The long career of Newcastle, England, singer Eric Burdon would present an extremely confounding journey if a new listener was tasked with absorbing it en masse. The rockin' R&B of The Animals -- especially their still familiar hits -- would most likely draw our hypothetical anylistener in, and who knows what would happen from there? A few decades worth of stylistic diversions into pop, heavy psych, Latin rock/soul, borderline yacht rock moves and more could inspire a myriad of reactions.
For this listener, Burdon remains an all-time favorite singer; like, say, John Kay, I think he could sing the phone book and make it sound compelling. But as I've gradually picked up various albums over the years, about the only ones I've held on to are Animals' recordings -- and the psych era discs are always in danger of heading to the out box.
Burdon's most recent return to record racks came on Black Friday, in the form of an EP recorded with The Greenhornes. I've heard the tracks, and this one is a keeper. It's a great, organic collaboration, and I'm hoping to see more emerge. That being said, I haven't seen/heard the actual vinyl yet, so a review will have to wait for another day. Also coming soon is a solo Burdon album, Til Your River Runs Dry. However, last week, the always dangerous "it's only a dollar" reasoning led me to once again pick up a copy of Eric is Here, a record I've previously rejected as terrible a couple times but continue to be strangely fascinated by during the increasingly infrequent times it turns up.
Recorded and issued between the dissolution of the original Animals and the formation of the psych rock "Eric Burdon and the Animals," Eric is Here was a U.S.-only release. A few years back as part of a review of the first psych disc, Winds of Change, I dismissed Eric is Here as "mostly icky and over-orchestrated." Upon a fresh listen, I must retract the "over-orchestrated" comment. Actually, there ain't nothing wrong with the arrangements, which tend to remain fairly spare if occasionally busy. They're by jazzmen Benny Golson and Horace Ott, who proved more than able to operate in a pop-soul context sympathetic to Burdon's blues base.
What makes the album such an intriguing (and controversial) orphan is that it was an attempt to move the Burdon/Animals franchise into fairly straight-up pop singer music; think Tom Jones, but not as overblown. The songs were provided by pros including a pre-fame Randy Newman and hot hitmaking teams such as Goffin-King, Mann-Weil, Boyce-Hart, Cordell-Trimachi, D'Errico-Atkins, etc. More interesting is that all these years later, I've still never read a definitive answer as to how this project even came about ... or, even who plays on it. While latter-day "original" Animals drummer Barry Jenkins remained through the psych era and probably plays on at least some of Eric is Here, some sources claim other Animals were involved. If they were, there's not a lot of sonic evidence on the album.
It's no surprise that Burdon's belting style occasionally clashes with the carefully constructed arrangements. However, anyone paying attention to the Animals in the '60s should have realized he was more than just a shouter, and he gives hints here of what would come later. The ballads may not be particularly successful, but prove Burdon could tone it down; slightly spacy tracks like "True Love (Only Comes Once in a Lifetime)" edge toward the full-tilt weirdness coming on Winds of Change. And there are tracks here that work well: Ott's arrangement of "Mama Told Me Not To Come" was largely replicated in Three Dog Night's monster hit a few years later; "That Ain't Where It's At" would have made a great original Animals tune; and, "In the Night" is yet another great lost Boyce-Hart number.
So, rather than being "terrible," Eric is Here is really more an example of an iconoclastic artist busting out of the genre box for the first time. It still makes little sense in the context of the Animals, but it was never really an Animals album anyway. (MGM E-4433, mono, 1967)