I bought Civilian in 1996, but initially only liked the three songs which remain my favorites now – “I Am a Camera”, “Inside Out” and “It’s Not Imagination” (plus, the non-LP “Heroes No More”, which I wouldn’t hear till much later). I was so underwhelmed, in fact, that I initially hesitated towards closing the gap in the Gentle Giant discography, though I eventually would over the next two years. The Missing Piece I generally enjoyed – though who cares about the prog/punk dichotomy of that record, it’s the pub rock numbers on which the band truly sound revitalized! Finally I bought Giant For a Day and loved every minute of it (well, except for “It’s Only Goodbye”) – mature, well crafted AOR in the mould of Charlie, Sad Cafe, and 10cc‘s Bloody Tourists LP, a most befitting musical style for thirtysomething rockers during the late ’70s.
Onto the albums.
I mostly enjoy The Missing Piece, though like its predecessor, Interview, the tin shack production quality leaves something to be desired. Ironically, the turns toward funk and pub rock on side one – the sprightly “Two Weeks in Spain”, the Little Feat/Racing Cars groove of “Who Do You Think We Are” and the barrelhouse twitch of “Mountain Time” – work much better than their attempts to keep the folky prog flame burning on side two. I’m also keen on their ability to lace punky energy into their signature contrapuntal style, and with that I don’t mean the scrappy dare of “I Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It”, but the propulsive testament of “For Nobody”.
Gentle Giant – The Missing Piece (1977)
As noted numerous times before, Giant for a Day stands to these ears as the most accomplished and successful of Gentle Giant’s after-prog trilogy. Surely no attentive GG fan could resist the ticklish xylophone quirks of “Spooky Boogie”, sprung straight from the Interview canon, whilst warm-blooded pop connoisseurs of every stripe would uniformly fall sway to the charms of “Friends”, with it’s crisp, acoustic angularity and cleverly inspirational turn of phrase:
Enemies, some say, add spice to your life,
But I’ve always hated to be so disliked
Additionally, this rejuvenated 1978 offering marked a diverse set of triumphs, from the bluesy earnestness of “Thank You” to the brilliantly chorded, full throttle dynamics of “Rock Climber”. Furthermore, the band displayed a spirited enthusiasm for surrounding trends, such as the West Coast spectrum-harmonies which fuel “Words from the Wise” (a sound most expertly employed, ironically enough, by non-US acts, like England’s Charlie, Germany’s Lake and Australia’s Little River Band.) And with a jolt of youthful vigor, the band extended a big hand to the striped shirt and pink pencil-flood brigade with “Giant for a Day”, whose spiky wobbles gave a smiling nod to what sprouting lights The Boomtown Rats and Elvis Costello were up to (think “Living On An Island” or “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea”.)
Gentle Giant – Giant for a Day (1978)
As for the commercial gambling gutter plunge of Civilian, I’ll state that, weaker material aside, the culprit here is the top-open production sheen imposed upon the proceedings by FM-Machiavellian-turned-knob-tweaking-gremlin Lee Abrams. “Convenience (Clean and Easy)” garishly plays down to their latter day punk afflictions in the most clumsily contrived of manners (I can’t help but draw a mental parallel to comedian Dave Thomas’ rap spoof “Mad Bad Dad”, or one of those faux rock band jingles performed in some commercial by the appliance chain-store team of Ken and Dave, once the Siskel and Ebert of the Boston-area hardware world.) Ominously, the disconcerting proto-CHR sheen comes to an ugly head on the carnivorously tangled barrage that riffs into “All Through the Night” (sure we got the right band here?)
Flipping to the greener pastures of side two, things steadily rise from underground, click-by-click. “I Am a Camera” wasn’t a patch on Yes’ concurrent virtual namesake, but it’s a bouncy romp of energy, nonetheless. The slow sonic layers of the aptly-titled “Inside Out” finally bring some of Giant’s greatest strengths to the fore on this troubled disc, whilst the exuberant rush of “It’s Not Imagination” show that punk wasn’t totally dead by 1980. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for our beloved Gentle Giant.
As an aside, the poignant lurch of “Heroes No More” could have been Civilian’s needed powerhouse had it not been abandoned in the trenches, for it’s delectably state-of-the-AOR, martial in theory if not practice.
Gentle Giant – Civilian (1980)
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