Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Elf - 1974 - Carolina County Ball

Carolina County Ball

01. Carolina County Ball 4:45
02. L.A. 59 4:22
03. Ain't It All Amusing 5:00
04. Happy 5:28
05. Annie New Orleans 2:59
06. Rocking Chair Rock 'N' Roll Blues 5:37
07. Rainbow 4:00
08. Do The Same Thing
09. Blanche 5:41

Producer – Roger Glover

Bass – Craig Gruber
Vocals – Ronnie Dio
Drums, Percussion – Gary Driscoll
Guitar – Steve Edwards
Keyboards, Vocals – Micky Lee Soule

Strings – Mountain Fjord
Trombone – Chris Pyne
Trumpet – Henry Lowther
Clarinet – Ray Swinfield
Vocals [Singer] – Barry St. John, Helen Chappell, Liza Strike

Two years after the release of their eponymous debut, Elf went back into the studio to record their second album. In this time, some changes had taken place with regards to the band’s lineup. David ‘Rock’ Feinstein was replaced as the group’s axeman by Steve Edwards and Craig Gruber was brought in to handle bass guitar duties. This freed up singer Ronald James Padavona (A.K.A. Ronnie James Dio) to concentrate fully on his vocals and lyrics for the next album. Along with the newcomers and fellow veterans Mickey Lee Soule on the keys and Gary Driscoll battering the skins, Ronnie set about making an album superior to their groundbreaking but hardly successful debut, in his bid to forge a name for himself and his band.

Despite being a brilliantly conceived and expertly executed record, not to mention falling very much in line with the 1970s rock music zeitgeist, Elf did not see much commercial success. Even touring in support of rock giants Deep Purple did not seem to be gaining the band much in the way of recognition. However, producer and Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover continued to believe in them and kept them on his Purple label, financing two more albums for the band. They also caught the attentions of guitar legend Ritchie Blackmore, who left Deep Purple in 1974. The Deep Purple influence is even more evident in Carolina County Ball than the debut, resulting in a much more complex effort that brought together elements of hard rock, funk, jazz, blues, southern rock and a dose of boogie-woogie to boot. Those who would only come to know Dio through his work with Black Sabbath and his own eponymous band may find this sound shocking, even comical, but it was with this sound that Dio made his name, and things were about to get a lot more interesting.

The first point of interest is new guitarist Steve Edwards. Edwards had pretty big boots to fill, replacing Dio’s own cousin on the six– string. Feinstein’s axework was integral to the raw rocking sound of the group’s debut. Thankfully, Edwards’ skill is on par with Feinstein’s, dishing out those licks and riffs in a style so similar to Feinstein that his addition to the band’s ranks was to no detriment whatsoever. Edwards shines on tracks such as the hard-rocking L.A. 59- the track after which the album was named in the United States and Japan for some reason- and the ridiculously catchy Annie New Orleans. He could certainly solo like the best of his contemporaries, which included the likes of Joe Perry of Aerosmith and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. New bassist Gruber shows off his chops brilliantly here as well, showing himself to be a much more capable bassist than Dio. Joined by the underrated Driscoll, their simple but crucial driving rhythms keep the album afloat. Gruber’s work also adds funky elements more prominently than on the debut, with songs such as the bouncy title track and the surreal closer Blanche being of a deeper and more complex nature than much of the tracks on the debut. 

Mickey Lee Soule, however, absolutely tears it up on the piano throughout the record. Rock and roll has produced some fine musicians over the years, but Soule is certainly amongst the most underrated of all time. He practically does the work of a second bassist and a second guitarist simultaneously, with plenty of lead breaks on the keys and even a few full blown piano solos here and there, such as in the mid-paced rocker Rocking Chair Rock N Roll Blues and the especially piano-centric Rainbow. The piano and guitar intertwine most effectively on the super slow Happy, the closest thing the album has to a ballad. As a whole, the album is much more complex instrument-wise, with each member demonstrating a wide range of influences that shine through to make each of the songs more distinguishable from one another, something that their first album was somewhat lacking.

Of course, there’s no way to draw attention from the main man himself, and Dio’s distinctive, raspy wails are abundant on this album, as one would expect. Much like the last effort, Dio uses more aspects of his voice here than he would on future releases. Of course, this is because his versatility as a vocalist allowed him to adapt to whatever style of music he sang over, and in this case he was left to fly free as much as possible. This works, as one would expect, very much to the record’s advantage. If you want slow, Dio could pull off a haunting, doomy performance. If you wanted upbeat and perky, Dio was also the man for the job. He truly puts his heart and soul into his performance this time around, and it really shows as each distinctive song has its own distinctive layer of vocals to add to their already complex nature. The lyrics are quirky, even by Dio’s standards, but rather than singing of wizards and dragons, we get gems like hey doo-oo, on a boogie-woogie Friday night and crazy little woman go down, go down, go down, go down, down to where the honey is sweet. If the Elf albums didn’t exist, never in a million years would anyone imagine the voice of metal himself to come out with such material!

In their attempts to make a better record than its predecessor, Elf had great success with Carolina County Ball. The songs here are much more complex and intellectually arousing yet retain their upbeat and catchy feel that made the debut so enjoyable. Elf’s sophomore release is without a doubt their crowning achievement, blending a vast array of influences correctly and cohesively with outstanding performances from all members involved. Though they would release one more album under the Elf moniker, Carolina County Ball is the one they should have been most proud of. It was by all means a spectacular achievement, cramming so much in there and still having an album chock full of tasty cuts that makes it so irresistibly infectious that the listener is bound to tap their feet along to the nine hard-rocking, funky tunes. 

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