Fleetwood Mac - Bare Trees

Fleetwood Mac
Bare Trees

Released 1972 on Reprise
Reviewed by Joe Kenney, 05/04/2021ce

With the same lineup as the previous year’s “Future Games” – Danny Kirwan on guitar and vocals, Bob Welch on guitar and vocals, Christine McVie on keys and vocals, John McVie on bass, and Mick Fleetwood on drums – Fleetwood Mac turned out an album with a bit more variety. Whereas Kirwan apparently guided the progressive vibe of “Future Games,” this time he’s odd man out; both Welch and McVie seem damned determined to turn out some pop hits (and maybe put some money in the band’s dwindling coffers).

The first thing one notices is the shorter runtime of the songs. The longest track here is just over five minutes, a far cry from the seven and eight-minute lengths of some of the tracks on “Future Games.” Also Kirwan has taken up more of the writing duties, but again this could just be a result of the shorter track durations; his long tracks filled up more vinyl on the previous album, but this time he just turns in a few more songs. Welch and McVie are down to two songs each…but then each of them turn in certifiable classics. But whereas there had been a uniform effort toward a sort of progressive approach in “Future Games,” this time it’s all about variety. While a few tracks approach the mellow vibe of the previous album, for the most part the album is filled with rockers…and unfortunately many of them are rather middling, or at least rather average. At least on initial listening(s).

And also curiously Kirwan here doesn’t seem to be following the direction he was headed in “Future Games,” but instead the one he was headed in two years before, during the “Kiln House” sessions – in particular the energetic rocker “The Purple Dancer,” a 1970 B-side (and certainly one of the greatest B-sides in rock history) predicts Kirwan’s material on “Bare Trees.” But none of Kirwan’s rockers on here approach the immediate impact of “The Purple Dancer.” In fact they come off as fairly bland on initial listenings, and it takes a focused effort to really appreciate them. Once you do though you realize they’re pretty great…but none of them here hit me on first listens like his songs on “Future Games” did. I know a lot of fans rate “Bare Trees” very high…and it is a good album…I just much prefer “Future Games.” I would disagree with those who consider this one as “progressive” as “Future Games” was, though; to me, it was the first of what would become the “standard Fleetwood Mac” type of album, with no consistent overall vibe, as “Future Games” had, but more of a variety of styles.

This is evidenced posthaste by the first track on the album, Kirwan’s “Child Of Mine,” which almost comes off like a generic rocker on initial listens. This will prove to be the longest track on the album, even though it’s only five and a half minutes long. It’s more of a rocker than anything Kirwan did on “Future Games,” again calling back to his “Kiln House” work, and overall it has a boogie-meets-country vibe. “Heavy country blues keep a-rockin,” sings Kirwan, basically describing the music he’s playing. But there’s more to the song than that: “I won’t leave you/No, not like my father did,” Kirwan’s promise to his newborn son; a promise which he unfortunately wouldn’t keep due to the mental issues that would plague him. But as the track goes on it loses the generic boogie feel and takes on more of a progressive vibe, with multi-tracked guitars spiralling everywhere. The last minute in particular sees a blazing solo over the steady backing, and at this point the track has become something completely different than it started as. The “sunlight through my eyes” portion is especially cool, with Fleetwood banging a tribal beat, overtop which Kirwan pins some bluesy psych licks.

“The Ghost” is the first of Bob Welch’s two compositions; it’s a mellow rocker that has a slightly murky psychedelic vibe, coupled with a nice melody line on the chorus. The song definitely lives up to the title, with a “ghostly” flute augmenting the otherwise guitar-heavy tune. (Actually Christine McVie on a mellotron, per an interview with Bob Welch in 1979.) But already we have two rockers back to back; a far cry from the previous album. Welch here doles out the sci-fi lyrics he’d soon be known for: “Just a blue star/Hanging out in space/Earth town is a lovely place.” Welch was blamed for taking Fleetwood Mac into soft rock territory, and parts of this song does have a bit of an AM sound to it, in particular the chorus…I mean it could be James Taylor fronting Pink Floyd. Yet at the same time there is often an otherworldly element to Welch’s songs – that psychedelic murk again – which I feel elevates them above soft rock sap.

