Surface Noise: Steve Miller Band, Number 5

If you ask anyone who loves vinyl, most will agree that just seeing the jacket of an album can evoke an emotion in you, usually a nostalgic one. I personally love those moments when you are digging through the crates at your local record store and you come across that artist that just makes you smile. I was flipping though the cheap stuff at Som Records last week when it happened. Every time I see the Steve Miller Band, I can’t help but smile.

The main reason for this is because 1976’s Fly Like an Eagle was one of my favorite albums when I was a kid. The catchy rock songs grabbed me instantly, and I love the album to this day. Whether it was the spacey, just-a-little-psychedelic title track or the exciting adventures of Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue on “Take the Money and Run,” this album was one of the first that I actually wore out and had to get another copy. I use the term “wore out” somewhat loosely—I was young, and like most youngsters, didn’t handle my vinyl with the delicate care that we have learned as adults.

Recently, I realized that I had ignored the first half of the Steve Miller Band’s catalog, with the exception of the one early hit, “Living in the U.S.A.” I have been on somewhat of a mission, exploring the early material and acquiring the earlier albums on vinyl. The first few were a bit of a surprise to me, as I wasn’t expecting the different sound of the earlier recordings.

Number 5 was the band’s fifth album in the first three years of its career, having released two albums each year in 1968 and 1969. I consider Number 5 to be something of a “bridge” album, an in-between record when a band is changing its sound. In the case of the Steve Miller Band, this album is midway between their beginnings as a bluesy, psychedelic rock band, and the run of more mainstream hits that began with 1973’s The Joker. “Going to Mexico,” co-penned by Boz Scaggs, sounds like a cut from an early ZZ Top album.

One oddball on the record is the quasi-Mexican track “Hot Chili.” The lyrics are laughably dumb: “Hot chili is groovy… after a movie or watchin’ tv…” The song only gets goofier from there. Steve even toyed with country elements on a few songs. “Tokin’s” is a banjo-tinged accessible rock song, and gives a little foreshadowing to the later part of Miller’s career, lined with radio-friendly numbers.

“Going to the Country” features well-known Nashville session musician Buddy Spicher on fiddle throughout which itself sounds like something the Grateful Dead could have recorded.

Others on the album, like “I Love You,” and “Never Kill Another Man” just never seem to go anywhere. Drawn-out, aimless vocals and instrumentation, like a too-loud harmonica and a string section, just leaves the listener scratching their head.

Overall, Number 5 is the awkward teenager of Steve Miller’s catalog—pimple-faced, voice-cracking, and hitting weird growth spurts. This is a sound caught between a band’s energetic, wild younger days and its fully realized era of maturity.

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