At Your Birthday Party

Steppenwolf

ABC Dunhill, 1969

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/26/2008

Has anyone thought about why the hard rock group Steppenwolf is best known for a mere two songs, “Born To Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride?”

While I am a huge fan of their self-titled debut, I’ve found my interest in John Kay and crew growing less and less with each successive album. Their third effort, At Your Birthday Party, is a lackluster effort that tries to reclaim some of their earlier glory while reaching in other musical directions. The problem is that neither are particularly successful.

Yes, this is the disc that spawned Steppenwolf’s last top-ten chart hit with “Rock Me” -- and I will admit this is a pretty enjoyable track, even if it’s definitely not on par with the grossly overplayed two hits previously mentioned. I also was on pretty familiar terms with the track “It’s Never Too Late,” thanks to one of the numerous “bargain bin” best-ofs that MCA (who bought the ABC-Dunhill catalog a long time ago) put out in the ‘80s. Having gone through some very difficult personal issues of late, this track was especially poignant to me, and it remains a hidden gem in the Steppenwolf catalog.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

If only there were more moments like that on At Your Birthday Party. The opening track “Don’t Cry” doesn’t really build up either the band’s momentum or the listener’s interest, while “Chicken Wolf” smacks of what could have been, featuring Kay doing his traditional plays on words in an attempt to grab past glories like on “The Ostrich,” but with far different results this time around. Too bad; this one could have been a great track if it didn’t sound a lot like older Steppenwolf tracks (“Tighten Up Your Wig,” anyone?).

There’s plenty of psychedelia still here (“Sleeping Dreaming,” “Mango Juice”) and  in a “what the hell were they thinking?!?” moment, a touch of country on “Round And Down”. Three words: no, no, NO!!! (Thankfully for the listener, this genre is dumped mid-song, but the damage is done.) If anything, it sometimes feels like Steppenwolf is trying to cover too much ground to rediscover just who they are and where they belong.

That is the overall problem with At Your Birthday Party, a problem that started to manifest itself on Steppenwolf The Second. Just three albums into their career, it seemed like Kay and company didn’t quite know who they wanted to be musically, despite hitting the charts hard with, by now, a total of three songs. That confusion is rampant on this disc, and it shows in the songwriting and performances. Tracks like “She’ll Be Better,” “Jupiter’s Child,” and “God Fearing Man” all could have been something spectacular, but they all fall into a pool of mediocrity.

One notable standout is the instrumental “Cat Killer,” a bluesy, rollicking piano number that leads into “Rock Me.” I’m not saying that the band should have gone straight into instrumentals for an entire album, but had they been able to capture that energy and spontaneity like is present in this 92-second blast, then this album could have been all the better because of it.

At Your Birthday Party has one or two nice gifts in the pile, but in the big picture, it’s more like the creepy clown doing balloon animals. You just want to turn and run for your mommy.

Rating: C-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


Comments

Thanks Chris, Good review, it's one of those albums you'd see in every bargain bin, consider, but could not bare to part with the 99 cents.








© 2008 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of ABC Dunhill, and is used for informational purposes only.