The Joker

Steve Miller Band

Capitol, 1973

http://www.stevemillerband.com

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/01/2012

There comes a point for some artists when they realize that their old approach to music isn’t working. Either they have gone as far as they can go in their first genre or they are not selling any records and need to pay the rent. As such, a reinvention of sound is necessary, and most often this is a turn toward the commercial.

I’m not talking about artists like Bowie, U2, and R.E.M., who evolved and changed their sound with each album, but more about artists like Fleetwood Mac, Genesis, and Steve Miller, who turned away from their past and toward a friendlier, more accessible sound. In Miller’s case, this meant dropping the psychedelia and blues of his first five albums for a more straightforward, dumbed down, radio-ready approach.

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It worked – “The Joker” was his catchiest song to date, featuring all the things that would become a hallmark of Miller’s music in the ‘70s: inane, trite lyrics, a hummable guitar hook, and an easygoing party vibe. The song itself has become stale over the years, not only for its total lack of substance but for words like “Really love your peaches / Wanna shake your tree” and “I’m a midnight toker / Sure don’t wanna hurt no one.” Where the song succeeds is its establishment of another persona for Miller, as he name-checks two older songs before going on to reveal why he is just a joker. And, of course, nobody has ever figured out what a “pompatus” of love is, so there’s that.

That song closes out the first side (first half) of the music. Also present on this first side is the awful, overlong “Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma” and “Sugar Babe,” the opener that establishes Miller’s new sound. It’s not as bad as the title cut, but not up to par with what would come later on Fly Like An Eagle. Covers of “Mary Lou” and “Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash” are bluesy songs with all the blues stripped away, sounding like a jokey party boy making fun of his past. I guess it lives up to the title.

Things improve on the second half. “The Lovin’ Cup” is closer to a real blues spirit, with harmonica and a shuffling beat; it’s brief but appealing. A live version of “Come On In My Kitchen” seems to have come from the Children Of The Future era with pretty good acoustic work from Miller in a solo turn. “Evil” seems to have come from the same concert. This cut is a true blues crawl with more heart than anything here and a decent solo to boot, similar to what the Allman Brothers were doing around the same time but on a much smaller scale, of course.

The dual nature presents The Joker as an obvious transition album, a way to keep the old fans around while bringing new ones on for the new direction. It doesn’t hold up as a great album because of this dichotomy and the piffle on the first side, but all Miller fans should find at least two songs here they will enjoy.

Rating: C-

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