Brain Capers

Mott The Hoople

Atlantic, 1972

http://www.mottthehoople.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/06/2009

The year 1972 was do or die time for Mott The Hoople.  The brilliant promise of their self-titled debut had been steadily dissipated by the disappointingly sloppy Mad Shadows and the borderline incoherent Wildlife.  Were they the next coming of the Rolling Stones, a swaggering band of rock and roll giants, or merely an untamable five-headed beast more prone to dashing expectations than living up to them?

A little of each, of course.

The pressure had to be weighing on the boys – Ian Hunter (vocals/piano), Mick Ralphs (guitar/vocals), Verden Allen (organ), Overend Watts (bass) and Dale “Buffin” Griffin (drums) -- as they went into the studio to record their next disc.  In today’s short-attention span world, Atlantic would most likely never have backed them making a third album, let alone a fourth.  But back in the day, bands with promise had a little more rope, and Mott yanked on theirs as hard as they could for as long as they could manage to keep things together.

Regardless, there can be no doubt that a lot was riding on the quality of the album that would become Brain Capers.  For the band to remain viable, the album had to be great, and it had to sell.

One out of two isn’t bad.

Brain Capers, goofy name aside, is in fact one of the lost rock and roll classics of the ’70s, the album that finally fulfilled the promise the group demonstrated on Mott The Hoople.  Here Ian Hunter found his voice as both a singer and a songwriter, and in “The Journey” and “Sweet Angeline,” wrote not one but two of what over time grew into a library of great songs.  Here Mick Ralphs gave his career-best lead vocal performance (on, of all things, country-folk singer Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness Darkness”) while consistently delivering the kind of rock-solid guitar work that would characterize his next career in Bad Company.  Most of all, here Mott finally plays like you always knew they could, tight and sassy from start to finish, writing songs like Dylan, rocking out like the Stones and delivering more self-deprecating charm than either has ever mustered.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The album kicks off rather ominously with “Death May Be Your Santa Claus,” the rhythm section starting alone and seeming to take a moment to warm up to the tune before the other three storm in and take control.  Allen’s very Jon Lord/Deep Purple organ work counterpoints Ralphs’ muscular riffing and Hunter plays ringleader with all the required panache on this thundering track.

You know an album is good when even the secondary tracks are rock-solid.  “Your Own Backyard” feels like a lost Dylan number early with Allen’s organ dominating, but the song steadily gains power as it builds and Hunter sings it with total confidence.  Then it’s Ralphs’ turn with his churning, memorable take on “Darkness Darkness,” and then… wow.

“The Journey” is simply stunning, a nine-minute Hunter piece that holds interest all the way, starting out solo at the piano and executing a winding, steady build all the way to its magnificent conclusion.  The band’s growth can be seen in the way they chose to let the song continually evolve, advancing and then falling back, rather than having it degenerate into a big jam.  In 9:12, there isn’t a wasted note.

Thirty-six years later, “Sweet Angeline” remains a staple of Ian Hunter’s songbook, a smashing rocker of a love song that’s tight and sweet and just about note-perfect.  It’s so giddily sharp that you forgive the guys for adding out-of-place horns to the ensuing ballad “Second Love.”  Which you promptly forget all about once “The Moon Upstairs” – a rare Hunter-Ralphs co-write – kicks you in gut with its stomping riff and throat-grabbing drive.

The only real sour note on the album is producer Guy Steven’s bad joke of a final track, in which he yanks a 76-second outtake of the band goofing around chaotically with the middle section of “The Journey” from the cutting room floor, throws it on the album as track eight and calls it “The Wheel Of The Quivering Meat Conception.”  It’s one of those gags that might have seemed funny at four in the morning, but falls flat in the new light of dawn.

And now, to the catch.  When the dust cleared, Mott The Hoople had released the best album of their young, precarious career – and no one bought it.  Oh sure, the critics and the diehards loved it, but the vast public beyond those cozy circles remained mostly indifferent to the British quintet with the ferocious rep and the odd name. 

With those results, the band should have been dead in the water -- and in fact, they were.  If not for the white knight (duke?) waiting in the wings to rescue the band from oblivion, Brain Capers would have been the triumphant epilogue to Mott The Hoople, rather than only the final scene of the band’s tumultuous first act.

Rating: A-

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