Monday, November 3, 2008

Thin Lizzy. Johnny the Fox (Mercury, 1976)

"Don't believe a word/ For words are only spoken/ Your heart is like a promise/ Made to be broken."

Writing about Ted Leo last week made me want to listen to some Thin Lizzy, so over the weekend I threw on 1976's Johnny the Fox, the follow up to their breakthrough LP, Jailbreak. And in listening, I was reminded again of just how much these dudes brought to the table. The indie world has, for a few years now, been conducting a bit of a reassessment of Thin Lizzy, with the Pharmacists and the Hold Steady, especially, finding a lot to lift from the twin guitar fireworks, tightly controlled rhythms, and literate lyrics. Bassist/singer/key songwriter Phil Lynott was a singular talent, marrying the hyper-verbal storyteller style of Dylan and Springsteen to a muscular, Celtic-derived blues-rock sound founded on the incredible, intertwining chops of dual lead guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson. Plus, Lynott could more than find his way around a melody, producing some of the catchiest, heartfelt jams of the '70s.

These days, Thin Lizzy is regarded by too many as a beer commercial band, with Jailbreak's "The Boys are Back in Town" having been plundered by company after company to shill all manner of crap. The thing is, "The Boys are Back in Town" is an incredible song, with a champion hook and grin-inducing lyrics that have more than stood the test of time. It's just been overplayed. Which is too bad, because Thin Lizzy -- while a great singles band -- had a lot to offer over the course of entire albums, and put together collections that were largely devoid of the filler common to the AOR era.

Johnny the Fox is a perfect example, a stellar record overflowing with infectious grooves and ear-catching melodies, with a tendency to mix the sweetly vulnerable with the vaguely threatening in a way that makes the music incredibly compelling. There's nothing goofy here (well, almost nothing: last track "Boogie Woogie Dance" is about as good as its title suggests), and overall the LP has aged incredibly well. It's no wonder that bands today are looking back at Thin Lizzy as a valuable stylistic touchstone. There's a lot to learn here.

The album can essentially be divided into two sets of songs: the straight rockers and the slow burners. Both sets are pretty solid. As for the straight rockers, leadoff track "Johnny" sets the pace right away with a tense rhythm guitar melody and precision drum rolls, the lead guitar lines essentially going wherever they want to go, which in this case is to the moon and beyond. The wah pedal puts in some overtime, and the general effect is of barely controlled chaos, which is always welcome. The simple horn chords that come in about halfway through the song add a welcome R&B element that contrasts nicely to the sleeveless rawk of the rest of the tune.

"Don't Believe a Word" deserves to be a classic, a beautifully constructed, fiercely played warning to a potential conquest, with a vocal melody delivered by Lynott with a sadness bordering on anger. It's swaggering rhythms and lazerbeam guitar salvos (seriously, this is why Guitar Hero was invented) run rampant, but never overshadow Lynott. "Fool's Gold" starts off with a brief voiceover about Irish immigration to America and then (before things take a turn to the ridiculous) bursts into a brightly crunching glam stomper, complete with quicksilver solos and triumphant Lynott bellows. "Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed" is marked by a lethally funky breakbeat and a evil acid scratch rhythm guitar, backalley music for getting up to no good, while "Massacre" is a frantic battle anthem played at breakneck speed, pausing only to let Gorham and Robertson blaze away.

The slower tracks on Johnny the Fox reveal that, despite the rock bombast they excelled at, Thin Lizzy was a damn fine soul band. Lynott's voice was capable of conveying wounded sincerity and intense heartbreak, while the rest of the band could slow it down without losing any of their power or finesse. "Borderline" is a countrified ballad dressed in a delicate acoustic lead lines and wailing electric solos. "Old Flame" is a touching exercise in regret and longing, with a punchy drum and bass bit, gently slashing chords, and a warm multi-part harmony chorus. And "Sweet Marie" takes an amplified sitar foundation and builds one of Lynott's best compositions on top of it; the way the chorus crashes into each verse as the tune goes from a soulful drift into a more focused attack is genius. Plus, I like how Lynott betrays his endearingly confused conception of U.S. geography when he croons, "Somewhere out in Arizona/ Such a long way from California/ I felt so alone there/ I was two thousand miles away from home there." Adorable.

If the last time you listened to Thin Lizzy was during a Coors Light commercial, you need to listen again. These guys were the real deal, and ahead of their time in a way that's only now being recognized. Johnny the Fox makes it clear how tight and focused Thin Lizzy could be, while also displaying both sides of their sound: scorching rockers and solid soul masters. Lynott and Co. have been grossly underestimated, as this LP will make clear upon first spin. Rediscover them for the first time and see what you've been missing.