply would not allow them to, in which he deserves a medal.)
- Jon Tiven, Stereo Review, 1/74.
Belive it or not, Grand Funk has improved: they are beginning to sound more like a band. Though their music is still best taken in small doses, to avoid monotony and high-volume headaches, they seem to be playing, writing, and performing better.
Why should this be? I can't say for sure, but I can make an educated guess: the departure of their former manager and producer, Terry Knight. Without him, the group seems to be able to breathe easier. The group has also added a member, Craig Frost, who helps balance the sound with his keyboard work, relieving guitarist-vocalist Mark Farner of his former triple duty. Todd Rundgren's production and engineering job also contributes to Grand Funk's improvement, not only in their playing but in their recorded sound, which is clean and dry without being sterile -- and for a group that plays as loud as Grand Funk, Rundgren has done as right by them as any engineer could.
I never worried about why audiences liked Grand Funk as much as some pop journalists did. The public's happy with Grand Funk -- the group has nine gold albums to prove it, including this one. So why worry? The public's getting what it wants, and what it wants is getting better.
- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 3/74.
Grand Funk has taken a lot of abuse in the past for being the group created by hype, but they really are one of the finest American rock bands around today, and this set could be their best yet. Mark Farner is a standout guitarist and a fine vocalist, but he is no longer the only focal point in the band. Craig Frost on organ (now a full-time member) helps fill the sound out immensely, and drummer Don Brewer and bassist Mel Schacher are solid musicians. This LP is full of top-notch rock material, which the band is still best at, but also features interesting bluesy cuts and some slower material. Producer Todd Rundgren deserves much credit, but apparently the band itself has reached full maturity. Excellent arrangements also. Best cuts: "We're an American Band," "Creepin'," "The Railroad," "Ain't Got Nobody."
- Billboard, 1973.
On first examination the only word that crosses your mind is gold. Gold on the outside, gold on the inside -- even the plastic record is bright gold. Pompous for any other band, but for Grank Funk just another move forward, from silver to gold. And naturally the album had sold a million in advance orders before it ever left the plant. Grand Funk has dropped "Railroad," and acquired that New York wizard and true star Todd Rundgren to referee the mixing board. They have also taken their "on-the-road" keyboard player, Craig Frost (a truly dishy gentleman who should have been brought to the frontlines sooner), and put him in the photos and given him a more prominent place in the music. The result is what is easily the best album America's only Truly American band (no trace of England anywhere in this band's style) has ever recorded.
Just what takes this album and puts it miles in front of all the other Grank Funk albums is beyond me. The set is marvelously tight and controlled. Instead of being a band of unbridled energy they are now better thought out and better channelled. The once wild stallions have now been studio broken. Perhaps this is why "We're An American Band" has been the band's only successful single to date. Sure, "Rock and Roll Soul" crept up the charts, but it never made it to New York's toughest AM station WABC.
Another remarkable thing is that Mark Farner's always interesting voice has now moved into the "impressive" category. The man can really sing well. This is most evident on the Farner original "Creepin'" where the man's voice comfortably soars to heights it's never dared approach before.
Whatever went down before in the infamous recording careers of Grand Funk, it would appear they have found themselves at last. From the mild-paced rocker, "Ain't Got Nobody," through the comparatively complex "Loneliest Rider," Grand Funk are heading straight down the track.
- Janis Schacht, Circus, 1/74.
If it takes three months to decide that this is a listenable hard rock record, just how listenable can it be? Well, Todd Rundgren has done remarkable things, that's for sure -- the drumming has real punch, the organ fills attractively, and Don Brewer's singing is a relief. Great single, too. B-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
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