Graded on a Curve:
Earl’s Closet: The Lost Archive of Earl McGrath 1970 to 1980

Across the 1970s, Earl McGrath was a jet-setter with major connections in the music, film and art worlds. Along with first heading Atlantic subsidiary Clean Records and then Rolling Stones Records, the guy played a role in the formative activities of some of the decade’s major acts, including Hall and Oates, Terry Allen, and Jim Carroll. This is just part of the story told by Light in the Attic’s new 2LP/ CD/ digital release Earl’s Closet: The Lost Archive of Earl McGrath 1970 to 1980. Illuminating McGrath’s incredible journey with a solid liner essay by author Joe Hagan, the set mingles county-rock, folk-rock, ’70s soul, soft rock, and even a dab of punk rock, with every cut previously unreleased. It’s out July 15.

There’s little doubt; once one marries an Italian countess, the anxiety of maintaining a modicum of success in one’s endeavors lessens considerably. In doing one’s thing, the pressure is off. Earl McGrath did get hitched to a countess, namely Camilla Pecci-Blunt McGrath. And so, his track record as a music industry professional, which was a smidge less than stellar, presented no hindrance as he navigated something of a charmed life.

A big reason for McGrath’s good fortune was simply due to people legitimately liking him. In a decade known for excess, he was a reliable life of the party, and yet, he seemed to always keep his composure. But he also had a good ear, both for what was happening at the time and for where music was headed later in the decade.

His aptitude for where the ’70s were going is well established through two very enjoyable pre-stardom tracks by Daryl Hall and John Oates, “Baby Come Closer” and “Dry in the Sun” (the latter reminding me just a bit of The Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year”) and two cuts from eventual cult country singer-songwriter Terry Allen, “Gonna California” (a different pre-McGrath version of this tune was dished in ’69 on an ultra-rare 45) and “Cocaine Cowboy” (heard much later on Allen’s Smokin’ the Dummy release) with both cuts revealing a similarity to Peter Stampfel.

Side one’s opener and side’s four’s closer effectively illustrate that McGrath had his finger, at least partially, on the music of the moment, as Delbert McClinton & Glen Clark’s “Two More Bottles of Wine” blends country motions and folky singer-songwriter-ism (it was eventually a hit for Emmylou Harris). Flash forward to the end of the decade, and Clark is part of Little Whisper & the Rumors, with their demo, cut with Tom Dowd, a decidedly soft-rock proposition.

These styles are blended and expanded upon as Earl’s Closet plays, particularly in “Killer” (a Cali-centric environmental tune) by Country, Clean Records’ first singing (they performed prior as Fondiler & Snow which was still their handle at the point of recording “Killer”), where the electric pianos and harmony connect like a tougher America. That sorta thing combines pretty well with Michael McCarty’s “Christopher,” a strummy twanger imbued with ’70s pop radio polish and a move of soft-rock boldness in the waning moments.

If the record’s contents largely linger around the intersection of country-rock, folk, soft-rock, pop-rock and singer-songwriters, there are a few interesting twists inside those parameters, like the country-soul vibe of “Dixie Darling” by Jim Hunt, the funky pop-rock groover “California” by Mark Rodney, and two cuts, “Oh La La,” a sunshiny strummer, and the more introspective “I See My Days Go By,” by Shadow, which featured ex-Amboy Dukes vocalist Dave Gilbert.

Johnny Angelos, who’s heard here under the moniker Johnny Angel, also sang for the Amboy Dukes, but his cut, “Invisible Lady,” lands nearer to something heard on K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ’70s. Bluntly, it’s not at album highpoint. “Salt Showers” by Len and Betsy Greene is cut from similar cloth, but is considerably more appealing due to a ’60s throwback feel and rich, soaring harmonies. Even better is the robust folk of “Holy Communion” by Paul Potash. Having recorded in the ’60s for Columbia in a duo with Art Podell, today Potash is an obscure figure.

There’s obscure and then there’s downright unknown. That is, nobody seems to have any information about the Kazoo Singers, which is the name on the tape box found, yes indeed, in Earl’s closet, that held “Only Yourself to Lose,” another folky number, thankfully sans kazoo. And not a soul has an inkling who Jabor is either, but his “Sail Away” is a sizable hunk of urbane pop-rock with a touch of funkiness and synth.

The last of Earl’s Closet’s mystery contributors, the Blood Brothers Six, is also the best, as they deliver a stripped-down cover of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” in early ‘70s soul mode. It joins with the bolder funk of Norma Jean Bell’s delightful groover “Just Look-ah What You’ll Be Missing,” a cut that is comparable to prime Parliament-Funkadelic, bit with a tougher, wilder instrumental edge.

Bell’s track joins with selections by David Johansen and The Jim Carroll Band to counteract a mellow tendency on Earl’s Closet. The Johansen cut is a demo version of “Funky But Chic,” the opener from his solo debut from 1978, and Carroll’s raucous “Tension” is a Catholic Boy outtake that was given a synth-pop revamp and a new title (“Voices”) in the mid-’80s.

Maybe the biggest surprise on Earl’s Closet is “How Do You Do (Children of the Most High)” a wonderfully languid serving of psych-folk by Warhol associate Ultra Violet culled from a 3-track demo, the track’s high quality deepening interest in the other two songs plus Ultra Violet’s insanely rare and pricey self-titled LP from ’73 for Capitol.

The story behind Earl’s Closet is appropriately colorful and surely worth soaking up, but it’s best experienced through Hagan’s accompanying essay rather than in regurgitated form in this review. More importantly, the album’s contents, if occasionally a little less than mind-blowing, do paint a vivid picture of its decade’s progressions, reinforcing Earl McGrath as far more than just famous for being famous.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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