If you stop and think about where the Band members 'were' when this record was recorded (in approximately three weeks' time), it's hard not to see it as a watershed moment for them; they were arguably the world's biggest band at the time (for better or worse), and in some ways, the 'worse' was taking its toll on the band members' lives. Page's experimentation with heroin had morphed into an addiction, and Bonham's drinking (long excessive) had grown even worse. Thus, from a health perspective (as well as emotional well-being) this very well might have been the low point (or the start of a prolonged low point) for the band, at least, according to various interviews with the surviving band members. Indeed, Plant sang most of these tracks from his wheelchair, while recovering from an automobile accident in Greece (When I first posted this review I had erroneously said, referring to the accident "that left his son dead - talk about living in the shadow of something dark...I am amazed that he could even find the motivation and focus". However, I was wrong, though Robert sustained serious injuries as a result of said automobile accident; Plant's wife Maureen, was also injured, and hospitalized for treatment. The Plant's lost their son Karac not as a consequence of the accident, but rather due to a viral infection around two years after the incident in Rhodes).
The track listing is as follows - I'll try to give a brief description of each:
1) Achilles Last Stand
2) For Your Life
3) Royal Orleans
4) Nobody's Fault But Mine
5) Candy Store Rock
6) Hots On For Nowhere
7) Tea For One
"Achilles Last Stand": Hmmm...well, I have to say that this is a huge, sprawling track. (Jimmy) page purportedly overdubbed something like nine individual guitar parts to make this come together, but like a lot of Zeppelin's tracks, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It's also one of the longest songs in the canon and features a cyclical nature, that is, the track fades in (at the start) and out (at the end) with Bonham performing essentially the same phrasing on the drum kit. This is a thunderous track, and you can see where a song like this, played as it is (great performances from all, but especially the drumming, which is (for rock), mighty impressive) and with its allegorical lyrics, it does sort of conjure-up some other worldliness. While in production, Page (who oversaw most of the production for this release) used Vari-speed, and the previously mentioned overdubs to come up with the wall of guitar parts. Page has been quoted as saying that he feels this track is every bit as good as "Stairway to Heaven" (love it or hate it...it's an icon), and that when experimenting with the production, he decided to do the exhaustive guitar over-dubbing; initially, most of the band members thought that he had 'gone mad', but as Page has stated, upon hearing it, they understood his musical vision for the piece. Overall, this track is probably as technically involved and challenging to play as just about any other high point in the catalog. Very, very impressive. If, perchance, you play the drums...you'll want to give this one a listen.
For Your Life: If I'm interpreting this correctly, this is effectively a song about a guy whose significant other is struggling with what appears to be a formidable addiction to drugs, most probably cocaine. This is also borne out by the lore about this song, several sources of which say that Plant wrote the lyrics in reference to a girlfriend that he once had (and if you listen very closely right around the 5:30 mark in the song, you can hear the sound of someone performing an exaggerated 'snort', so it sounds logical enough). Musically, a very interesting tune. As if often the case, the rests in a piece are often as important as the beats...and that is definitely the case here - it gives the track a very herky-jerky rhythm, and Bonham (drums) and Jones (Bass) are in dead-on lockstep in these beats. Interesting guitar work here as well as Page uses what certainly sounds like a whammy-bar, though to be fair and honest, I'm not sure which guitar(s) he used for this track.
"Royal Orleans": Early in the review, I mentioned the humor that, until realizing the lyrics, had long been lost on me. What we have here is a song about a guy who, by circumstance or deed, picks up a call girl, only to find out that she's a man. This track is purportedly based on a true story (this happened to John Paul Jones) when the band were living it up in New Orleans, and according to lore, was the name of a hotel in which the Band liked to stay. There appears to be some truth to this as Plant used to joke about this tune during live shows, specifically in reference to Jones. Back to the humor - there's a lyric in the song that goes "When I step out, strut down with my sugar, She'd best not talk like Barry White!". Still, setting the humor aside, the musicianship is really good here - great guitar riffs and phrasing, and Bonham's drumming is replete with a relaxed yet focused swing to it.
"Nobody's Fault But Mine": Just wonderful drumming here...heavily syncopated, and some really, really good harmonica riffs laid down by Plant. 'Zeppelin 'borrowed' heavily from American blues musicians, and I have read (though have not substantiated) that this is actually a cover of a Blind Willie Johnson tune; still others say it's a Robert Johnson tune...or an Otis Redding tune...I can't say, but what I can say is that this is a great tune that, like most tracks on this, feature some great cohesive playing. Lyircally, it's great fun as Plant uses a faux-stutter to emphasize certain lyrics and diminish others. A great tune, and again, largely overlooked by fans and critics alike. Stories abound as to the theme or inspiration for this, but the most logical seems to be that Plant wrote this after having developed an addiction to pain killers (prescribed after a serious car accident in Greece, which killed Plant's son, and put him in a wheelchair for part of his recovery). Regardless of the theme...or the subject for that matter, here's another one that is very high energy, and as the kids say (or once said), "rocks".
