Released: February 1973
Chart Peak: #50
Weeks Charted: 22
You've probably discovered by now that "Stuck In The Middle With You," the single you thought was the best Dylan record since 1966, is actually by an English group named Stealers Wheel. I found out a long time ago -- for over two months now I've been playing Stealers Wheel constantly, and I can tell you from that prolonged experience that it's a great little record, with songs, singing and production more inventive and better matched than practically anything else on the current shelves. The record marks the comeback of the Leiber-Stoller production team, and at the same time it introduces two potentially front-line writer-singers, Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty.
The group manages to sound as much like the Beatles through most of the album as they sound like Dylan on the single. Egan uses the Dylan-like bite he displays on the single on other songs, sometimes combining it with a Nilssonish falsetto, and Rafferty has cultivated a vocal style during his years as a member of the Humblebums and as a solo artist that often strongly resembles McCartney in its balance of husky sweetness and drive.
Stealers Wheel is a singers' album. Egan and Rafferty repeatedly demonstrate that they're at least as good as any vocal duo currently working. Egan's tough, tense, but always musical voice blends without apparent effort with Rafferty's calm, smokey-on-the-edges tenor. The timbres of the two voices are close enough that they can have the benefits of a single voice doubled plus the variety created by the differences in the attacks of the two singers. The pair do some close two-parters, but they seem to prefer a more spontaneous sounding style, and they're so attuned to each other that it comes out tight as it seems loose. I was disappointed to learn recently that Rafferty has left the band (his place has been taken by Luther Grosvener), since the interaction between Rafferty and Egan is central to the group's success on the album. But Egan shows enough skill at singing and writing here to make me confident thathe can easily lead the group himself.
Stealers Wheel juxtaposes sonic elements as other pop albums juxtapose musical styles; call it aural eclecticism. The mixing and matching of sounds and effects is often startingly dramatic, but it never seems hokey or contrived. Because the vocals are so strong, for example, voices are used for many different effects, sometimes in the same song. In "Next To Me," Egan sings softly over an unhurried shuffle track, and his voice is recorded flat, without any studio-applied edge. The song continues on its moody, personal course until the final verse, when Egan's voice is suddenly and unexpectedly joined by a completely impersonal chorale resoundingly singing "dum-diggy dum-diggy" right beside him. But he doesn't modify his intimate delivery at all to combat the intrusion -- he ignores it. The effect seems at first as random as it is startling, but it gives the song an extra dose of tension, and the group a nice touch of audaciousness.
The production nuance isn't limited to the singing. On Egan's most energetic song, "I Get By," a clean, sharp-edged electric guitar line runs right alongside a muddy, distorted one and the resulting sound is so hot that the guitars seem to jump out of the speakers.
I've neglected some songs which range from enjoyably slight to completely absorbing. One obvious standout is the wonderful and durable "Stuck in the Middle," with its blend of humor, paranoia and intimacy. The track boasts not only the vocal inflection but also the emotional tone of middle-Dylan, with just a touch of Randy Newman's "Mama Told Me Not to Come" added. But then, every track is a potential favorite and each has its delights. Everything works with everything else.
Stealers Wheel is one of the first Seventies albums to try to do more than just display its Sixties inspirations. It succeeds in using its influences as the basis of a fresh kind of expression. The album may not sound very ambitious at first, but its ambitions are certainly there to find. This could be an important album.
- Bud Scoppa, Rolling Stone, 5/24/73.
The Leiber and Stoller-produced Stealers Wheel is one of the great debut albums of the 70s, with its hit single "Stuck in the Middle With You." * * * *
- Shane Faubert, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
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