Friday, April 6, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1123: Buck Dharma

After a couple of sleepless nights and a lot of fretting I decided to not buy the car I test drove. It was a beautiful piece of European engineering and style, but my heart still lies with American muscle. In the end Rock and Roll Logan won out over Businessman Logan.

And so the search continues, as does the CD Odyssey.

Disc 1123 is… Flat Out
Artist: Buck Dharma

Year of Release: 1982

What’s up with the Cover? Buck leans back majestically on a 1955 or ’56 Oldsmobile Starfire. Too bad Buck’s car has a flat because when the Starfire is up and running it’s the standout car on every highway, with the smoothest get-up-and-go you’ve ever known! Don’t believe me? – see for yourself.

How I Came To Know It: Buck Dharma is the lead guitar for Blue Oyster Cult. I learned this record existed years ago but it was impossible to find. Finally in 2003 they re-released it on CD. I’m still searching for it on vinyl. I don’t buy a lot of vinyl but for Buck Dharma I would make an exception.

How It Stacks Up:  Buck only did one solo album so it can’t really stack up.

Ratings: 4 stars

Blue Oyster Cult is a band where every member contributes to their sound. Because of this any one of them having solo success is a tough proposition. “Flat Out” makes a few missteps, but overall Buck Dharma proves that he has the songwriting and guitar playing talent to pull it off.

“Flat Out” was released in between two solid and successful Blue Oyster Cult records, “Fire of Unknown Origin” (1981) and “The Revolution by Night” (1983). In style, it resembles the latter more, with a much more pronounced early eighties fuzz in the production. I don’t love this sound, but Buck’s solo style and his high crooner vocal style matches it well.

The album begins with “Born to Rock” a blues-rock number and Buck’s tip of the hat to BOC fans expecting some hard rock. It is an energetic launch to the record and features some of Buck’s signature work on the guitar, but the bridge has some oooh-la-la-la” action that warns fans this will not just be another BOC record.

Buck then spreads his musical wings, experimenting with pop, doo-wop and prog-rock storytelling that is more in line with Pink Floyd than Blue Oyster Cult. If you just wanted another BOC album this might annoy you, but I loved it. Buck Dharma compositions are consistently some of my favourite BOC songs, and it is fun to hear let him untethered to any of his band mate’s influences.

Like with a BOC album, the guitar work is incredible, but in the back of the mix. Even solo, Buck knows well enough to let his guitar serve the song and not the other way around. As a result the record never descends into the noodle-fest it could, and the songs remain compact and thoughtfully structured.

The one exception to this is “Anwar’s Theme” an instrumental dedicated to recently assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. It is cool that Dharma wrote Sadat a song, but is a bit too heavy handed, a bit too jazzy and a has whole lot of noodling. I believe at a couple points it features a synthesized jazz flute. For instrumentals, I prefer the much earlier BOC number “Buck’s Boogie.”

Also heavy handed is “Your Loving Heart” which tells the tragic tale of a man dying of heart failure, saved by a transplant that only becomes available (spoiler alert) when his true love dies in a car crash and is revealed as a matching donor. The song starts out romantic and beautiful, but the middle section has just a whole lot going on – including a heart machine, a ringing phone, a ticking clock and hackneyed lyrics like:

“We have a donor! We have a donor!
Car accident – accident victim
Head injury! A good tissue match!”

I’m not sure if all those exclamation points are in the liner notes, but Buck sure sings it with a lot of positive yeehaw. This song reminded me of solo Roger Watters – still brilliant but now lacking someone to tell him less is more.

My favourite track is “Cold Wind” a song about a married man considering infidelity. Even though the worst crimes in the song are some romantic thoughts in a dream, Buck’s soaring vocals make it feel like the height of passion and angst. Also, there is some kick-ass guitar work (again).

On “Wind Weather Storm” the main instruments are a single drum sounding like a handclap, a stand up jazz base and (near the end) flourishes of saxophone. This should not work, but it builds so easily and the song is so damned catchy it all comes together.

The record ends with a cover of the Fleetwood’s “Come Softly to Me.” The song starts with some strange backward-playing tape but once Buck launches into the song he really shows his vocal chops. He doesn’t have a powerhouse voice, but it is sweet and he sings it like he means it.

My appreciation of “Flat Out” was helped a lot by the fact that Buck Dharma is the favourite member of my favourite band, so this record won’t be for everyone. It mixes up a lot of styles and not all of those experiments work. If you’re open to many musical styles and you like Blue Oyster Cult, give “Flat Out” a try. If you’re neither or only one of these things then approach with caution.

Best tracks: Born to Rock, That Summer Night, Cold Wind, Wind Weather and Storm, Come Softly to Me

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