Album Review: Robin Trower – Farther On Up the Road (part 2)

In Part One of my review, I covered the three albums that Robin Trower released in the last three years of the 1970s, ending with the middling Victims of the Fury. In this section I look at his next three releases; all six are collected in the 2012 compilation Farther On Up the Road.

Things improved greatly a year later; though Dewar was an effective singer, his vocal delivery displayed little variety, heightening the sameness in Trower’s songs. So Trower enlisted the peerless vocal and instrumental talents of Cream bassist Jack Bruce. Bruce’s presence seems to have enlivened Trower: “Into Money” finds the guitarist displaying more fire in his playing than had been heard on recent albums. Even slower tracks like “What it Is” – propelled nicely by the ace rhythm section of Bruce and Lordan – seem to swagger where they might have plodded before. Trower’s arpeggiated and suspended chords anchor the tasty “Won’t Let You Down,” and the track features typically ace vocal work from Jack Bruce. Fans who were disappointed at the laid-back sounds Eric Clapton was making around this time (Money and Cigarettes, for example) could rightly hear echoes of Cream in B.L.T., especially on cuts like the “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”-inspired “No Island Lost.” A brief bust tasty blues harp solo is the highlight of the already-appealing “Feel the Heat.” With Bruce’s vocals, Trower finally had a foil whose talents equaled his own. Where the variety on Victims of the Fury sounded like a band in search of a style, on B.L.T. it feels like a band in command of its talents, intent on trying (and making) new things because they can. Even the Cream parody of “End Game” is a treat, especially when Trower rips out a blistering solo; Bruce’s sympathetic bass work during that solo is a thrill on its own.

No doubt sensing that the had hit on a good thing, Trower headed back into the studio mere months later, again with Jack Bruce. But this time, ever-faithful Bill Lordan was replaced by Reg Isidore, Trower’s drummer on his first two albums. This trio’s release was 1982’s Truce. “Gone Too Far” features some effective dialogue between Trower’s guitar and Bruce’s bass, and throughout the reocrd Bruce’s peerless bass talents make the songs more interesting than they’d otherwise be. Occasional arrangement choices and production flourishes mark Truce very much of its time, but that quality is likely only evident in hindsight. Funk makes a surprise appearance with “Fat Gut,” and Bruce tinkles the ivories on the evocative “Shadows Touching.” Continuing that departure from the guitar-bass-drums format, “Take Good Care of Yourself” features some organ work form Bruce, and gospel-flavored backing vocals. The song’s arrangement could easily have pointed the way forward, a new direction for Trower.

Instead, the aptly-named Back it Up was released in 1983, continuing a string of six albums within eight years. Jack Bruce left and began a long association with producer Kip Hanrahan, focusing on a more Latin-influenced style. As far as Trower’s band, Dewar was back on vocals and (occasional) bass, Reid returned as lyricist on a few tunes, and Dave Bronze played bass on a number of tracks. The drum seat was filled by Alan Clarke. Stylistically, Back it Up represented a sound stuck in neutral; though not flawed in any real way, Trower’s sounds were decidedly out of step with the pop mainstream: not “stadium-rock” enough to compete with the likes of Asia and Dire Straits, and certainly not fodder for the then-popular MTV. For fans of his style, Back it Up is a solid entry that seems to pick up right where Victims of the Fury left off (but with better songwriting and playing), but the feeling that we’ve-heard-this-before nags at the listener. “Black to Red” has flashes of the old fire, and “Benny Dancer” is a pleasing nine-minute showcase of both flash and subtlety. And “Islands” sounds like a restrained version of Jeff Beck.

Taken as a whole, the six albums’ worth of music on Farther On Up the Road shows an artist building on a style (the first two albums), running out of ideas within that framework (the third of the six LPs), finding a new, exciting and fruitful direction (the fourth and fifth albums with Jack Bruce) and retreating to a tried-and-true formula (the sixth album). Fans of Trower’s style would do well to pick this set up if only to fill a gap (they likely already have Twice Removed From Yesterday, Bridge of Sighs and For Earth Below). While Trower would earn plaudits for his work beginning around the turn of the century, the albums that would follow the six on Farther On Up the Road represent his weakest period. Less flashy than the guitar shredders who would appear later (Satriani, Steve Vai, etc.), Trower’s work rarely fails to excite, and the six albums in this set offer plenty to entertain his fans.

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