‘With No Apparent Focus’

Originally posted March 30, 2007

Every musician, I imagine, has something in his or her recorded legacy that induces a wince and a shake of the head. From everything I’ve read, for example, it’s clear that John Mellencamp does not have entirely pleasant memories from the days when he was Johnny Cougar. Or consider the Beatles: I would guess that during the days when they recorded “Rain” or the Abbey Road medley, they would occasionally recall with a groan their early sessions and “Till There Was You.”

And then there’s Hour Glass.

The other day, when I was doing some research for last week’s post about Cher’s 3614 Jackson Highway, I came across a pretty good website about the Allman Brothers Band and Duane Allman and his studio work. As I dug into the site, I noticed an ad for a book titled Skydog: The Duane Allman Story. I’d never heard of the book, so after I finished writing about Cher and her album, I dropped in on the website of my local public library. As it happens, Randy Poe’s biography of Duane Allman is new. It’s a pretty good read, well written, and Poe uses a wide variety of sources. I’m about halfway through, and I’m pretty impressed.

One of the episodes Poe deals with, of course, is the time that Duane and Gregg Allman spent in Los Angeles with their early band, Hour Glass, recording for Liberty Records. I paused as I read about those sessions and thought for a second, something nagging at me. I put the book down and went to the stacks, and sure enough, there was a copy of Hour Glass, the 1967 LP. The files say I bought it March 5, 1989, while I lived in Minot, North Dakota, and a stamp on the back of the jacket tells me that it once belonged to KMSC, a radio station at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa.

And as I played it for today’s rip, it didn’t take much for me to figure out that Hour Glass was one of those records that I’d bought, played once and stuck into the stacks without ever playing it again.

From what Poe writes about the Allmans, the group Hour Glass and the recording sessions that led to the album, I get the sense that both Duane and Gregg Allman would have been pleased that I left the record to sit on the shelf between Hot Tuna and Hudson Ford.

Poe notes that in the mid-1960s, Liberty Records had a wide-ranging stable of performers without much credibility in the rock world: the Johnny Mann Singers, Trombones Unlimited, the Van Nuys First Baptist Church Choir and even the Chipmunks! “What it didn’t have on its roster in 1967,” he writes, “was a long-haired, retro-clothes-wearing, semi-blue-eyed soul, semi-psychedelic-sounding rock band. Never mind that this wasn’t exactly the look or sound Duane and the guys had in mind. The Hour Glass was going to be the band to fill a gap in the Liberty roster – whether they liked it or not.”

The album, of course, ended up sounding nothing like the Allman Brothers Band, which was about two years from forming. It’s hard to say exactly what the group on the album sounds like, for there is no cohesive sound. A few of the cuts sound a little bit like the Association, with some horns grafted on. One of the songs, a Curtis Mayfield-penned tune called “I’ve Been Trying,” sounds like a bad imitation of the Impressions. Even worse is the album’s closer, “Bells,” with its hippie-style recitation through sound effects.

On a couple of the album’s cuts, Gregg Allman’s vocals give a hint of what would come later: The Goffin-King songs “No Easy Way Down” and “So Much Love” give the singer a chance to shine at least a little, as does his own “Got To Get Away,” despite the hideous arrangements – choirs and Las Vegas-style horns and all – imposed on the band by Liberty house producer Dallas Smith.

Duane Allman’s guitar work is more hidden than his brother’s vocals. (Poe writes that Liberty looked at signing Hour Glass as a way to get Gregg Allman under contract; the record company saw the younger Allman brother as the group’s true star and wanted to groom him for a solo career.) Poe notes that Duane’s first solo comes four songs into the record, on “Cast Off All My Fears.” Duane’s work can also be heard on “No Easy Way Down” and a few other spots. One of those spots is during “Heartbeat,” the opener to Side Two, where a break about three-quarters of the way through the song has what sounds like Duane’s guitar flickering and growling and shifting from speaker to speaker in a way that predicts for just a moment or two his more famous work in the future on Clarence Carter’s “Road of Love.” Then the horns and female chorus come in and bury the guitar for the rest of the song.

Quite honestly, the album is a mess, described by Poe as “an album consisting of a hodge-podge of genres performed by a band being pulled in various musical directions by a producer with no apparent focus.”

Even more appalling are the liner notes, written by Al Stoffel of Liberty Records:

“Tick. Psychotic phenomenon. From rhythm and blues to driving psychedelic beats. And soul . . . reeking of soul. A combination of things you’ve never felt before. Beats you’ve never heard. The Hour Glass. Tick. Sounds from within, alone sounds, sounds from a blue soul. Sounds of imagination and things unknown. ‘Heartbeat’ An uncanny beat from a living, breathing bass. A pendulum of psychedelic and soul – a new concept in a driving beat . . .”

And on and on.

The music I present here is usually stuff that I like, albums and songs that have some little bit of craft, skill or talent to recommend them. With Hour Glass, the talent is no doubt there, as the world would learn in a very short time when the Allman Brothers Band exploded out of Macon, Georgia. But that talent is deeply buried. So I offer Hour Glass as more of a historical curiosity than anything else.

(There was a CD issue of the album in the early 1990s, but that’s out of print, with used copies available through Amazon and likely elsewhere. Two other CD’s currently in print gather Hour Glass with Power of Love, the group’s second album for Liberty and what looks like some of Gregg Allman’s solo work for Liberty. Check your favorite online retailer. Vinyl copies of Hour Glass seem to be going for $12 and up through GEMM, with a sealed copy listed at more than $160.)

Hour Glass – Self-titled [1967]

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One Response to “‘With No Apparent Focus’”

  1. Saturday Single No. 87 « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] while back, I posted the entire album Hour Glass, a 1967 release that was an incredible mess. Power of Love is a better album, bluesy in spots but […]

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