"Candy Store Rock" : In many ways, this tune's sound telegraphed what was to come on "In Through the Out Door", specifically, "Hot Dog". However, in contrast to Hot Dog, which was (in my opinion) somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Candy Store Rock really has its roots in true Rockabilly; you can hear Plant channeling Elvis on this one, but more specifically, the slap-back echo so prevalent in early Elvis (and other rockabilly) recordings is likewise rendered here. Rockabilly was always an important (and shared) experience for most of the band members (in particular Page, influenced by British skiffle, itself arguably a derivative of American Rockabilly) and Plant, for whom Elvis was always an iconic singer). In fact, the band were known (especially shortly after having formed and thus, not having all that much original material to play) to cover songs by the likes of Eddie Cochran ("Summertime Blues", "Somethin' Else" et al) and others like him. As far as subject matter, lyrically, and 'conceptually', I would say that this is pretty close to the subject matter of another raucous 'Zeppelin classic, "Custard Pie". According to some 'sources', Plant considers this as one of his favorite 'Zeppelin songs, and according to still other 'sources', Plant felt that this song, and "Achilles Last Stand" were the only 'strong' vocal performances on "Presence". I have to disagree though (if this is in fact true) as I find much of the vocals on display elsewhere on the album to be really, really good.
"Hots On For Nowhere": Like "For Your Life", the musical phrasing here is herky-jerky, but very, very catchy. I can't even tell you why, but I love the timbre of the guitars achieved here. Yes, I love the phrasing, but it's the timbre that grabs my ear...and never lets go. If I'm not mistaken, there's more whammy-bar work around the 2:18 mark. I find the rhythm and lead phrasing here really, really fun. Some (in forums etc) have said this is Zeppelin's worst song, but I just can't agree with that - for me, that distinction goes to "Dancing Days" (on "Houses of the Holy", an album, I otherwise love). Lots of reverb (and some echo) on the guitars here, which fatten them out nicely. Lyrically, another interesting song. According to some 'sources', this was written by Plant as a thinly-veiled attack on Page and (Peter) Grant, the Band's Manager whom he flet were not sensitive to Plant's aesthetic desires and visions for the Band. That may be all conjecture (a polite word for BS), but whether about Page and Grant, there is an interesting self-Bowdlerization of the lyrics; Plant sings about "friends who would give me fluck-all", apparently as a way to get the song past the U.S. radio censors. Whether that part is true seems inconsequential. Again, it's an indicator as to where the Band members were 'in their heads' while making this record, so whether it was directed at them, or someone else in general matters not...but the frustration felt by the singer comes across.
"Tea For One": Even the first time I heard this, I could not help but think that it was derivative of "Since I've Been Loving You" (on Led Zeppelin III), one of my favorite ballads ads from the band. While not a musician, I have read that both tunes (TFO and SIBLY) are basically 12-bar blues written in C-minor, so maybe this explains why both tunes affect me in similar ways. Yes, this is a simple blues, but like most well-executed blues, I find this tune really affects me - it's both sad and beautiful all at once. To this day, it affects me emotionally every time that I hear it, and while nowhere near as complex as some of the other tunes on this release (or other 'Zeppelin releases), it still affects me. I like this to good film-making; in the end, I may not be crazy about what the film says (i.e. its message), but if it affects me, and makes me think about what I have just seen, then it's a success in my book. Such is the case here. Again, given the choice, SILBY is my preferred 'version' of this theme, but at the same time, it also fits what the band members were struggling with at the time. It's dark haunting, and somber...and everything in it - from the drumming and bass, to Plant's vocals...to Page's guitar phrasing and timbre, convey this emotion to me. Clearly, we have to consider frame of reference - Obviously the Band are British, and let's face it - for the Brits, tea is as much about structure as it is a set-aside time for social interaction. The idea of tea for one conveys, at least to me, the idea of loneliness and isolation - and it certainly comes across in the feel of the tune...but I suspect that this is very much what Plant was feeling when he penned these lyrics.
In summary, like I said, I don't see this as the band's most 'uniform' or 'even' effort. However, I do think that it stands on its own merits and truly does not get the attention that it should. Moreover, if you factor-in what each band member was struggling with while making this recording, I think it informs the recordings, and makes this pretty much akin to a time capsule for the band - where it was, where it was going, and in fact, just how (precious) little time they had left as a band - it ended all too abruptly.
Look...you can borrow this CD for free. Do it. Give it a listen...that's all. You may just like it.