Fresh as Emitt Rhodes

Emitt Rhodes, one man band

I had a birthday recently, and as I always, I buy myself a present.  That way I get what I want.  So this year, I treated myself to Hip-o Select’s limited edition 2-cd set of The Emitt Rhodes Recordings (1969-1973).

If you’re reading this blog, then you are sentient and have some interest in music, so you have probably heard of Emitt Rhodes if you haven’t actually heard him.   It’s the same story that people like me who are obsessed with this type of thing just foam at the mouth about – brilliant artist makes four mostly unheard albums of gorgeous power pop before the man brings him down.   He then descends into obscurity, forgotten by the masses, revered by record collectors who pay ungodly sums of money for Japanese cds…. but I digress.

Here’s the thing – I’ve never been convinced that Emitt Rhodes is actually brilliant.  When he’s on, he’s spot on, but to be perfectly honest, he’s otherwise a little too precious for my taste. And yeah, I know that he played pretty much every instrument on most of his four albums, and that he did it all in his dad’s shed.  And the sound is remarkably more Abbey Road than dad’s garage, but nevertheless, sometimes the songs just aren’t there.  Lyrically too syrupy and musically too fluffy.

So why did I spend $25 or so dinero on this set, which collects all four of Rhodes’ albums, which have been out of print since forever?  Because, like I said, when he’s on, he’s on.  It’s often said that Emitt Rhodes could out-Paul McCartney Paul McCartney, and it’s true.  Sometimes, he sounds vocally so much like McCartney, and the music is so Beatlesque that it’s uncanny, especially on the first two albums on this collection, An American Dream and Emitt Rhodes.  By his two final albums, Mirror and Farewell to Paradise, the sound is more American power-pop along the lines of Big Star and Dwight Twilley.

Fluff aside, there’s much to love about Emitt Rhodes.  Here are two reasons:

Promises I’ve Made – from what is widely held as Rhodes’ opus, Emitt Rhodes.   Rhodes at his most McCartneyesque.  Lyrically it’s a breakup song that never sounds heartbroken, no matter what the words say, and it’s got that same poppy sound McCartney trademarked, but… listen to that organ, in back.  I think it’s an organ, anyway.  Whatever it is, it’s like the bare metal that wears through your gold costume jewelry, the dark clouds hovering at the edge of your picnic.  You know he’s not going to keep any promises he’s made – that organ tells you so.

Only Lovers Decide – That album title, Farewell to Paradise, doesn’t that just say it all?  It’s almost as though Rhodes was consciously waving goodbye to his commercial aspirations, especially when you read this in the liner notes:

Someone said something about the world stepping aside when a man knew what he wanted. I’ve known for some time and the world hasn’t yet made it any easier for me.

Rhodes ended with a series of cries and whispers that revealed an artist that had grown decades in the four years that had passed between his first solo album and his final one.  The single-note baroque pop is gone, replaced by mature, sophisticated songs, both lyrically and musically.  And “Only Lovers Decide” may be the most beautiful of them all…

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Fresh as Emitt Rhodes

  1. J.R. Clark

    Rhodes is the poor man’s Brian Wilson with the same amount of crazy. His songs are pleasant sounding, if a bit saccharine, but they don’t stick in your consciousness the way Lennon and McCartney’s stuff did.

    • Late replying, but you are absolutely right, although I’d go far enough to say that ER’s songs don’t stick in your consciousness the way Brian Wilson’s did, either. You have hit upon the exact quality that makes ER’s music so wonderfully frustrating — it does everything right, and yet… ten minutes later you’re doing well if you remember a damned thing about it. As I’m writing this, I realize that I listen to ER a lot when I’m making jewelry — pretty background music that doesn’t demand a lot from you. I think you may have inspired my return to blogging 😉

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