Graded on a Curve:
Eric Burdon and War,
The Black-Man’s Burdon

I cannot believe I live in an indifferent universe. Those spitballs must be coming from somewhere. And could an indifferent universe really be responsible for an album as weird as The Black-Man’s Burdon by Eric Burdon and War? Released in December 1970, the LP combined War’s unique brand of psychedelic funk and Burdon’s various vocal quirks with all manner of other influences, including soul, Latin, spoken word poetry, and R&B. Why, there’s even a jazz flute foray that sounds like the inspiration for Ron Burgundy’s deranged woodwind rampage in the film Anchorman. You could spend months trying to fathom this album’s dizzying stylistic shifts and turns. I’ll bet you it would be great fun on acid. Whether you’d escape with your sanity is another matter altogether.

Some hated this mishmash of an LP when it was released—The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau gave it a D+–but I like it a lot, with a few reservations. I’m not thrilled, for instance, by the 7-part “Paint It Black” medley that opens the LP, although it has its moments. Burdon’s jazzy and Van Morrison-like reading of the Stones classic, for example, has grown on me, and Dee Allen’s conga work is superb, as is Harold Brown’s drumming. But when the flute comes in I walk out, and the same goes for the aforementioned Ron Burgundy-flavored “The Bird & The Squirrel,” which along with the extended bass foray that is “Nuts, Seeds & Life” and the semi-ridiculous acid poetry over spaced-out jazz “meditation” that is “Out of Nowhere” makes a botch of Side Two. “They say they can’t understand me!” cries Burdon, “But I can’t stand to be understood!” Well okay then.

But I pretty much like everything else, starting with the jazz-funk exploration “Spirit” that closes Side One. I particularly dig Howard Scott’s taut guitar playing and Burdon’s soulful vocals, and Charles Miller’s long turn on saxophone is to die for. He pushes and probes like Coltrane, looking for a way out, for a way through the wall of Maya, and it’s, like, spiritual man. And Side Two isn’t a complete wash thanks to the herky-jerky funk groove that is “Beautiful Newborn Child,” which proves a song needn’t go anywhere to get somewhere. And Burdon and War’s two takes on the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”—a song I’ve never particularly cared for—actually work, if only because Burdon wants to be a soul man and if that means over-emoting, well, over-emote he will. As they used to say back in the day, by any means necessary!

Side Three is the LP’s strongest, although opener “Sun/Moon,” a slow blues so soulful it should come with a side of grits, goes on a mite too long. Fortunately it’s followed by the very happy-making “Pretty Colours,” which boasts a sinuous Latin groove and some very jazzy piano by the great Lonnie Jordan. And it’s followed in turn by my LP fave “Gun,” which boasts great percussion, a funky piano figure, and an anti-violence message that makes clear that you’ll need not only throw away your gun and your switchblade but your anger too. This is Burdon at his blackest and War at their most socially committed, and it sure is tasty. The loose groove of side closer “Jimbo” is pretty cool too.

Side Four is almost as good as Side Three; “Bare Back Ride” is built on the same riff as ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” but it veers off and tosses some horns into the mix, and presto—what you’ve got is a sexually suggestive slice of sweet funk that tastes all that much better thanks to Jordan’s swinging organ (no pun intended) and Miller’s spin on the sax. “Home Cookin’” is another personal fave; Burdon’s vocals are both playful and soulful, the melody is as homely but sweet as the girl next door, and the sing-along chorus is downright lovable. Message: We’re all prodigal sons trying to get home again. As for “They Can’t Take Away Our Music” it’s a heartfelt anthem to winning the struggle through song, and if the sentiment’s naïve I’m always glad to hear somebody put as much passion into it as Burdon and War do.

War would go on to do great things while Eric Burdon would go on to being, well, Eric Burdon. But on The Black-Man’s Burdon—as well as on its predecessor, that same year’s Eric Burdon Declares “War”—the two would combine to create a sound quite unlike anything else produced during its era, or any era. The Black-Man’s Burdon is an experiment. A not completely successful experiment, but a noble one nonetheless. Say what you will about it, it’s never boring. And at its best it’s both daringly ambitious and utterly captivating. D+? Not in my rock school!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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