Graded on a Curve:
Lee Michaels,
Nice Day for Something, Tailface

A high percentage of the remembrances relating to Lee Michaels surely pertain to his 1970 Top Ten hit single “Do You Know What I Mean?” However, the guy released a string of nine LPs from 1968-’75, with a few of them, and one in particular, having sold some copies, so it’s a bit perplexing that he doesn’t hold a larger contemporary profile. He’s not forgotten though, as Manifesto reissued all of his A&M material on compact disc separately and in a seven-disc box set back in 2015, and just this last November the label followed up with CDs of his two records for Columbia, Nice Day for Something from ’73 and Tailface from the next year. They provide a sharp contrast as finale to an interesting career.

Like many, I first heard Lee Michaels through his biggest hit, but the more substantial introduction came through his self-titled effort from ’69, a record that put him on the radar and a slab that some praise as one of the great “get down and boogie rock” platters of the classic rock age. But to my ears, that one’s always been something of a mixed bag.

Reportedly cut live in the studio in seven hours by Michaels on keyboards and bass pedals and Barry “Frosty” Smith on drums, the atmosphere of cutting loose is prevalent on Lee Michaels, but the whole is marred by drum soloing, organ noodling, a medley (never a good sign), and moments of general overzealousness in the merger of rock and soulfulness.

It did end with the likeable good-vibes drug song “Haighty Hi,” which was a FM hit and the title to Manifesto’s 2015 comp of Michaels’ A&M years. The eponymous set was his third for A&M, and its stature as a breakout has in part led to false summaries of the guy as merely half of a two-man band. The reality is that his first two LPs, the considerably more psych-tinged (in a pop sorta way) Carnival of Life and Recital (both ’68), are full-band affairs, and Barrell, the follow-up to Lee Michaels (from ’70) featured a trio with Drake Levin (of Paul Revere & the Raiders) on guitar (he’d played on Recital).

His album 5th (from ’71, which is where “Do You Know What I Mean?” is found) did get back to the duo thing, but with some occasional saxophone and backing vocals from Merry Clayton; his next truly two-man effort was the ’73 2LP Live, his final release for A&M. Of all these records, I’ll confess to liking Carnival of Life best (even if its cover is kinda awful), which might lead to suspicions that the likelihood of my appreciating these two Columbia discs is pretty dang low.

But wait. I’ve not mentioned Space and First Takes from ’72, the studio album that followed 5th’s Top 20 status. It holds two short songs and two longer jams delivered by a quartet featuring Levin back in the fold, a decidedly non-commercial gesture that effectively spelled the end of Michaels’ association with A&M (like many performance sets, Live was the contract fulfiller).

I dig Space and First Takes, in no small part due to Levin’s guitar rawness but also because the grooves don’t connect like they have something to prove. It’s not an amazing record, but it is a consistently enjoyable one, and it made me wonder what the story was with Nice Day for Something and Tailface, as I’ll confess to unfamiliarity prior to Manifesto’s reissuing them last fall. To begin, the pair are quite different as neither held what I was expecting.

If Michaels’ A&M years are partially a tale of frustrations between artist and label, Nice Day for Something stands as a fresh chapter begun in good faith. It’s essentially a pop album, though opener “Your Breath is Bleeding” retains Michaels’ occasional gestures toward social commentary as he chooses ivory tickling over organ grinding. It’s another duo LP (but with some clear overdubbing in achieving the pop objective), here with future Doobie Brother Keith Knudsen (who was on Space and First Takes and Live) behind the kit, and as the songs unwind, he hits hard enough to offset a certain tendency.

That inclination would be a similarity to soft rock, which really comes to the fore in “Same Old Song.” The narrative on Michaels’ Columbia period relates that the label’s firing of A&R man Clive Davis left Lee without an advocate amid company disinterest, but at least “Same Old Song” was released as a single, and had it come out a few years later with some promotion I have a creeping suspicion it could’ve resulted in some chart action, if perhaps minor.

“So Hard” extends this approach but adjusts it into a resemblance, through the continued use of piano and the sound of Michaels’ voice, to early Elton John, though Knudsen’s drumming continues to hit hard enough to (hypothetically) keep the rockers from abandoning ship. “High Wind” broadens into a funky groove with some New Orleans-style piano; think Elton in a Dr. John frame of mind. “Olson Arrives at Two Fifty-Five” is the finale to the LP’s first side, and in stretching out to nearly seven minutes and shifting gears along the way, it reminds me more than a bit of a non-rural two-man version of The Band.

That’s cool, but “The Other Day (The Other Way)” places him back into soft rock mode; again, had the song come out in ’77 with a little promotion, it’s not hard to imagine it making some sales waves. This framework extends into “Rock & Roll Community,” which was the flip to “Same Old Song.” As on that one, Michaels brings back the harpsichord from his early psych-pop days, though there’s ultimately nothing trippy about Nice Day for Something.

With “Bell,” Michaels’ switches to guitar for an appealing slower groove that’s clearly designed for stretching out (as it soars in the soloing), though the song wraps at a little over four minutes. “Went Saw Mama” quickly snaps back to the keys-focused pop-zone (it could’ve been a second single if things had transpired differently), but then “Nothing Matters (But It Doesn’t Matter) finds Michaels switching back to guitar for a chunky mid-tempo rocker that’s at odds with the rest of the record as it forecasts what was to come with Tailface.

Which undercuts the temptation to speculate that the second Columbia LP’s turn to a guitar-fueled quartet lineup (though the cover offers a snapshot of a trio) for a short and tangibly non-pop set was a reaction to Nice Day’s lack of sales; the first record did chart, but it stalled at 172, his weakest showing since Lee Michaels put him on the map back in ‘69.

By extension, I’ve read of Tailface as a punk statement as career ender (there was a self-released early ’80s album that’s effectively lost), but that seems off-target to me; instead, the crunchy licks of opener “Met a Toucan” and “Slow Dancin’ Rotunda” made me think of James Gang, though the soulful grooves are still recognizably Michaels.

The keyboards (piano and organ) haven’t been ditched, as “Politician” (not a Cream cover), “Drink the Water,” and “Lovely Lisa” do put his main instrument and some lingering remnants of a pop approach up front, but overall this is Michaels in rock mode with drummer Frosty (full name Bartholomew Eugene Smith-Frost) making his return. And I’ll admit to enjoying the blues-rock aura of “Roochie Toochie Loochie” here more than anything on Lee Michaels. Yes, even “Haighty Hi.”

That earlier set’s seven-hour status proposes a tossed-off sensibility, but it to my ear it revealed them trying really hard (read: too hard) to impress. Much of Tailface just rocks, though the slow-build crescendo of “Drink the Water” is indicative of a non-slapdash engagement with the material, at least structurally. Lyrics are another matter; closer “Garbage Gourmet” offers Michaels having a conversation with his anus, which isn’t exactly tossed-off, but you get the idea (hopefully).

The verdict on these two CDs? Both are surprisingly listenable, and from diverse but not incongruent angles. The rocker in me leans toward Tailface, but I’ll admit that the pop ambition of Nice Day for Something is a bit of a grower. Along with Carnival of Life and Space and First Takes, these sit near the top of my personal Lee Michaels hierarchy as they combine into a solid career capper.

Nice Day for Something
B+

Tailface
B+

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