Daniel Amos as reviewed Phantom TollboothThis classic tsunami of melody gets the full re-issue treatment that it deserves.

Label: Born Twice Records
Time: 13 + 26 tracks / 41 + 76 mins

Shotgun Angel catches Daniel Amos in transition from country to rock artists and shows how intuitively they connect with both genres. It shows too that a great batch of songs can not only last decades, but gain in stature in the process. There are no gimmicks to create an explosive effect here; their keyboards are hardly Wakemanesque, and their style eschews the kind of anthems that excite stadia full of held-aloft phones.

These songs have lasted because they are so inherently strong. They may be humble, short little things – and they were particularly snappy for the mid-70s, when they were written – but each one is enjoyable and memorable in its own way and nearly every one still makes you want to join in. It is a tsunami of melody.

Daniel Amos shows vast ambition here. Country is about as safe a genre as you can get, but here were a group of musicians, plainly at home with its conventions, but pushing out the boundaries of sound and style – something that they were also doing for Christian music (which was no less a conservative environment). Their label, Maranatha Records, were just about to pull the plug on proper music, chopping its output down to just children’s songs and praise music, so what pressures may have also been put on the band in the recording process?

The album consisted of two sides. The first was a mix of country-inspired tracks with touches of humour, while the second was a whole suite of songs about Christ’s return (a theme they would return to fifteen years later on Kalhoun).

If the material he had to work with was already superb, producer Jonathon David Brown has treated it with great respect and skilfully brought some diverse sounds together. The band’s tight harmonies help to unify the sound and he has added some tasteful strings to a lot of the disc, which both softens and warms it.

It is almost impossible to pick out highlights, as they flood the whole work, but “Father’s Arms” reveals the influence that the Eagles must have held over this 1970’s Californian band, with West Coast harmonies, genre-blending and some well-placed guitar licks.

At the other end of their spectrum is the quirky “Meal,” an extended metaphor about being hungry for spiritual food, which comes complete with “carrot choir, celery symphony” and some watery sound effects among the tricks that Brown uses so successfully.

The title track (the only piece not written by the band and a starting point for the album) is simply perfect country rock. Something about the vocal work and strings brings out the poignancy of many of these tracks.

“Bereshith Overture” opens the finale that takes up the entire second half, with tracks merging into each other. This is particularly effective between “He’s Gonna Do a Number on You” and “Better” as a computerized clerk rhythmically cries “next, next, next, next...” When piano joins in, the end of one piece becomes inextricable from the start of the next.

Several of these pieces make this like a mini rock-opera, with a cast of different characters voicing the lyrics as the Anti-Christ comes to fool the world, the Church gets carried away and Christ returns with “A Posse in the Sky” (to emphasise the country tone).

Very sadly, Norman Barratt – one of the best Christian guitarists to emerge from the UK – died recently. Much of this album reminds me of his work in the Alwyn Wall Band from around the same time. A few dashes of pedal steel complete the sound of this adventurous album, which we would now brand Americana.

Disc 2
The new bonus disc has been thoughtfully assembled in three sections, telling the story stage-by-stage and keeping each section in album order. Three early four-track demos include “Posse in the Sky” and “Father’s Arms” alongside the inferior “Jonah and the Whale,” which never became a part of the project. The other two were already surprisingly well-formed.

Then we get virtually the whole album as pre-production demos. At this stage, the band sounds relaxed and jams out the end of “Father’s Arms” as well as showing more of the fun of “Black Gold Fever.” Terry Scott Taylor’s formidable lyrical skills also help:

“Goin’ down to Texas, where you can’t see the top of their hats
That’s fat-cat country, ‘thank you, honey, put the money in the sack’
Makin’ oil my middle name, gonna play the rich man’s game.”

Then, after a few studio snippets, the gems come out: alternate takes of nine tracks. This is where we can sense the decisions that the band and producer made and how the album might have sounded. Some pieces are unchanged, but “The Whistler” feels very different, given a sparser and darker treatment, while “Sail Me Away” is also very stripped back, almost sounding à capella at the beginning. “Meal” features less of the carrot choir and more of the Rolf Harris-meets-Looney Tunes vocals.It is also interesting to hear the band-played demo of “Bereshith Overture,” which was to be a piece played by strings.

Apart from the interest in seeing the process develop, this disc works as fresh versions to enjoy in their own right, and because they have all been kept in album order, they can be played as a genuine alternative.

There are small complaints about the package, which is generally very well put together in a three-part Digipak. There is nowhere to keep the twenty-page booklet, which contains full lyrics and plenty of photos, but no commentary on the band or disc.

But I will happily put up with that for a release that brings out the full glory of a humble collection of songs that shows craft and creativity. It is an eighteen-wheeler-full of great tunes.

Derek Walker