When Glenn Frey passed away in 2016 he left a legacy of music of which any artist would be proud. Over the years his work as a solo artist and with the Eagles seems to have divided opinion, for every Eagles fan there seems to be hater just around the next corner, a situation I’ve always found very surprising. ‘Hotel California’ and ‘Their Greatest Hits 1971-75’ (the latter of which is the second bestselling album of all-time with 29,000,000 sales in the USA) are a fitting tribute to Frey and his talents. After forty years I’ll still happily spin 'Hotel California' and those early hits, which I consider to be solid gold classics, and I’m pleased to report the Library of Congress selected the hits album for preservation as "culturally, historically, or artistically significant" so I’m in pretty good company. The 3-CD + 1-DVD set ‘Above The Clouds’ finds us venturing far from those early country rock roots as Frey the solo artist seemed content to follow his muse wherever it took him, generally in a soft-rock / soul / R&B direction. The results, especially looking back in the cold light of day, are uneven but not without some genuinely standout tracks, all of which are presented with a professional sheen when maybe, on occasion, a little grit would have been welcome.
Disc one of ‘Above The Clouds’ is a fifteen track greatest hits collection, ideal for the casual fan, that features many of Frey’s best known tunes and only differs slightly from his 1995 ‘Solo Collection’ release (this first disc in the box set is also available as a stand-alone release). Needless to say the likes of ‘The Heat Is On’ a No.2 USA hit from ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ and the songs that appeared on the iconic 80’s TV show Miami Vice namely ‘Smuggler’s Blues’ and the fantastic ‘You Belong To The City’ are present and correct and, like the majority of Frey’s hits, were written with songwriter Jack Tempchin, an artist regularly featured here at RGM. Frey’s solo career actually started two years before his soundtrack success with the ‘No Fun Aloud’ LP, the title seemingly a tongue in cheek reference to Frey’s perceived reputation, possibly coupled with the need for perfection on those Eagles records and in live performance (something many artists would do well to take on board). The only track from ‘No Fun’ featured here is the silky smooth ‘The One You Love’ while ‘I Found Someone’, the roots guitar rock of ‘Party Town’ and the moody power of ‘All Those Lies’ are conspicuous by their absence (I’d also have found room for the fun cover of ‘Sea Cruise’ but that’s probably just me) In fact ‘No Fun Aloud’ stands up well to re-evaluation after all these years and as it’s very rare on CD a reissue would be most welcome.
The second disc of this set takes a deeper look into Frey’s solo catalogue with a focus on his last solo release ‘After Hours’ from 2012 with no less than seven tracks featured here. ‘After Hours’ didn’t appear until twenty years after the previous solo release ‘Strange Weather’ but as Hell had indeed Frozen Over in the meantime Frey was a little busy with his day job. The ‘After Hours’ sessions are interesting as they actually work really well and seem like a natural progression for Glenn, admittedly jazzy covers of 20’s-40’s era pop standards won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it seemed to work for Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan so…He even found room to slip in a really nice take on 'Caroline, No' the Beach Boys classic. Disc 2 of this set is a really enjoyable listen, nicely sequenced and works really well. With all hits collections/box sets fans will complain about what’s not included (I know I waffled on about ‘No Fun Aloud’ omissions and I’m only a casual fan of Glenn’s solo material) which brings us to disc three and Longbranch/Pennywhistle.
Glenn Frey moved to California from Detroit in 1968 to be with his then girlfriend whose sister was dating John David Souther, coincidentally another Detroit native who found his way to California by way of Texas. The pair hit it off, secured a recording contract with the Amos label and released an album as Longbranch/Pennywhistle in 1969. The duo would continue to work together over the years as Souther contributed to such Eagles classics as ‘New Kid In Town’ and ‘Heartache Tonight’. More recently Souther has popped up from time to time as Watty White on the Nashville TV show an interest in acting that he obviously shared with Frey who dabbled with the craft in the 80’s on Miami Vice etc. That Longbranch/Pennywhistle album is released digitally for the first time as part of ‘Above The Clouds’ and is surely the biggest draw of this box set. Copies on vinyl are hard to find and much sought after by Eagles fans looking to complete their country-rock collections.
I’d long known the name but I’d actually not heard this album until now and I’m pleased to report the album doesn’t disappoint. It’s undeniable of its time, ‘Star Spangled Bus’ being a prime example of late 60’s hippy culture that sounds like a forerunner to ‘American Pie’ era Don McLean but ‘Run, Boy, Run’ would slip seamlessly into the running order of the debut, and still my favourite, Eagles album. Longbranch/Pennywhistle finds Frey and Souther at the beginnings of their careers so it’s a little uneven and stylistically they hadn’t quite settled on their sound just yet (opener ‘Jubilee Anne’ and ‘Bring Back Funky Women’ add a nice Muscle Shoals vibe to the country pickin’) but it works and there are some cool tunes on show. Frey and Souther already have a hang on the harmonies with ‘Rebecca’ an especially fine example. Frey would only have been around twenty years old at the time of this album which makes it even more impressive. The album features some great players including James Burton, Ry Cooder and Larry Knechtel so needless to say the musicianship is top-notch but the record company would disappear a year later, by which time Frey and Souther were on to other things. Frey next took a job putting a band together to back Linda Ronstadt with Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner involved, which sounds like a cool line-up for a band…I wonder what happened to those guys.
The box set concludes with a DVD of a show from the ‘Strange Weather’ tour recorded live in Dublin in 1992 which wasn’t supplied by the record company for review (which seems to be standard practice in my experience), so there’s unfortunately little I can say about this regarding the picture quality and sound specifics etc. This is the same show that used to be available on VHS, I actually owned this on a Japanese VHS back in the day and it looked and sounded great from what I can remember, so it should be a good addition as it’s receiving its DVD debut. It’s a shame that the label couldn’t add the various promo clips that Glenn has released over the years to the DVD but in their defence the press release I received clearly states that although Glenn embraced the days of MTV this box is about Glenn the songwriter hence no promo clips.
As with many box sets ‘Above The Clouds’ might partially disappoint hard-core Frey fans but the release of Longbranch/Pennywhistle and the Dublin DVD are most welcome and does mean that ‘Above The Clouds’ is a qualified success. It also did a good job of reminding me that Glenn Frey might have not been prolific as a solo artist but there’s some great material to be found on all of his albums. It also leaves me wondering if there is anything languishing in the vaults that might make an individual album reissue campaign a possibility. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Glenn Frey – Above The Clouds: The Collection is due May 11th 2018.