A funky open breakbeat plus cowbell from Fleetwood brings us into the next number, a surprsingly hard rocker titled “Homeward Bound,” courtesy Christine McVie. So now we have three rockers in a row! It’s almost like there was a concerted effort to escape the ethereal vibe of the previous album. No matter, this one does roll along mightily. Driven by C. McVie’s keys and J. McVie’s deep bass, the song also escapes McVie’s usual topics of love or relationship struggles, instead voicing her complete frustration with the endless touring schedule of the band: “I don’t wanna see another airplane seat/Or another hotel room.” I have a suspicion she felt differently in the Buckingham-Nicks era, when a suddenly mega-wealthy Fleetwod Mac had its own cozy little airplane! Especially nice is the acoustic guitar outro, presumably by Kirwan.

“Sunny Side Of Heaven” closes out Side One, a moody instrumental which is one of the few songs on here that does call back to “Future Games.” This one’s really a Kirwan-Fleetwood show, Kirwan multitracking spiralling guitar lines around a steady beat. But at the same time there is something listless about it; it does at times approach “background music,” yet at the same time brings to mind some of the instrumental numbers of the Green-Kirwan era, ie “Man Of The World” and “Dragonfly.”

Kirwan presents a completely different mood at the start of Side Two: title track “Bare Trees” is a rocker like “Child Of Mine.” It’s very similar in that it’s a country-fueled boogie number with a progressive vibe to it, mostly in the tones Kirwan gets on his guitar; there’s a nice looping guitar riff he plays near the start, and again toward the middle…this sort of circular riff that makes me think of something you’d hear at a roller skating rink, for some reason. This takes us into another boogie-rock number with Kirwan doing some wordless “daa-du-dup” vocals over a punchy beat. I don’t hear C. McVie’s presence, but maybe she’s lost in the mix. The track has more solos than lyrics, really; Kirwan busts out another one that has a country-rock vibe before he goes into more of those “baa-waa-waa” wordless vocals. But this is just the first of two tracks in which he’ll do this whole “wordless vocal” thing, lending the impression that his material for the album wasn’t fully realized. Otherwise this track’s a lot more upbeat than its title would imply, and like “Child Of Mine” gradually escapes the generic boogie rock feel due to the escalating tide of multitracked guitars that begin to dominate the song. I also like the mixing; there’s some very cool stereo panning on the hi-hat fills during that second open guitar riff. Unfortunately the track fades out just as it’s starting to cook, a little over five minutes in.

Next up is Bob Welch’s “Sentimental Lady,” which is on another level than anything the group had done before. I mean this is just a classic song, almost Beatles like in its mastery of the melodic pop-rock idiom…one of those definite pop masterpieces that has a familiar ring to it the first time you hear it, like its tapping into some sort of universal subconscious layer. You can almost feel the band banging its head against the wall that a track THIS good didn’t become a hit. I mean you almost feel sorry for them. There’s no reason at all why this didn’t put Fleetwood Mac back on the hit charts in 1972. No reason other than label indifference, I’d wager. Welch clearly felt the same, as he remade the song five years later when he went solo and had a top hit with it. But I prefer this original version with Fleetwood Mac (actually the ’77 remake was also with Fleetwood Mac, but whatever); it’s much less glossy and more direct. More ‘72 than ‘77, I guess. For one its twice the length of the remake, and sounds more like the work of an actual band than a studio construction. It opens with a very pretty acoustic line, which takes us into Welch’s rolling vocal melody. This melody line is certainly one of the best Welch ever came up with, and the vocal delivery is honest and without, uh, “sentiment.” And also for once Welch’s voice isn’t buried in lyrics. McVie’s backing vocals are the icing on the cake; she sings along with Welch on the chorus here in the original, whereas in the ’77 remake she sings a sort of counterpoint. I like it better this way, as her voice pairs well with Welch’s and lends the song even more atmosphere. I mean the remake is no slouch, but this original is just worlds better. Especially nice is the George Harrison-esque solo midway into the song, on heavily tremolo’d guitar. No idea if it’s Welch or Kirwan. Whereas Welch’s big statement on the previous album was an epic progressive trip, this one’s proof that he was capable of turning out concise radio hits…which again makes one wonder why it didn’t become one.

