Ian McLagan and the Bump Band’s new album United States is an album of pure life affirming joy. Even the heartbreaking ballads are so in the moment in their performances, that one feels more alive while listening to them. I love all kinds of electronic music, but for those of you that want to know why nothing will ever beat the heart and feel of great musicians performing with each other, look no further.
I can’t not mention that the city of Austin lost one its greatest residents last year when Ian McLagan died. However, it is due to his untimely death that I wanted to wait to review this album. I didn’t want this amazing set of songs to be clouded by the immediate feelings of sadness that hung over his loss. I also wanted to make sure that when I say this is a great record, it is because it is a great record, as I did not want my own reason to be informed by any sentimental feelings. As Voltaire said, “To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.”
And the truth is this is a fantastic recording by a group of musicians firing on all cylinders. McLagan doesn’t need me to proclaim that he was one of rock’s greatest keyboard players, having been in the Faces and the Small Faces, having worked with the Rolling Stones and so many others. However, this album sounds like a thesis statement of everything he learned in all of those years working and being part of rock royalty. His Bump Band meets him at every turn, playing in complete synchronicity with their leader.
Lyrically McLagan almost never strays from tried and true rock n roll themes, but because of the passion that everything is sung and played with, this never hinders the events. His ragged yet melodic voice, a perfect rock n roll voice if ever there was one, makes even phrases that seem as if they have been around since the foundation of rock n roll come to life. Heart and soul can make even simple words become expansive and welcoming. “Why would you ever want to run away,” he sings in the above song Pure Gold. I would bet there are a million rock songs with this phrase in it, or slight variations of it at least. However, when he sings it the intellect shuts down, the emotions take over, and you know in your deepest recesses what he means. How can you not bop your head, tap your feet, and feel a little more alive when that song comes on?
On the track Don’t Say Nothing, which has simply outstanding piano on it, he sings:
If you can’t say nothing positive
if there’s not a kind word in your head
Don’t say nothing at all
Now this isn’t even a statement that I intellectually agree with. First of all I love singers like Lou Reed and Morrissey, whose dark senses of humor have helped me survive many a day. I also think in life that in order to make things better, you need to acknowledge what’s wrong with the world. However, when McLagan sings that chorus with such perfect timing and feel, I find my heart with McLagan for every single syllable.
What a fucking band on this record! Nothing they do is overly complicated, but if you know music you know that the kind of feel and subtlety they bring to these proceedings is the work of masters. Every rhythm is in the pocket. The guitars, keyboards, and bass weave in a way that, while each is masterful in its own right, the parts most definitely add up to a whole more powerful than the individual pieces.
The ballad Mean Old World is one of those heartbreaking cry in your beer kind of ballads. But it is delivered in a way where you know the sadness is only a passing thing and that you will eventually transcend whatever mean circumstances you find yourself in. It’s rock n roll partially rooted in gospel music.
When reading about McLagan, you know that like every human, he had his moments in the dark. However, whenever I saw him at gigs in recent years, what I kept taking away was that here was a guy that was inspiring for the sheer fact that he made you feel better in the moment. His gigs were joy, his stage banter was playful, and between sets he walked through the audience and made you feel like a friend even if you didn’t know him. This is all thankfully captured on this recording.
The record simply sounds great too. Everything has an organic quality that makes it sound alive. Although produced by McLagan, partial credit must go to the legendary Glyn Johns who mixed it. Johns has worked with everyone from Led Zepplin to the Rolling Stones to the Who and on and on and on. The mix is crisp and clear but never loses the earthiness of the performances. This is how a band playing together should sound on record.
Although his Rise and Shine album contains several of my favorite McLagan songs, before this record I would probably say his last album, Never Say Never, was his best front to back, as the songs were not only great, but the production had that same masterful touch that is apparent here. However, Mac might have gone out on top with this one. If you are a rock n roll fan that fears that no great rock n roll albums have been made lately, or you are a musician that wants to hear musicians playing at the top of their game, get this record now. We shan’t see the likes of him pass this way again. Luckily for us, recordings like this make his death only a temporary thing. When you put this record on, whether today or at some unknown date in the future, you will be in that moment completely, alongside Mac, with a shit eating grin and a gleam in your eye…