Graded on a Curve:
The Doobie Brothers,
What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits

Or, What Were Once Harmless Affectations Are Now Threats to the Public Good. When it comes to the Doobie Brothers I’ll never be able to say it better than The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, who dismissed the band’s 1976 Takin’ It to the Streets with the words, “You can lead a Doobie to the studio, but you can’t make him think.” But that’s not going to stop me from trying.

But before I do that, I should ‘fess up. I like a fair number of Doobie Brothers songs, probably because I heard them as a kid on AM radio and if you can get a kid at the right age and deny him anything better he’ll lap any old shit up.

I grew up in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere where the notion of a real rocking time was going to the CYO dances on Saturday night, and every single one of the faceless bands that played those dances tossed a few Doobie Brothers into the mix. You were as certain to hear “China Grove” as you were to hear “Colour My World.”

So there it is, I’m fucked for life and need some serious deprogramming I’m never going to get if only because I don’t really want to be deprogrammed. I get off on the stupid circle in the round singing on “Black Water” and always will.

But hey, I wouldn’t be a world-famous rock critic if I weren’t able to put my own feelings aside (yeah, right) and don the mantle of objectivity, and by any objective standards the Doobie Brothers produced lowest common denominator rock for the common man, like Grand Funk or Three Dog Night only with a little more boogie in ‘em. When you can dismiss a band with the words, “Yeah, well, they rock harder than Loggins & Messina” that band is in trouble, and it didn’t help that the Doobies never put out a truly solid LP. You have to go to their greatest hits album for that.

As for 1974’s What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, it’s the usual mishmash; a little swamp music, some surprisingly hard rock, the usual assortment of boogie numbers, and a couple of sensitive ditties just to prove that, you know, the boys have soul. What you don’t get is a band that sounds committed to any kind of core values; expedience and trial and error are the orders of the day, and the Brothers are content to throw a whole lot of shit at the wall and see what sticks.

Most of the smart people I know hate the Doobie Brothers; me, I like the songs that stuck, and the problem with What Were Once Vices is that it comes up short in stickers. There’s “Black Water,” of course, which despite the loathing it inspires in most intelligent rock fans of good taste still gets played because, well, all of those intelligent rock fans of good taste are wrong. Sometimes I hear it and laugh; sometimes I hear it and find myself singing along. But I always enjoy hearing it, just as I always enjoy hearing “China Grove” and “Long Train’ Runnin’” and even, take this intelligent rock fans of good taste, “Listen to the Music.”

“Black Water” wins me over with its bayou feel and sheer silliness. But what else does this LP have going for it? Well, there’s the pretty cool move “Another Park Another Sunday,” with its luscious backing vocals and peaceful easy vibe. Imagine an unholy marriage between Chicago (sans the horns) and the Eagles (sans the bullshit) and you’ve got this one, and I for one never turn it off when it comes on the radio. Similarly, “Tell Me What You Want (And I’ll Give You What You Need)” is a mellow slice of proto-yacht rock and would make the Blue Jean Committee proud. You really have to be a hater to hate this one.

And then? Well, we’ve got some songs of truly doobieous quality. “Daughters of the Sea” isn’t rock and it doesn’t really boogie and really only wins in the pretentious department. Forget about it. “Flying Cloud” is Seals and Crofts done wrong, and why do Seals and Crofts wrong when they can do it their own damn selves?

Opening cut “Song to See You Through” also evokes Chicago right down to the horn charts, and I’ve heard plenty worse. But it lacks conviction, soul, and propulsive power, and once it’s gone I don’t miss it. “Spirit” is a boogie hoedown, and if that sounds like a contradiction in terms to you, you’re right. The boys sing real good, but no way does this baby set the barn on fire. Unless somebody gets the bright idea to set the barn on fire with the Doobies in it.

“Pursuit on 53rd St.” is the first of the hard rockers and rock hard it does; unfortunately, all of the Doobie Brothers’ hard rockers tend to sound alike. They got it right on “China Grove” and said, “By god, Doobies, let’s lay down that again! And again!” Don’t get me wrong; the band cooks, the guitar solo is bona fide ferocious, and you get the idea this might actually be a group to see on a hot night. But original? Fuhgettaboutit!

“Eyes of Silver” has the same problem. It’s a perfectly suitable boogie vehicle, but I’ll be damned if I haven’t heard it before. It’s the same old same old only not as good as the same old same old, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its charm. But “been there done that” is hardly the emotion you want to evoke in a listener. “Road Angel,” ditto; it’s not a terrible tune, and the guitars pack a small wallop, but this road angel is traveling in a rut, not the open highway.

As for “You Can’t Stop It,” it induces boogie fatigue. And I can stop it. I turn the damn thing off. Meanwhile, “Down in the Track” is a very hard rocker indeed, at least instrumentally; unfortunately the vocals are totally unsuited to the raunch’n’roll, and everything would change but Patrick Simmons’ hippie-length hair.

In 1974, God help us, the Doobie Brothers were at the height of their powers, but change was in the air. Within two years they would put away their boogie shoes and take up sailing with blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald, and the complexion of the Doobies would change forever.

In hindsight, the album’s title is all too appropriate; the Doobie Brothers’ were indeed caught in the rut of the habitual insofar as they were reduced to reproducing earlier, better songs. You can’t dine out on the same half-dozen songs forever, but the Doobies got away with it for a long while; What Were Once Vices climbed to No. 4 on the U.S. album charts.

Oh, and have I mentioned I once went to see the Doobie Brothers and ended up smoking PCP by mistake? They sounded like the Ramones! They were better than the Ramones! If you like the Ramones, you’ll love the Doobie Brothers!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C+

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