Saturday, September 28, 2013

In Through The Out Door (1979)

The strangest thing happened when I put on In Through The Out Door - it was like a breath of fresh air after listening to Presence multiple times on repeat. I don't know what it is - the songwriting, or the production, or what - but Presence is a very oppressive, even claustrophobic record. It's unique in Zep's discography, and In Through The Out Door sees Zep back in their regular mode (the one that involves tackling various genres). But this is not the same Led Zeppelin that produced albums 1-4, HotH, or even Physical Graffiti. Four years have passed since Physical Graffiti, and the '70s is coming to a close. You can already hear the age in Robert Plant's voice - he's not the screaming rock god he was in 1969. And the album features lots of keyboard and synthesizers, heralding the rapid approach of that pernicious decade for rock music, the '80s.

About a year after the release of this album, John Bonham would turn up dead (official cause of death: excessive partying), and the band would make the decision that they can not go on without all four members (an appropriate and respectful decision, I feel). It was the end of an era, in more ways than one. What would Led Zeppelin have sounded like if they continued on, or if John Bonham hadn't died? There's no telling. Rumor has it that they were planning to go in a heavier direction again, but could they have escaped the musical influences of the '80s? Chances are poor. Many other big bands of the '60s and '70s who survived into the '80s in some form or another (including the likes of Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones) suffered in that decade. Regardless, Led Zeppelin had made their mark on the musical landscape, and it was perhaps time for them to step aside and let someone else carry the torch into the future.

There is one thing that Presence and In Through The Out Door have in common - their two best (though not most popular) songs are found at the start and the end of the album. ITTOD opens with an interesting track called In The Evening. It doesn't quite manage to be the rock hit that this album so desperately needs, but it's got a good riff, and an eerie part at the beginning. It definitely has a bit of a unique sound to it, and the guitar and vocals both scream to me "aging Zeppelin", but at the same time, it's the best song on the album. Though that doesn't bode particularly well for the rest of the album.

South Bound Saurez (sic) is, honestly, a song that doesn't make much of an impression. I'd say it's one of the most forgettable songs in Zep's catalog. Which isn't to say that it's terrible, but it just doesn't have a whole lot to make it memorable. There's some piano going on here, and a bit of "sha na na" in the outro, so even the fairly decent guitar solo (which is too rare on this album) isn't enough to save it from sounding almost pop/dance-like. Like I said, it's not terrible, but I doubt you'll ever hear yourself saying, "ooh, put on South Bound Saurez!" (Though I have a feeling the semi-intentional typo may contribute to your unwillingness to say the title out loud, for fear of mispronouncing it -_^).

Then we come to the first of the two really popular songs on this album - Fool In The Rain. I'll admit, I was at one time sick to death of this song. I guess I can sort of understand its popularity - it's one of the more accessible songs on the album, and the lyrics are fun, about a man waiting for his date, who fears he's been stood up, until he realizes he's been standing on the wrong block. But it's just not a good rock song. I mean, it's got that piano again, and some kind of weird tropical island shit going on that sounds like it was misplaced from a Jimmy Buffet recording, and there's actually a whistle in the solo. A whistle! Having been away from it for so long, I can stand to listen to it now, but trust me, when a group of sorority girls play it loud and often, alongside Def Leppard's Pour Some Sugar On Me and other syrupy pop-rock fluff, it gets tired really fast.

I'll tell you a secret. I actually don't hate Hot Dog, even though it's a light-hearted country-ish, almost square dance-like, hoe-down type of a tune. I mean, I don't really like it, but it does have a fun little guitar riff. Frankly, at least from a vocal standpoint, I think this is a more successful channeling of Elvis than Candy Store Rock was, but it sure ain't no Hound Dog (which was actually first recorded by blues belter Big Mama Thornton before Elvis got his hands on it). Unless you live in some place that actually still holds their school dances in barns, you're probably not going to go crazy for Hot Dog, but at least it's not as forgettable as South Bound Saurez.

I knew a DJ once (well, knew of him) who said on one occasion that those people who considered Carouselambra their favorite Led Zeppelin song were the band's true fans. He was probably just joking, but I wouldn't put it past him to have really meant it. Seriously, though, Carouselambra is just not that good. It's ten minutes long, yet it comes up rather short of being epic. It's heavy on the synth keyboards, and seems to want to be a prog song. But it just isn't effective or convincing - you'll be much more impressed if you just go listen to a Yes recording. But it's an interesting enough experiment for the band. They're just much better at applying their virtuosic talents to good old-fashioned blues and rock 'n roll. Still, I've treated Carouselambra as a joke for a long time now, and - I'm still not about to give it any awards, but - I think that it at least deserves a little more credit than that.

Honestly, I feel bad saying anything negative about All My Love, because it's this emotional ballad Robert Plant wrote for his son who tragically died in 1977. It seems almost disrespectful, but then, the song and the tragedy are two separate things. And it's not that All My Love isn't a good song. It sounds just fine. It's just that it's not the kind of song I enjoy. Even as ballads go, it's not a rock song. I mean, it's got a synthesizer solo. It's a good enough synthesizer solo - that's not the issue. It's that the overall sound of the song doesn't get me going. And while it's good for any band to make some successful music outside of their usual style (this song proved to be fairly popular), it's not the sort of song I would point to and say, "listen to this, this is Led Zeppelin, man." I mean, it's another example of how this whole album is good enough, for what it is, but doesn't really manage to be a great Led Zeppelin album.

The last song on the album is a track called I'm Gonna Crawl, and is one of the two I'd rate the best on the album. It's not as much rock 'n roll as In The Evening - in fact, I'd probably put it in the category of ballad - but it's got a nice, slow, triplet beat, kind of hinting at the structure of a slow blues without strictly being a blues, and Plant's pained vocals give it the sort of pathos I like in a song. Additionally, it's got a pretty insistent guitar part that cuts in where the song's energy peaks, and one of the better solos on this album. I hate to knock the keyboards again - John Paul Jones is a fantastic musician, and he made plenty of worthwhile contributions to the band, that's not under debate - but it's one of those instruments that's a little bit foreign to rock music (like horns in the blues), and using it effectively in a rock song without "watering it down" is very tricky to do (if that's even your intention). But take a song like No Quarter - the keyboard part makes that song, and yet it's still a really good piece of rock. And the symphonic parts on Stairway to Heaven were just perfect. But here, on I'm Gonna Crawl, it just seems to take the song in a softer direction, that works at cross-purposes to what everything else is doing in the song. That's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it.

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