by Perry Meisel
When most people in rock smirked at the idea of horns in the late sixties, the Sons of Champlin were using saxophones brilliantly. Their two-man section sidestepped the pit of glare and schmaltz that Blood, Sweat, and Tears had already dug with all their trumpets, and found no need to indulge in the labored sophistication of Chicago's brass harmonies. The band's songwriting and arranging, though, were nowhere near as good as Chicago's; nor was its commercial appeal so shrewdly manufactured as post-Kooper BS&Ts'. The group then drifted out of sight just as rockers began to take an interest in horns, an interest that still seems to be only cresting.
Ironically enough, the Sons' new album keeps the saxes in the distance. It's hard at first to tell whether the band has simply traded the power of its horns for ensemble playing (inured to subtlety as we now are by wind bands like Tower of Power), or whether it has instead consciously refined its use of the section. "Lightnin'," an easy funk tune, is a perfect miniature of what finally seems to be a chastened approach to the horns: on the verse, low-register upbeat punching; on the chorus, high staccato riffing; on the bridge, long deep chords under the singing - all restrained, perhaps even underproduced! At the same time, though, organ dominates the rhythm tracks, drawing undue attention to a single instrument when the real drift of the production is toward an even and balanced ensemble sound.
Melody, however, is virtually nonexistent throughout the album. Bill Champlin's writing and the band's arranging have become dishonest in a way that links them to one of the worst impulses in contemporary rock: the masquerade of a series of lame riffs for a tune, which results from the growing songwriting habit of offhandedly elaborating phrase after awkward phrase, a process that hype arrangers have been able to turn into the illusion of a song. Thus, "The Swim," like "For Joy" and "Who," - all soul grooves that prompt one to consider the difference between imitation and influence - opens with a verse of deceptive lyricism; but before its astonishing emptiness can sink in, the whole band's kicking like hell on a driving funk chorus, fortifying one's confidence in the music (until the verse returns). Splices are abundant; powerful vamps inserted midway through a song like "Right On," or strong, though illogical, ensemble riffing stuffed between a verse and a chorus as in "For Joy," help to deflect one's hearing from the absence of a real tune.
Still, the local texture is often rich, played with precision and feeling. "Welcome to the Dance," the title cut that concludes a suite on the second side, is the one example of genuine dramatic development on the album; the music shows an easy firmness as the band moves from a shuffle to open swing, walking almost imperceptibly from a square beat to a jump. Terry Haggerty's guitar soloing, though, grows a little edgy after awhile, skilled though it is (even inspired at moments). Champlin's organ rides too are competent enough, but why no horn solos? In concert, Champlin and Geoff Palmer's sax soloing astounds. Here, the band seems to have excluded the best it has to offer.
Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, August 21, 1973