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38 Special - 1988 Rock & Roll Strategy



ARTIST: 38 Special
ALBUM: Rock & Roll Strategy
LABEL: A&M
SERIAL: SP 5218 (LP), CD 5218 (CD)
YEAR: 1988

COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:

LINEUP: Donnie Van Zant - vocals * Jeff Carlisi - guitar, steel guitar * Larry Junstrom - bass * Max Carl - keyboards, vocals * Danny Chauncey - guitar * Jack Grondin - drums

Additional Musicians: Robert White Johnson - percussion, vocals, background vocals * Edd Miller - percussion, vibraslap * The Noise Gator - horns * The Six Groomers - background vocals

TRACK LISTING: 01 Rock & Roll Strategy * 02 What's It To Ya? * 03 Little Sheba * 04 Comin' Down Tonight * 05 Midnight Magic * 06 Second Chance * 07 Hot 'Lanta * 08 Never Be Lonely * 09 Chattahoochee * 10 Innocent Eyes * 11 Love Strikes

WEBLINKS: www.38special.com


Background
Southern AOR kings 38 Special had helped define the genre for nearly a decade, and they had a string of gold and platinum albums on the wall to show for it. Also of significance was the seemingly endless stream of classic AOR 45's they unleashed on the singles charts. A happy state of affairs then, with Don Barnes singing most of the commercial hits and Donnie Van Zant handling the more rough and ready Southern fare. Then a reality check as Barnes left the band, leaving a void not only in the vocal stakes, he had over the years formed a formidable guitar pairing with Jeff Carlisi. Enter vocalist and songwriter Max Carl and ex Billy Satellite guitar slinger Danny Chauncey into the fold as work began on 'Rock & Roll Strategy'. So how would this new look line up fare in the studio?


The Songs
Title track 'Rock & Roll Strategy' works splashes of synth into the midtempo lockdown, plenty of sustain on those riffs and a sting in the plentiful licks and solos. While the melody and chorus are not of the knockout variety, their subtle charms reveal a place somewhere between the band's outright commercial material and more Southern tracks. Max Carl sounding like a very suitable lead vocalist, his phrasing even taking off Donnie Van Zant at times. 'What's It To Ya' repeats the dose, perhaps a little more Southern with Donnie on vocals but a similar synopsis on the melodic traits. You can hear 1988 all over the place but the overdrive chorus is not quite there. Two AOR attempts that nearly get the coffee machine started. Could go either way at this point. Oh, but then a trio of tunes loaded with as much AOR caffeine as you could ask. 'Little Sheba' takes a storytelling approach lyrically (who could resist the line 'they raise the girls on gator down here'), Carl pouring some Jack into the Mastertons coffee mug with loads of personality selling the story. This time the chorus works as a genuine AOR singalong, the guitar and synth easily as satisfying as in the opening tracks. 'Comin' Down Tonight' invades the more outright AOR habitat that Don Barnes had made his own for most of the decade, the main hook slicing through the mix like Tana Umaga through the Wallaby defence, Carl smoothing it over with a liquid vocal display. Pure AOR with hardly a hint of their Southern legacy in play. 'Midnight Magic' walks away with the prize though, Van Zant taking much of the drawl off his voice and just singing his heart out. If that's not enough the chorus seems to soar on some kind of neverending symmetry like an Alaskan Snow Goose over the mountains. It all spells AOR to me, further evidenced by more barbed wire hooks and an outro solo from some other universe.

Next is the ballad 'Second Chance', dripping with melodic syrup and destined to become the band's highest charting single peaking at #6 on Billboard. I couldn't work out why it never quite blew me away, considering Carl's silky vocal display and the Schon like guitar. Upon hearing it again for this review, it's probably the rhythm which seems like it's on it's way somewhere but never gets there. That aside, the class is undeniable. Like a Panther out of the forest, 'Hot 'Lanta' comes storming out of the speakers like the second coming of Southern Rock, then venturing into Styx styled tempo change ups, startling and entertaining in equal measure. A coda of New Orleans big easy brass ends the track on a suitably unexpected left turn, no doubt at all they had fun with this one. 'Never Be Lonely' returns to outright AOR terrain, the quiet verse/power chorus dynamic reminding one of prime time Le Roux. Trainspotters will love the lyrical reference 'you and me against the night', a track from the towering 'Strength In Numbers' record. Van Zant's 'Chattahoochie' takes another shot at some Southern flavour but lacks the charm or any form of strong hook to really make it stick. Redemption is swift though, as 'Innocent Eyes' rivals 'Midnight Magic' for best track. Less about stabbing synths or production effects, just a simple hook overlaid with a beautiful melody - perfect AOR, this will keep you coming back. Album closer 'Love Strikes' is almost as good, finding Van Zant in AOR vocal mode again. Yet another sharp hook from the 38 Special tackle box and a chorus that could be at home on an RPM album. More stinging guitar brings it all home, a truly satisfying AOR album.


In Summary
Despite including their biggest single, 'Rock & Roll Strategy' did not set the album charts alight. In certain quarters a school of thought emerged that it was a step down in quality, more accurate would have been a step sideways. Carl and Chauncey were as good for the band as losing Barnes was bad, bringing a freshness to the established 38 Special sound. More Southern Rock attributes were creeping back in on some tracks, but the overall feel remained very 80's and significantly, very AOR.


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Comments
#1 | Eric on May 15 2012 22:04:19
The Journey influence is hard to miss on 'Second Chance' as you pointed out. Great tune that I still hear on the radio from time to time, but I also remember coming across a lot of drill-hole copies of the CD in the years to follow.
#2 | AOR Lee on May 16 2012 20:28:29
Sad state of affairs Eric, the album deserved better than to wind up as a cut-out item ... But the same can be said for any number of albums that suffered a similar fate
#3 | gdazegod on May 16 2012 21:01:36
'Second Chance' is a great track. I'll need to go back and give this album a re-listen. A few more 38 Special reviews in the pipeline, between both Lee and myself.
#4 | jeffrey343 on May 16 2012 23:22:23
I like Lee's comment about this being a step sideways rather than a step back. I was a huge .38 Special fan through high school and college, and I thought "Strength In Numbers" was one of the best albums ever. So I was excited to get this one, and equally disappointed after I heard it. Of course, "Second Chance" became a major hit, so I heard that a lot on radio. I rarely played this, and it got traded at a used CD store pretty quickly.

I've listened to it on Rhapsody a couple of times the past few years, and I listened to it again today, and it really isn't bad. It's just a lot different from their previous work. I can hear where several songs are not that different from their earlier material other than a different singer and overall band sound. There's nothing on here that I like as much as anything from their previous four albums, though. They had developed a pretty unique sound, and this album was an abrupt change that, to me, made them sound pretty ordinary. Not a bad album, just not a continuation of what I wanted or expected. I did get "Bone Against Steel" in '91, but it didn't do it for me either.
#5 | dangerzone on May 17 2012 06:41:33
To me 'Second Chance' sounds like Jimmy Barnes solo material from the era.
#6 | gdazegod on July 15 2012 01:27:53
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