Monday, May 17, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 59 - The Eagles

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

When I was a kid and going through my country music phase, I used to listen to country radio as I drifted off to sleep. It was a fun, small-town kind of radio station, and the DJ would often take calls and put them on the air. I remember that there was one man who would always call and request "Take It Easy."

"No," the DJ would respond. "The Eagles are not country. I'm not going to play the Eagles."

"The Eagles are country," the caller would insist. "Travis Tritt did a cover version."

"Then I'll play Travis Tritt," the DJ replied. "I will not play the Eagles on a country music station."

This was a regular spat. Both the caller and the DJ were very good-natured about it, but you could tell that both men firmly believed that they were in the right, the sole arbiter of musical genres, and the other didn't know what the hell he was talking about.

To my young, easily-moldable mind, the fight was an interesting window on the thorny problems casting one's allegiance to a certain genre of music. This caller was a country fan and he liked the Eagles; ergo, the Eagles were a country band.

For the record, I don't think the Eagles are anywhere close to country music. The closest they get, with their hokey outlaw schtick on Desperado, is the band at its worst, anyway. But this caller's argument was a very formative experience for me; for years (really, up until this week), I lived with the impression that the Eagles were partially a country band. It's not true at all.

I mention this because it possibly affected my opinion on the band. They were not what I really expected, and I wasn't necessarily impressed. Could it be because they didn't fulfill the pseudo-country expectations of 10-year old me?

Or maybe The Dude is right, and the Eagles just aren't that great.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Aside from Travis Tritt's cover of "Take It Easy," I was familiar with most of the Eagles songs that have regular rotation on classic rock radio - "Hotel California," "Desperado," and "Peaceful Easy Feeling," to name a few.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Hotel California (1976) every day this week. I also listened to The Eagles (1972) and Desperado (1973) three times each.


Let's get this out of the way right off the bat - "Hotel California" is a great song. It's so head and shoulders above every other song that the Eagles ever wrote that it's almost as if the group sold their soul in return for one bona fide classic. Is it overplayed? Yes, of course. But it's also catchy, the perfect blend of melancholy and mystery, and deserving of his status as a rock and roll classic.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album doesn't live up to the promise of that one iconic track. Most of the other songs are slow, plodding, corny, or trying way too hard. I did have a certain affinity for "Life in the Fast Lane," which is pretty catchy despite the hokey lyrics. And "Victim of Love," is a solid, albeit very much by-the-numbers, rock song. But Hotel California is so top-heavy with its epic opening track that it collapses under its own weight.

I liked the group's first eponymous album a bit more. The band is less ambitious on The Eagles, simply stitching together a bunch of solid outlaw rock songs without striving for the towering monuments of Hotel California. A lot of the lyrics are still corny, but "Take It Easy" is another song deserving of the "classic" title, while songs like "Witchy Woman" showcase the group's ability to write some good harmonies and catchy guitar riffs. And, despite what the Dude thinks, "Peaceful Easy Feeling" is a great soft rock ballad - and better than any of the similar ballads on Hotel California.

Really, it's as a simple outlaw rock band that the Eagles excel the most. Concept albums and eight-minute ballads would slow down their later work, and though "Hotel California" proves that they occasionally have the ability to pull it off, it's the exception to the rule.


The Eagles are band whose greatest hits are justifiably great. But if you're searching for overlooked gems and B-sides on their albums, you're not going to find any. A lot of their songs feel like filler, and seem all the worse because of the fact that the good Eagles songs are really good.

Take Hotel California. After that amazing opening track, it's followed by "The New Kid in Town," a piece of schlocky soft rock that I can't stand. The harmonies and catchy melodies are still here, but they're pieced together in such a boring and lifeless manner that it fails to impress. Another corny ballad comes on the second side of the album with "Pretty Maids All In A Row," further cementing the notion that the Eagles should stay in the fast lane. And the album ends with "The Last Resort," a preachy diatribe on commercialism in California. It strives to attain the epic grandeur of "Hotel California," but fails spectacularly, instead just turning into a meandering seven-minute ballad that goes nowhere. It's sweeping crescendo of an ending is so cliche that it fails to affect me, and I usually like that sort of thing.

But if Hotel California can get boring, Desperado borders on bad. The title track is Exhibit C in "The Case That The Eagles Should Stay Away from Rock Ballads," a song so calculated to make you emotional that it fails utterly. It's as if the Eagles sat down and asked a computer to compose an emotional rock ballad. The machine would stitch together all the requisite elements - block piano chords, soaring strings, slowly building melody, backing vocals singing "Ahhhhh" for measures at a time, the hokey conclusion on "Let somebody love you" - without any sense of how to combine these element so the song actually works. The rest of the album isn't any better, as the Eagles desperately try and paint a picture of Wild West outlaws through the most hackneyed and trite elements of soft rock. "Tequila Sunrise" is equally dull; I found solace only in the semi-rocking "Outlaw Man," but even that is weighed down by its own cheese.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's still On the Border (1974), One of These Nights (1975), The Long Run (1979), and the recent Long Road Out Of Eden (2007). But, in case you haven't gathered, I'm not necessarily clamoring for more Eagles. I might check out Don Henley's solo stuff some day, however.

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Hotel California"

This is tough, because most of the good Eagles songs you've already heard a million times. But "Take the Devil" is a good representation of their simpler outlaw rock, which I like quite a bit.

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: The Jimi Hendrix Experience