Mad Shadows (1970) **1/2
As dark and unappealing as the rorschach test cover (I see a ram's head being split open, but that's partly influenced by the title of the opening song), Mott's sophomore slump has since been disowned by the band themselves, with Ian Hunter practically cringing as he admits that, "you can hear the band start to try to play..." In short, it's a mess, and as the sound of a band falling apart before your ears, it has attracted its own perverse following (see Big Star's 3rd, Sly Stone's There's a Riot..., etc.) - well, Julian Cope at least (dunno who else, but I'm sure there are at least a dozen other people on this planet who really enjoy this record). The debut's Blonde on Blonde-isms are more muted as the band aims for a harsher, more metallic approach, though most of the songs are piano-based ballads. If that sounds contradictory - well, they're dark, abrasive piano-based ballads, and rather aimless at that. Hunter & the boys once again stew up an intriguing atmosphere but still don't know where to take those atmospherics; which is to say, all of the songs meander about purposelessly in search of a hook or catchy melody line for far too long. And since the songs are all originals this time out, that only underscores how feeble Hunter & Ralphs' grasp of songwriting was at that point in their careers.
The good news is that the album begins and ends relatively strongly. The Mick Ralphs sung, "Thunderbuck Ram," is an exciting, if overly anarchic and unfocused, post-Cream rocker that holds up as a 'dark metal' neo-classic, alternating moodily between subdued verses and jarringly screeching choruses (vocally, he's a dead ringer for Dave Davies on this track). The album closer, "When My Mind's Gone," is even more of a half-formed mess than the rest of the album (and that's saying something), consisting of little more than Hunter crooning and spitting at the piano, with Verden Allen's organ fills swirling in the background. Hunter's bitter lyrics ("There ain't nothing going right / There ain't even nothing going wrong that's right") were apparently ad-libbed on the spot, as was the tune itself, at the perverse insistence of producer Guy Stevens. He really wanted to go for that off the cuff Dylanesque feel, y'know? And just as perversely it works, in a "soul-baring free association from a collapsed wreck of a man" psychological way. Very Plastic Ono Band.
Sandwiched between those two highlights are occasional flashes of inspiration buried amidst mediocrity. There's one other sole rocker, "Walking With a Mountain," a tribute to Leslie West that some reviewers pinpoint as a highlight, but eh....it does offer some much-needed upbeat energy to this collection of downers, but the main meat of the melody is just rote Chuck Berry gone metallic, and they couldn't even bother to come up with a memorable riff to hang their rocks on. And simply chanting the title over several times (and flatly) does not constitute as a hook. The only other track worth making note of is "No Wheels To Ride," and that is solely for rock trivia quiz reasons: Hunter fervently emotes, "Can't get enough, can't get enough, can't get enough of your love," during the climax, which is only of interest because Ralphs shamelessly nicked that very same chorus a half decade later for one of Bad Company's biggest hits.
Addendum: I appended an extra half star to my original two-star rating in order to distinguish Mott's second platter from their third LP offering, which may or may not be actually any worse in objective quality, but sure is a heckuva lot blander and more boring. In its defense, at least this unglorious hot mess is interesting. Like the proverbial drunk urban cowboy riding a mechanical bull in a china shop.