Complete studio albums, part 2
KING’S X – Gretchen Goes to Nebraska (1989 Atlantic)
Only a year — one measly year! — after debuting with one of the most dearly beloved first albums in memory, King’s X summoned the muse for a second time. They went back into the studio with Sam Taylor to repeat the magic. Repeat it they did, with their original blend of influences and talents, but without backing off one inch in compromise. They did make a couple corny but cool music videos, although the rarity of their airplay must have frustrated everyone involved.
“Over My Head” surely made the band look and sound cool. Their souls-meets-metal-meets whatever they want vibe is concisely summed up in under five minutes. “Grandma used to sing, grandma used to sing, every night when she was prayin'” says Doug, opening up old wounds that he would still be singing about for years. But it’s not dark; instead, the music is as uplifting as a church choir. But only if the church band featured Jimi Hendrix and the Isley Brothers.
Production is improved on Gretchen, and diversity has expanded once again. “Out of the Silent Planet” (the title track for the last album!) opens with sitar, but before too long a very Rush-like riff is enveloped by the lush psychedelic harmony vocals that Doug, Ty and Jerry create so naturally. Clearly the band did not take summer holidays that year because the growth is audible. Layers of guitars, sitars and unknown sounds create a swirl of purple haze. And listen to Doug’s chiming bass on the outro. What’s that you hear? Yeah, it sounds like the bass outro to “Jeremy” to me, too. Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam once said that “King’s X invented grunge”. I don’t think that’s true although it probably indicates that some smart guys in Seattle had good taste in music. I think Doug Pinnick invented the way that he and Ament play bass. If you hear Pearl Jam occasionally in King’s X, I think that’s the part that was tapped by Jeff Ament via Doug Pinnick.
Gretchen may be challenging like Silent Planet was, but King’s X try to make it easy for you to climb aboard the train. The light melodic picking in “Summerland” sound enticing so just come on in. Doug’s soulful wailing brings the clouds but Ty’s harmonies blow ’em back away. “Summerland” is a rock triumph, possessing drama with melody and integrity in a flawless mix. Back to church again on “Everybody Knows a Little Bit of Something” — but only briefly as we are now on funky ground. Accelerated for action, “Everybody Knows a Little Bit of Something” is a pulse-pounder not to be missed. King’s X can do no wrong, especially when combining disparate elements in new ways. Another side of King’s X is the acoustic one often visited by Ty Tabor, and that’s “The Difference”. The setting feels like a chilly fall day but King’s X paint pictures that allow you to see your own images. That’s the beauty of the music.
“I’ll Never be the Same” is more familiar King’s X territory. Never keeping it simple, never making it inaccessible must have been the motto. Their pool of influences seems to come out slightly different each time. Church organ (by Sam Taylor) makes its debut on “Mission”, an appropriate place for it, but that’s a bluff. “Mission” is actually a metallic assault on televangelists. “What is the mission of the preacher man?” asks Doug in an impassioned wail. “Some are true, Some do lie,” he warns. “Fall on Me” will then take your head off with some of the rockingest King’s X on the album. If a record label was looking for an accessible single, here it is. I guess this band really was just too smart for radio, like with the cosmic “Pleiades”.
Far off in the field I see a castle,
Today the people gather at the pole,
He tried to tell us all the world was spherical,
They burned his body but not his soul.
Keep in mind this is a band that is often lumped in with Christian rock! But what about the riff? Imagine the love child of Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page. They had a baby and named it “Pleiades”.
Pinnick brings the soul back on “Don’t Believe It (Easier Said than Done)”. “This is not the end of the road,” he sings and he’s right — even though it is track 10, it’s not the end. King’s X beefed up Gretchen with 12 tracks, a rare bounty in 1989. But this was not a normal band. These was an inspired trio with thoughts and feelings to get off their collective chests. “Send a Message” keeps the pace upbeat but not straight; there have to be some twists and turns. Ty then takes the final track with “The Burning Down” and a mellow ballad. Floyd meets Rush meets King’s X, and it’s over.
The first two King’s X albums boasted rich and impressive album art. Gretchen is the best of the pair. Now that’s an album cover; the LP at least anyway. On CD it’s much harder to appreciate. No matter since it’s the music that counts. It’s rare for a band to grow from an incredible album like Silent Planet to something even bigger like Gretchen. That’s exactly what King’s X did, even though they did it in obscurity.