A snarling fuzz-wah erupts from the speakers, as if cutting “Sentimental Lady’s” treacle. This is “Danny’s Chant,” a heavy rocker courtesy Kirwan with tribal Fleetwood drums and pulsing J. McVie bass. Without a doubt the heaviest song Fleetwood Mac had done since Peter Green’s “The Green Manalishi,” it almost seems to be Kirwan’s attempt at writing his own “Oh Well Part 1.” But unfortunately, despite the heavy wah-wah riffing and rocking, the track ultimately comes off more like a jam than a realized song and loses its power the longer it goes, save for some snare fills Fleetwood begins to add toward the end. And once again Kirwan just provides wordless “na-na-naaa-na-na” vocals (with C. McVie lending some atmospheric wordless backing); ie, the song is literally the “chant” of the title. The whole thing’s barely over three minutes long; if “Danny’s Chant” had been about four minutes longer, with some actual thought into the composition and some actual lyrics, Fleetwood Mac might’ve had an epic heavy progressive rock number that could’ve rivalled Peter Green’s earlier masterpiece.

Christine McVie takes a note from Bob Welch and turns out a song of her own that sounds programmed for the charts: “Spare Me A Little.” This is the style, fully blossomed, that she’d bring the group in the Buckingham-Nicks era. The only thing that separates it is Kirwan’s distorted solo…which again makes one wonder what Fleetwood Mac would’ve sounded like if the innumerable lineup changes hadn’t occurred and this Kirwan-Welch-Mcvie lineup had stayed constant. McVie’s sentimental pop number with Kirwan’s psych-tinged guitar tone makes for an interesting listen. Yet at the same time the song, at least the chorus (“Spare me a little/Just spare me a little/Spare me a little/Of your love”), has the jingle-like feel of a TV commercial.

Kirwan returns with what will be his final Fleetwood Mac song: “Dust.” Like “Sunny Side Of Heaven,” this is a number that could’ve fit right onto “Future Games,” but at 2:41 it’s a lot shorter than any track there. Otherwise it has that same mellow progressive vibe, but this time coupled with some bummer fatalistic lyrics: “When the white flame in us is gone/And we that lost the world’s delight/Stiffen in darkness/Left alone.” Yeah, but how are things otherwise, Danny?? Good grief! But there’s no denying this is a beautiful song with a strong melody line, Kirwan’s patented unusual chord structure again giving it a unique vibe. As do the clean-toned and multi-tracked guitars; the Kirwan-Welch team could’ve gone on to get as much cred as the Green-Spencer-Kirwan lineup, but alas it was not to be. Kirwan seems to predict, whether unintentionally or not, his departure from the group: “When we are dust/When we are dust.”

The album closes with the most unusual “song” in the Fleetwood Mac catalog: “Thoughts On A Grey Day,” a poem read by an old British lady named Mrs. Scarrow, per the label. (Which further informs us that this was “Recorded at her home in Hampshire,” a sentence which practically screams “British.”) I’m not sure what good shit they were smoking or ingesting that compelled the band to include this on the album – I mean surely they could’ve come up with another song to fill up the LP side, or better yet they could’ve put more work (and a couple extra minutes) into “Danny’s Chant” – but regardless Mrs. Scarrow’s poem seems to have inspired the album title: “With trees so bare, so bare/But o so beautiful, so beautiful.” Not much else to say about this one; it’s literally an old British lady reading a short poem into a recorder. So if that’s your thing, then you’re in luck.

And that was it for this particular lineup of Fleetwood Mac. Two albums, but a lot more potential that was never realized. Kirwan is the real loss, of course; I’ve read that his later solo material sounds nothing like his Fleetwood Mac stuff, which is a shame. Apparently he was very insecure, easily offended and provoked, and gradually got to the point where his blowouts would become violent and no longer acceptable to the band. His is a sadly familiar story, along the lines of Syd Barrett or Skip Spence; he’d ultimately find himself in various hostels and sanitariums while his former bandmates went on to mega-stardom. McVie and Welch soldiered on regardless, though, each of them going on to turn in some great songs. Welch in particular would make some progressive moves in future albums, but you have to wonder how much cooler they would’ve been if Kirwan had still been there.

The pressing:

I have the first US pressing, with the textured matte cover. No idea when or where I got it, but I know I got it the same time that I got my copy of “Future Games,” so probably around 2007 or earlier. Sound is dynamic and full, with very deep bass and great separation. Same as “Future Games,” really. Honestly I don’t know why anyone would even bother with some modern digital remaster, whether it be on vinyl or CD. Just get a copy of the original pressing. There is an analog magic to both “Bare Trees” and “Future Games,” and I don’t care how “high definition” some modern remaster could get…the warm analog original will always sound better.

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