When you think about it, the James Gang was pretty much doomed from the beginning. They came of age when a pair of other power trios—the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream—had already run their course and who’d featured a pair of undeniable guitar legends. So what was the James Gang thinking releasing Yer Album, a debut record of unfocused jams, not-quite-ready originals, and a bunch of covers heavy on noodling and light on inspiration?
Keep in mind, this was an era when anything was possible. For crying out loud, a band as creatively limited as Iron Butterfly came across a nifty riff, repeated the damn thing for over a quarter of an hour, and suddenly became the biggest selling thing on Atlantic Records. So I’m sure that a few label execs at ABC records green-lighted Yer Album because they didn’t have a clue as to what may stick and what would fall.
Thankfully, the band reconvened for album number two with producer Bill Szymczyk and, essentially, reinterpreted Yer Album with all the best parts kept in and all the freshman aloofness. I don’t know if he was totally responsible for the structure that surrounds Rides Again (he also produced the debut) but I do know that he cut some of the song lengths in half and added a bunch of arrangements that would totally fool the average listener into thinking the band was nothing more than three regular dudes from Ohio: Joe Walsh on vocals and guitar, bassist Dale Peters, and Jim Fox on drums.
“Take A Look Around,” Walsh’s composition from the first album turns into a pot grower’s anthem “Tend My Garden” for the second. “Funk #48” retains the same beat on Rides Again‘s “Funk #49,” but Walsh trims a second off the riff and it makes all the difference in its potency.
Side one mirror’s Yer Album lumbering rust-belt stomp, but it does it with the utmost efficiency. There’s a lifetime of riffs to practice and the tone of Walsh’s Gibson is something to envy. You may have heard the opener “Funk #49” on classic rock stations and perhaps side one’s closer “The Bomber,” but to bookend the two in their proper place on side one is one hell of a first half.
Side 2 is all Walsh, who’s shown noticeable improvement as a lyricist in the year since the James Gang’s debut. They keep the second half a relatively acoustic affair, effortlessly going between elements of American folk, country-rock, and ending the side with the beautiful English folk tinge of “Ashes, The Rain And I.”
For all of the potential of trying to add too many musical elements and too much opportunity for self-absorbed performances, Szymczyk leaves everything at a concise half-hour total. Rides Again lends itself as an album that’s perfect for repeated listens while being just out of classic rock notoriety that it’s shamefully overlooked in many best-of lists that focus on that decade’s most worthy inductees. I’m on my third version of this album and set for a fourth: a definitive remastered edition that corrects some of MCA’s unconscionable editions over the past twenty years.
Walsh lasted for one more studio album and a worthwhile live effort, In Concert, that captured the line-up before Joe went on to a more successful solo career and in a retirement-building stint with the Eagles. None of his subsequent work came close to what he was able to achieve and the same is true of Fox and Peters, both of whom attempted to continue on with the James Gang moniker even after Walsh departed for a solo career.
At its core, Rides Again is a mulligan, a do-over, coming off the heels of a debut where neither artist or producer really had their shit in order to pull off a worthy release. Not only does Rides Again correct the errors of the first, it goes further. In fact, it exceeds beyond what the band probably should have been able to do in the first place. Rides Again is a testament to getting back in the saddle and seeing how far you can go with what should have been a one trick pony.