“Yer’ Album” by the James Gang (1969)
Joe Walsh presumably has made a lot of money playing with the Eagles and, perhaps, through his recurring role on “The Drew Carey Show.” Certainly, his Rickenbacker 650 solo that wraps up “Hotel California” is the musical high point of that band’s career.
Walsh also has carved out quite a career as a solo artist, from the call-to-arms “Turn to Stone” to the played-for-laughs “Life’s Been Good.” The guy is one heck of a talent when the stars align for him.
My personal preference for Joe’s work dates back to his recording debut, when he was a 21-year-old student at Kent State University. He’d played in bands around the Cleveland area before being asked to join the James Gang, which had lost guitarist Glen Schwartz to the lure of late-’60s California.
Walsh and the band’s rhythm section, Jim Fox on drums and Tom Kriss on bass, cut “Yer’ Album” for ABC’s subsidiary label Bluesway, which contributed to making the original LP difficult to find as of the late ’70s and early ’80s. I had to settle for a version released by a company called Pickwick, featuring inferior sound quality, wax and anything else you can name, including the absence of one of the songs!
I did manage to score a decent used Bluesway record when I was in college, but it wasn’t until MCA finally did a proper release in 2000 that I was able to hear the recording in its pristine form.
Doing so confirmed what I’d known for decades: “Yer’ Album” is one hell of an album.
It’s not your typical debut, as proceedings begin with an “Introduction, a short slice of orchestral tune-up that segues into Fox playing some creditable acoustic guitar chops before the start of the first proper song, Walsh’s “Take a Look Around.” He immediately establishes himself as a top-notch songwriter with his organ-driven, melancholy take on life, while establishing himself as an ace guitarist during a middle section that borders on psychedelia without going overboard.
As the song wraps up, the guys do throw in more than a touch of weirdness, reciting a seemingly random series of multisyllabic words leading into “Funk #48,” which features Joe and Jim chanting scat vocals over the bridge in what has come down through the decades as a James Gang classic.
Fox continues to show his musical inclinations beyond the drum kit with a short prelude for piano and orchestra leading into a power-trio version of Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird.” Another cover, of the Yardbirds’ “Lost Woman,” wraps up Side One, as each band member has the opportunity for an extended solo.
Side Two begins with more studio banter, called “Stone Rap,” as producer Bill Szymczyk tries to rein in a bit of chaos. Out of that comes the album’s gem as far as original songs, the acoustic-based “Collage.” Walsh and co-writer Patrick Cullie craft a poignant ballad complemented by strings in what might have been a hit had it not been a bit ahead of its time.
“I Don’t Have the Time,” instead, was selected as the album’s single, but it didn’t do much. The song is more of a straightforward rock number, distinguished somewhat by Walsh’s Leslie-effect keyboards dubbed “underwater piano” in the liner notes.”
“Wrapacity in English” is another brief piano-and-strings composition, with Walsh playing this time, before the album’s true psychedelic piece, “Fred.” That’s the song Pickwick neglected to place on its version of “Yer’ Album.”
“Fred” dissolves into a cacophony before segueing into the album’s closer, an extended version of Howard Tate’s “Stop” that allows Walsh to cut loose completely as a precursor to his “Hotel California” fretwork. According to the MCA liner notes, Walsh’s mother played piano on an early version of the song.
“Eventually,” Fox is quoted, “we cut it again with Jerry Ragavoy on piano. Rags had two things going for him. First, he wrote the song, and second, he owned the studio. Nice credentials!”
The album’s cover simply incorporates three photos Szymczyk took with his Kodak in downtown Kent, near the university, where Walsh so happened to be a year later, when the Ohio National Guard shot four students to death.
By that time, the sophomore “James Gang Rides Again” had been released, even further showcasing Walsh’s talents as a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. A stellar album in its own right, it’s usually placed ahead of “Yer’ Album” on critics’ list.
I just happen to like the debut a bit better.